Many years ago, folks who lived in log structures celebrated Christmas in a very simple way. The children would receive hand-made gifts of carved toys, cloth dolls or scarves and mittens. Perhaps some greenery would have adorned the mantle.
The family would have gone to church and sung some of the old Christmas hymns and perhaps celebrated with some of the neighbors.
In later years, a Christmas tree would have been cut from the forest and brought in to be decorated with hand-blown ornaments and small candles. The children would be in the hall near the parlor, ready for the doors to be opened to view the beautifully decorated tree with the tiny candles glowing brightly. Of course the candles would not be lit for long, and a bucket of water would have been kept nearby just in case one of those candles burned down too quickly. China head dolls with painted faces and toy metal fire engines pulled by metal horses would have been favored gifts. A tree would be decorated with garland and many metallic icicles to make it glow.
In later years, it became popular to put electric lights on the tree. I have no doubt that some of you will remember that if one light on the strand burned out the entire strand would go out. This was followed by testing every single bulb on that particular strand until the “culprit” was found and replaced. Once again the tree glowed brightly (until the next bulb burned out).
Outdoor lights were done only by those who could afford those very large bulbs and expensive electricity to maintain them. Today lights are not expensive and are easily obtainable and so many residents brighten the evening hours with holiday lighting. You will even find “blow ups” in many yards, where at one time, any figure outdoors would have been cut from wood and painted by hand.
I grew up in Indianapolis where the “official” holiday kickoff was on Thanksgiving day. L.S. Ayres was one of several large department stores. The store was on a corner and had a very large four-sided clock on the side of the building. Each Thanksgiving a cherub would miraculously appear sitting on top of the clock, and soon the store window would be filled with moveable dolls and toys. Rike’s had a similar display in their window for many years. Children of all ages would gather in front of the window to watch the animated figures busily working in Santa’s workshop.
Every year in Greene County, a life-size nativity set would appear on the Courthouse lawn. Each year the figures seemed to be a little worse for wear, having been outdoors for the season, but the Senior Citizens Center folks would repaint and restore each figure before it went on display for another season.
Recently, someone asked if I remembered aluminum trees. No doubt many will remember that very artificial tree which you assembled by sticking the limbs into a central stem. Perhaps a few ornaments would be placed on the tree, but there were no traditional lights. You purchased a separate lighting device which, when aimed toward the tree would produce several colors, each in turn to illuminate the tree.
Real trees, artificial trees, the discussion is endless. Some families like the scent of a real tree, others prefer not to deal with the falling needles, but trees of some sort are a mainstay in most homes. Some folks who like to travel collect ornaments from their travels, others prefer to make their ornaments, but in the final analysis, each tree has a personality of its own. Long-time residents of Xenia will remember when you bought your live tree from Mr. Sodders.
One of my favorite memories as a child was when we attended Sunday School, the teacher would provide each of us with a small box filled with hard candy. There was always a chocolate drop at the end of the box, and of course an orange accompanied the sweet treat. I think some folks may have gotten a similar gift at school.
No doubt you remember stringing popcorn for the tree (one for me, one for the tree) or making paper garlands which would be strung around. Cranberries were popular at one time for tree decorations and when the tree was placed outdoors after the holiday, the birds enjoyed the treats.
Many Greene County residents will remember Ralph Wall of Cedarville. He was an Army veteran of World War II, who along with his wife, Ruby, would decorate their home for the Christmas season, then invite everyone to come and visit with Mr. and Mrs. Claus. The whole town was decorated for the season, but there was no more cheerful place than the Wall home.
As old traditions continue, sometimes new traditions come into being. Nearly every country has some traditions about Santa Claus, known by various names throughout the world. Most adults can recite at least a portion of “The Night Before Christmas” by Clement Moore. Rudolph The Red Nose Reindeer has become a tradition, both with the song, books, and videos which go along with it.
Christmas carol, some old, some not so old are enjoyed by everyone and new Christmas songs are presented nearly every year.
Again and again, we hear O. Henry’s story of “The Gift of the Magi” written in 1906 and each Christmas season, the movie “It’s a Wonderful Life” is shown to a new audience, along with those who have seen it annually since its inception in 1946. Many holiday movies are available on television stations. And of course, many communities have an annual production of “The Nutcracker.”
Some Christmas traditions have been handed down through families over the years, while some are new and will continue many years.
And so to borrow from fellow columnist Bill Taylor, it seems to me that Christmas is one of the best times of the year to greet our friends, remember our old traditions and look forward to beginning new traditions.
Merry Christmas to all.
Joan Baxter is a local resident and long-time historical writer.