Wednesday, December 9, 2015

1870s Christmas Tree in a Minnesota Schoolhouse

Here is the chronicle of a community Christmas celebration of the early 1870's in a schoolhouse near Silver Lake in Martin County in Minnesota. This is the essence of Childhood's Christmas in its purest form. This narrative is reprinted from a series of memoirs by Britania J. Livingston, edited by Nora Livingston Heermance, and appeared in the June 6, 1925, issue of the Fairmont Daily Sentinel.

It was a very commonplace neighborhood. It was composed of the families of hard working farmers, and had hardly emerged from the chrysalis "frontier." Going to the school house on Sabbath afternoons to hear some minister from town preach upon the sins of Free Masonry or the evils of too luxurious living, was about their only recreation. As Christmas drew near, the little ones would canvass the prospect of getting their stockings filled by Santa Claus, and thrifty papas would remind the eager darlings that it had been a bad year for Santa Claus's business; that they had heard that he was near stopping his business and closing out at auction, and other nonsense of this same kind.

How it ever come about I am sure I cannot tell. It was arranged to have a Christmas tree at the school house.

The most of the children had never seen a real Christmas tree. The idea started between the teacher and two or three ladies--perhaps it was evolved by some sort of mental spontaneous combustion. It was spoken of only a week before Christmas. The weather was so bad--snowy and blustering--that no committees could get their heads together for consultation; but during that week after school hours, the fine floury snow of Minnesota was melted off the trim overcoat of "our teacher" beside nearly every hot stove in his school district.

The snow was melted off thetrim overcoat of "our teacher"beside nearly every hot stovein his school district.
And here I must explain who "our teacher" was, and then you will better understand his interest in the matter. He belonged to the neighborhood. He had grown up with the young people--had received his education at the school house where he was now teaching--barring a few terms away at college. He was much a favorite with the parents that he could have had the school whenever he wished it, at the highest price going. He petted the little boys as though every little cub was his brother, and he was the idol of the sweetest bevy of maidens under ten years of age, that ever graced a country neighborhood. Said he, in a general summing up of the undertaking: "We are all in the same boat, there will be no costly presents to disturb the harmony. If we can give the little ones a good time, the rest of us will certainly be happy. The large boys have chipped in to get a barrel of apples, and I think we are sure of pleasant evening." When they struck that barrel of apples they were sure of one element of success--a crowd. A "barrel of apples" is an inducement beyond the power of the average Minnesotan to resist.

So it was a settled thing about the tree. Then every mother laid her plans to help Santa Claus. As I said before, consultation was impossible, so Mrs. H. counted up the little children who sure to be there, and found than they numbered twenty. So that every child should certainly have something, she cut twenty stockings out of blue mosquito netting, made them neatly and wrote each child's name and fastened it to the stocking, and then made a few extra ones for any extra children that might happen to come.

Mrs. S., with the same thoughtful purpose, counted also, and made twenty little stockings and a few extra ones, and pinned on the names with only this different--the mosquito bar was pink. Mrs. P., not knowing the counting and planning going on at the snow-bound neighbors, counted also, and made neat little white bags with fancy strings for twenty. Mrs. L. did the same thing. So you can see for yourself that the thing was a success from the start. But wait, the teacher has not done all of his part yet. Fearing that some might be slighted or overlooked by the saint, in a crowded house, he went to town counting as he rode along, up to twenty, and he invested in twenty toys.

How many mothers set the children to popping corn, each one fancying she was the only one who possessed any, or the knowledge necessary to make it into balls. There were certainly bushels of it piled up under the tree in pans and baskets, in the shape of balls. When every available use had been made of the dry corn, even to filling new boots with it, the remainder was tied up in a cloth flour sack, the name of a very good natured man written on it, and hung up to the stovepipe.

Christmas evening was clear and beautiful. All day long the teacher and his aids were at the schoolhouse arranging the tree, the evergreen decorations, and receiving those who came on business.

Did you ever witness the delight of a lot of children on their view of a Christmas tree? If not, I am sorry for you.

At "early candle light" the sleigh bells began to ring up their merry loads. The schoolhouse was crowded to an overflow. Of course the tree committee had its heaviest work at the last minute. Then while the teacher ran home to wash off the perspiration and get on a clean collar, we had time to look around.

A brighter, prettier tree we never saw, although we have looked on thos of ten times the value. It was a graceful red cedar well lighted with candles and well loaded with presents, as was also a table nearby, and the floor at its roots.

On every suitable place upon the walls were pictures and sentiments suitable to the occasion, while over all were green branches of the fragrant red cedar, and clusters of the pretty bittersweet berries in lieu of the sacred holly. We could not help but notice little Robbie W. His mama tried to keep him down, but up on the seat he would pop, like a Jack-in-the-box when the cover is off.

Who will be Santa Claus? was the all important query. No one thought of the teacher, for, have I said so? he was the most bashful man you ever knew. Why, when he was a great boy of 18 years, if you stopped to speak to him, his arms and legs would try to get out of sight, and he had every appearance of man trying to hide behind himself. Of course, he has gotten over all that, and stands straight as a liberty pole, and looks squarely at you with a firm blue eye. Yet he still prefers to do his good works in private--always pushing someone to the front, with half his brains and three times his brass, when a public stand is to be taken. But he has forgotten himself tonight--you can see that as he carefully picks his way through the crowd of little ones that clutch at his hands and his coattails as he passes, each one of them with some private word to whisper in his ear.

When near the tree, he faced around and said: "I suppose you all know why we have gathered here," pointing to the beautiful tree. "The first exercise will be a little vocal music, after which some of the little ones will give recitations suitable to the evening."

That sweet hymn,"Peace Upon Earth, The Angels Sang," never sounded sweeter than in that little old schoolhouse Christmas night. The little ones spoke like the angels whose messengers they are. Then two little girls were chosen to carry the present to their recipients, and two young men took them from the tree and handed them to the teacher who read out the name and gave them to the little messenger for the owners.

The "twenty" soon had received their pairs of pink and blue stockings which Santa Clause had filled with candies, nuts, maple sugar, etc., and the children that were unexpected had their names called and were served just as well as the others. Then if the tree had been emptied, I think those little ones would always have blessed it. But it was still loaded, such sights of pretty mittens, suspenders, leggings, neckties, slippers,Jumping Jack
dolls, drums, dolls' clothing, books, pictures, and several pair of small boots and hoods. O, I cannot begin to mention the things. Nothing costly, nearly everything useful, but so bright and handsome. Suspended by threads to the tree in such a manner as to keep quivering and dancing were two or three jumping jacks whose gesticulations attracted all eyes. As one of these was handed to the teacher, he pulled the string and made it dance worse than ever. "That is what I want," shouted four year old Robbie. "No, Robbie, you can't have this," said the teacher, "this is for our postmaster." The shouts of laughter didn't quite drown Robbie's disgusted "pshaw."

Pans of popcorn balls passed around and refreshments became the order of the evening. All this time the tree was being stripped of its precious fruit as fast as circumstances would permit. Robbie's happiness was complete when one of the committee on talking down a jumping jack, found his own name on it, slyly snipped it off and put Robbie's in its place. "Now let us go home," he said. "I'm all ready, I've got all I want."

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