Perry Piper recalls Christmas as a youngster in the early 1900s
The Badger Express: "Built for Strength: Body and gear painted vermillion; striped with gold: inside painted green."
Santa Claus was a real person, at least he was to me and many of the pupils in the first, second and third grades at Spring Hill School in those long-ago days before the war, the War to End All Wars, that is.
I was in the third grade, and my brother Lewis was in the first, and we were having a hard time with the big boys taunting us about our belief in Santa Claus. They kept a'telling us that there was no Santa, and that it was our dad that brought the few toys we found under the tree on Christmas morning.
Now what they didn't know was that we never had a Christmas tree at our house. We could have hung our stockings on the mantel piece because we did have a fireplace with a fine oak mantle with a plate glass mirror in its center, but ours was a coal-burning grate and there was no way, no way at all, that Santa could come down the chimley and get through that tiny damper in the flue. MaMa provided the solution to that dilemma by telling us to leave the men's room door unlocked, so we pinned our long, black stockings together and draped them over the back of one of the press-back wood dining room chairs. We liked this idea a lot, for it provided a convenient shelf for Santa to place the "heavy" stuff that would not go into the stockings (we hoped). I best explain that on Muddy Creek, the "men's room" was the main room of the house where dad had his rolltop desk and where he two-fingered out Jersey cow pedigrees at the old L.C. Smith typewriter, and where he talked cow talk with other Jersey breeders who dropped in from time to time. There was a huge spring-filled leather window seat under the west windows that made a dandy place to practice flip-flops and high jumps, a sort of pre-trampoline.
Now, back in September, the mail carrier had delivered our copy of the fall and winter Sears and Sawbuck catalog, and after MaMa had censored parts of it by smearing egg white over the women's underwear section, gluing down the pages, we spent hours checking off the things we wanted to ask Santa Claus to bring us. You see, we had to write a letter to Santa, and when it was published in The Press, we knew old Santa was sure to see what we had our hearts set on, and since we had been good boys - well, pretty good - we figgered he would not fail us.
That Sears and Sawbuck catalog showed an eye catching and unbelievable array of toys. There was Mechanco sets with hundreds of things to build of real steel girders and real wind-up motors to turn them. There was steam engines that burnt alcohol and built up real steam pressure, and when the whistle was pulled, it let out an earth-shaking screech. Bud Fearheiey had one of those, and how I envied him. I had a hard time turning past the book section, with all those Algers "Brave and Bold" and "Strive to Win" and such. Uncle Clint Caudle had lent me a couple of Algers books to read one time, and they were sure tempting, but 29 cents? MaMa wasn't sure Santa would approve of spending that much, so me and Lewie looked at scooters, them two-wheeled Go Devils that you pushed with one foot and then coasted along the sidewalk. But the problem was, we didn't have a sidewalk on the farm. We had to rule out the Irish Mail for that same lack of a sidewalk, and so we finally unanimously settled on a red wagon with yellow steel wheels.
MaMa agreed that this was a practical choice. We could help her haul in wood for the cook stove and, now that we had a baby sister who would soon be big enough to sit up, I might be able to take her for a ride while Lewie pushed and so give MaMa a breather. Lewie liked the idea, too, so we wrote a letter to Santa. Dad helped us pick out the letters on the typewriter to address it to Santa Claus in care of The Sumner Press, and gave me a two-cent stamp to stick on the front of the envelope.
When the paper came the following Thursday, me and Lewis met the mailman out by the box, and opened the Press to the letter page, and sure enough, there was ours right alongside one from Dee Griggs and one from Ira Heath.
MaMa had cautioned us that there was a lot of other boys and girls all over the world that might well be wishing for wagons, too, and there just might not be enough of them to go around. But we ignored this for we knew our letter was in early, and if them other kids wanted wagons they would have had to get in ahead of us, and there was no letter in either last week's or this week's paper that said they wanted a wagon, so we figured we had a good chance.
Now, we had been checking on Dad every time he went some where's in the buggy or in the big farm wagon to see if he was maybe "helping Santa." One time we went way over by the old Bayou bridge and when he come by, we crawled on the buckboard and rode home with him. He had been over to the Applegate store and we figgered that maybe, just maybe ... but we had sure got fooled that time for the big package we saw on the back of the buckboard turned out to be a pair of horse collar pads. Not once had we found any sign that he was pinch-hitting for Santa Claus. So we knew that if we was to get that wagon, it would be someone else than Dad that would bring it to us, come Christmas morning.
It was Christmas Eve, and MaMa had made a big kettle of oyster stew. Dad had brought home a gallon of blue point oysters that Grandpa Piper had got in from Baltimore, and MaMa had heated them in real Jersey milk that was almost as rich as today's Half and Half.
Then, when she ladled us a bowl full, she dropped in a big glob of real butter. Good? You betcha. Cholesterol? Never heard of it.
After supper, Dad got out his James Whitcomb Riley book and read us some poems like Little Orphant Annie and the one that said "Granny's come to our house to stay and ho, my lawsey daisy, all the chillen on the place is just a runnin' crazy." We sang "Silent Night" and "Little Town of Bethlehem" and Dad taught us to recite "The Night Before Christmas," and then we got out our Sunday best stockings and we pinned them together and dragged three chairs in from the dining room and set them before the fireplace, and then we hung our stockings over their backs. We even hung a pair of Dad's socks on a chair for our little baby sister, and got a saucer with some of MaMa's sour cream cookies and a glass of milk, 'cause she said Santa just might be hungry by the time he got to our house. And then MaMa said it was time to go to bed. When she tucked us in the big bed at the head of the stairs, she had us fold our hands and I said the Lord's Prayer like Grandma Piper had taught me, and then Lewie said his "Now I lay me down to sleep ..." prayer. MaMa reminded us to ask the Lord to bless all the little children everywhere and we did, and then she wished us a "Merry Christmas" as she closed the door and went back downstairs.
I can't truly say that visions of sugar plums or anything else danced in my head, but pretty soon it was daylight and it was Christmas.
I shook Lewie and we tiptoed down the stairs, past MaMa and Dad's bedroom, and into the men's room, and there, right in front of the still red-glowing fireplace was a bright red wagon with yellow wheels. Santa had found us, we knew it; Santa never lets you down. Hooray! We hurried into MaMa's room to show her that Santa had read our letter.
Now one thing is certain: Santa had to have brought that wagon because we had checked out Dad ever time he had come home for the whole month and there was just no other way that wagon could have got all the way from Sears and Sawbuck unless Santa had brought it. Just you wait till I show those doubters at school; just you wait. FC
Perry E. Piper's recollections of his childhood on Muddy Creek – "which lies astraddle of the Indian Boundary Line that old Chief Tecumseh and William Henry Harrison laid out back in 1803" – have appeared in newspapers in Illinois and Indiana for the past 12 years.