Thursday, December 23, 2010

A McDougall Family Christmas

I grew up during the 1950's and 60's in a family of eight children on a farm in the Red River Valley in North Dakota. Though we didn't know it at the time, we really had a good life. Our birth order is: Mary Beth, Marlys, David, Barbara, James, Kent, Keith and Alan. There are only ten years difference between the eldest and youngest! Last year, some of my siblings wrote about memories of Christmas from our childhoods and I am sharing those memories here today. I miss being with them at the holidays and wish just once I could bring back those Christmas vacation days we spent together all those years ago. Here are our 

We have so many happy Christmas memories. The anticipation would start soon after Thanksgiving Day. During our elementary years, the season was ushered in with our annual Christmas program at Antelope School. We spent a good share of our curricular time in school during the month of December practicing for the annual Christmas Program. Miss Mary Stone, our music teacher, was highly regarded in the community, and what she said was gospel. The other teachers helped supervise while all the students sat on wooden benches in the gymnasium and sang Christmas carols. There would be little plays on the stage by different age groups. It was always a big night in the community. We definitely learned all the verses to many Christmas carols as a result of those programs. When Kent and Keith were first graders, they had to recite “The Night Before Christmas.”  Mom worked very hard helping them memorize. 

Our Christmas tree would just be there in the living room one day when we got home from school. Dad was never too crazy about having a Christmas tree, or that was Barb’s impression.  “I can remember him saying we weren’t going to get a tree one year. I was very concerned because I really believed him.” We kept our Christmas decorations in an old, black suitcase. Mom would hand us ornaments and we would place them on the tree. There weren’t many other decorations around the house that anyone remembered. One year, though, Mom painted Christmas decals on the dining room window.  The reason Barb remember this is “because I walked into the house after school and there was a big bowl of what I thought was green icing on the dining room table. So, I stuck my finger in and put a big wad of that green “frosting” into my mouth. It was the paint Mom had mixed to paint the windows and it tasted awful. I didn’t dare tell her I had eaten it, I just ran and tried to wash it out of my mouth. I was sick the rest of the afternoon.” 

Shopping for presents for that big of a household must have been a challenge. Keith remembers “One of the most exciting things about Christmas was going shopping. We would get to go to Fleet Farm in Fergus Falls. I had never seen so toys in my life. What a wonderland!”
He continues, “Mom would give us money to shop; I think five or ten dollars. We would shop so carefully because we had to buy a gift for a sibling and Mom and Dad. I remember Kent and I (maybe Jim and Al too) in a fine gift store in Wahpeton, don’t remember the name. Mom was very nervous with us in the store, constantly reminding us “Don’t touch anything!” We escaped for seconds running thru the aisles, accidently bumping into a rack of sterling silver platters, trays, etc. We watched in horror as the rack, much taller than us, swayed slowly back and forth before falling with the loudest crashing sound you could ever imagine. Mom was horrified and embarrassed but not as angry as the clerk. If I remember she wanted to make mom pay for the damage. Don’t know if she ever had to.” 

Music practice for midnight mass was also part of our anticipation of Christmas. The choir, made up of junior high and high school girls, would sing before Mass started. Barb remembers, “One year, our director, Dorothy Klosterman, or Joe’s Dorothy, as everyone called her, had the “great” idea we should bring our band instruments and play Christmas carols before church. We had neither good instrumentation in our small group nor good musical arrangements. We were bad and we knew it, but we performed that night up in the choir loft because that was what was expected of us. No one said anything about it after church, but we could see people’s shoulders shaking down there while we played, so we knew they were not having a spiritual moment because of our music.”

Beth and Marlys remember that Christmas also meant that Dad would go to town and bring home a big bag of Christmas candy and those “awful chocolate drops!” Dad loved Christmas candy, so we had plenty in the house. Barb remembers those candy ribbons.  Marlys said, “The one candy he bought that I did love was chocolate covered cherries!  Dad loved them, too, and I fondly recall that when he took me to UND to start my Nursing classes, he left me with a box of them and it warmed my heart!  I think that he and I may have been the only ones who did like them!” 

Mary Beth and Marlys have early memories of Christmas Eve with our Uncle Colin’s family. Uncle Colin was Dad's younger brother. That tradition changed as both family’s grew in number. They both remembered one Christmas Eve in particular.  Marlys wrote “I vividly remember one Christmas Eve as we were getting ready for company to come, I stood in the vestibule and looked out that window and saw Santa and his eight reindeer flying through the sky to the south!  I'm sure my imagination was kindled by listening to the radio all the time and having to visualize every story!  I truly believe to this day that I saw him!”  
Marlys continued, “Later that night when the McDougall cousins were at our house, a knock came at the front door and everyone scampered to see who it was with vision of sugarplums dancing in our heads!  Lo and behold, Santa came in the door ringing his bells!”  
Beth and Marlys both remember being so excited until our cousin, Bobby reached up and grabbed the beard off of Santa and who should appear?  MOM!!!  They were both devastated!  In fact, Mary Beth remembers Bobby told her that night there was no such thing as Santa Claus. Marlys added, “I really disliked him for a long time after that episode!”  

