By Marci Narum
This time of year always means shopping and gift-giving, but there is one gift that you can’t buy and it can never be exchanged or returned. Fond memories. The holiday memories you share with family and friends are priceless gifts. Maybe it’s the traditional meal your mother or grandmother made for Christmas Eve, a favorite gift, or going to Midnight Mass with your family. Whatever the memory, it’s a gift that you keep and can unwrap year after year.
Six ladies, ages 88 to 102, and residents of Missouri Slope Lutheran Care Center and Valley View Heights in Bismarck, sat down together to share their Christmas memories.
Mavis Anderson, 88
Mavis Anderson was a teacher and a mother. She sings and loves history. And it’s from a place in her own family history—the farm her father homesteaded in 1901—that she recalls one of her fondest Christmas memories.
“I suppose that I was five maybe and packages had come. One package came from my sister who was not at home at the time, and I knew that was my package.
“So as the women were doing the dishes and the men were milking the cows, I went to look at the Christmas tree, and that package for me was just a decorated box. It was too tempting. I raised the cover a little bit. And there was a teddy bear in there. When it was time to open the packages and that was passed to me and I looked at it, my sister said, ‘You peeked!’ I said, ‘No I didn’t.’ I always used this story with my kids to tell them that crime does not pay.”
Janet Smaltz, 99
Janet Smaltz is a feisty, quick-witted lady. She grew up in Illinois on a small farm and recalled “very happy Christmases” with her brother and her mother. Janet said they always had a big treein their farm house, and went to the church in town, about four miles away. But when she moved to North Dakota as an adult to work for Easter Seals, she no longer had family around to celebrate the holiday. So in 1957, Janet started her own tradition, inviting friends to her home for a party. That was followed by singing at the hospital, prison and neighborhood homes.
“They always came to my house first for Brunswick stew. Brunswick stew is chicken and ham, corn and potatoes and onions. An old Williamsburg cook recipe, except they started with a squirrel. And I didn’t do that.”
Janet played the piano or accordion for the singers, while one of her friends played a glockenspiel, or jingled sleigh bells.
“We always went about eight places. I did that for 32 years. We always claimed we didn’t sing anyplace where they could fight back. We never had a whole lot of trouble. That was what we did.
“It started with 4 or five of us in 1957 and the most we had was 23 people at my house for the stew. And that picture of me with the cap on and that’s the kettle full of the stew—sometimes had two of those.”
Ida Schmidt, 88
Ida Schmidt was the youngest of nine children. She shares a heart-warming story that is not her own memory, but one her siblings shared with her about forty years ago. Ida had asked them each to share Christmas memories for a book she was putting together. Four of her siblings told the same story.
The holiday routine for the family was that after the children had gone to bed on Christmas Eve, their parents who would stay up.
“Dad made the candy and filled the socks with fruit and candy and so forth. Mom finished sewing the dolls and doll clothes. That was typical.”
But that Christmas wasn’t typical.
“During the depression there was literally no money to buy things. They remembered that Dad said at suppertime, ‘It will be a little different at Christmas this year. You won’t find any gifts when you get up in the morning as usual.’
“But as they went to bed, they heard Dad say to Mom, ‘It just isn’t right not to have a Christmas tree.’”
Then they heard the door slam and he went out. Nobody knew what that meant, but they went to bed.
When they woke up Christmas morning, Ida’s brother and sisters were delighted to find a Caragana tree in their house. It was decorated just like an evergreen tree from their previous, typical Christmases.
“Here was this Christmas tree with the freshly popped popcorn, strings, some candles, and the few decorations that they still had. And under the tree were three hair bows for three girls, and a springele for my brother, which is a little top.
“I had never heard that story. It was before I was born. But my three older sisters and my older brother all put that into their memories as their most favorite Christmas event; seeing that beautiful tree when they really didn’t expect a tree or any gifts.”
Alice Fiedler, 90
You might expect that as you read the Christmas memories of our golden age generation, the details would also be golden. That’s not the case for Alice Fiedler. Alice grew up in Mott. She does have fond memories of her youth; especially being a member of the tumbling team and the Rainbow Girls, an elite civic organization. She graduated from Mott High School at the top of her class in 1943, and her most cherished possession is a photo of her class. But when it comes to the holidays, Alice struggles to find fond, happy memories.
She chose her words carefully as she said, “Those were dark years. Turbulent.”
Alice’s childhood was spent in the dust and deprivation of the thirties. Her family was separated by the struggles of the period. She points to the class photo, shrugs, and guesses that at least half of the families represented in that frame experienced the same reality.
Alice did share a couple of sweet memories; making fudge for her family, and homemade ice cream in the snow.
“We got some vanilla and some real cream and set it out in the snow. That was a real treat.”
Polly Schmidt, 102
Polly Schmidt was born and raised in Dickinson. Her daughter Lynn Christen, visiting from Williston, joined the Christmas memory conversation the day I was there. Their memories had a common theme: Santa and Midnight Mass.
“Chris Cringle brought a sack with nuts and candy and fruit and a doll,” Polly said. “We went to Midnight Mass, and when we got home there was a big fat breakfast with sausage and everything with it.”
“On the way to Midnight Mass, we stopped at neighbors to see if they had gone to mass,” Lynn shared. “When we got home, dad would go check the coal furnace while we got our coats off. We heard something, and by then Santa had come. The gifts were on the back step. Later we found out why we stopped at the neighbor’s before mass—Dad was playing Santa for them.”
Lynn went on to say, “When I look back at pictures of our childhood, that tree is so little and so sparse and thin, but when we were little it was the best looking tree. There were always gifts and we always had our picture taken by the tree, sometimes with matching nightgowns we had gotten for Christmas.”
Betty Maher, 91
Betty spent her life taking care of others, as a Registered Nurse. As a child, she considered herself very fortunate. She grew up during the Great Depression but said her family always had a tree.She was the youngest of four children.
“The biggest joy of my life was a surprise on Christmas when I got a bicycle. I had wanted a bicycle for so long and had given up the hope. It shocked me so with joy that I stood and cried because it was such a wonderful treat!
“Christmas was always a joyous time because everybody got home. We lived in Morristown, South Dakota. I was the youngest of the family so we would look forward to the boys coming home and they would trim the home with fringe of some kind from one end to the other.
“It was a fun time and we looked forward to them coming home on the train. We were always at the train station waiting for the train that was always late, and we stood in line for hugs and kisses. We went home and had oyster stew after the Midnight Mass and it was just a tradition that still goes on.”