What resources were available for a family with five children to celebrate Christmas on a small farm at McMurphy in the mid-1950s?
What customs were observed? And what memories have been preserved?
Although over 50 years have passed and one Christmas may blur into another, some details stand out clearly.
For parents Hans and Alice Jensen, several resources were available to provide for their family’s festivities. Hans, an immigrant from Norway, had cut family ties, seldom mentioning his family of origin, nor sharing his language, traditions or customs. His new life in Canada was centred around his own wife and children and the hopes he had for them.
Alice, an only child, had been raised nearby and her parents Bert and Mamie Kessler, lived only three miles away. Her parents had arrived from Wisconsin, so the cold, long months of winter were familiar to them.
The couple had five children: Irene, Bob, Dave, Doris and Frank.
Hans needed a cash income and so worked away as a crew or hotel cook. If there was money and if Dad could get home for Christmas, he would bring a family favourite – bacon.
Alice brought in the garden produce, preserved in glass jars and in the root cellar as well as the farm’s daily eggs and goat’s milk. Shipments of food were ordered and delivered on the train.
And so, when Christmas arrived, every year this familyentered a time filled with possibilities and limitations. They experienced both repeated traditions shared in common with others in this place and time, and interesting variations and personal details held precious in the memory of each family member.
Gifts had to be planned far in advance, ordered from the Sears or Eaton’s catalogue and arriving by train. Homemade sewing and other crafts expanded the gift options.
In the weeks leading up to Christmas, Mother wrote letters to family in Seattle and Wisconsin. And every year a parcel arrived marked, “Do not open until Christmas.”
The Christmas tree was decorated with glass balls several days before. No lights, because there was no electricity.
Because the family often home-schooled and there were few other children in the area, the wife of the station master arranged for the children to give a mini-Christmas concert. Doris remembers playing musical chairs and always being the first one “out” because she was the littlest. Standing out clearly these many years later, is the gift the woman had made for her – a tiny dresser for her dolls, made from the sliding boxes for wooden matches.
On Christmas morning, the stockings held mandarin oranges, hard candy and nuts.
Grandma and Grandpa arrived for dinner on Christmas Day by sled, on horseback or walking, depending on the snow.
The table was filled with plenty: potatoes, carrots, turnips from the root cellar, jars of fruit from the summer months. From the barnyard: two or three roasted chickens. And especially for Christmas: stuffing. Fresh cranberries, cooked with sugar and a little lemon made Alice’s own cranberry sauce.
Brussels sprouts, which survive the frost fresh in the garden, have been saved under straw.
Goodies, much more than an everyday meal, included Dad’s skilled baking: specially cut sugar cookies, cakes and tarts. Mom made custard pies with the eggs and milk: pumpkin, squash and even mashed carrot. One more treat: Mother slowly boiled down milk and sugar together making a fabulous caramel candy!
Time to open the gifts!
Irene, the eldest, once earned money working for her grandparents, and generously spent it on gifts for her brothers and sister. Many items in the catalogue were marked “Four for $1.00.” She had purchased a set of handkerchiefs for Grandpa, who, when opening them, promptly blew his nose and grinning, announced, “Just what I always wanted!” in his usual cheery, teasing way.
Dave loved when Dad made him a jointed marionette.
Bob remembers a steel, sleek, green, Chevy 1950s-style toy car, with bright battery operated headlights.
Doris remembers a baby doll in a wicker basket one year and another time a large, elegant bridal doll.
Frank (so often given hand-me-downs) was so proud of his new shiny boots.
After dinner, while the grownups cleared away, the children were sent outside to play in the snow – jumping out of the barn window into deep snow and even sliding off of the barn roof with laughter ringing out into the winter wilderness.
If it was very cold (and at that time of year it might be as severe as -40’F) the children’s clothing would first become wet from the snow, then freeze stiff.
In the evening, like every evening, by lantern light, near the wood stove, Mother read aloud the books that also arrived by train, ordered from the catalogue from the Open House Library in Victoria.
And, because it was Christmastime, Mother taught them her favourite songs, “Silent Night” and “O Little Town of Bethlehem.” Dad played the mouth organ. Sending the children to bed at the end of a satisfying Christmas Day.