“Twas the Night Before Christmas,” 1949 Edition
My dad and nine siblings came together to spend Christmas Eve 1949 in the house where they grew up on a wheat farm in western Kansas. Dad’s youngest brothers and sister still lived at home, but the older ones, World War II survivors, had moved on and were participating enthusiastically in the Baby Boom. Two dozen people ages 0-56 filled the house – babies, toddlers, young kids, Executive Aunts (most of them pregnant), raucous uncles, and grandparents who were experts at managing crowds. Grandpa’s farmhouse had few electric lights, unheated bedrooms, an indoor toilet for #1 only, and a well-kept two-holer outhouse. My recollection is that ten little cousins were all put to bed in one room in two double beds and one crib. No one is here to contradict me, so this is the way it was.
We arrived early enough on Christmas Eve to walk down to the barn and watch the milking. My dad encouraged me to try to milk a gentle cow, and when I couldn’t squeeze out even a drop, he entertained us by spraying milk into the mouths of waiting barn cats. Christmas Eve supper always included soups made with milk and a little onion, with food passed around a table that easily seated 12, more when little ones occupied laps. The youngest of us liked potato soup, older ones ate salmon soup, and the bravest loved oyster stew. Every year, Grandpa ordered oysters for Christmas Eve and drove to Pratt to pick them up at the train station along with a bag of oranges. The aunts had brought a bounty of homemade cookies, candies, pies, and cakes.
The first after-dinner activity on Christmas Eve was, literally, nuts. I loved to open walnuts with a cracker and then use a pick to pry out the meat. The uncles told corny jokes about nuts and then practiced catching airborne nuts in their mouths. I tried to teach my little brother Dave how to crack walnuts, but he got tired and was happy cracking and eating peanuts. We all played board games and then settled down in the darkened living room to sing Christmas carols with Aunt Mary Ann at the piano. Aunt Mary Ann, age 17, could play anything we could sing. We sang pop Christmas songs and religious Christmas songs, while the Executive Aunts organized bedtime. Except for the toddlers still in diapers, getting ready for bed usually included a very chilly trip in the dark to the outhouse, then back to a warm lap to listen to the singing and get drowsy. That must have been the plan.
Aunt Jetta read the nativity story from the Bible, and then we were put to bed. Two sleeping infants were installed at either end of a crib. Cousin Robert, age 6, was in the middle of one double bed with a rowdy four-year old boy on each side of him. Those little boys were thrilled; they got to sleep with the Big Guy. I was in the middle at the head of a second double bed with two and three-year olds on either side of me plus two more at the foot of the bed. In very quiet voices, the Executive Aunts explained that Cousin Robert and Cousin Marilyn were in charge of making sure that everyone stayed under the covers and went to sleep. I wasn’t sure that I was old enough for this responsibility. In parting, one aunt made a mistake. “No kicking, you kids. Go to sleep.”
Photo above: Not So Silent Generation, pre-Boomer cousins Marilyn, Robert, and Roberta at Grandpa’s farm in summer 1948
The door closed and all was quiet. Very quiet. And then little toes stretched out to feel other little toes. Feet reached and pushed. Then the kicking, wriggling, and giggling started. Next, tickling, wrestling, and crying. Cousin Robert had an uproar of jumping monkeys in his bed. This went on for a while until the Aunts came back and talked tough. My mom suggested that Robert and I sing quietly to help the kids fall asleep. After the door closed, Robert, who loved to clown around, threatened to sing “Roll Over,” but started “Silent Night.” He and I sang and sang and sang until all was calm, and we fell asleep, too.
In the Christmas morning darkness, I heard Grandpa go out to do the milking along with a few uncles who dragged themselves awake. Soon after, I heard Grandma in the kitchen, which was my signal to slip out past the little cousins, who were sleeping soundly, grab my clothes and head for the action. The bacon, sausage, and ham were frying. Aunt Marge slid her famous cinnamon rolls into the oven. My job was to cut the biscuits. I trailed after Grandma as she collected the flour, which she did by making a pouch with her apron, pouring huge scoops of flour from a bin into the pouch, and then dumping the contents of her apron on the kitchen table. She added a couple of handfuls of lard from the can on the kitchen stove, sprinkled in water and salt, and then mixed the whole mess quickly with her hands. After she rolled out the biscuit dough, I used the biscuit cutter, a round aluminum model with a little green wooden handle, to cut dozens of biscuits. I cut very carefully, leaving as few scraps of dough as possible. Then, I placed the biscuits on sheets for baking. Cooking with Grandma, who always found important but doable jobs for me, was such a happy time.
Christmas breakfast started after the milking was finished and the cream separated, the men were washed up, and daylight had arrived. Fried meats and gravy, eggs, biscuits, cinnamon rolls, applesauce and more went round and round the big table. Grandpa always washed the dishes with help from uncles, aunts, and me. Meanwhile, the Executive Aunts changed and dressed the mini-Boomers and organized the gift exchange. In vain, I had hoped for at least ten presents from Christmas at Grandpa’s farm. There were ten cousins, after all. My mom patiently explained drawing names, a new concept for me, and I had helped select the present for some cousin or other. I don’t remember what my present was that day, but I do remember the orange. Out on the farm, oranges were a very big deal according to my dad. That was always his favorite Christmas gift. I think the orange tasted so good because I knew how much my dad had loved his Christmas orange in that same house.
The chaos of Christmas presents finished, we collected our stuff and hurried through the cold to our car. We had another Grandma back in Wichita who was cooking Christmas dinner for us, and there would be more presents at her house. Grandpa came out to the car, slipped a quarter each to my brother and me, and whispered that we should keep it a secret. He did this every time we left the farm.
That was a joyful family Christmas for me, late night craziness and all. The Executive Aunts may have experienced it differently, however, because we never did it again. The next time the whole family got together, complete with nearly 40 first cousins, was for Grandpa Tompkins’ 90th birthday in 1983.