Christmas on Kelleys Island Long Ago
By Frances Kolson © 1985
As soon as Thanksgiving was over, the excitement and anticipation of Christmas began.
By that time, we had received the sears and roebuck catalog and we kids played a game "I'll take this" while pouring over every page of dolls and toys, taking turns picking out the things we would like but really didn't expect to get.
About the same time, I would set out my dolls from a year or two ago for Santa to pick up so Mrs. Santa Claus could make new clothes for them and somehow restore their battered faces and hair. The china dolls had beautiful faces and all they needed was new wigs and clothes. I treasured these dolls and took very good care of them.
Mom started to buy ingredients for the literally hundreds of cookies she would bake. The first ones were cut-out dark cookies from an old German recipe. When we were big enough, we were allowed to help. Mostly we made gingerbread men from the dough. These cookies were packed in a bushel basket and set out with about another bushel of white cookies for Mrs. Santa Claus to frost and decorate. It was only when we were bigger, and no longer believed in Santa Claus, that we were allowed to stay up and help frost and decorate cookies while the smaller children slept. There were eight of us kids so it was quite a feat to get things done so the little kids would not be disillusioned.
At that time, there were no gift shops on Kelleys Island. The grocery stores had a few things, but nothing we kids liked. Mom and Dad would put in a big order to Sears for something for everyone - mostly clothes that we needed and at least one toy or doll for each of us. I once received a cradle for my newly dressed doll, and I was thrilled with it.
There was also the worry of not getting our order on time, because there was no airplane mail service, and if the lake was frozen, our mail came (sometimes only once a week) by an Iron Clad open boat, which was pushed by several men on the ice. If there was open water, they would get in and run the boat until the next frozen part, repeating the process and slowly making their way to the island. My uncle was one of these mail men for many years, and I think there must be a picture of the boat and men somewhere in the old house at Kelleys Island. I remember looking out of the front windows and watching the mail come over ever so slowly.
Mom was busy baking more cookies and fruit cakes, and cleaning everything for the big day.
My Dad was also busy. We had two horses and two cows which had to be fed and cared for. No matter what the weather or how high the snow, we would have to get to the barn very early in the morning to milk the cows and feed and water them, as well as feed and give water to the horses. The cats and kittens which lived in the barn were always the first to get a bowl of warm milk. This whole routine had to be repeated in the evening, and I can still see Dad carrying buckets of warm milk to the house where it was stored for our use. When the milk cooled, the cream would be skimmed off to be used for coffee and fabulous desserts, and was also churned into butter.
In the summer, the horses and cows would be taken to pasture where there was grass for grazing and many beautiful pine trees-one of the nicest was sure to be our next Christmas tree.
We never saw the tree until Christmas morning. I guess Dad stored it in the barn.
There was usually much snow in December and sometimes we would ride to school in a bobsleigh, and the horse would even have trouble getting through the snow because we had to go the back way. The snow banks on the road were so high that nothing could get through. Dad would bother to put the sleigh bells on, and we would be covered by a blanket. We often sang Christmas carols on the way. It was fun for us, but I think when Dad got back home he would be nearly frozen, and welcome the heat from the big Iron Coal stove in the kitchen, or the big base burner in the living room. The base burner was a great stove with large chrome rails to rest one's feet on, and some special glass all around it so you could see the fire and how fast the coal burned. Sort of like a protected fireplace! On cold winter mornings, I would bring my clothes from upstairs and get dressed by the stove. Dad got up about 5:00 every morning to light the stoves, both in the kitchen and the living room. They were banked for the night and had to be stirred and poked and refueled to start the day.
When it got close to Christmas, we always received a big box from Aunt Ellen. She was fairly well to do and even owned an Alaskan seal fur coat. In the box there was a gift for everyone. These would be opened on Christmas Eve. The gift I remember most as a black and white fur muff and matching scarf. My sister Esther got an opossum set. Hers had longer hair and was gray. (I liked mine better!) I was about seven years old and couldn't wait to get to church to show it off. I remember going up front, and I was sure everyone was admiring me.
Finally, it was Christmas Eve, and when we were smaller, had to go to bed early to give Santa time to do his work. We all hung our stocking up, and we even put one up for the dog!
I never could sleep well and would sneek down the steps, but couldn’t see into the living room because at that time there was a door and a center hall from the front door to the kitchen. Aunt Detsy and Andy later had it removed, and also the wall, so the room would be open. When I got near the bottom of the steps, there was usually a few of the other kids already there. Then Mom or Dad would come out and chase us back up stairs saying, "Santa won't come if you are not sleeping."
I tried hard to sleep, but couldn’t. I slept with Esther then in a double bed near the window in a south room. I can remember quietly getting out of bed and looking out the window at the frozen lake with the moon shining on it making the scene seem unreal. The sky was clear with some white drifting clouds and stars peeking through, and I swear to this day I could see Santa and his reindeer going across that sky. A couple of times I got dressed (so I'd be first downstairs in the morning) and went back to bed and slept a little off and on until morning.
Even now when I think of Christmas, I think of going downstairs on Christmas morning and seeing everything for the first time. The beautiful tree with real lighted candles and garlands of popcorn we had strung for Santa-some old fashioned ornaments and frosted cookies-and my dolls looking very beautiful in their new wigs and clothes. There was clothes for each of us, and some special toy chosen for the smaller children. One Christmas there as a big rocking horse and a sled. If ever there was a fairyland, this was it!
Our stocking were full of candy, nuts, oranges, and small trinkets. We finally calmed down enough to look at each other's gifts and we were very happy.
When we where older, we often walked to church for midnight mass. Dad went then and Mom stayed home with the younger kids and went on Christmas day. The walk to church was lovely-snow crunching beneath our feet-the lake a glistening expanse and the pond quiet and frozen, also. There was no marina then, and the pond was on the side of the road opposite the lake. This made one feel almost as if he were walking over abridge, which was the road. The brightness of the moon on the ice made everything look shiny and new.
Midnight mass was very special and almost everyone on the island attended. The church was beautifully decorated. Dozens of candles glowed, and the nativity scene was the most beautiful ever. The figures were hand painted and looked so life-like on the real hay. It was always a very moving experience.
Finally we got home, looked at our gifts again, and had a snack before finally getting to bed for a few hours rest. Then the smaller kids got up and the excitement started again. Thinking back, I don’t know how Mom and Dad stood it. They could not have gotten any sleep.
Christmas day was busy and happy. Neighbor kids came in to see what we got, and stayed to eat and play.
We had a fabulous Christmas dinner-roast chicken and dressing-(Dad raised the chickens)-and almost everything one could think of. Mom baked the pies and rolls, and even churned the butter. Everything was homemade and delicious.
Even with all of us, she invited a man who lived alone in that house next to sunrise point. He came every Christmas and most Easters for years.
The long and happy day finally ended and we went to bed early, secure in the love and togetherness of a close-knit family. This was the time to dream of the next Christmas on Kelleys Island.
It is no doubt hard for you to imagine that all of this was accomplished without benefit of running water, electricity, radio, or tv (for which I will be eternally grateful). It was much like living "The little house on the prairie", where family counted more than things!