Christmas Traditions On The Farm
The first twelve years of my life were idyllic. I lived with my parents and grandparents on a farm outside Bel Air, Maryland in a little community called Emmorton. Today Emmorton has been transformed into a continuous series of shopping malls and townhouse developments situated between Interstate 95 and the town of Bel Air. But in my childhood it was composed of fifteen farming families all of whom knew each other, helped one another during harvest seasons and celebrated holidays and family events together.
This idyllic setting was the beginning of my memory and understanding of Christmas. Since we lived on a farm we didn’t go to the local nursery or Walmart, we hitched up old Bob and Maud to the sled and rode out into the woods surrounding the pasture to find our perfect cedar Christmas tree. Later after Bob and Maud had gone to horse heaven we hitched up the Ford tractor to a wagon to find our tree. The tree was always placed in the living room bay window, where at night its lights would glow out into the yard and surrounding fields like a beacon. Since there were no streetlights on Plumtree Road when it got dark it was dark!
Our celebration started on December 23rd when the local Grange held the annual children’s Christmas party. The Grange is an organization that promotes the economic and political well being of agricultural communities in the Unites States and the Grange Hall is frequently the center of social life in farming communities. Every year the Grange organized a party with children’s games, food, and highlighted by a visit from Santa Claus. The Grange Hall is where I learned that there is probably no Santa Claus. In my memory I’m at this party sitting with my Mom and Dad, when Dad says he’s going to the bathroom. Soon after someone yells that Santa Claus is outside. In he comes with a bag of toys and all of us kids line up to receive our gift. In reaching for my gift from him I notice that his hand is my Dad’s hand and I look into his eyes to see my Dad’s eyes. Neither of us said a word to each other. In fact we never did talk about that night. But from then on I knew Santa Claus was simply a man wearing a costume and my reliance on Santa Claus for a happy Christmas ended.
Christmas Eve was a day of preparing. My grandmother and mother baked pies, cookies, washed and ironed the good linen and locked the kitchen door to wrap gifts. In the evening we always attended service at the local Methodist Church that was built on land that my great grandfather had donated so that the main church in town could establish a small chapel for the farmers. It had one room, electricity but no plumbing. Even my grandfather who rarely left the farm, mainly because he didn’t have a driver’s license dressed up in his three-piece suit, polished his one pair of dress shoes, wore his fedora and sat next to me in the front pew along with my Mom and Dad. My grandmother played the piano and organ and my Aunt Margaret always sang “Ave Maria”. After the service, my uncle and aunt and cousins would join us back at home for homemade (nonalcoholic) eggnog and the cookies baked earlier in the day.
Christmas Day started very early with my grandmother and mother in the kitchen preparing and cooking dinner. In addition to my uncle, aunt and cousins there always seemed to be a couple of friends invited for dinner. Before everyone arrived I was allowed to open my Santa gifts and my stocking, which one-year had an orange in it. I have never been able to remember any of my gifts that year but I do remember the orange. I wonder how my grandsons would react if they found an orange in their stocking? I’ve asked my mother if the orange was a filler for the stocking, but she claims no memory of that. After opening gifts starting with the youngest to the oldest, my cousins and I would go outside to play with toys and wait for dinner to be served. One year we decided to climb up the ladder to the silo filled with silage for the cows and I fell in. I was finally rescued by my Dad who took me back to the house where I had a bath and put on clean clothes before sitting down to dinner. Another year we put my three-year old cousin on a sled and pushed him down an icy hill where he ran into a barbed wire fence. After a visit to the emergency room for stitches to his cheek, we had dinner. It was dangerous living on a farm.
After an exciting day of rescuing and doctoring injured children and having an extravagant dinner we all relaxed in the living room around the Christmas tree. In the early years we didn’t have a television and so the entertainment was listening to the radio or talking to one another. I also remember often listening to records of Chopin’s Polonaise and Offenbach’s Barcarolle from The Tales of Hoffman. I’m not sure where these records came from or who they belonged to since no one in my family had attended college, taken music lessons or ever went to a concert. The only time anyone in my family traveled to Baltimore was when taking beef cattle and chickens to sell to the slaughterhouses. But to me that music was magic. All too soon the music was replaced by a television and the inevitable football games which my grandfather, father, uncle and cousins watched rather than talk.
“Give me a child until he is seven and I will show you the man.” A quote attributed to Ignatius Loyola meaning whatever happens to a child in his formative years determines his adult character and values. I think the saying has some validity and is appropriate to me as these early years living on a farm determined my understanding of the Christmas celebration for the remainder of my life – family, friends, church and food. When I was twelve my parents divorced and my Mom and I left the farm to live with my stepfather where new traditions were established. But throughout the years, including my years as a wife and a mother and now a grandmother, Christmas to me is a lighted tree in a window, sitting in a church on Christmas Eve listening, once again, to the story about the birth of Jesus, and spending Christmas Day around a table with family and friends I love and while everyone else is watching football if I close my eyes and concentrate I can hear Chopin’s Polonaise.
~ Written by: Sylvia Winterling