Memories from Christmases past

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Lillian Thornton and Marlene and Harry Abel recently shared some of their childhood Christmas memories. (Photos by Audrey Posten)

Shirley Connor fondly remembers her mother’s dressing, which always included raisins and apples.

By Audrey Posten, North Iowa Times

Lovingly decorated trees, a hearty meal with family, visits from Santa Claus—What are considered traditional staples in today’s Christmas celebrations aren’t so different from how people enjoyed the festive season in the 1930s and 1940s. 

“We always had a tree,” recalled Shirley Connor, who was among a group from Great River Care Center and Turner Pointe Assisted Living, in McGregor, that recently shared some childhood Christmas memories. 

There weren’t any artificial trees then, she noted, and families rarely purchased a tree from a lot.

“We usually cut one down some place in the timber,” she said. “One of my sisters would always get a rash.”

Marlene Abel had a similar experience.

“We’d always go out and get one,” she shared. “We lived on a farm, so we’d go in the pasture and chop one down.” The tree always had to be cedar, she stressed.

Connor said tree decorations included a mix of bought and homemade ornaments.

“We always had glass ornaments and some tinsel,” added Juanita Valley.

“You wrapped the tinsel all around,” said Lillian Thornton, who fondly remembers sitting on the stairs as a little girl, secretly watching her parents decorate the tree and leave presents beneath it.

Gifts were more practical then.

“It was mostly clothes—something we needed to wear,” she stated. But one year she and her four siblings received a wagon.

Connor recalled getting tablets and pencils—writing utensils needed for school. 

“We were raised in the hard times, and I can remember what I got for Christmas a lot of time wasn’t much,” she said, “but we survived.”

“I was tickled to death to get what we got,”  she continued. “Now, the kids want so much stuff, and it’s so expensive.”

One year, Valley said she and her brother were happy to get the same gift: a little tractor. Another year, they each received a sled.

“That was when they were five foot long,” she detailed. “That was fun because we had some hills nearby we could go down.”

Marlene Abel’s favorite childhood present was a set of dishes. On Christmas Day, she knew they were coming.

“I remember finding them under the bed,” she confided with a smile.

Christmas stockings were also special.

“You got an orange or apple and maybe some candy,” she said.

For Marlene’s husband, Harry, an electric train was his most prized gift. It was even more special because he and his siblings always received a visit from “Santa,” who was played by his grandmother. She would go outside and leave tracks in the snow, making it look like Jolly Old St. Nick and his reindeer had been there. 

“I can’t remember if she had a mask, but she had a whole entire suit,” Harry remarked. Grandma also carried a small switch—a reminder to the kids that they better behave. “You had better be good,” he said, laughing.

After gifts, it was always on to the meal. Thornton said her family’s Christmas dinners often included turkey, which they raised and slaughtered themselves. 

Harry Abel’s family preferred chicken.

“And, of course, there was dressing and cranberries and mashed potatoes and gravy,” he remembered.

Lefse was a traditional dish too.

“That was part of Thanksgiving and Christmas,” he said.

Connor’s favorite dish was always her mother’s stuffing.

“She made it with raisins and apples,” she quipped. “It was a sweet one.”

Over the years, she took on making the recipe and even passed it down to her children.

“Some of the kids make it pretty good now,” she said, “but it’s never quite like mom’s.”

Thornton said the evenings were some of her favorite times. Her father would make popcorn and the family would play cards. “Those were happy times,” she noted. And it’s that simple fun she believes people could use more of today when celebrating Christmas.

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