The following piece was put together for our family by my seventy-nine year old uncle, Ernest B. Patrick, so that succeeding generations could experience the Christmases of his youth through his words, and I am sharing it with you in its entirety, exactly as he recorded it.
The little boy could barely reach the candy case that was in the neighborhood store, the store owners Mr. and Mrs. Russell (Kate and Rass) were good friends and neighbors of our family, but what he wanted was in the back corner. He had gone behind the case, because what he wanted was a Guess What?
No, that is not a question. It’s the candy’s name.
It looked like a roll of coins, maybe quarters, but a little larger. The paper was sort of rough and a darkish color – red, blue or green. You unrolled this paper carefully, because printed inside was a comic. The roll also contained a couple pieces of candy and a toy of some kind.
This particular one contained a figure of a small, white dog with brown ears and eyes and one brown spot on its back, and it was sitting with its head turned a little bit to the right. The boy loved dogs, so this was a good Guess What?
Being a collector, even at that age, it went into his pocket. The little dog went into and out of many pockets for many years.
It was a Christmas or two after the little dog came to live with the little boy that the boy’s dad decided to create a large nativity. This wasn’t easy, because the house was small and there were five people living in it, plus the little dog.
The nativity was made to fit atop a very large plywood box that was kept to raise baby chickens in. Dad added legs. The back extended above the box and took the piece to a height of approximately seven feet.
Dad covered this back portion with blue paper sprinkled with silver stars – one light shaped like a star was inserted through the back, so as to appear directly over the manger. Then he made three cork houses, one larger to contain the manger, a smaller one that was open on one side for the shepherds, and another one – closed and smaller – to house the camels.
This nativity traveled to our church, the boy’s grade school, and a store window downtown. Then it returned to our house to have its picture taken.
The boy believed the little dog belonged in the picture with the shepherds. The photographer and his dad disagreed. They would remove the dog, and the boy would put it back until, finally, his dad took the little dog and kept it until the photography session was over, then it was returned to the little boy.
As a child, Christmas didn’t start until well into December. We celebrated Halloween in October and Thanksgiving in November. These holidays seemed to mean more when they weren’t all mixed up in one holiday season.
One of the first indications that Christmas was coming was getting your part in the church’s Christmas program. This had to be memorized! You could have one or two poems or a part in the play or two poems and a part in the play.
Decorations started to appear – downtown streets, stores, schools, church and home. We always put up our Christmas tree on December 11, my sister Ruth’s birthday.
At that time, we always had a live tree. Almost everyone did. Artificial trees were not common.
There was a period in the 1950s when shiny, silver aluminum trees were popular. We never had one, and I truly never wanted one.
Getting the right tree was a big project. It had to be tall and very full (the bigger the better for me) and no bare spots were allowed. Well, maybe one spot – it could be turned to the back.
Sometimes we went to five different places to see the trees. All of these places smelled wonderful – all those freshly cut evergreen trees. This was before they started spraying everything.
We were often looking for two trees – one for us and one for the church. The church’s tree had to be even larger than ours (much larger).
It made a good day, because we always found the perfect tree. Every year, we all agreed that it was more beautiful than last year’s.
Sometimes, it was a problem getting the tree home – two occasions in particular. One was when I was in the ninth grade. I was downtown about twelve blocks from home and found THE TREE.
It was at Francis and Mounts store on the corner of Washington Street and Market Street, so I bought it. Then I started to carry it home.
Yes, I was walking, and the tree was considerably taller and bigger around than I was. I walked and stopped, walked and stopped.
People probably thought it was a walking tree. Several people made comments – good natured.
We did make it home – the tree and me. It was a beautiful tree.
Later, when I was in college, Mom and I found THE TREE at the corner fruit market at Grant and Chestnut Streets. I had a car, a ’49 Nash that looked like an upside down bathtub with no running board. Mom held the tree through the rolled down window all the way home.
Decorating the tree was a family project, and when the tree was trimmed, Dad would go and get Grandma Zachary, so she could ‘see’ the tree. Grandma didn’t really see the tree, as she was blind, but it was nice she was with us.
Grandpa Zachary never came on these occasions, because he rarely went anywhere, spending most of his time asleep in his chair.
Grandpa Zachary did go out once a year and cut down a small cedar tree. Once he had returned home, he would place it in a porcelain holder that had originally been a base for a stool at a restaurant that he had once owned near the railroad.
Two of my cousins, Lawrence and Harold, my sister Ruth and I then decorated the tree with paper chains, strung cranberries (although most were too hard for us to get a needle through), and one strand of lights. Corn was popped, but we always ate it, so popcorn never appeared on the tree – limiting the decorations to the bottom of the tree.
The first Christmas tree I remember was my very own!
The old woman who lived across the street saw a very small tree fall from the back of a truck, went out, and picked it up. It wasn’t over two feet tall, and she gave it to me for my own Christmas tree.
We put it on the oak buffet in the kitchen. Mom and Dad said I could have some decorations, if I let Dad cut my hair. I was about four years old. I agreed – until the tree was trimmed – then I yelled and cried, until they decided it wasn’t worth the effort and Dad took me to the barber shop. It was okay to cut hair there.
Santa came to Crawfordsville at the courthouse. By this time, all the stores and streets were decorated. He would throw candy kisses wrapped in red or green.
One year, when I was about five (kindergarten age), my teacher played Christmas songs on a small organ they had by Santa. Of course, everyone was downtown shopping (both dime stores for sure). Then, with Santa, the excitement was getting pretty intense.
My grade school was small, and around Christmas, we always had a tree in the hallway and little ones in each room. The last day before Christmas break, all of us would sit on the steps at both ends of the hall and sing Christmas carols.
