Christmas memories of the young at heart

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Residents from the Guttenberg Care Center and Eagle Ridge Assisted Living enjoyed a lively conversation sharing Christmas memories. Front from left are Rosella Dugan, Arletta Hankes and Don Wirkler; back row, John Youngblut, Gladys Georgeson and Donna Bodensteiner. (Press photo by Caroline Rosacker)

By Caroline Rosacker

A group of residents at the Guttenberg Care Center and Eagle Ridge Assisted Living recently gathered together for an impromptu conversation recalling Christmas memories.

Seated around the table were Gladys Georgeson, Donna Bodensteiner, Rosella Dugan, Arletta Hankes, and David Wirkler of the care center and John Youngblut from assisted living.  It didn't take long before this group of enthusiastic young-at-heart residents opened up about growing up in a different era and celebrating Christmas. 

There were many common threads throughout this group. A strong line of demarcation was age and location. Some of the residents grew up in rural areas where electricity was not available in their era, and two of the younger residents grew up with electricity in urban areas.

One tradition they all experienced was picking out the perfect Christmas tree. 

The tree was cut down fresh in the woods, always a cedar tree. We would bring it home a month before and put it in a five-gallon bucket and put food coloring in it to green it up. When we brought it in the house, we left it in the bucket and secured it so it wouldn't tip over," stated Rosella Dugan. 

One year my girlfriends and I went out in the woods and cut down a tree ourselves and drug it all the way back to town. It was about three quarters of a mile,"  said Donna Bodensteiner with a proud smile. 

Decorations for the tree also had a common theme. Trees were decorated with a few store-bought Christmas ornaments but most  trimmings were handmade. Garland was made out of cranberries and popcorn, or homemade paper chains. 

Those residents who grew up without electricity used clips with candles. 

You only lit the tree when you were looking at it," said Arletta Hankes. 

I'm surprised we didn't burn the house down," exclaimed Gladys Georgeson. 

Those residents who had the luxury of electricity remember lights with big bulbs. 

The tree was left up until after New Years Day. The tree was then placed outside so the birds could feast on the leftover edible garland.

The residents unanimously agreed the food was the best part of Christmas.  

My mom used to cook for a whole week straight," said David Wirkler. 

Many shared stories of mothers spending time in the kitchen preparing cookies, pies, candies, cakes and an assortment of breads, all prepared on a wood cook stove. These delectable items were carefully rationed to make them last.

All the ingredients, excluding sugar, flour, and coffee, were grown on the farm or gathered from the nearby woods. Apples, an assortment of berries and nuts were gathered during the year and preserved to last throughout the long winters. 

Butchering was done on the farm. 

We would hang the animal way up in the tree and let it cure for about a week. Then we would cut chunks off, salt it and put it in crocks and put it back out in the cold to keep it frozen," said Rosella.

Many similarities were found while discussing Christmas Eve.   

The evening meal enjoyed by the immediate family was typically some type of soup — chili and oyster stew were two popular options.  

Many went to midnight church services, riding in horse-drawn buggies, wagons or sleighs. Santa's arrival always came on Christmas Eve. 

Arletta fondly remembers, "My parents always rang a bell to make us think Santa was outside."  

The big meal was enjoyed on Christmas Day and included the extended family. Many choices were available after a bountiful harvest. The centerpiece of the meal was usually a turkey, goose or a chicken, typically raised on the family farm.

Gifts were sparse and homemade — rag dolls and clothes were a mainstay. Grandparents supplied the big ticket items like bikes and sleds often shared by the whole family. 

John Youngblut remembers receiving an electric Lionel train set one Christmas.

Arletta Hankes shared this fond memory: "My mom knew Mr. Bevins, the drugstore owner, and his store had a points program. He favored my family, and when anyone had points built up and they didn't want them, he gave them to our household account. We won that year, and I got to pick out a prize, a Shirley Temple doll!" 

Stockings — and many replied in unison "We mean old stockings!" —  were hung in everyone's home and were filled with apples, oranges and an assortment of nuts. 

All the residents remembered using grain baskets, scoop shovels, and the hoods of cars to slide down the hill when a store-bought sled was not available. 

John Youngblut said with a laugh, "We used to grab onto the bumpers of cars when they went by. We called it 'hookin.'" 

All recalled snowbanks over the top of fence lines.

Everyone agreed that Christmas has become too commercialized. Their communal wish is for everyone to slow down, enjoy the traditions that are important to your family,  and to place love of family and friends at the forefront of your Christmas celebration.

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