Christmas Long Ago

By Florence L. (Downing) Horner

One of the very first Christmases that I remember was when I was probably about three or four years old and was asked to speak a Christmas piece (poem), Twinkle Twinkle Little Star, at the Preston Prairie School program. It was afternoon but the shades were drawn to make it seem dark. As my mother and I entered it seemed to me that the whole room was ablaze with candle light and it is a wonder that it wasn’t for the tree was lighted with real candles flickering directly under the pine branches. The room seemed enormous to me as I went up to say my piece and I remember I stood back against the wall as far from the audience as I could possibly stand and everybody laughed.

The school Christmas program was always a big event in the life of the rural child. The tree was usually one that had been cut in the nearby woods. It was trimmed with garlands of tinsel and strings of popcorn and cranberries that had been strung by the children. Sometimes it was also adorned with paper chains. The real candles were held in small holders that clipped to the branches.

For weeks ahead of time we were busy practicing for the program, learning pieces, singing group songs and practicing for the dialogues. We always looked forward to the “dress rehearsals” when the teacher would have the curtain strung on a wire across the front of the room and it was such fun to be the chosen one to open and close the curtain.

I’m not sure that we always had a Santa Claus at school but there were times that he entered mysteriously with a big Ho! Ho! Ho! Whether there was a Santa or not, each child received at least two gifts - one from the teacher and the other from the one who had drawn your name for Christmas. Then each child also received a sack of hard candy which also usually included an orange. Later the sack was replaced by a little cardboard box with a string handle, Christmas pictures on the outside of the box. These boxes were still being used when I first taught school in 1924.

Christmas at home always meant having a tree, which Dad cut in our timber, and my mother decorated with tinsel and popcorn and real candles much the same as the school tree. Later we older children did the decorating.

When we went to bed on Christmas Eve usually there was nothing under the tree but on Christmas morning we could hardly wait to come downstairs to see what Santa had brought.

I remember there was one time when we knew ahead of time what he was going to bring for Harvey and I found packages in the pantry before Christmas and had Roly Poly Foxy Grandpa out on the floor playing with it before my mother found us.

One of the first gifts I remember was the gold signet ring which I still have, given to me by my parents. I must have been very small and perhaps then I thought it was coming from Santa but I do remember I was warned of the danger of losing it.

Standing: Harvey Loomer Downing II, wife Eva Belle Bickelhaupt Between them the oldest child, Grace Velma Downing.
Sitting L-R Harvey Loomer Downing I, wife Ellen Eliza Preston (parents of Harvey II), holding Florence L. Downing (writer of this Christmas Story), George Valentine Bickelhaupt, wife Louise Lambert (parents of Eva Belle, holding Harvey Loomer Downing III).

Christmas also meant having something special for dinner and always Grandpa Bickelhaupts with us and sometimes Grandpa Downings. If snow was on the ground, they came in horse drawn sleighs with sleigh bells, fur robe over their laps with a heated soap stone under it. Grandpa Downings would usually give the grandchildren bright shiny silver dollars and a sack of oranges. Grandpa Bickelhaupts brought baskets of packages, very carefully wrapped and tagged by Grandma B. Many times they contained articles of clothing which she had made for us for she was a good seamstress and there were seven of us to need clothes. It must have taken her weeks to get ready for Christmas. For the younger children there was an occasional doll or toy and always a brown sack of candy (both hard candy and home made fudge, and an orange) all tied shut at the top with red or red and white cord.

After dinner we probably sat around listening to the grown ups talk, played some of the new Christmas games or went out to try out a new sled or skates.

Christmas night might mean walking to Center Hill Church on a cold crisp night to hear their Christmas program or a little later to take part in it and sing or say “Why Do Bells For Christmas Ring?” Christmas night might mean staying home playing games and eating popcorn balls. It was my father’s specialty to pop a big pan of corn, then cook the syrup to pour over it, stirring all with a large spoon.

I remember once we went to Grandpa Downings for Christmas dinner but usually we stayed home for we were a big family and there were many times when there was a baby too small to be taken out in the cold -- maybe to ride in a bobsled on hay. Then too, we always went to Grandpa Bickelhaupts for Thanksgiving so it was nice to have them come for Christmas.

Recalling the gifts which I received, many were hand made and practical as gifts were then but all meant much to me. Although our family was large, my parents always provided those certain toys that all children should enjoy in their young lives, the lovely china doll which I still have, and doll buggy, my little white teddy bear, the red table and chairs, toy dishes, ice skates and a sled, later a lovely Bavarian vegetable dish which my mother gave me long before I needed a dish but is now such a lovely keepsake. Suppose she bought it at Jessen {?} Variety Store. Dishes were given as gifts more then than now. Donald Ritenour gave me the cup and saucer of Japanese ware when I was still in grade school.

The old fashioned Christmas was a happy, simple, quiet, friendly, peaceful one but one rich in memories.

Christmas 2004: Contributed by Alice Horner, only child of H. Reid and Florence Luella (Downing) Horner. This essay is undated. It may have been written in the 1950's when Florence L Downing Horner was attending Rockford College and had to write quick essays. She was born June 29, 1906, so the times she writes of began in about 1910. The house and family featured at the top of the page is at 14858 US Highway 52, between Mt. Carroll and Savanna. Pictured are Florence Luella Downing, her parents Harvey Loomer Downing and Eva Belle Bickelhaupt Downing, her sister Grace and their dog Guard. The main part of this house was brand new when this photo was taken.

The Roly Poly Grandpa pictured here isn't the one they got that Christmas morning. I just found this one on the internet to show you what he looked like.