Going through some papers in a drawer I ran across an article my mother’s cousin sent to me after my mother passed away. It was written in December of 1979 by Norma Neperud.
Norma lived on the North Dakota prairie with two siblings. It was December of 1929, just three months after the start of the Great Depression. The Depression didn’t affect them that much in that they were already poor and lived off much of what they produced on the farm.
The family lived in a large farmhouse with the nearest electric power and gas lines miles away. They heated with lignite coal and used no more than a combined two gallons of gasoline and kerosene a week in lamps and lanterns. Norma’s father had a car, but it was used only once a week to go to town for supplies. The farm used 16 mixed breed horses-Clydesdales, Percheron, and Morgan horses which was used for all the farm needs.
They would attend church on one Sunday a month as the minister had four churches to provide services. After the service the church members would retire downstairs to enjoy Scandinavian pot luck.
She remembers that Christmas gifts were created by the giver. “Knitting, crochet, embroidery and sewing needles and many treadle type sewing machines were actively going under the guidance of loving hands from September on.” They created stuffed toys, caps, scarves, socks, tablecloths, mittens, gloves, dresser scarves, doilies, dresses, aprons, shirts and neck scarves. Pocket knives carved wall plaques, animals and birds. All these found their way under the tree or into stockings at Christmas.
What I found interesting was that she talked about spending hours looking at the wish books- the mail order catalogues that arrived with their beautiful array of gifts. (My sister and I would do the same in the early 1950s.) Norma and siblings would look at dresser sets consisting of mirror, brush and comb, crystal, china, clothes, and oh!- the toys. There were bride dolls, baby dolls, Raggedy Ann dolls, flapper dolls, teddy bears, wagons, sleds, tricycles, foot propelled scooters, wind-up toys such as the Tonnerville Trolley and Andy Gump’s car, train sets, doll dishes, rubber balls, games such as checkers and marbles, toy soldiers, Jack-In-The-Box, Tinker Toys, Lincoln Logs, clocks, water colors, crayons and books.
Going to school the family youngsters and their friends would play a game. “We’d look at them with our friends and ask one another, ‘If you could have just one thing, what would you have?’” They had fun talking about what they would want but they knew these items would not be under the tree on Christmas Eve.
She wrote about the school program (in a one room school room) where there were poems, songs and character lines in both a funny play and the recreation of the Nativity. “Protestants and Roman Catholics** joined together in this Christmas program and party. We drew names to exchange gifts, created Christmas decorations and cards out of construction paper, and Oh yes! We sold Christmas seals for one cent each. If you sold ten cents worth you received a pin. Our parents usually bought those ten stamps.”
“Santa would show up and distributed our gifts to one another and our gifts to the teacher. She, in turn, always found enough money in a very slim paycheck to give each of us a gift such as pencils, erasers, rulers, etc. The school board provided apples, oranges, nuts and candy.”
By mid-December the snow lay on the ground in North Dakota and the temperature plummeted. “As I heard the story of Jesus’ birth in a stable, I thought He must have been very cold. I didn’t think of Bethlehem as having a climate different from ours!”
Getting ready for Christmas, pigs were butchered and from them came sausage, headcheese, hams and fresh pork. Her mother would take the fat and rendered lard and made homemade soap which she scented with sassafras. The kitchen was busy baking and using recipes that had been made by generations of Norwegian housewives. “There were ringlet shaped Berline Kranza, Fattimagn Bakkles (jokingly called poor man’s biscuits because they were so rich) Sandbakkles (sand tarts in molds), Rosettes, Kringle (shaped like a figure eight), molasses cookies, butter cookies, Sprita cookies, and nut cookies among others. Mother also baked lefse, a thin flat potato pancake which is served with butter and sugar; flatbrod, a hard flat crisp bread; Julekaga, the Norwegian yeast bread that is flavored with cardamom and filled with cherries, citron, raisins and nuts; and both fruit and butter cakes.
In 1929 one could not find a Christmas tree within the state so the family would have to buy a tree that was shipped from the Rocky Mountains.
“Decorations on the tree consisted of paper chains, popcorn and cranberry chains, a metal star on the top, candles and glass balls and icicles for the branches. Under my father’s watchful eye, the candles would be lit for just a short while on Christmas Eve. As gifts were wrapped and placed under the tree, I used to crawl under it to see if I could guess the contents of the packages.” I would bet that this is still done by children today as I know I also did this as a child.
Christmas was a big family event back then with a number of relatives getting together on Christmas Eve and the mother of the house leading her sisters and sisters-in-law cooking on a black cook stove.
“The menu would consist of things such as: Sot Soppe, which is a sweet soup made of prunes, raisins, orange and apples, minute tapioca, sugar, cinnamon, cloves and water, and there was lutefisk which was a Norwegian Christmas must.” There were meatballs and meats such as turkey, ham, chicken or the goose that had not too long before chased us. There was pickled herring, headcheese, assorted pickles, jellies and jams, canned green peas and beans, mashed potatoes, Julekaga (Christmas bread), rolls, fruitcake, the assorted cookies, chocolate cake and salad. “
“The grown-ups always ate first but we children didn’t mind-we were enjoying being together.”
After dinner we would open the gifts under the tree. We then went home to open our presents under a highly decorated spruce. Then, we also believed in and enjoyed visits from Santa Claus, so on Christmas morning we found our stockings filled with fruit, nuts, hard candy, and hand-created gifts that were strangely similar to those Mother had been working on before Christmas. There also might be one or two gifts such as we had seen in the catalogs.
“When our Christmas holiday was over, we returned to school and enjoyed hearing and telling of the good things Christmas had brought to each of us. It was a happy time.”
** When immigrants from Europe settled in a certain area they would write back to relatives about the good farm land to be found in the US. So certain areas would be settled by friends and relatives who came from the same area in Europe- bringing with them their religion. Small towns would spring up and therefore you would have the farmers and the townsfolk coming from the same area in Europe and with the same religion. Even though there was a public school most of the children were of the same religion and brought with them their ethnic customs.