Web Site: authorsden.com/junehbetts
A heartwarming nostalgic look at a country Christmas during the depression years of the 1930s.
A COUNTRY CHRISTMAS
(In a One Room Schoolhouse)
By June Harman Betts
The first time I heard, Away In A Manger, was a night so special that I will never forget it…
We were living in the beautiful Germany Valley in West Virginia in the depth of
the Great Depression. Since the social life of our rural neighborhood revolved around
the one room schoolhouse, adults and children alike looked forward to the Christmas
I was one month short of my fifth birthday and my little brother, Dickie, was three. We were too young to be involved in the preparations but my brother, Skip, who was in
the second grade, regaled us for weeks about their activities. Some of the kids were
making chains of popcorn, cranberries, or paper hoops while others were cutting out angels to hang on the tree.
He talked about the bushy tree that had been cut from the woods behind the schoolhouse and placed in the corner, the red and green wreaths that the teacher had hung in the windows and the fresh greenery that she and some of the older children were looping around the room. Being an imaginative child I only had to close my eyes to find myself in the midst of all those activities. While Skip was playing it cool, Dickie and I were so excited, we could hardly wait for the big night to arrive.
A few days before the big event, Skip excitedly imparted his big news, “Santa Claus is coming ! The teacher said he’s going to have his horse pull his sleigh so his reindeer can rest for Christmas!”
I couldn’t believe my ears when he added, “The teacher told us today that Santa is going to give every kid a bag of candy.”
When I asked if only kids who went to school would get the candy, my big brother looked down his nose at me and said, “Don’t you know anything? Santa wouldn’t leave anyone out.”
Though I thought it never would, the big night finally arrived! For the first time I got to wear the pretty red velvet dress my mother had made for me. When she put the matching red bow in my hair, my dad told me I looked like the popular little movie star, Shirley Temple. Even though realistically with my straight blond Dutch Girl haircut I knew I was a long way from the little curly-topped actress, my dad’s words made me feel special.
Before we left the house we had to get by Mom’s inspection. We all passed except my little brother who had an almost undetectable smudge on his freckled cheek. When her eagle eye spotted it, she grabbed a washcloth and scrubbed his face until my dad laughingly told her that if she didn’t stop she’d rub off his freckles.
The ground was covered with snow and big flakes were still falling when my dad drove his Model A into the school yard. Since electricity hadn’t yet arrived at our little part of West Virginia, the light that shone through the windows came from kerosene lamps and candles. As we crunched our way through the crusted snow I was fascinated by the flickering shadows that they cast on the white, pristine landscape.
When we entered we found the schoolhouse filled with people of all ages. I saw my grandfather, aunts, cousins and many of our friends and neighbors. I looked around for my favorite uncle and was disappointed when I didn’t see him anywhere.
The schoolroom had been transformed with the decorations my brother had told us about. The tall, bushy tree was covered with the strings of cranberries, popcorn, paper hoops, and the paper angels that the students had made. The streamers of red ribbons and greenery criss-crossed the ceiling. Someone had drawn a Santa Claus with colored chalk on the blackboard.
The teacher’s desk had been shoved against the wall making room for a long table that was soon filled with covered dishes and wonders to my eyes were all the scrumptious cakes and cookies. Though they all looked good, none looked better to me than the three layer coconut cake I’d helped my mother ice that afternoon. Everything looked even better than my imagination had pictured it. I felt that I had wandered into a magical place.
Moments later as we heard the sound of jingling bells and the clippity-clop of horses hooves several children, me included, started jumping up and down and shouting, “It’s Santa Claus!”
Then as we stared wide-eyed, the door flew open and along with a gust of howling wind and whirling snow, the Jolly Old Elf himself blew in.
I thought he looked like pictures I’d seen in books of Santa Claus from his white beard to the “little round belly.” I kept my eye on him to see if it really shook like a bowl full of jelly. To my delight, I saw that it did.
My thoughts were interrupted by his booming voice asking if we’d been good little girls and boys. When we shouted that we had, he jokingly said, “Well, I guess I won’t have to hand out any of these lumps of coals, will I ?”
“No Santa! No!’ we shouted.
Then he instructed the children to line up. “Youngest first,” he said. Since Dickie was the youngest I took him by the hand and led him to the head of the line. When I started to walk away, Santa said,“ You can stay with him since he is a tiny little fellow.”
Then Santa’s, “Ho, Ho, Ho,” rang out as he handed each child a gaily decorated bag of candy. When he handed mine to me, he winked and for a fleeting second he reminded me of my missing uncle. After the last bag was distributed , I opened mine and peeked inside. I saw chocolate drops, a chocolate Santa Claus, jelly beans, a candy cane, walnuts and Brazil Nuts. Then wonder of wonders, there was a sweet juicy orange. That might not seem like much of a treat today, but an orange was really special to children of the depression.
After Santa left, the teacher led us in singing Christmas carols. In the midst of singing “Oh Come All Ye Faithful” I heard my uncle’s bass voice and realized that he had finally arrived. I felt bad that he’d missed so much of the party, especially seeing Santa Claus.
After the last carol was sung, my young mother played the piano and my older brother, Skip, sang “Away In a Manger.” To this day, several decades later, I never hear that Christmas carol without remembering that night in the one room schoolhouse and my pretty young mother, with her blond hair brushing the lace collar of her soft blue dress, sitting at the piano and my seven year old brother, Skip, in his red sweater and blue courdaroy pants standing straight and tall beside her as she played and he sang that lovely Christmas carol.
Now fast forward seven-plus decades to present day Christmas where four
generations of my family are gathered to celebrate Christ‘s birth. This year the little girl in the red dress sitting on Santa’s knee is my great-granddaughter. As I look around the
room, I see my older brother, Skip, but my younger brother is missing. I smile to myself
knowing that a few minutes after Santa exits and we begin to sing Christmas carols, my younger brother will quietly join the party, just as my favorite uncle did years ago.
A few minutes later, it feels as though life has come full circle when I hear the
sweet clear voice of my great-granddaughter as she begins to sing , Away In A
Manger. As I listen, I remember that cold wintry night so long ago when my mother
and brother performed that beautiful song.
In my memory I am again the little girl in the red dress in that magical place and
my grandfather, father, mother, aunts, and uncles (all long gone) are with me ...once again
as young and vibrant as they were then.
These precious memories will forever linger in my mind.
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|Reviewed by Ronald Hull
|Reminds me of my mother's recounting of her childhood, going to her aunt's house for Christmas in a horse-drawn sleigh. My earliest recollection was my twin brother and I being dressed as tops (ornaments) for a church Christmas party. My only recollection of Santa was getting candy from him on the front porch of the white frame City Hall building in our little town.
I spent seven years in West Virginia, in Morgantown and Huntington. To the best of my memory, every year I would leave and take the treacherous drive to Wisconsin to be with my family at Christmas time.
|Reviewed by Eric Large
|Thank you for once again taking up your 'pen' to transport us back to the nostalgic innocence of a bygone - though beloved - era. As expected, you've once again hit the mark with a thoroughly entertaining and heartwarming tale, replete with the vivid imagery and desciptive style we've grown to love! Count this piece as another chapter in a kindred history, carefully imprinted in the collective memories of all of us who treasure your artfully woven works. We again thank you for such a carefully crafted and intimate gift this Christmas season!|