For all of you who have become faithful readers since July 31, 2003 when “Through Mountain Mists” first appeared in this paper, Happy Christmas. Go with me on a personal journey to Christmases Past. May this odyssey through the mists to a simpler time bring to your mind remembrances of good Christmases of decades ago.
When I was a child I did not give much thought to what went into Christmas except for my want list and a special time of year that seemed a long time in coming. In retrospect, I can understand how hard it must have been for my parents and other kin to provide a good holiday season from the want and penury often experienced during the days of the Great Depression and World War II.
Christmas celebrations hinged around the local school and church. I went to a two-teacher country school, Choestoe, and there in the “little room” (primer through third grades) and the “big room” (fourth through seventh grades), preparations were made by our diligent teachers to make our school Christmas program a special time. I went to the “new” Choestoe School, a building erected in 1936 just in time for me to begin first grade there. It had the unusual feature of a removable partition between the two classrooms, and for special occasions like the Christmas play (or the commencement program at the end of the school year), the partitions were taken down and one large room was formed with a movable stage set against the windows on the north side of the building. There, after days of rehearsing, we performed our Christmas recitations and pageant to a packed house of parents who came to proudly own their children who were in the limelight. I remember some of those teachers who worked with us: Mrs. Mert Shuler, Miss Mary Dyer, and my own sister, Mrs. Louise Dyer, with the primary groups; Miss Opal Sullivan, Mrs. Florence Hunter, and Mrs. Bonnie Snow with upper grades. There were others, of course, but these were teachers for various years I was a student at Choestoe School. We “drew” names and got an inexpensive gift for the person whose name we drew. My gift usually came from my Grandpa Bud Collins’s country store, or else my dad, J. Marion Dyer, would make a trip to Blairsville to “buy Christmas.”
The larger boys had been to somebody’s woods and cut a pine tree, and part of the preparation was making colored paper chains to decorate the tree and stringing popcorn the teacher had brought from home. There were no lights to illuminate the tree, because Choestoe School did not then have electricity. How the teachers managed to get small gifts for each of their children on the meager salary they drew is a mystery to me. I remember pencils with our name imprinted, a pencil box, and small paper bags with candy and an orange or apple. We went home from the school Christmas program feeling good from our performance, the accolades it brought, and our little gifts.
The church Christmas program was not much different from that at school except that our pageant was always a reenactment of the Christmas Story from Luke and Matthew. How all the girls longed to be Mary or angels. If not selected for these parts, we were in the choir to sing Christmas carols or had a special poem to learn and recite. To forget lines, either at school or at church, was an anxious fear. If it happened, we were embarrassed. At church as well as at school, we drew names for giving gifts, and we could expect a bag of goodies from our Sunday School teachers at church.
I cannot remember Santa Claus ever appearing at any of my childhood school and church programs. Maybe some areas had this jolly old Saint Nick, but we did not at Choestoe. Perhaps it was too hard to come by a red suit back then.
At home, our Christmas celebrations were simple. We children could expect one gift from Santa and some candy and fruits in our stockings “hung by the chimney with care.” At Christmas oranges were a once-a-year treat. Dad also purchased boxes of stick candy--peppermint, licorice, and horehound. We sometimes had the rare treat of “cocolate drops” or Hershey’s kisses.
I can remember the Christmas when my little brother Bluford got a “Radio Flyer” wagon as his major gift. Earlier, when I was five, I got a beautiful China doll I had spied pictured in the Sears-Roebuck catalog. I yearned for that doll with a passion and wrote more than one letter to Santa requesting it. Although I was only five, that was the same Christmas I learned that Santa had a very special helper in my father, because on the box the doll came in was his writing: “To Ethelene from Santa.” He must have forgotten that I already knew how to read, even though I had not been to school. I knew it was he who had labeled my special gift. I kept the knowledge of Santa to myself for at least three more years, fearing that if I let the secret out I might not get the Christmas gifts I yearned for.
Christmas holiday meals were interchanged between Grandpa Collins’ home and Grandma Dyer’s home, always with a large crowd of family at both places. Maybe my mother took food, too. I don’t remember. These were solid meals but not necessarily fancy. We grew turkeys for market, and at Christmas one was prepared for the meal. Wonderful country-cured ham was also a part of the meal as were the dried fruits and preserved vegetables from our bountiful harvest.
We had candy-pullings as community holiday parties. My older sister Louise and my older brother Eugene sometimes hosted these events with other young people from the community invited. The sorghum syrup, with baking soda added, was boiled to a certain consistency noted by letting a drop fall into a cup of cold water. Then the candy was beaten for awhile until it was cool enough to take in hand and pull and pull. The sorghum candy was twisted into sticks, and later cut. It was a tasty treat. Especially delightful were the popcorn balls made with the sorghum syrup cooked to candy consistency to hold the popped corn together. Roasted chestnuts, chinquapins, and peanuts added to the refreshments at Christmas socials in the community, and sugar cookies and gingerbread men were also enjoyed.
In that simple time we didn’t notice that we could not afford all the goodies displayed in the Sears-Roebuck catalog. To have one special gift and really appreciate it was treasure enough and to be surrounded by the love of family and friends was a true Christmas treat.
c2003 by Ethelene Dyer Jones; published Dec. 18, 2003 in The Union Sentinel, Blairsville, GA. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.