What says Christmas at your house? The tree? The lights? Perhaps the aroma of cookies and the arrival of Egg Nog? All the above? Christmas traditions change with the decades and while some traditions are by dictate, others just happen. From my childhood to early twenties, Christmas always included a trip to my Grandparents farm in Chillicothe. By tradition this family gathering was always celebrated the weekend after Christmas.
Chillicothe sits on a plain along the north and east sides of the Grand River. The wind from the northwest is sharp and there are no ridges or tree lines to buffet its wrath. When all 11 grand kids were there we were cheek to jowl in that little two-story three-bedroom farmhouse. I know that we were constantly underfoot, somehow my grandmother managed to turn out breakfast; lunch and dinner in complete chaos, while making it look so simple.
Sleeping arrangements were first come first serve. While the two guest rooms each had a double bed, the bed in the south bedroom was more comfortable than the north, so our parents were motivated to get there first. With my father’s Saturday morning work schedule, we were usually the late arrivals on Saturday afternoon.
If there was snow on the ground, Grandpa could be persuaded to expend great effort to start his Farmall 300 to tow a gaggle of grandchildren on a gang of sleds down the county road. If the weather were milder in the 40’s, we would take off exploring haylofts, cattle barns and wood lots. There were certain rules, stay away from the ponds, don’t climb on brush piles and leave the gates as you found them. But there was always something to discover, be it newborn kittens, piglets or calves. I for one took great pleasure in helping my grandfather feed livestock, although, upon reflection, it probably took twice as long to complete the chores, with my help.
Our fathers and some older family friends would disappear into the barren cornfields in pursuit of quail. My uncle Lawrence was the better shot, and usually took his limit. My dad was more of a social hunter, and while he didn’t take many birds, he didn’t spend nearly as much time dressing them either.
Saturday evening was usually soup and sandwich night, for the big meal was Sunday afternoon. After dinner, we kids would disappear upstairs to play any number of old board games or just carry on as kids have always done. Eventually baths would be given and kids would be parceled off to bed. The adults would stay up late into the night playing Pitch or Dominos, telling stories, and recalling old times.
My grandparents were staunch churchgoers. My grandfather rarely missed Sunday morning services and my grandmother usually attended again on Sunday and Wednesday evenings. But despite this strong constitution, there was a 50:50 chance that we would not make it to Church on Sunday morning, as we were too busy being a family on Saturday night.
On Sunday, the local members of the family would arrive for dinner at 1:00. We kids knew that dinner could not be rushed even though it had to be completed before presents would be distributed. The presents stood in a pile under the Cedar tree in the corner of the living room. Grandpa always stood the tree in a five-gallon bucket with creek gravel. The removal of the lower branches to clear the sides of the bucket provided ample room for the accumulation of gifts. After lunch, my aunt Mary Ellen would officiate from the base of the tree. Sitting cross-legged on the floor, she would pull a package, announce the recipient and hand it to one of the grand kids for delivery. I always marveled at how she always seemed like one of the kids when she sat on our level.
We unwrapped presents, played with our new treasures for a while and then ventured outside again at the behest of our parents to “go out and get some fresh air” which we knew meant “leave us alone in peace and quiet please.” This tradition ended in 1983 when my mother and aunt took over the holiday. But my grandparents continued to live in the farmhouse until 1992, when they moved into town. Grandpa passed away in 1993, and grandma in 1997. In my office is an aerial photo of the farmstead, taken in early spring before the trees had budded. It reminds me of many happy Christmas traditions.
In the thirty years since that last farm Christmas many traditions formed and dissipated. Nancy and I will go to family Christmas at Nancy’s parents where there will be twelve grandchildren, eleven of which are young ladies. They use to run and scream, but now they will sit and gab. The ladies will nag us to finish our meal so that they can open their gifts. We will abstain until they clear the dishes, for this too is a tradition. Some of us will watch a football game together, some will talk of times past. As the ladies develop relationships that blossom into marriage, we will find it necessary to share our daughters and nieces with others who also love them as family. And new traditions, that weren’t planned, will simply happen, because we share all these wonderful times together. But no matter the elements, the base metal of all these traditions is a simple six letter word, family. So with that thought, let me wish for you and your family a very Merry Christmas and Happy New Year.
John Armstrong is a Vice President with Peoples Bank & Trust Company in Elsberry.