County oldtimers recall simpler Christmases

Dec. 20, 2012 @ 06:52 PM

First in a series

Years ago, people celebrated Christmas differently. It was a religious holiday that was hand-crafted instead of bought. Everything from the food to the decorations to children's toys were made, not imported and sold in bulk.

One thing we take for granted now is a perfectly shaped, full Christmas tree decorated with fancy lights and ornaments that talk and move. But when your grandparents were children, Christmas trees came from the back yard, behind the barn, out in the pasture or from their grandparents' farm.

Sarah Clontz grew up one of 12 children. She is 88 years old, but when she was little, the perfect tree was not to be found in a Christmas tree lot.

"We would go to the woods and cut down cedar trees," Sarah said. "We had 65 acres and we'd cut one down and if we found one we liked better, we would just drop it and get us another one, take it home and decorate that."

Instead of the fiddly tree stands, Sarah said her father would leave the tree stem long, fill a bucket with wet sand and stick the tree in. The wet sand kept the tree standing straight and prevent it from drying out, she said.

"You know, cedar still smells better when you have it in the house and it gets warm. Better than the hemlock tree," Sarah said. "We never had a bought tree until after I was married. That was in 1946."

Herbert Cooper grew up in Indiana. When he was a boy, no one sold artificial trees. It was the real thing or nothing.

"We'd go out in the woods someplace and cut one down," he said. "But we'd hardly ever bought one."

No Christmas tree is complete without decorations. Only the wealthy could afford the blown-glass ornaments and sparkle garlands sold everywhere these days. In the good old days, decorations were made by hand.

"We had homemade decorations. We strung popcorn and put that on the trees," Sarah said. "When we were children, we cut circles out during Sunday School and chained them together.

"Another thing we did that you don't hear too much about is to beat soap suds up and beat it until it started to peak," she said. "Then we'd put it on the tree and let it dry. It looked like snow."

Fake snow in the form of soap suds or flocking mimicked the appearance of a snow-laden branch, but it also hid gaps, bald patches and gnarly tree limbs.

Christmas lights of the time were a step above the lit wax candles affixed to trees in the old European tradition. Though they made the transition to electric power, the lights kept the old world appearance for a time.

"We used to get the lights at the dime store that was shaped like a candle in a candle holder," Mary Teal said. "When they got hot, after they'd burned a while, something inside the bulb would bubble."