December 1993

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from A Vanished World

Onondaga County, 1890s


Anne Gertrude Sneller

Christmas was a joyful time. It started early in September when the butternuts began falling, for the butternuts furnished most of the money to buy our Christmas presents. For some reason, the butternuts were our special property, perhaps because children could pick them up more easily than grownups could or would. Butternuts are large and a pleasant shape for the hand to grasp, and they filled bushel crates quickly. At the time of falling they are a soft green color that turns black as the nuts dry. The only drawback to the butternut harvesting was that they were very sticky—a kind of glue-like stickiness that attached itself at once to the gathering fingers. At the end of a session with them, we had to go to the house for kerosene oil and wash our hands liberally in it. The kerosene was almost as disagreeable as the stickiness, but only kerosene could combat that successfully, and then soap and hot water had to wash off the kerosene. On a fall morning or after school when the wind had blown down the nuts and the yellow fan-like leaves, it was highly agreeable to omit dishes and dusting and go out to the butternut trees to work. Father furnished the crates and sold the nuts for us on the city market at twenty-five cents a bushel. Usually the proceeds were two or even three dollars, and each Christmas present had the same value as a bushel of butternuts.

After the butternuts were picked up, it was time to begin on the cider apples to add to the Christmas fund. The orchard trees were grafted on wild fruit and the apples were almost entirely free from blight or insect. The trees were so tall that long ladders had to be used and the apples were brought down carefully to be packed in barrels on the barn floor. Those that fell off through wind or overripeness were used for cider and taken to Mr. Loomis's cider mill a short distance away. Father had two big barrels of cider made every year and stored in the cellar. He paid Ethel and me five cents a bushel for picking up the fallen apples. No care was taken to throw out any apple unless it was far gone in decay or extra dirty or had been nibbled by the cows. Although cider apple work paid us less than butternuts, it was easier, and sometimes Adney or Archie would help us a little when they came down from the ladders.

It might be thought that the cider made from these apples would have had an unpleasant taste, but it never did. My dearest playmate's father ran the cider mill for Mr. Loomis, and we would go up there after school and drink all the sweet cider we could hold. Then we would climb into the apple bins and hunt for a perfect apple that had somehow escaped the pickers and joined the cider group. Once found, we bit into it as if it were the first apple we had ever tasted. The mixed colors in the bins were a blended picture—English Streaks and red Spitzenbergs and Rhode Island Greenings, Roxbury Russets (not much juice in them!) and dark Baldwins and yellow Bellflowers and a rare Northern Spy, much too good to be wasted on cider. The cider was drunk by father, the hired men, the neighbors, and visitors. By late winter it had turned hard and sharp like a primitive champagne, and Ethel and I did not enjoy it. But we would bring up two glassfuls from the cellar and put a teaspoonful of baking soda in each glass. Instantly the cider turned a dark brown and was once again sweet to the taste. Soda was held to be good for gas and indigestion, and mother let us drink our preventive in peace.

The butternut money and the cider money together were enough to buy presents for mother and father and the aunts and cousins and for each other. The next step in the Christmas progress was to go to the village and pick out the presents at Mr. Coville's store. Mrs. Coville always helped us make the right decision and was enthusiastic over the cup and saucer, the little bottle of cologne, or the vase we fixed on. When our choice was made, she would hold it up for our admiration and her own, and say, "Isn't it bootiful!" Mrs. Coville wished to speak genteelly and the sound of bootiful gratified her ears. She was the kindest of women and always had time to make our shopping a part of the delight of Christmas. Today there are more things to choose from in the dime store, but no Mrs. Coville to guide and help a child and approve his selection.

Sometimes we bought a deck of cards in a fancy case for father or a big red handkerchief for him to wear in threshing time; a pipe for grandfather or a pincushion for the aunts; and once two cloth-bound, well-printed copies of Tom Sawyer for the cousins—incredible at twenty-five cents!

I remember only one disappointment. Ethel found it hard to keep a secret, and she confided to me that her present for me was made of silk and was lilac-colored. I felt sure it must be a lilac-colored silk dress, though I didn't see how she could have bought one for twenty-five cents. Still, hope was stronger than economics, and I waited in suspense for Christmas to arrive and the lilac silk dress to be given to me. The dress turned out to be a square lilac silk neckerchief to be worn under my winter coat to church. And Ethel had recklessly paid fifty cents for it.

Early in December preparations began for Christmas at the church. There was always a Christmas concert at which all the Sunday school children performed, singing together, singing separately, and speaking pieces about Christmas, sometimes religious, but more often concerned with Santa Claus, hanging up stockings, and Christmas dinners. The girls' recitations were always longer than the boys' efforts, and each number was delivered with the speaker's glow of anticipation. Two tall Christmas trees were brought into the church and placed beside the altar. Candles were not used on them because the fear of fire in the old wood building was strong and also because candles to our unlighted thought belonged in Catholic churches; nor was there electricity to take the place of candles. Strings of popcorn and tinsel and Great Expectations made the trees bright to our eyes.

