Monday, 08 January 2024 10:17

An Old-fashioned Christmas

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The mission of The St. Croix Review is to end the destruction of America by reestablishing the family as the center of American life, restoring economic prosperity to an independent middle class, and reviving a culture of tradition.

Editor’s Note: The following essay was published by Angus MacDonald in December 2004. Angus MacDonald was the founder of The St. Croix Review in 1968.

An Old-fashioned Christmas

The following will be welcome relief after an acrimonious election. It was written more than 40 years ago.

Born in Australia in the automobile era, having lived always in cities, and, worst of all, having had my childhood in a land without snow, I am without firsthand knowledge of an old-fashioned Christmas. Perhaps this is why my interest in the old-fashioned celebration is keener than that of some, for when I think of Santa Claus dressed in a red suit, lined with fur, and sweating in the hot sun of summer, which was my childhood experience, I dream of what it must have been in a land of snow and ice, horses and sleds, and of clear, tinkling bells whose sounds carried far in crisp night air.

There was a time when streets were not cleared of snow, for the snow was left to pack so that the passage of the sleds would be easier. Father would drive the team of horses to the horse-headed hitching post at the front of the house, while the family would run from the house to tumble into a bed of golden oat straw a foot thick, covering themselves with buffalo robes. The whip would flick over the rumps of the horses, and they would break into a brisk trot, the runners hissing, making a tearing sound, as the weight of the vehicle pressed down, and the bells hanging from the harness would begin their tinkling. Along the way would be other horses, so that progress was from one set of bells to another, and if sometimes they came to a thin-tired automobile being helped up slippery slopes by a willing horse, it was easily understood that these noisome, smoking nuisances would not be around much longer, for only a fool would want such an awkward, unpredictable, expensive, dirty conveyance when there were available at less cost clean and comfortable sleds, moving quickly, silently, surely.

Trotting gallantly in a landscape of little hills, off the main road to the family farm, through fields where watermelons were planted in the summer because of the sandy loam, heavy groves of timber, perhaps black walnut, then to the house with oaks on one side and apple trees on the other, the bobsled would be brought to the front door in a great flourish of speed.

The ladies went straight into the house to help prepare the great meal that was to come, but there were other duties for the men before they could lay aside their outdoor clothes. The team must be unhitched and taken to the barn, covered with blankets, and given grain. The barn was another world, with the body heat of many animals weighing a thousand pounds or more; pigs in a corner making their crude grunts; milk cattle muzzling the manger for wisps of hay; horses eyeing the newcomers, rolling their eyes; steaming manure; the smell of harness rubbed with Neatsfoot Oil so that it would remain soft; the smell of ensilage in the silo where the fodder was almost fermenting. Air smelling heavy with a weight from living things might make one feel that the thin air of the outside world was a weak thing, ethereal, with no health in it. It is Christmas, and one no longer thinks the Christ child was unfortunate to be born in a stable, for the first air He breathed was air fit for a king.

Before the days of central heating, the kitchen was the largest room in the house, with all family living taking place there, except for sleeping. Along one wall would be a couch, where father would take a nap, and where the children would lie when they were ill. A huge kitchen range was the prominent object of the room, black and gleaming, with pans in the holes above the firebox, a reservoir of hot water at the side lined with copper, the only supply of hot water in the house, and a box of wood by the stove on the floor, with the job of keeping it filled belonging to the children.

As with all meals, Christmas dinner was cooked and eaten in the kitchen, with most of the food coming from the farm. The pies would have been cooked the day before, pumpkin, apple, and mince; looking out of the window one could see the field where the pumpkins had grown and the orchard from which the apples came. There would be cottage cheese, with dripping bags of curds still hanging from the cold cellar ceiling; a huge crock of beans with smoked pork from the hog butchered in November. There would be every kind of preserve: wild grape from the vines in the grove, crabapple jelly, wild blackberry and tame raspberry, strawberry from the bed in the garden, sweet and sour pickles with dill from the edge of the lane where it grew wild, pickles from the rind of the watermelon that had been cooled in the tank of the milk house and eaten on a hot September afternoon. All of the meat eaten would have been grown on the farm, and the most useful meat was goose.

