’Twas the week before Christmas, and there was at least one young boy in Hayward, Wisconsin, who was worried sick. The ground was bare, which meant that Santa Claus and I had serious problems. As I recall, mine seemed more important than Santa’s: How could he leave me any presents if he couldn’t land anywhere in town?
I don’t remember how old I was, but I was old enough to know that Santa needed snow to land his sleigh at our house. I had been pulling my sled since I was three or four years old, and if there was one thing I had learned, a sled doesn’t slide very well over bare ground even with just one sister on it.
When I asked my mother what Santa Claus was going to do, she told me to ask my father, since he was a mechanic who knew about such things. When he got home from the garage, I was waiting in the driveway. My recollection is that our conversation went something like this.
“Dad, what is Santa Claus going to do? There’s no snow,” I explained.
“Well, Chuck, what did Ma say?” he responded.
“She told me to ask you,” I answered. “She said you would know the answer.”
He thought for a moment and then explained that Santa delivered presents to boys and girls all over the world, even where there was never any snow. “He has a set of wheels bolted under the sleigh. Do you remember the wheels on the airplane we saw last summer with wheels and pontoons?” he asked.
“The pilot said it was so they could land on lakes and airports,” I told him.
“Santa Claus’s sleigh is fixed up the same way, except with skis,” he explained.
“But why don’t the pictures of Santa show the wheels?”
“Well, they retract under the sleigh, so you can’t see them unless they’re down. Don’t worry, Santa will make it. Let’s go in and see if Ma has supper ready, okay?”
So I never got to ask my next question, which was, “Are there pictures of Santa’s sleigh with wheels landing in the desert?” I sometimes wonder how Dad would have answered that one, but Santa’s arrival a few days later pushed the question out of my mind. Dad was right, and there were presents for me under the tree that he also brought, probably in a trailer behind the sleigh.
I don’t remember anything else about that snowless Christmas, but I have some indelible memories of later ones. Not all were pleasant at the time. For instance, when my little sister Betty was four or five, she woke up early Christmas morning and opened every present under the tree. We didn’t know how they did it, but Mom and Dad figured out who was supposed to get the various things Santa had left. It took considerably longer to determine which aunt or uncle had given what to whom.
And there was the Christmas a few years later when we three older kids got up early and ate nuts that Santa had left. As the oldest I got the job of cracking the walnuts, pecans and almonds for my sisters. Santa had forgotten to put out a bowl for the shells, so we just tossed them on the floor. When my father came out of the bedroom on his way to the bathroom in his long underwear, he had to walk past the Christmas tree.
My sisters tell me they remember Dad being mad, and they are probably right. My memory, however, is of my father looking like a white grasshopper jumping up and down while grunting things like “Ooh, ow, what the, uh.” He reminded me of a young frontiersman I had read about who was forced to walk over hot coals, except that the hero was so brave that his captors adopted him for not crying out as he stepped through the fire.
At least in our family, Christmas was a child-centered holiday. My siblings and I share a lot of wonderful memories of those special days in late December. Two that I remember are the gift bags we got at church and school. Every child got a brown paper bag filled with an apple, an orange, some wonderful hard ribbon candy and some nuts.
The bag from church was first given to us the Sunday before Christmas after the service. The minister would explain the meaning of the gift and a lady would hand each of us our bag. When we went to Blair School we got the bags after our Christmas program which was held the evening of the day before Christmas vacation began. Every family showed up with all the kids, and it was a really fun time.
Families were greeted by the teacher who had guided us in decorating the school tree with strings of popcorn and cranberries, paper chains and snowflakes cut in almost as many patterns as real snowflakes. Mr. Ploof, the school janitor, had cut and placed a spruce tree in the front of the classroom and strung the lights. This was the first time we got to see our work after dark with the room lit only by the tree. Like my schoolmates, I showed my mother and father my contributions. We had practiced singing carols and every year one of the older students recited “A Visit from Saint Nicholas” to enthusiastic applause.
The program always ended with everyone joining in a few familiar holiday songs like “Over the River and Through the Woods,” “Deck the Halls with Boughs of Holly” and “Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer.” There was cocoa and coffee and cookies and fudge and everyone had a good time before we headed home.
We kids remember different things about Christmas at home. My sister Barb and I remember making popcorn strings for the tree, and she recalls making popcorn balls for Christmas that may have stuck to my hands but not in my memory.
Our younger sister Patsy remembers traditional gifts that she looked forward to—a big box of red delicious apples from Grandma Hopp and Uncle Bill and a card for each of us with money in it from Aunt Stub. Another tradition was a case of pop. We were treated to a case of pop only three or four times a year. Dad would drive us to Charlie Jerome’s feed mill and store next to the railroad tracks where we got to fill the twenty-four slots in the wooden crate with our favorite flavors.
Patsy also remembers a special Christmas when she was about seven years old. She had asked Santa for a holster set of pearl-handled pistols like ones in the westerns. Alas, no guns for the girl on Christmas morning! But Mom and Dad suggested that Santa might have left them at John and Rose’s, our neighbors down the road. Sure enough, Santa had not forgotten the little gunslinger. Patsy thinks there might have been some things for her younger brother and sister, but those guns blotted out every other memory.
And there were the special handmade gifts. Socks and mittens and hats knitted by Mom, big stuffed teddy bears made by Grandma and Grandpa Hopp one year, and a toy chest made for Patsy and the younger kids by Uncle Ruel. Patsy had found the chest in the Christmas catalog, but Mom and Dad couldn’t afford it, so Mom asked her older brother if he could make one that looked like it. He could and did, and it is still in use by great-grandkids.
Finally, we all have memories of special foods for Christmas. Barbara shared this one.
“Another memory is Mom making applesauce cookies. I don’t know if she made them for Christmas, but she made them often, and I suspect she did them in December, too. We kids loved this ‘cake cookie,’ and so I think that’s why she made them so frequently….she had lots of canned apple sauce on hand, so the cookies were easy to put together at little expense. Patsy can’t remember seeing a recipe for Applesauce Cookies, but Mom may have had one or did the recipe from memory.”
I could not find her recipe, so I went to The Mennonite Community Cookbook, which has lots of traditional recipes. My sisters and I agree that this recipe is very close to the one Mom used for her applesauce cookies. Simple, easy and inexpensive, especially if you have homemade applesauce from your own tree. Canned from the store works just fine if you don’t.
1/2 cup shortening
1 cup sugar
1 large egg
1 cup unsweetened applesauce
2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 tsp. salt
1 tsp. baking soda
1/2 tsp. baking powder
1 tsp. cinnamon
1/2 tsp. cloves
3/4 cup raisins
1/2 cup chopped nuts (optional)
Preheat the oven to 375º and grease two baking sheets. Cream the shortening and sugar. Stir in the egg and applesauce. Sift the flour, salt, soda, baking powder and spices into the sugar and applesauce mixture by thirds, stirring until everything is well mixed. Fold in the raisins and the nuts, if you include them.
Drop by heaping spoonfuls two to three inches apart on the greased baking sheets and bake at 375º ten to twelve minutes. Done right, the cookies will be browned on the edges but still a little soft in the center. They will stay soft but not gummy after they have cooled.
This recipe makes about four dozen cookies.
NOTES: Both Barb and Patsy think that Mom added nuts when she had some available, but that most of the time, she just used raisins. Barb had a good suggestion: Use half of the dough to bake the first batch in the oven, then add nuts for the second batch if you wish.
If you don’t have unsweetened applesauce, scoop a tablespoon of sugar out of the cup before you cream it with the shortening.