This story is from Pearl O’Neill and was submitted as part of our Wisdom from Our Elders collection of self-sufficient tales from yesteryear.
In the olden days, my family and I lived on a farm in northwest New Jersey. Back in those days, we had lots of snow and hills to slide on with our Christmas sleighs and enjoy the holidays.
On Christmas Day, the farm animals had to be cared for first. My father always had 24 milk cows, so every morning and night we milked the cows. We had to use a kerosene lantern hung on a beam in the barn to have light to milk the cows when I was 7 years old. Once you learn to milk, you never forget how.
All the food — wheat and corn — needed to feed the farm animals was grown on our farm. We had chickens for eggs and meat. We had a large vegetable garden, and my mother put up all kinds of vegetables and even crocks of sauerkraut and pickles. Our large apple orchard provided fruit for apple butter and applesauce.
When it came near Christmas, our mother sewed new clothes for us. The material came from used clothes sent to us from the city. Chicken feed came in printed sacks, and these were used for clothes, too.
Our Christmas tree came from the woods on our farm. We would walk in the woods and find just the right tree and then cut it down. The tree was decorated with homemade ornaments. We did not have glue, so some were made out of flour and water. While in the woods, we collected ground pine for wreaths and garland. This ground pine is an evergreen vinery plant that creeps along the ground and has florets that look similar to crow’s feet. Princess pine also grew in the woods, but we did not gather this. These plants are a variation of a family of plants called ground moss.
Our Christmas gifts were new clothes, a sleigh for my brother, a dolly for me, and always new mittens and hats. We hung out stockings for oranges, nuts, and hard candies. The only stores were in Portland, Pa., so my mother would take eggs to trade for flour, sugar, or what was needed. In 1929, my father bought a Ford car that we could then get to the store or visit more. I remember one day in Portland when the Salvation Army was having a parade. The women wore bonnets and the men were in uniforms and playing drums.
So, the Christmases of yesteryears were quite different from Christmases of today.
Over the river and through the woods to grandmother’s house we go. The horse knows the way to carry the sleigh over the drifted snow.
When I was small and it came Thanksgiving Day, my father would hook up the horses and bobsled and away we would go to an aunt’s house. He would put straw in the sled, and we took blankets to cover us up to keep warm.
We did not always have turkey for dinner. Sometimes, it was chickens from her backyard. We had mashed potatoes with all the trimmings, including pumpkin pie and green tomato mince meat pie.
On Christmas, we stayed home. There was a tree from the woods on our farm which we trimmed with homemade ornaments. My mother made us new clothes from hand-me-downs or from the beautiful printed feed sacks.
There were not any stores near where we lived, and economic times did not allow for buying store-bought clothing.
On New Year’s, we went to an aunt’s house. She always had stuffed spare ribs made with a bread stuffing and herbs. I still make this dish every year. This aunt’s house is where I was born on Feb. 16, 1916.
Photos by Pearl O’Neill
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