Early in December, too, a Committee on Presents for the Sunday School Scholars was appointed, usually Franc Loomis and mother, since Mrs. Poole and Mrs. Klosheim took charge of the concert. The committee spent a day in the city buying presents. They seldom had as much as ten cents to spend for each child, more likely five cents and they bought according to classes, hoping that children of the same age and tastes had landed in the same group. It was surprising what interesting and attractive articles five cents could buy, and they were never moral presents like thimbles and holders. But however desirable they were, Ethel and I often took home nothing from the Sunday school Christmas tree. The reason was this. The committee shopped early while things had not yet been picked over, and they bought prudently one present for each child enrolled as a Sunday school pupil and provided no extras.

Now it happened—probably in all three churches—that a Sunday or two before Christmas, children would appear who had never been there before, but expressed their intention of being faithful comers thereafter. Somehow the committee always failed to reckon with this influx although it was a fairly certain part of the Christmas season. There stood the Christmas trees. Here were the children—and no presents for them. The same thing was done every year so that no time was lost in discussion. Franc would speak to one or two of the regular pupils, and mother would come to Ethel and me and whisper, "Little Gracie Drear and her little sister are here and there aren't any presents for them. We shall have to give your presents to them. You will have presents at home." And into the outstretched hands of Gracie Drear, that well-named child, and Little Sister went our presents. I cannot recall that we ever made a fuss about Gracie's invasion of our rights. We were comforted by knowing that no outsiders could possibly empty our stockings on Christmas morning.

Many of the church members brought their family presents to put on the trees, and that lent both sparkle and excitement. Often the presents were more valuable than most of the church received. One year a pair of diamond earrings was given to the wife of a prosperous farmer and held up for all to see; once the tree bore a sealskin coat for Mr. Loomis's daughter. Mother did not wholly approve of having such expensive presents given at church. She thought home was the place for private gifts where the contrasts would not be so sharp and where it wouldn't look as if the display were intended to show off. She did not realize that not everyone had a Christmas tree at home, and that the whole congregation was interested to have real diamond earrings or a real sealskin coat to admire, even if it wasn't their good luck to get it. There was popcorn for everybody and we didn't have to resign our share to any latecomer.

We went home to hang up our stockings behind the sitting room coal fire. Because our stockings were small, we feared it might prevent our getting good-sized presents so we placed a shiny big milk pan directly under each stocking. Santa himself might have rested comfortably in either pan without crowding the gifts. Our home presents came in the stockings and pan; those from the relatives awaited us on the Christmas tree at the home of whichever aunt was having the Christmas dinner. What kind of presents? A red sled for Ethel or a pair of skates that would extend Christmas till spring; a red cart and new dolls for me, or the old ones in new dresses. Ethel's presents were three years older than mine; her doll's tea set was a size larger, and by the time I was finding letter blocks in my pan she was taking out a set of dominoes. The differences grew less as soon as I could read. The game of Authors appeared in a neat box and from it we learned the chief writers from Irving to Bryant and Cooper and the New England list, Hawthorne, Longfellow, and Whittier, along with Dickens, Thackeray, and Tennyson. On the card with the author's full name were the titles of his four most important works, and we learned forever what they were and found the information handy later on.

Books were standard presents for us always. Mother loved to read too well herself not to want us to grow up with the happiness reading brings. Sometimes the books were collections of stories that had passed under the purifying eye of Mrs. Alden, in the "Pansy" series, or that of Mrs. A. D. Whitney; sometimes Miss Alcott had the pans to herself, but the year that stands out above all others brought us Andersen's Fairy Tales and Ellen Terry's Lady Reciter. I wonder if Ellen Terry ever saw the book that bore her name. A picture of her beautiful face was in the front of the book, and we supposed, as mother did, that Miss Terry had personally chosen every poem or prose selection. Much of the poetry dealt with American heroes of war from Nathan Hale to Phil Kearney at Seven Pines. There were a few classics like "I Am Dying, Egypt, Dying" and a little patriotic prose. One of the strangest poems, strange because it did not rhyme though it was printed like poetry, was about a letter brought to a father and mother telling them of the death of their son in battle. Strange as it was, the beginning was haunting.

Come up from the fields, father,
here's a letter from our Pete,
And come to the front door, mother, here's
A letter from the dear son.
Lo—'tis autumn—

The fall of the words, the fall of the young soldier, and the falling of the leaves wove a harmony unfamiliar to us, and the poet's name, Walt Whitman, we had not heard before. Ethel and I learned piece after piece from the Reciter. We knew Miss Terry was an actress and the wish to follow in her footsteps stayed with us for many years. When I was sixteen and in high school I saw my first Shakespearean play. It was The Merchant of Venice and Ellen Terry was Portia, a radiant figure in the scarlet robes of the law court. Watching her and listening to the magic voice, I thought how wonderful it would be to hear her recite something from her namesake book.

