A Holiday Reminiscence

My Mother’s personal Christmas frenzy began on Christmas Eve, after a house filled with a husband and six children calmed into relative tranquility. She settled herself at the kitchen table with her cigarettes and bottle of Pepsi-Cola and wrapped presents. I suspect she was secretly pleased when the children were grown, or at had at least attained a certain level of maturity, so she could wrap presents with pristine paper, not the wrinkled, leftover scraps. (And so she could decorate the tree to her taste.)

In addition to raising children – I was one of them – Yvonne “Mike” Rothert was a journalist. She became food editor at the Portland Oregonian and was a driving force in the transition from “Women’s” news to serious food writing. She later was assistant editor of the Northwest Sunday supplement, when the newspaper still published a Sunday feature magazine.

One of her published works was a reminiscence of Christmas growing up in depression-era Iowa.

Writer Remembers Rich Memories of Christmas During Depression Days

Yvonne Rothert

Can the plethora of modern toys offered to the gadget-minded children of today possibly be treasured with the love that was lavished long ago on the cloth-bodied “mama” doll dressed by a weary mother, or give as many hours of pleasure as the “jigsaw” puzzles homemade from calendar pictures glued to cardboard and cut with painstaking care by a hard-pressed father?

Christmas in a small Midwestern city in hungry depression days is remembered with tender nostalgia and a late-developing gratitude to parents who were somehow able to create a wealth of family tradition, riches beyond counting, from the least of material things.

It was a time of delightful anticipation, of making crooked potholders from long knobby strings of “spool-knitting” or nearly impregnable pin-cushions tightly stuffed with cotton batting.

There was the glorious trip to the ten-cent store with a carefully hoarded fund of pennies and nickels, to augment a child’s homemade gifts with truly remarkable treasures.

Toys, sparkling jewels, perfumes as exotic to a child’s untutored senses as the finest from Paris; more household gadgets than mother could ever figure out how to use; glassware and figurines that rivaled the loveliest in the jewelry store down the street – a veritable treasure house of beauty almost too much for one small shopper to encompass. Miraculously, a penny or two always remained to drop in the red kettle on the corner to the tune of the reminding bell. “Christmas dinner for the needy,” the sign said. Though age brought disillusionment, for a few years at least those last pennies put turkey on the table for the red-eyed, blue-nosed Santas who stamped their freezing feet at every street corner, faded costumes sagging on gaunt frames as their hand-bells tolled the constant plea.

What magic to join the crowds of Christmas shoppers hurrying homeward in the late afternoon, the street lights already glowing against the early winter darkness, each with a halo of its own light reflected on the snowflakes in the surrounding air.

Away from the busy stores, the snow-muted street and sidewalks were eerie white canyons between the head-high walls of shoveled snow.

Home to the warmth and sweet aromas of Mother’s traditional Scandinavian Christmas goodies, the julkaka, the fattigmand bakkelse and the spritz, to plead for “just one” before they were stored away, like the jewels that they were, until Christmas Eve.

Then the night of nights, when Mother was sure to recite:

“Hang up the baby’s stocking;

Be sure you don’t forget,

For the dear little dimpled darling

Has never seen Christmas yet”

And Father would read “Twas the night before Christmas,” with the children hanging on every familiar word and joining in the most-loved parts.

Stockings were hung as recommended, by the chimney with care, not specially decorated Christmas whimsies, but freshly laundered everyday ones, those tan ribbed affairs that were pulled up each morning over the lumps and bumps of hated long underwear.

“Visions of sugarplums” really danced for small dreamers snuggled under heaps of hand-tied comforters, while Jack Frost touched up his own crystalline window decorations.

The first sound to break the stillness of Christmas morning was metallic clanking through all the warm air pipes as Father “shook down” the furnace, carefully banked the night before. Somehow he always managed to be up before the earliest stocking-seeker, to shovel in some coal and let the house begin to creak through its morning battle against the deep cold of the night.

The established rite was for everyone to pile on Mother and Father’s bed to explore the stockings’ contents, exclaiming over what Santa left in an unspoken agreement not to disillusion still-believing parents.

Lumps and bumps filled the stockings again, more grotesque and infinitely more exciting than their everyday variety. The first big bulge was the apple, the long thin space in the center the banana, and the rounded heel held the orange. In the toe, always, was a handful of shiny, never-used-before pennies. In between were the hard candies that always stuck together, peppermints and fruits mingling in a special Christmas flavor, and assorted tiny treasures. Santa must have shopped the ten-cent store, too.

Then began the interminable wait as relatives gathered for the tree itself. Santa confined himself to stuffing stockings; all other gifts were under the tree, to be peeked at but not poked until everyone was present.

Breakfast oatmeal, choked down on other winter mornings, was impossible on Christmas, a fact which Mother never seemed to grasp fully as she tried to make it festive with raisins and brown sugar.

Uncle Max and Aunt Margaret were the first to arrive, merry and round, Mr. and Mrs. Claus in mufti. Childless themselves, they spent their love on us and any other available children. In traditional red, Uncle Max was yearly the jolliest of Santas for the American Legion’s children’s party.

Grandma and Grandpa were always a little late, because they stopped to pick up Great-Aunt Cora. Each year she had a new sauce to try for the plum pudding, one that could only be made on Christmas morning. As we waited we could imagine her presiding over the saucepot, stately and imperious. She dominated the family with a steely will which could be penetrated only by children, who found the chinks in the armor without trying.

For some years Great-Grandfather Hicks was there, he of the white goatee and New England ancestors. After the confusion of the great gift-opening, he would grudgingly join in the parlor games which were part of every family celebration. “Ridiculous,” he would mutter as a child approached with the old “Button, button, who’s got the button.” When it came to “Animal, Vegetable or Mineral,” though, he sat on the edge of his chair and outdid us all.

Who will be remembered by the next generation? Will our Christmas today be recalled with the same warm feelings? The answer lies in our hearts.

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