The down was plucked, washed, and hung in bags for later stuffing in pillows; the awkward body was roasted until the skin was crisp as fine paper; the grease of the carcass was melted down, given a little camphor, and rubbed on the chests of coughing children. They ate, slept on, and wore goose. Bread, of course, would be hot from the oven. If the smells of the barn were full of health, adding something to the air breathed, the same was true of the kitchen. No warmer, richer place could be found.

Two chores had to be performed before the family ate. First, someone had to run to the milk house for cream. Second, someone had to grind the coffee beans, adding another smell to the already spicy air. The home was presided over by an immigrant, probably from Germany, and he would ask a blessing in his native tongue, then in English for the ignorant grandchildren. “Come, Lord Jesus, be our guest. Share this food you have blessed.” Every scrap of food brought to the Lord for blessing had been grown by that same farmer, produce grown in an average year with decent work, enough rain, and proper plowing and manure.

In one corner of the kitchen was a tree cut in the grove, covered with paper ornaments made by the children and beautiful ones brought from the old country. There were popcorn balls, paper horns, homemade candy, and apples from the orchard. The gifts were hand-knit socks and mufflers, crocheted yokes for nightgowns, tatted collars for blouses, doilies with flower patterns to put on tables, tidies for chairs, and handmade toys for the little children. The tree boasted real candles with real flames, with every guest sniffing the air for the dangerous smell of scorching pine needles. No tree lit with electricity, and certainly no tree made with aluminum, could compare with the tree whose crown was living fire, and no modern tree can suggest with any force the true flame that was born of Joseph and Mary on the original cold night.

The great feast was an ordeal as well as a triumph, for everyone ate more than necessary, loosening belts during the meal, and napping afterward. Late in the afternoon the ladies would gesture at the hot water by the side of the stove, reflecting on the necessary repair of dirty dishes, the men would go to the barn to look at the livestock, an older boy might take a new .22 rifle and stalk a fox he imagined he saw, while smaller children would get sleds and slide in a long snake down the hills, feet hooked into the sled behind. Bones would be given to the dogs. Suet would be hung for the juncos and chickadees; crumbs scattered for the cardinals who would be dropping out of the sky like drops of blood; and a saucer of milk would be set for the cats, daintily and disgustedly with their padded feet picking their way through the snow.

The day would be completed with the singing of carols, for there was no television in those far-off days to tempt people to rely on someone else for entertainment. Several could play the piano or reed organ, and all were used to singing. Then the visitors bundled up, each and every one thanked the others for gifts, and the basket was filled higher than when it was brought, from the many leftovers. The men would have brought the team of horses to the door, and the rest of the family went out into the freezing air. The travelers would dig deep into the straw and pull buffalo robes over them, and while “Goodbye! Goodbye!” was called out by each to the others, the horses would break into a trot, the bells on the harness would sing their song, and the hiss of the runners comforted the tired children as they began to fall asleep. As they looked up at the sky from half-closed eyelids, it would seem that the stars might fall into their laps; but the great star in the east never wavered. They knew that nothing could shake it from the sky as they traveled home on Christmas.

For good or for ill, the simple, beautiful Christmas of days gone by can never return, and our luxurious way of life compels us to find new ways for the preservation of the eternal message. Our difficulty, compared with earlier days, is that we have become urban, city-dwellers, separated from the soil. Man is wedded to the soil more closely than our industrial, urban life has recognized; and in this fact lies our difficulties as well as the cheapening of the Christmas celebration. A city is the home of civilization in the most sophisticated expression of the term, for here are friends, books, museums, and artists, all concentrated so that one may know each other and each of the arts, and we recall that Socrates looked on the country with utter disdain, lacking as it was in civilized achievements, never walking outside of Athens unless he were compelled to do so by an emergency; but we are not Socrates, and few are those able to retain civilized habits unless they are brought to simplicity by proximity to the soil. This is the reason for presenting the old-fashioned Christmas: to remind us of the beauty of simple lives. The essence of Christmas is to be with our family and to remember, with our loved ones close by, that this is a holy season, consecrated by the celebration of God entering human affairs in the person of a humble babe. If we recall that the meaning of the event is that God has become flesh to dwell among us, no matter what century in which we live and no matter the peculiarity of our habits, we shall be sound in our observance.     *

Read 480 times Last modified on Thursday, 11 January 2024 14:44
Angus MacDonald

Founder and Publisher who immigrated from Australia.

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