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Recorded December 2022
December 25, 2022:
At the museum, we consider things over 50 years old to be worthy of adding to the collection. So, since I’m well over 50, I thought I might share some of my own Christmas memories this year.
At the time my sister Tallie and I were born, our parents lived in a little house in the same yard as our Flaten grandparents, just north of the Wildlife Refuge at Pinecreek. By the time our youngest sister, Jean, came along, our parents were living on the Iron Range while Dad worked there. They did come back to town for Jean to be born at the Roseau Hospital, but we all went back to the Range and were living in a tiny trailer house in Aurora for Jean’s first Christmas.
I don’t remember my first Christmases in Pinecreek, but photos show me as a baby in a high chair by the Christmas tree with grandparents Gilbert and Ida Flaten and aunts and uncles in our grandparents’ little house. My older cousin Bert Corneliusen is also in the picture, and in one of them he’s handing me my teddy bear that I got for my first Christmas. That teddy bear was originally pink, but through many washings his fur turned more of a brown color and his eyes got rusted. I remember seeing him hanging on the clothesline by his ears. He was a well-loved bear and I still have him.
My cousin Bert was just about 2 years older than me, and we were the only two grandchildren at the time. Eventually there were 19 of us born over a span of over 20 years. While our family was still small, we usually gathered at our Flaten grandparents’ house, and on another day at my Grandma Nelson’s house in Thief River Falls.
Eventually, both sides of the family became too big to comfortably gather in the small houses of the day, and each family had its own celebration. Ours involved a big Christmas Eve supper and then opening presents after dishes were done. Supper was always pork ribs and lutefisk, usually scalloped potatoes, sweet soup, lefse and flatbread, and some vegetable dish. That was the one night we were allowed a tiny glass of Mogen David wine with our supper, even when we were pretty young. We felt quite grown up sipping our wine.
Leading up to Christmas, the Christmas catalogs from Penney’s, Sears, and Montgomery Wards had come long before the holiday, and we spent hours making lists of what we wanted from our parents. Gifts weren’t elaborate but were always appreciated. When we were high school age, we might get a book, a sweater or skirt or pants, maybe some nylons before pantyhose were common. The lists were long and edited many times. When we were little, our parents picked out toys and sometimes made things for us. One of my favorite items that I still have was a small bare wood box that my dad made, one for each of us three girls. Mom’s handwriting still shows on my box’s lid, where she wrote my name. Mine became a dollhouse with little furnishings made of scrap wood and Play-Doh. I drew on the inside and outside to make it look like a room inside. I added little things over time. Once when we made pancakes, there were some little splashes of batter that got fried up on the griddle alongside of the full-sized pancakes. I confiscated those tiny drip pancakes for my dollhouse. That wasn’t too smart. Eventually they got a little bit buggy and had to be thrown out. On the lid of my box is a line drawing I made of the trailer house we lived in when we moved back to Pinecreek from the Iron Range just before I started First Grade at Ross. I also still have a little rosebud flannel robe my mom made, one for each of us girls.
Often while we were eating supper on Christmas Eve, Mom or Dad would say, “Did you hear that sound outside?” We would run to the door and, sure enough, we’d find a present for each of us on the steps! By the powers of persuasion, we always thought we heard something out there. When we were very small, our parents would hang up a wool sock for Santa to fill. I barely remember that, but I do remember finding an orange in my sock one year. We discontinued hanging up socks as we got older.
Money was pretty tight in our early years. Dad was building up his own farm from muskeg land that hadn’t been lived on before us. It took a lot of work and creativity to make ends meet. Mom had rheumatoid arthritis and never worked outside the home after she started having babies. She had been a Practical Nurse at the Budd Hospital before she married Dad. After us girls were old enough to be of some help to Mom, Dad started working in International Falls as an iron worker. He would leave on Monday morning and come home on Friday evening. He stayed in a hotel there. Because we always raised chickens, he would load up a case of eggs to take to the hotel’s restaurant to help pay his room and board bill. Having that job helped financially and Christmas presents got a little more elaborate during those years, but never more appreciated than those little homemade items. I still think that’s the best kind of gift to get.
Each of us girls would be given about a dollar that we could take to Roseau before Christmas and buy each of our family members a gift. Mom often got a candle of some kind. They never got used, just saved, and I remember one year when they were all in a cabinet in the utility room where our furnace was, the room got a bit too hot and they all slumped into wilted piles of wax. Tallie remembers giving Mom some plastic carnations one year and feeling like that was a very special gift. Of course, Mom always made sure we felt very good about our gifts. Tallie also remembers giving me and Jean erasers one year. Dad would probably be given a little pack of screws or something for his shop. You had to be pretty creative to buy gifts for 4 people with a dollar, but it was a fun challenge.
There were a lot of kids around Pinecreek, and our Sunday School would spend weeks practicing for a Christmas program. Everyone would have a part to memorize, and plenty of songs to sing. A big real Christmas tree would be brought into the church by the men of the congregation and decorated by the ladies. We also had programs at Ross School, performed at the old PTA Hall. Always, there would be the paper bag full of salted peanuts and hard candy (which also tasted deliciously salty because of being in the same bag) handed out to the kids. Usually there was one cream-filled chocolate drop, too. Apples were also handed out to everyone. Usually, we drew names to see which of our classmates we should bring a gift for, and it was always exciting to see what we would get. A big favorite was the book of Lifesavers of all flavors. It seemed so extravagant! Back then, a candy bar cost 5 Cents, and penny candy was common. If you had a dime, you could do pretty well for yourself.
You can see that our Christmases were simple, but very memorable to us. Take the time to write down your own memories of Christmas. If you’re willing to share it with me, I’ll happily read it for this story time next December.
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