Christmas morning at home ended with father's taking down the brown box that for a week or two had been on the top pantry shelf. A similar one stood there every Christmas in plain sight, but we were warned not to climb up and open it. We knew it was the Candy Box and inside it were fifty sticks of candy—all kinds of flavors: white vanilla cream and black paregoric, yellow molasses, brown horehound and transparent lemon, alongside pink-and-white striped peppermint and birch and sassafras like little barber's poles in red and green and black. We knew each flavor, and the luxury of having fifty sticks at the same time was Christmas in excelsis.

Christmas Day dinners seldom differed, but there was the thrilling occasion when my cousin told us Aunt Alice was going to have duck for the Christmas dinner. Turkey was unknown in our community. No farmer raised turkeys and no one thought of buying them. The turkey that grandmother Moulton cooked for mother's and father's wedding supper in 1878 must have been about the last ceremonial appearance of the bird. Duck was equally unknown in our family, and the idea of eating it at dinner time made a breakfast of pancakes and sausage insignificant. When we arrived at Aunt Alice's, we found the house smelling of roasting duck, the table set in the dining room, and the relatives and neighbors already in the parlor. There were so many children that the best that could be done was to arrange a table for us in the kitchen. Aunt Alice had had no previous experience with duck and was quite innocent of calculating how many people with Christmas appetites one duck would feed. She put two ducks in the oven and waited the result in confidence. Her heart must have sunk when the ducks were ready. Each grown-up at the big table had a sliver, but by the time the platter reached the kitchen the duck had become a family fable and poor Aunt Alice brought out some cold pot roast for us to feast on. We retired to the parlor and the Christmas tree, knowing that nothing could make up for our disappointment as long as we lived. The first present taken off the tree was for me from Aunt Alice. It was a large and brightly colored book of fairy tales, the best I ever owned. The rest of Christmas Day I sat on the floor in a corner reading my fairy book. Duck and I were no longer in the same world.

Christmas at Aunt Kate's had a special quality. For one thing her long, low sitting room ended in a large bay window which made a perfect background for the green tree and we saw it against the snow outside. Once the Christmas tree in the bay window held four dolls for me. High on the top was a golden-haired beauty for which Aunt Kate had made a white dress trimmed with butterfly pink bows along the hem and a smart little black velvet jacket. I named her Flossy on the spot. She deserved something better, but Flossy was then my favorite name. Besides the tree and dinner, there was always the singing time at Aunt Kate's. An old-fashioned square piano stood in the sitting room, and after the dinner, the tree, and the presents, all the children gathered around it, and Aunt Kate played while we sang Christmas hymns—not the old carols, for they were no part of our tradition, but hymns we had sung in church. Last of all, Aunt Kate played "The Mistletoe Bough" and we sang over and over, "O the Mistletoe Bough! O the Mistletoe Bough!" That song, so joyous in its picture of the holly-decked castle, so sad in the fate of the bride, closed the Christmas Day.

One of my dearest memories is of the Christmas when I was in bed with the measles and unable to go to the family dinner. Mother decided that father and Ethel should go as usual, and she would stay with me. On Christmas Eve, since I could not even hang up my stocking, I snuggled down in bed to enjoy tears of sorrow and went straight to sleep. The sun was shining through frosted windows when I woke up. Mother and Ethel stood near the bed, and on a chair beside it was a little green Christmas tree with the smell of the winter woods still on it. How did it get there? Whose was it?

"It's all for you," Ethel explained. "Stuart and I went to the woods for it yesterday and everything on it is for you."

Mother took the presents off the tree, one at a time, and laid them on the bed so that I could touch them. Aunt Alice's mother had knitted a pair of white wool mittens for me; Aunt Kate had sent a little silk handkerchief with forget-me-nots embroidered in the corners. Ethel bounced the soft red rubber ball she had bought for me. It had stripes of blue and yellow criss-crossing it like lines of latitude and longitude. It was hard to decide which of all the nice things I liked best until mother laid the last one on the pillow—a blue and gold copy of Sir Walter Scott's poems. A long extract from The Lady of the Lake was in our Fifth Reader and I had wanted very much to read the whole poem. Mother had remembered and the book was mine. After a chicken broth and raspberry jelly dinner, I begged mother to start reading the poem to me, but the tree, the presents, the dinner, and possibly the measles were too much, and I fell asleep to the rhythm of "Harp of the North." I like to think of Ethel planning the surprise for me and wading through the snow with Stuart to get the tree. He cut it and carried it, but it was Ethel who directed the enterprise. When the time comes that Christmas can no longer be merry, it is sweet to remember the Christmas days that were.

© 1994, Syracuse University Press
"Christmas" is a chapter from Anne Gertrude Sneller's A Vanished World and is reprinted here with permission from Syracuse University Press.
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