Meade County Christmases were celebrated differently by people in their 80’s and 90’s, than today’s celebrations. People nearing retirement celebrated Christmas as their parents did, until after World War II. Christmas is a celebration of the birth of Christ by gift giving commemorating the gifts given Jesus by three wise men of the Christmas story beautifully written in the gospels of Matthew and Luke. Three Magi traveling from the east and following a star shown, over Christ’s manger, brought with them gifts of gold, Frankincense, and myrrh. From these first Christmas gifts comes our gift giving tradition.
Since Meade County was settled until about 1940 Christmas was celebrated differently than today. There would be a general store centered somewhere near a crossroad that farmers might frequent that would have items that could not be made on the farm. Among these commodities, coal oil for lamps, coffee beans to be ground at home, some canned goods, agricultural implements, wood burning stoves, skillets and kettles, knives of various sorts, needles and thread, headache powders, and for those that could afford it, candy. In the stores there might be articles of clothing, and a place for mail to be picked up and delivered, but by today’s standard there was little luxury. Clothing, flour, cornmeal, butter, canned goods, meat, and homespun cloth were put up at home. Seldom would a house or cabin be devoid of a spinning wheel. How then, did Meade County people celebrate Christmas?
Christmas in Meade has been celebrated in many ways, but always with gift giving or exchanging. Even the sending of Christmas Cards beginning in 1843, is a manner of gifting. Christmas was a time universally made festive in rural communities. It was looked forward to planned, and prepared for all year. At Christmas, the general store might add some products, but very few. Money was always in short supply on the farm. Therefore, store bought decorations and ornaments were not commonly found. Decorations were made by the farm families from natural materials. Sweet Gum and Sycamore tree seeds (ball shaped) were gathered. These seeds were carefully covered by metal foil that was peeled from the wrappers containing a stick of chewing gum. If one was careful, you could peel the tinsel from the paper, and smooth it with a finger nail. These wrappers, usually discarded were saved and placed in a box for December. The foil was carefully wrapped around the seed balls and with needle and thread made ready to decorate the tree. Bits of colored paper ribbon and string were saved for decorations. In school the children made chains of colored paper to use as garland. At home a kettle of popcorn might be popped and strung alternately with colored seeds as a garland for the tree. Cedar boughs and Holly with their festive red and blue berries would be brought in and used for decoration, and sometimes a Cedar wreath was hung in welcome on the door. Mistletoe, an ancient Celtic fertility symbol would be gathered on a rafter and used as an excuse to kiss. The tree was usually a Red Cedar or Yellow Pine cut with two boards nailed across its trunk to provide a stand. Candles would be lighted to illuminate the trees. The candles on the tree were lit by an adult, and a bucket of water was at hand to put out any fire.
Christmas was celebrated at three places, school, church, and home. The school house was important because it was one of only two or three social centers in the farming community. At the school, a party would be held where the students would receive maybe their only gifts of the season. There would be homemade cakes, pies, candy and such brought by the teachers and the mothers of the students. Games would be played, and gifts exchanged, more often the gifts were homemade candy or cookies. Sometimes music was played and carols sung without regard to the separation of church and state. Usually a mesh stocking would be handed out that might contain some nuts, candy or fruit, some pencils, and a Coca Cola Ruler, provided by area salesmen. In speaking with a number of people like Larry Greenwell, and Virginia Fischer, the Coke rulers were fondly recalled. The church usually held a celebration on Christmas Eve, or Christmas day to worship the true meaning of the holiday. After the service that was filled with music and caroling, the excited children (as well as the adults, although few would admit it) were treated to a visit by Saint Nicholas. He would also provide some simple gifts to be taken home by the young. The service concluded, the congregation would travel to their homes on horseback, in wagons, buggies, cars, or trucks.
The last place Christmas was celebrated was at home. The house or cabin was as festive as possible, and the children would go to bed in anticipation of what the morning would bring. Some children would place a plate on their kitchen chair, pulling it up near the tree, in hopes that Santa would fill it with treats, and maybe a toy. Others would look for gifts under the tree or in a stocking hung from the fireplace mantle. I suspect the children hung the largest stocking or sock they had. Christmas morning came and the children might find another piece of fruit, some chocolate drops or other candy like a peppermint cane, hard candy, some nuts, and perhaps a small store bought or homemade toy. The chocolate drops always seemed to be carried in the general stores at Christmas. They were little round mounds that appeared to be chocolate colored lard. They were white inside, and outside, looked like chocolate but did not quite taste of it. The candy to me had little if any taste, but was always a part of our Christmas. They can still be found in markets today. A festive meal, usually chicken or ham, with a special cake or pie for desert was eaten.