As the family grew and we celebrated without the cousins, we opened our presents on Christmas Eve. But first, we had our traditional supper of oyster stew and spaghetti. Oyster stew was a holdover tradition from the McDougall side of the family. The spaghetti tradition fit well because it was easy, everyone liked it and it was economical, too! Keith remembers, “The anticipation was always heightened by a great meal followed by doing the dishes…very slowly.”  

And of course, none of us will ever forget that after dishes we would all gather in the living room to pray the rosary. Keith adds it was “the longest rosary ever prayed!”  Marlys concurred, “That was pure torture!  I think Mom led it as slowly as she could to make the suspense even worse!” Interestingly, Keith’s perspective was “The older kids loved prolonging it as much as possible!”
Barb said, “I can remember counting all those ‘Hail Marys’ on my fingers. How many decades left?  I am not certain what we were supposed to have gained from that custom. I now understand that praying the rosary is a meditation. Assuming a child will meditate on the mystery right before we are set to open our Christmas presents was a bit misguided if you ask me. I think Mom’s ultimate goal was that delayed gratification would make us all better people!”

Finally, we settled in our places to open our gifts.  All of our gifts were sorted and we would patiently wait for our turn to open. Perhaps after praying that rosary, waiting for one’s turn was not a challenge! Keith adds, “We opened one gift each, plus the $1 from grandma or a matchbox car. Kent and I sometimes shared a gift, but we didn’t care. Later we drew names for gifts. It was by no means an extravagant affair, but very special. We took our time opening gifts, sharing as much time for the giver as the gift.”  

Somehow, while we were opening the presents, the doorbell would ring. Santa had arrived and there would be the gifts from him on the front steps! Keith remembers, “My earliest memories are of older siblings saying ‘did you hear that?’ Someone outside was ringing the bells.”  Those bells were from the horses our Grandpa McDougall had on the farm years ago.  Keith continued, “We were so excited, wearing our ‘winter” pajamas’.  Do I vaguely remember someone dressed in a Santa costume dropping gifts off in the vestibule?” Barb remembered that as well. “One year, Uncle Bill and Aunt Jean came from California with our cousins, Kathy and Steve.  Our neighbor, Duren Moffett, dressed in a Santa suit and came to our door on Christmas Eve.”

Other than the earlier episode when Mom dressed up a Santa, that was his only appearance. Older siblings obviously remembered the horror of Bobby’s behavior that earlier Christmas and didn’t reveal to the younger siblings that Santa was an interloper! Barb continued “I was relieved he brought them to our front steps. I remember thinking Santa came through a little door in the chimney in the basement. I knew there was no way he could get much through there.” 

Marlys remembers, “We only got one gift for Christmas and my favorite gift ever was a walking doll!  I will never forget that Christmas.”  Barb said, “ I think my favorite Christmas was the one when Jim and I both received guitars. Later, we sat in the den and figured out how to play some chords.  ‘Beautiful Brown Eyes’ was one of our better tunes.”  Keith shared that “One of my most memorable gifts was a white garbage truck that got crushed when Mark Fahsholz parked it under the tire of some ones car.” Barb interjects, “Another pesky cousin!” Keith continues, “ I also got a gas powered plane that I never got to actually fly. My favorite gift as a child was a very heavy duty battery operated tank. Kent got a helicopter. The tank shot plastic shells which did a great job of destroying Christmas tree decorations! The tank lasted for years until our pyrotechnic days. It stubbornly went down in a blaze of glory!”
“The best gift we ever gave was to mom. Kent and I shopped and shopped until we found the cutest ceramic dogs, a mother and her puppies. We fell in love. We couldn’t wait for her to open them. Mother graciously displayed them for several years. We were never so proud! I will never forget Jim’s doll in the best double cross I’ve ever seen. I don’t think he enjoyed that as much as the rest of us!” added Keith.  On that subject, Marlys said, “ Mary Beth always liked to snoop for the gifts, as did James in later years.  I did not like to do that as I wanted it to be a surprise!”  Barb said, “I think the double cross on Jim was that he thought he knew what all of his gifts were, except for that one that was added at the last minute. Everyone else knew it was a doll. He was not amused.”  
Keith said, “I also remember dad buying mom a vacuum cleaner. I can still see him bringing it to the car with a look of satisfaction on his face. Mom didn’t appear quite as satisfied to receive it. But, by far and away the best gift I ever received was one from dad. I was in college. It was crudely wrapped by dad himself. I opened it to find a blanket. I was quite stunned and not very impressed. Later dad sat down beside me and asked how I liked it. Fine, I said. He told me he just wanted to make sure I was warm. I never told him how much I learned to appreciate it nor how many years I used it.”