One year, during which we had a very deep snow, the principal went to what we called the big field, which served as the football field, and made a very large fox and geese track that the older grades were allowed to play for several hours, during what was normally classroom time.
It was a big treat to ride around town and see all the Christmas lights. At that time, no one thought of putting out a million lights like they do today, but there were lots of trees in windows and some outside lights.
It was rare, but some trees were all done in blue lights. Everyone thought they were beautiful, but multi-colored lights always won out for home and we never had an all blue tree. Years later, when the family was gone, I put up two trees, one blue.
Christmas Eve always started with the radio program, Lionel Barrymore reading Dickens’ The Christmas Carol. Years later, my oldest sister, Mary, wanted to get Mom the record made from this program, so we went to Lion’s music store.
They didn’t have these records, but they did have a similar set that was read by Ronald Coleman, so Mary got that set. Later, I located the ones with Lionel Barrymore reading and purchased those. Mom loaned them to my sixth grade teacher and took them to school, so we could listen to them in class.
After the program, we went to church for the Christmas Eve service. That service was where all the children and some adults read poems or ‘pieces,’ as we called them, readings or acted out small plays.
Once we were back home, my sister, Ruth, and I hung up our stockings. I used one of my sister’s, because she wore knee-high socks. We didn’t have a fireplace, so we set kitchen chairs with their backs to the heating stove and hung the socks on those.
The stove was cast iron, and it had small windows through which you could see the dancing flames. Our Christmas wish lists to Santa were always burned in the stove. This cast iron stove provided all our home’s heat, except for that generated by the kitchen stove.
Family presents were opened on Christmas Eve after supper. Christmas morning, we were up early, of course, to open the gifts from Santa. Then we checked to see what was in our stockings – always an orange in the toe, because oranges weren’t often available.
The kitchen table was covered with Mom’s homemade candy, bought candy, fruit, cakes, and popcorn balls – red, green, and white. Then, we would eat breakfast and head for church.
At church, we first attended Christmas Day Sunday School, during which we made ornaments and paper chains. Then we assembled in the sanctuary, and we children decorated the tree with our ornaments and chains. Being children, most of the ornaments and chains ended up at the bottom of the tree, but no one seemed to mind.
In the front of the sanctuary, there were low curtains across the front of where the choir sat. These curtains would be open to reveal a crate of oranges, a bushel of apples, and a big box filled with small boxes of candy.
Members of the congregation lined up, and everyone received one of each item. The oranges were donated by Russell’s grocery, the apples by Plunkett’s grocery, and Morris’s dime store allows us a special price on the candy.
As junior deacon, I was given the task of choosing which candy would be in the small boxes. Someone would meet me at Morris’s, and we would attempt to pick the candy that everyone would most enjoy finding in their Christmas boxes. The staff always insisted that I take a sample bag home before making our final purchases, so I ended up with a bag, before I received my little box along with the others.
When I was in the 7th grade, I had a paper route. Being a small neighborhood, everyone knew everyone else, and this was my route.
Around Christmas, most customers gave me a small bonus as well as paying for their papers, and the night before Christmas Eve this one year, I received four boxes of chocolate covered cherries.
These boxes were larger back then than the ones we find now, and I promptly ate all four boxes full of cherries only five blocks into my paper route. I immediately threw up all four boxes. This was okay, because I received five more boxes before I arrived home, but I had no desire to eat them at that point.
One Christmas, when I was in grade school, Dad, Mom, and Mr. Harmless, the school janitor, pieced together a life-sized Nativity that was placed on a large hill in front of the school. Penney’s had donated used manikins, and Mom outfitted them in scraps of old clothes – anything that was around.
Mr. Harmless and Dad created the camels, shepherds, and wise men from thick cardboard.
An article appeared in the paper describing the scene, and people lined up in their cars and on foot each evening around the football field sized area to get a view of this sight.
A notice appeared in the Crawfordsville Journal Review that read:
Friday – December 20, 1940
Public invited to see display!
Pupils of Tuttle School, aided by a few grown-ups, have completed one of the outstanding Christmas displays in the city.
The students of the upper grades have constructed a shed on the hill on the south side of the school building to represent the building in which Christ was born.
In the shed are the manger, a cow, a mule, and other symbols of the usual conception of the Nativity.
Figures outside represent the Three Wise Men, the shepherds and others included in the Bible story. Camels made of cardboard and appropriately painted aid in completing the display.
Flood lights have been installed by Glen Hayworth, light plant superintendent, to make the display a striking picture at night.
Ernest Patrick, a patron of the school, and Claude Harmless, the school custodian, aided the youngsters in their efforts.
“We are proud of their work,” said Clyde Gentry, principal of the school, “and we wish to invite the public to view our display.”
This is the letter the school sent both Mr. Harmless and my dad, thanking them for their efforts:
January 3, 1941
My dear Mr. Patrick,
We wish to thank you for the interest that you have taken in the pupils of Tuttle School, which was shown by your assistance in the construction of the Nativity Scene.
Your kindness and cooperation will long be remember by us.
Wishing you much success and happiness throughout the new year, we remain.
Tuttle School Pupils
For several years, the little dog spent his time in a wooden, chip-carved music box that I had made for Mom in Art class – surrounded by Christmas tress that had been carved into the top of the box.
Then I grew into a man, who lived a long life and remembers his family’s Christmas traditions to this day.
The little dog soon found a home amongst my possessions on the mantle, where he remains throughout each year, until the Nativity is unpacked for Christmas and he can rejoin his friends for their annual Christmas visit.
Hopefully, he will find a good home and someone else to love him well someday.
Ernest B. Patrick