St Croix River Road Ramblings

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Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Christmas Traditions

 Written in 2010
Aluminum tree fad 1950s-60s

My neighbor, the engineer, down here in Pine Island bragged “I set up our Christmas tree this year in just one minute and took it down again just as fast!”  He explained that he has an artificial tree that he took a great deal of pain in decorating just right, with all the heirloom and modern ornaments a few years ago, and now just slips a big plastic bag over it and puts it away in the garage to bring out ready for use each year.  I complimented him on his efficiency and was beginning to think that might be a good way to go for us, when his wife said wistfully, “It does look perfect, but I kind of miss taking out the ornaments each year, putting them on a real tree and then packing it all up at after New Years.”

Now that we are into the long stretch of the holiday season and have put up our tree and decorations, I remember from my 66 years; it is the routines and rituals of holidays that make them special.  The Christmas church and music, the school programs, the family get-togethers, the cards updating us on old friends, and thrill of kids and presents are what make it so wonderful.  We bring it to an end when we spend the afternoon carefully taking the Christmas tree down, packing away everything in tissue paper, gluing back the piece of colored macaroni on Scott’s homemade ornament from 30 years ago from kindegarten.   

 I don’t remember seeing or hearing of artificial trees back when I was a kid.  I think there was some kind of all aluminum, silver colored tree back in the 60s that caught on for awhile, but we rural folks always cut our tree.  For a buck you could get permission to cut a spruce out in the big Christmas Tree Swamp along the St. Croix.  Lacking the buck, you could find a nice red, white or jack pine in west Sterling.  We were always planting spruce and pine trees around the yard, but didn’t like to cut those; we liked a “wild” one that we went to cut in the woods. 

Grandpa and Grandma lived on the River Road where jack pines grew in abundance. a scraggly, yellowish green short needled pine, but a fine starting place for their antique ornaments.  We helped Grandma decorate her tree for many years along the old River Road.    

Grandma came through the Depression and knew the value of money.  She carefully saved every strand of lead foil tinsel to put back in the package after each year.  She had old glass colored balls, fragile tinned angels, stars and clip-on candle holders.  She no longer lit candles, instead she had two strings of lights, one with red and green cotton covered wires with black bakelite bulb holders, and another the same except filled with bubble lights.  She had carefully removed each bulb and put it back in the original package along with the carefully wound up string of sockets. 

Each light had to be carefully screwed into the socket after first shaking it gently while holding it up to her ear to listen for a broken filament.  Then the string was tested.  It never worked the first time.  The string was in series; any burned out meant they all were off.  Each bulb was given a gentle snap with the thumb and forefinger to encourage loose filaments to re-weld together.  Normally the ailing bulb either started or blinked and went back out—and was replaced.  They were big bulbs with replacements available at the Cushing Co-op or Nickie’s Hardware.

The other string were the bubble lights.  Grandma had splurged some time in the 40s and bought this set.  There were originally eight lights, but only five continued to work when I remember.  The bubble lights were a regular Christmas bulb encased in a decorative plastic cover, the bottom half red, the top half yellow with ventilation holes making a pretty pattern.  Above the bulb was a thin clear glass tube filled with liquid, the diameter of a pencil and about three inches long.  Heat from the bulb eventually got the liquid boiling.  We would watch them turn on, warm up, and the bubbling continue for ever; never getting done.  For kids who had never yet seen a TV or any kind of electronic display, the bubbling light was spellbinding!

Grandma liked the old tradition of putting her Christmas tree outside after Christmas.  She had a real Christmas tree stand, a red bowl with green legs that held the tree firmly in place and let it be watered.   At home we had crossed short narrow boards with a nail stuck through and a few wire braces to hold the tree. 

Grandma made some flour paste and set up boys to work cutting red and green construction paper into strips.  We pasted the ends together and made the loops into long chains to dangle around the tree. 

Sometimes, when cranberries were available (cranberries grew wild in some of the local tamarack and spruce swamps) we made them into garlands.  Grandma slid open the drawer under the seat in great grandma’s old rocker, carefully pulled out a couple of needles from their fragile gold foil lined holder, and threaded them from the Coates wooden spool of green thread.  We carefully strung cranberries together in a long chain.

