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The first Christmas tree and do you remember ... Christmas?

MARY JO Cunningham

POSTED December 23, 2011 10:22 a.m.
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Editor’s note: This story by Mary Jo Cunningham of Ellinwood is the second part of a two-part series.



St. Nicholas

Saint Nicholas was a person much in evidence in German areas. West of here, a red headed stern grandmother played the part of Belsnickel, the fur covered Nicholas, and would come to the door rattling it with a lot of noise, chains, switches and knocking. The children would hide under the table but she would come right after them. It was a scary time for the youngsters.

In north Ellinwood, now known as Sts. Peter and Paul area, St. Nicholas would come with a loud rapping on the door. Quickly the children were told to get down on their knees and pray. There might be candies thrown in the door or switches handed out to the ornery ones.

One Saint Nicholas Day, in the 1950s or so, the Police Chief Les Lloyd dressed up as the good old saint and with the assistance of a side kick Zwart Pete or Black Peter portrayed by Florence Robl, who worked for Kimples as many will remember, paid visits throughout the town at schools and homes.

While they ran, Florence had to repeatedly hitch up the much-too-large britches so she would not trip. (She had borrowed them from her brother). They ran in the front door of the rectory and then out the back, and over to school where the children dived for the candy while ducking the switches. One resident was cleaning his home’s floor furnace when they surprised him. He did quite a dance trying to keep St. Nick and Pete from falling into the open pit. On they ran, throwing candy and twitching their switches before anyone could identify them. An interesting side note is that one of the young lads in a home they visited half century ago, portrays St. Nick and Zwart Piet with a friend for others. The tradition lives on.

Christmas Eve

Christmas Eve was the big celebration in the German homes around here. Some went to midnight Mass. Others went to church earlier in the evening. There, they would receive fruit, nuts and candies, walnuts, Brazil nuts, pecans, peanuts. For some, it was their only gift at Christmas. Most treasured was the orange which they maybe only received at Christmas. Some were given a Delicious apple. Of course, there were other apples; Jonathans, Northern spy and Missouri pippins but the sweet Delicious apple only came at Christmas. In fact, as late as World War II, the GI’s gave the kids of Europe oranges and that might be the only fruit they had ever had.

Mom was usually a bit late getting out of the house on Christmas Eve. Some children had to take naps at about 4 or 5 p.m. in the afternoon. After they got up from their nap or returned home from church, many found Santa and sometimes the Christmas tree itself had arrived, when they were not watching. Most might find at least one present at home under the tree. One lady said it would most likely be a nickel or dime or something homemade. One lady received a corncob doll from her brother who had given one to each of his sisters. In Olmitz, the children had to attend school on Christmas Day.

One grandfather would give his grandchildren the sought after orange, It would be the only gift he could afford. Another grandpa made the children items from wood. Into the 20th century, some families had oyster stew for Christmas Eve supper then opened packages , attended midnight mass and afterwards had a breakfast meal. One girl remembers the time she spied Santa disappearing after leaving her a pony. During a later year, he brought her a large St. Bernard dog. Others received homemade gloves or socks on Christmas Eve but no toys. After midnight Mass one particular family got to eat peanuts and throw the hulls on the wooden floors. It oiled the floors a bit and was easy to clean up.

The Tannenbaum

The Tannenbaum or Christmas tree came in various sizes and looks. Almost all of the trees were live in the days gone by. They were not huge and were put up, at the earliest, just a couple days before Christmas Eve, but, most generally they were erected on Christmas Eve as was the German custom. If you had one from the pasture or field and it was not quite perfect, it has been known holes were drilled into the trunk and branches inserted into the bare spots.

Some were decorated with strung popcorn, and some also had cranberries. Children remember sitting at the table and making paper chains to adorn the tree. If you were very fortunate, you had glass ornaments. One of the popular ones was a ball with a three or four inch extension on the bottom with perhaps a bit of Victorian scrap art stuck there. When these were new, they had spun metal threads from top to bottom to give the idea of a hot-air balloon.

Little clips were put on the tips of the tree branches. They were used for the candles that lit the tree. It was the days before electricity. The candles may only be lit for a very few minutes at a time, some times only on Christmas Eve. At the Evangelical church, two men would carefully watch the tree ever ready to extinguish any candle which might cause a fire. One young girl was upstairs in their home’s playroom where the tree was that year, and got too close to it. Her apron caught fire. Luckily, she was not hurt.

Many ornaments were from Germany after the 1920s and 30s. They were in shapes of popular fruits, horns that could be tooted, Santa, children or animals. Many were blown glass but others were also carved or made from chips of wood and painted. These often were little elves, angels or deer. Some of the ornaments had a bit of tinsel in the blown glass transparent balls. One red glass ball had seven circles of seven pearls to represent the seven sons that mother lost in World War II. During that war, the silvering for the inside of balls was scarce, so many from Russia were silvered only on one side of the interior and called icies. Many, many Christmas ornaments were hand made for only pennies in Germany and sold in the U.S. for maybe 10 cents by the early 1950s.