When I was a boy Christmas was different from today. It seems to me that when the soldiers and sailors came home from World War II, things in our culture changed. Firstly there were new materials and inventions that came out of the war effort. Plastics, synthetic rubber, aluminum, and food stuffs used in the war effort now the war was over, needed new customers. Aluminum used to make fighter planes lighter and longer flying now were used to make light weight colorful metal glassware, bowls, coolers and the like, finally replacing tin cans. Electricity, subdivisions, supermarkets, air conditioning and central heat became commonplace within a few years, and that included the farm. Television, hi-fidelity records, and transistor radios changed our society. Televised programs, with their commercial ads encouraged the purchase of new products. Christmas then became more commercial. Store owners ran Christmas sales and a new type of store came into being. Instead of the general store, meat market, and green grocer there became the supermarket. Later these large food stores had other stores beside them and shopping centers were developed. People left the farm and gravitated to the city where it was believed there were higher paying jobs. That chance for higher pay, I think cost us a more culturally valuable, but admittedly less intrinsic toll.
I was born just before the end of WWII. My first Christmases were simple affairs. I lived in Louisville part of my life, and on the farm at other times. It seems to me that my parents tried to give me and my brother, Steve, a better Christmas than they had. Our Christmas changed. Trees were decorated with modern glass ornaments and tinsel cut into strips and carefully smoothed of wrinkles by my Dad’s fingernail before being draped on the tree mimicked icicles. We had electric lights which were a pain. When one bulb went out, wired in series, they all went out and you had to remove and replace each bulb to find the bad one. Bulbs didn’t last as long in those days. My grandparents Fischer, had lights that looked like little candles, and were filled with a liquid that bubbled up to the top ending in a molded glass flame. On Christmas morning, I would get wooden Tinker Toys. They were round dowels that would fit in holes in spools that were drilled to receive them. There were slits in the end of the dowels where a piece of colored card board could be fitted. These could then be assembled into a windmill. While I could never make a windmill, the simple toy kept me busy for hours. One early Christmas I also got small differently-colored-rectangular wooden stool (I think it was bought as a potty training aid for it was kept in the bathroom). I received wooden pegs of different sizes and shapes including a hammer with which to drive them into a board with like sized holes. There always seemed to be a Hi-Li Paddle under the tree. It was a wooden paddle with a rubber band stapled to the paddle connecting it to a rubber ball. The idea was to keep the paddle hitting the ball continuously. That was a skill I never really mastered beyond two or three times in a row. To my regret Mom found another use for the paddle after the ball and rubber band were gone. My mother always saw to it there were jacks and a rubber ball under the tree. Since she had two boys I suspect she liked them herself. The jacks reminded me of a medieval torture device. They were made of metal, and had six points connected in the middle. Four of the points had little round knobs on them. The other two were rather sharp. I could never get the hang of bouncing the ball and scooping up the jacks. It must be a girl thing for my female cousins tried and tried to teach me to no avail. The girls themselves were very adept. I also could never jump rope, I couldn’t remember the verses and I was constantly getting tangled and tripping myself. Frequently a jack would get lost and my Dad would always find it at night when he stepped on it in the dark unaware of its presence. Even though it was Christmas, I can remember some unchristian words being uttered when it was encountered. Steve and I would giggle but not loud enough to be heard. My brother and I usually got a toy car or airplane, a ball or bat, and some clothes. We would later exchange gifts with aunts, uncles, and grandparents, and usually eat a meal together with the relatives. We would then come home to watch Christmas shows on T.V. and play with our treasures. We celebrate differently today. Our parents and all our aunts, save one, our uncles, and some cousins have all passed. Even friends have dwindled with time. It is not sad really, just the way of things.
When I was a child, I looked forward to the season, and I never worried about Christmas continuing and evolving as it must, in our ever changing society. I confess that I am a little concerned now. Our country was founded by a diversity of religions, races, cultures, and heritages. This diversity made us stronger. To be sure we have societal upheavals, depressions, wars, religious and political disagreement, but it seems to me that the knowledge, understanding, and celebration of our diversity is part of what made us what we are, and continues to strengthens us as a nation and a people. Striving for political correctness and attempting to make everyone included in all things, even when they would rather not, we weaken all traditions and risk losing our diversity. I don’t think we want to exchange diversity for uniformity. If we are not careful we might do just that. So I say, “In whatever way you celebrate the season, have a Happy Holiday and a Merry Christmas.”