Christmas vacation was most certainly the best time of the year. Beth said, “Christmas vacation was heaven, Mom went into shut down mode, we played games, did jigsaw puzzles, and skated at the clay pit.  I remember Grandma Veit playing Christmas carols and all the kids singing” Marlys wrote, “Christmas vacations were the best memory I have, as that was one time that Mom sort of relaxed and even let us sleep in!  Then we would go to the Clay Pit every day and ice skate with the neighbor kids, most of who were our cousins.  Dad brought the old brooder house down there, how I don't recall, and put a pot-bellied stove in it so we could use it as a warming house.  Kids came from all over - even from Barney and a grand time was had by all!  I never did learn to skate very good as I was too afraid of falling but loved to watch the older boys play hockey.  We would bring food and cookies down and someone would make hot chocolate for us, so it was a true dream vacation!" Barb said, “Christmas vacation was probably the best week of the year, in my opinion.  We got to sleep in late and just relax.  We would play board games and maybe ride in the toboggan behind the pickup. I did not realize that toboggans were meant for hills.  Hills were an unknown concept.” And Keith said, “Without a doubt one of the most exciting things about Christmas was Christmas vacation. Two weeks to explore the winter wonderland of life on the farm. Wrapped up in many layers of clothes with scarves wrapped around our faces we would roam the “trees” looking for nature’s forts created by drifts around the trees. We wouldn’t come in until our cheeks were literally frozen. I also remember skating at the clay pit. Dad and neighbors had moved our old chicken house there and installed an oil heater inside for a warming house until someone vandalized it. We were left alone often.  Once Jim got cut above the eye by the back of a skate playing crack the whip. We stood on the road until one of the Stones came by to take Jim to get stitches.”

Keith best summed up our family’s Christmas, “I guess Christmas to us was not all about presents. We never went overboard and weren’t spoiled. It was more about spending time together and we seemed to enjoy giving the gift more than receiving. Even later in life at Reiles Acres, it was much more about just being together and enjoying family. I will always look back on our modest Christmases as some of the most enjoyable times of my life.” 

Merry Christmas!! I'll think of you all tomorrow while I'm leading the rosary!


Lisa from Lisa's Yarns said...

This was fun to read! So fun to hear about your Christmas traditions. Many have been carried on, like oyster stew and opening gifts one at a time on Chistmas Eve. No rosary praying in our house though! ;) Wow, what torture!

It does make me feel quite spoiled as the gifts have always been very plentiful!!

mary beth said...

We couldn't have received a better card. I will keep it forever, and hopefully the next generations will enjoy it as well. Thanks, Barb.

Freely Living Life said...

What a wonderful post! Thank you so much for sharing your family thoughts and memories of this special time of year. Merry Christmas from our family to yours!

{{big Christmas hugs}}

Angie & Family

Freely Living Life said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Marlys said...

Awe, that was awesome, Barb! You truly captured the memories we harbor in our hearts and at this time of year, it's great to relive them. I can close my eyes and see the house and even where the tree usually stood until they remodeled the living room. I was gone by then so don't really remember where the tree went after that! I better close as I'm having a tough time seeing through misty eyes! Love you!

qwerkyqook said...

Cool! I think its hilarious that Grandma was the one to dress up like Santa! Grandpa couldn't pull that one off??

marybeth said...

Not plump enough, Suzanne...

Jamie and Missy said...

I laughed, too, at the image of Grandma as Santa Clause, but Beth makes a good point about her plumpness. :)
Thank you, thank you, thank you, Barb, for putting this post together. The McDougall siblings are such great story tellers; there's nothing better than sitting around a circle with all of you.
Lisa is right about all of the continued traditions. I still get a bag of the hard candy Grandpa always had at his house, and I LOVE chocolate covered cherries. Oyster stew, spaghetti, Christmas Eve presents...Jess, Jen and I were just remembering all of the Christmases celebrated in Reile's Acres. Grandma would have us over to decorate the tree every year. Cookies and hot chocolate were served after the task completed. We also remembered "Santa" making an appearance in the middle of present opening on Christmas Eve, his presence made known by the bells outside the front door.
Obviously, Grandpa and Grandma McDougall made Christmas an important part of all of our lives. I hope that I can continue that tradition for our family.

Love to all of you!

-Heidi said...

What a wonderful post! Merry Christmas!

Abby said...

I love this, Barb!! This is so great to have -- I just learned a lot about the McDougall Christmas's -- and had never heard most of those stories!

The rosary part makes me laugh. I'm kind of surpirsed my Mom didn't carry this tradition on, ;) ;) (just kidding, Mom)

Awesome recap with many treasured memories! WE are such a fortunate family :)