Grandma liked us kids; she called us her little kittens, rather odd for four rambunctious boys.  Our gifts from her were hand knitted mittens or socks and homemade candy.  She liked the traditions of Christmas.

One day during our Christmas vacation was set aside to make what Grandma called “salt water taffy.”   As I remember, you put some sugar, syrup, salt, water and flavors in a pot  and boiled the heck out of it.  Grandma had a package of food colorings that, like most of her things, looked like it had come from a century earlier.  We got to pick the color to add each year and we always picked red or green.  Grandma tested the temperature by dripping a little of the boiling mix into a saucer of cold water and then used her fingers to try to form it into a ball.  “See, now it forms a soft ball down under the water.  When you make it into a ball, and the ball hardens like a sucker, then it is ready,” she told us eager helpers.  At the right time Grandma dipped some hot water from the wood stove reservoir into the wash dish by the dry sink.  “Wash your hands; we don’t want dirty looking candy!”  It was one of the few times we did try to do a real good job of it.  In the meantime, Grandma had taken the mix off the stove and was stirring it and finally poured it into a big buttered platter.  When it was cool enough to handle, “Rub butter on your hands so it won’t stick, and lets pull some taffy!” she told us excited kids.  The taffy smell was that of pure sweetness with a little vanilla or almond afterthought. 
We took a big wad into our hands and started stretching it, and as we progressed, ended  with long ropes we stretched between pairs of us; pulling it out, bringing the ends in and again stretching it until Grandma decided it was done and we made one last long rope.  We laid it out on wax paper on the table and Grandma took the big butcher knife and cut it into small pieces.  We cut the wax paper into squares and wrapped each piece and twisted the ends, while busily chewing two pieces at a time marveling at what a wonderful thing had just happened; raw products from the pantry turning into delicious candy!  The green or red color showed through the wax paper, making it pretty enough to hang a few on the Christmas tree to save for eating as a reward for undressing the Christmas tree after New Years. 

Grandpa always raised a long row of popcorn in his big garden.  By Christmas time, the ears had dried long enough in the big cotton sack hanging on the porch, out of reach of the mice.  “It’s hard to beat that Japanese Hull-less,” he commented as he gave us each a small white ear with rows of pointed translucent kernels, ready to shell.  If the kernels came off the small ears easily, then it was time to shell them all, and we went at it until the job was done, our small hands worn raw rubbing the sharply pointed kernels off.  Then Grandpa took the big kettle of shelled corn outside and dumped it slowly into another container while the wind blew away the fine chaff.  Then he sealed it in two-quart fruit jars, giving one to us to bring into Grandma. 
Grandma had one of those saucepan corn poppers with a crank on the top. You put in  popcorn and butter, set it over a hot lid on the wood cookstove and turned the crank to stir the kernels.  First a few individual pops and then a flood of popping with smell of fresh popcorn and butter filled the kitchen.  We ate until we were satisfied, and then took up our needles and thread and delicately tried to thread the popcorn into a chain, sometimes alternating popcorn with cranberries.  Most kernels broke in our clumsy hands. Grandma carefully threaded the fluffy white brittle puffs one after another, rarely breaking any, making a long pretty chain that stayed on the tree after it was moved outside for the blue jays New Years dinner.   

Each day of Christmas vacation was filled with exciting things to do.  We spent the mornings outside helping Dad clean the barn and sliding with our two track sleds down the steep hill next to the house.  One day was set-aside for making pop-corn balls.  We started by popping until we had two big canners full. 

  With the popcorn ready, a mix of sugar, syrup and flavors boiled to the hard ball stage was drizzled over the popcorn and everything stirred together.  Again we washed our hands, buttered them and packed together nice round popcorn balls; feeling the sting and stickiness of the hot syrup in our slippery buttery hands.  “Don’t pack them like ice-balls, make them like soft snowballs or you will break your teeth on them,” warned Mom.  Soon we had a big heap of white and brown flecked balls, some round and some ragged, but all delicious.   Mom gave me a store bought popcorn ball this year and I choked it down, with thoughts of Styrofoam packing materials and Elmer’s Glue.