Some kept the candles on their trees long after electricity. Often, they did not light them but, admired their beauty. By then the electric lights were also on the trees. They were pointed with little ridges from bottom to top. The special ones were figurals in the shape of parrots, Santa Claus, dogs or yellow birds. Although they no longer fit the electrical fixtures, some families still treasure those today.

With the snow maybe 2 ½ to 3 foot deep, the folks in the northern country told of their Christmases of long ago. As a young lad, one resident now of Ellinwood was given a pair of strong little sled dog puppies for Christmas by his uncle. Little did he realize it would be followed the next year by a gift of a toboggan from his father. By then, the dogs were grown and were strong and tall. He and his brother took the neighborhood children on sled rides on the brand new toboggan behind his dogs.

By the middle of the century you got one, maybe two, presents under the tree. You made sure your wish list contained, at the most, three items but most generally, the one thing you really wanted the most – like a transistor radio. You went outside on Christmas day to play with your new item as did all the children in the family or in the town neighborhoods. If one got a sled, everyone used it. You built snow forts, had snowball fights, made angels. You most generally got soaking wet from the snow, but you didn’t get sick. Everyone spent a lot of time outside playing.

One little girl sat in a grocery box to be pulled around on her new sled, for she was too small for such a large gift. And one boy received an American Flyer model train when he was ten. It was such a favorite toy it is still spoken of and missed tremendously. It is still running around a Christmas tree this year but now at his son’s home in the city. Did you ever receive a ball and jacks, or a magic slate? The bags of apples, oranges, peanuts continued at church and do you remember ribbon candy – a very special treat? This was the time when you might receive a quarter to spend in Gaylor’s dime store.

During Christmas, one grandpa would sing to his family in German "Stille Nacht" and "Ihr Kinderlein Kommet," or "Come Little Children." The family would, of course, celebrate Christmas with the tree and presents on Christmas Eve as was the German custom. In later years, most German families still had the large celebrations on Christmas Eve. Children did not receive many presents for their birthday, maybe only one, but on Christmas Eve the tree was filled with items for everyone. On Christmas day, the time was reserved for going to the Christmas dinner at grandma’s house.

Many families gathered to listen to the Christmas carols as they were played on the radio. Do you remember bubble lights on the trees? What a phenomenon. This was a time when everyone did things together. The kids all had some kind of animal and jobs shoveling snow during the winter. It was no small task as the snows were heavy and drifted with the winds.

During the years, traditions began and grew in Ellinwood. Not only were the homes but also the streets of town decorated for the season. In the 1930s, Mac strung lights all along Main Street only to have them torn down by a large truck. For many year,s there was a large tree in the middle of the Main and First Street intersection. That is until one business man hooked onto the string of lights and tore them from the tree as he drove by. He is long gone and the only remains of the tree is the hole in which it was placed in the intersection. An area dairyman made a window display in one of his sheds. Rotating circles powered by a wash machine motor had figures on them. A steady stream of cars with visitors came to gaze at the unusual sight.

Santa coming on the fire truck and providing Christmas candy for the community children has taken place for over 65 years. Does anyone remember when it started? Christmas lighting contests were always popular. And, as always, people did not agree with some of the judges decisions. For example, one time home made reindeer fashioned from logs lost to a house strung with many lights. Folks must have hated Rudolph with the red blinking nose making the click, click sounds on their radios those December evenings.

Christmas Day

Christmas day dawned with another day of celebration: a day of feasting and togetherness. There were seven daughters in one family. They and all their families would come to Grandpa James’s house for Christmas dinner. Grandpa would put up the sawhorses and boards to make a long table in the basement so all could dine together. That was the main thing being together as a family. There were many small children about. Tables groaned with all the essentials of a bountiful family Christmas dinner.

Unique Local Program

During the middle of the last century, Ellinwood had a notable Christmas program, although it was not necessarily limited to the Christmas season. One man took on the responsibility to bring joy and help to residents of the community. Those who were in need of such as food, or children in need of coats or shoes would find him at their door with the needed items or to take them to pick out something from the dry goods store. One of the wealthier men of the area told this police chief "Now any time money isn’t available for what you know is needed, contact me and it will be provided." No one ever knew the name of that generous man.

No one was ever told who had to be provided with food or articles. There was no sign up, no qualifications, no limit. And another special aspect of this program came from anyone in the community being able to give or furnish a Christmas surprise for someone else in the community: perhaps someone who did a kind act or was a willing volunteer or even just because they had been a friend when they were needed.

He delivered the gift with no explanation or name attached but, as something to bring an unexpected Christmas caring and joy to an area citizen. On one Christmas he received in return for a special errand, an unusual, delicious cake made from an old treasured European recipe. The story of this special treat has been handed down in the family for almost 50 years.

New Year and Epiphany

On New Years just west of Barton County, the children would greet people and if they said "Happy New Year" in English they would receive a nickel If they said "Gluckliches Neues Jahr" in German they received a whole quarter.

After Epiphany or Jan. 6, the height of the German celebration was concluded. The Christmas trees which usually remained up until then came down, and the precious treasured ornaments and the new memories were packed away for another season.

Froliche Weihnachten, Gluckliches Neues Jahr, Merry Christmas Happy New Year to you all.


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