Christmas in 1916

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A Pre-War Christmas

Even though more than three-quarters of a century have passed, one Christmas has stayed in my memory bank all these years.

It was Christmas in 1916 and Woodrow Wilson had just been reelected president by promising America would “never send her boys to fight on foreign soil.” However, the sinking of the Lusitania with 114 Americans among the 1,184 lives lost was changing public opinion, and anti-German sentiment was building fast. Although the war was not yet declared, volunteers were flocking to recruiting offices, so there were lots of army and navy uniforms to be seen on the streets. Several of the older students at Spring Hill had enlisted, and I remember thinking how smart the Griggs boys looked in their Navy garb, and marveling at how they managed to keep those flat-top hats on in a stiff wind. The 13-button fly fronts were the topic of many a bull session around the pool hall stove that winter.

That Christmas in 1916, Dad and MaMa had done the chores early and loaded me, Lewis, and my baby sister Margaret, into one of the new Columbia wagons that had been filled with straw, along with lots of blankets and a big bag of salt MaMa had heated in the stove to keep us all warm.

The leather harness creaked and squeaked as the horses pulled the wagon. Their hooves made little plopping sounds in the snow and the trace chains kept time to the jingle of the snow bells Dad had tied on the lugs.

The frozen mud made a rough road, especially where the springs still flowed along Red Hill, and the saturated clay had frozen into a million shapes.

A huge snow owl sat on a telephone pole and watched us as we went by, his head seeming to swivel and the eyes unblinking. The balls of fur at the foot of the pole told of the owl’s latest meal, an unlucky field mouse. The many characteristic and unmistakable tracks of the cottontail rabbit assured us that the hunting season could still be productive.

The strip of deep, unfrozen sand by the three bridges was a relief, but Dad had to stop and rest the horses twice, because the drag was quite heavy for them. As the wagon rumbled over the bridges, we begged Dad to tell us the story of the Three Billy Goats Gruff, and he did.

At the north edge of town, the gas company had almost completed building a big gas storage tank. Uncle Charlie had Aunt Ester, MaMa’s hired woman, almost in tears by claiming it was really a big German submarine that would float down Muddy Creek and blow up the big bridge. Just across the street was a big, black circle, still smoking from the traditional Christmas Eve bonfire.

As we passed the Westall store, we could see Mr. Sutton cleaning up the pile of horse apples along the hitch racks. Some jobs still had to be done, even on a holiday. Seeing Mr. Sutton’s wagon was almost full, Dad said that yesterday must have been a busy day in town for sure.

At Grandpa’s house, Dad pulled up alongside the big cement stepping stone and held Margaret while Uncle Bruce helped MaMa out. Then he and Uncle Charlie carried in the pails of milk and a crock of butter, along with a split hickory basket of eggs that the folks always took when they went in town to visit. Grandpa preferred the brown eggs that MaMa’s Barred Rock hens laid. I guess the old saying was true: You can take the boy out of the country, but you can’t take the country out of the boy.

Grandpa grabbed me and Lewis up and gave us both a good whiskering. Grandpa had never shaved a day in his life, and his whiskers tickled when he hugged us. He tweaked Margaret’s nose and claimed she was his “thousand-dollar girl.”

My Uncle Clark, who had just completed his studies at Rush Medical and enlisted in the Army, was proudly wearing his uniform with the silver bars on the shoulder. He was on his way to Camp Grant, and later he let my cousin and me try on his gas mask.

The country was still at peace, and farm products were at “Parity,” a term that would plague government economists for decades. It meant that the farmers’ buying power was equal to that of their city cousins. Oil was $1.30 a barrel and the newly discovered wells were flowing big time. Life was good, and we were having Christmas dinner with Grandpa.

Traditionally, roast goose was the piece-de-resistance at Grandmother’s. And, as always, it was served with but one leg. That was so Grandpa could tell his favorite story. “It seems that a certain young boy could not resist the allure of a roast goose cooling on the window sill and did away with one drum stick. When his father inquired as to it’s whereabouts, the lad claimed that all the geese in the yard had only one leg. When his father went out to see for himself, sure enough, all the geese were standing on one leg.” Whenever I see a goose, I remember Grandpa and am delighted all over again to see the fowl standing on just one leg, with the other tucked up under its body.

Grandmother usually had help from a neighbor woman and her three daughters to set the table, using fine cut glass and china so thin the light shone through it. Silver napkin rings and silverware, in a grape pattern, were alongside each place setting. The warm dinner plates were stacked at Grandpa’s place, for it had long been tradition for him to carve and serve the meat. The Blue Point oysters had been shipped in from Baltimore by express, and were served on the half shell as well as scalloped and in the oyster dressing. Grandma made a huge tureen of mock turtle soup, but none of us young’ns were allowed to taste it because it was made with wine.

It was a fine meal that was topped off with mincemeat pie. That pie was more than just pie; it was a masterpiece of creation. The deep, thick yet tender crust held the most delightful concoction of citrons, raisins, orange peel, currents, apple cider and spices, all mixed together with culinary expertise. The aroma alone was enough to cause any man to consider proposing to the cook.

After the meal, Grandpa got out great-grandmother’s old family Bible and read the Christmas story as is told in the book of Matthew.

As it happened, this was to be one of the very last of the full family gatherings. Soon the war came and with it restrictions and rationing. The family scattered, dear Grandmother passed away, and the kids grew up. Happy memories linger on, however, even three-quarters of a century later. And now, as Tiny Tim would say, Merry Christmas to all! FC

The late Perry Piper was a newspaper columnist in Indiana and Illinois for more than 12 years. His columns, reprinted here from his memoirs, appear in Farm Collector with the permission of his family.

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