Merry Christmas!

Posted by Laurie Cantwell at

Christmas 2018 Greetings

Excerpt from I Become a Teacher by Cratis D. Williams

Our school had never had a Christmas tree. I proposed one. We could draw names for little gifts to cost no more than a nickel if bought at the store or the gifts could be cookies, homemade candy or taffy, apples from the hole, or any little thing one might care to make for a gift, like a whistle from a branch of a buckeye tree, a jimmy-dancer whittled from a spool, a popgun made from an alder bush trunk, a doll made from a corncob, a monkey-on-a-string whittled from an old shingle, a cornstalk fiddle, slingshot, cutouts colored with crayons I had bought with pie mite money. For the tree to have meaning, everybody should want to give something. If the children should be interested, they could talk with their parents about it and we would then decide whether we should attempt to have one. Interest in a Christmas tree was keen. Everybody wanted to participate. We discussed how the tree should be decorated. Children brought colored pictures of Christmas trees they found in Sears Roebuck and Montgomery Ward catalogs. We could not have candles on our tree or lights of any kind, but we could decorate it with whatever we thought we could create that would help make it festive. Girls strung popcorn on threads. Boys gathered red haws, wahoo berries, wild rose apples for the girls to thread. Children collected tinfoil for wrapping sycamore and swamp wood balls to hang on the tree. Someone brought sage apples to have on it. Colored pictures of Santa Claus were pasted to cardboard. Sticks of wood and cuttings from stickweeds were wrapped with twists of paper. Red bells were made from crepe paper. Imitation candles with yellow flamelike flags pinned in the top were anchored to cardboard discs to be placed here and there on the tree. A cardboard cylinder with a star covered with tinfoil was prepared for the top of the tree. Gold and silver glass beads as big as marbles dangled at the ends of knotted strings to be tied to twigs. One of the boys had his father help him make a base for the tree, a cross of wood with angle supporters. The cross could be nailed to the floor and the angle supporters to the tree from four directions. We received from Jay Boggs, who owned the land around the school, permission to cut an evergreen tree, a small cedar if we could find one. A week before Christmas Eve, we found and set up a cedar tree about five
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feet tall, and the children began to decorate it. So much decoration was needed, though, that they decided to decorate only two-thirds of its circumference, since no one would be seeing the third of it turned toward the corner of the room. One of the girls brought a bedsheet to go around the base of the tree and spread outward for presents that seemed too big or awkwardly shaped to hang on limbs. We would have a Santa Claus. We did not have a red suit for Santa, but I had a Santa Claus beard that could be worn with a red pullover cap. We would want Santa to wear boots, around which we could tie strips of white and red cloth. Then we planned a program to include recitations of poems about Christmas that we had in our readers and the biblical account of the birth of the Christ child in the manger. I would ask Dick Sturgill to bring his fiddle and play music for us and to be Santa Claus. Parents, children at home, and grandparents could come. I would buy some stick candy, mixed candy, and jelly beans to distribute after Santa had given out the gifts. We selected two third grade boys to be Santa’s helpers. We would have our Christmas program at ten o’clock on Christmas Eve day and dismiss school when the program was over. Although Christmas Eve day was warm, the roads were muddy, and a light rain was falling, everybody came to school that day. Mothers and fathers carrying children too little to walk came along with younger pupils, many of them followed by the family dogs, who came inside and sat beside their owners. Dick Sturgill was there with his fiddle, but he had not worn either rubber boots or a red pullover cap. He agreed to wear a cap of one of the children and for the girls to tie the strips of red and white cloth over his pants and around his legs just below his knees. We first had the program of readings and recitations, including Moore’s “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” then came some fiddling, and then, while Dick was in the cloakroom permitting himself to be dressed as Santa Claus, some singing of Christmas songs and patriotic songs. Dick then appeared as Santa Claus, his red false face with the manila fiber beard somewhat askew because he had not pulled his cap on evenly. But the children squealed gleefully and the little ones in their mothers’ arms withdrew from him as he attempted to pat them on the head while making his way to the tree at the front of the room. He had a delightful patter that included an appreciation of the tree, its pretty decorations, how good children are, especially just before Christmas when they are as good as they can be. He called for his helpers, one to
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find the gifts on and under the tree and present them to him and another to deliver them to the good children present. The children were surprised, delighted, and happy as they tore away from the brown paper wrappings secured by pieces of string, some torn from strips of old cloth, to find what they were receiving. Some got packs of chewing gum, some bars of candy, little bags of homemade cookies, or candy, or a shining red apple, or a little toy carefully whittled out with a sharp pocket knife. I then asked Santa’s helpers to place a page torn from a Sears Roebuck catalog on the desk before each person in the room, broke open the packages of candy I had bought, and had the helper lay a piece on each catalog page until the candy had all been distributed. As I recall, each received a total of five pieces of candy. I thanked the parents, grandparents, and little ones for coming, hoped that Santa Claus might find each stocking hung with care on the backs of chairs that night, and wished them all a Merry Christmas. Thereafter, people in the valley began to have Christmas trees at home for the little children and to save pretty baubles in shoe boxes hidden away in attics and closets and safes from one year to the next to decorate them with. One-room country schools closed only for Christmas Day and New Year’s Day, but people were in a holiday mood for the twelve days of Christmas. Children brought to school with them during that season pieces of cake (called “fruit cake” locally) in their lunch buckets, gingerbread cookies, pieces of cake decorated with cinnamon hearts, cinnamon bark that they chewed secretly during the school day, pieces of brown paper pokes soaked in cinnamon oil that they chewed like chewing gum, and shining red apples that they ate at recess. New sweaters, cotton gloves, caps, brightly colored stockings were worn with pride. During that season young people of courting age met at homes for parties at which they made taffy from sorghum molasses, “sea foam” and fudge candy, and popcorn balls and played games like “Going Out West,” “Post Office,” “Climbing the Cherry Tree,” and “Bottoming the Sled.” Young women carried with them their newest 78 rpm records of favorite country music stars. Admiring young men stood close by the phonographs to keep them wound up. During that time, too, housewives, their heads wrapped with new fascinators, the ends of which whipped in the wind, carried baskets of eggs along the muddy roads to the store to exchange for staples needed for Christmas cooking and for little “extras” for the youngens. Men rode horses or mules over the community and visited one another, some carrying flasks of whiskey concealed in flapping saddlebags or inside coat pockets. They
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had drawn the whiskey from charred kegs in which their year’s supply had been aging since late summer. Grandparents, often toward the end of the season, would visit among their children, dispensing from the depths of heavy coats red apples, nuts, and such little “play purties” as brightly colored bottles, tin boxes, or cartons that they had been saving. I attended one memorable party at Arb Gambill’s during the season. The eighth graders who had entered high school in September were all there as well as others of courting age from the district. Young people of high school age from other communities also came. The ground, frozen hard, was covered with a light snow, and the moon was full and bright. The party had continued to midnight, but one of the more pleasant aspects of the affair was the singing and the cutting of capers we enjoyed as we walked down the frozen road from the Gambill home. Among the happiest was my sister, who had returned for the holidays from Morehead State Teachers College, where she was a student in the Breckinridge Training School.

I Become a Teacher: A Memoir of One-Room School Life in Eastern Kentucky by Cratis D Williams was published by the Jesse Stuart foundation in 1995.

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