A Christmas memory
n a cold Minnesota Saturday afternoon in late December my mother is clutching my little sister’s hand as the crowd of women and children in their Sunday finery swirls around us. This much activity is not the norm. The sight of my mother in heels, hose and her “good” fur-trimmed coat meant a special occasion. The fact that we were accompanying her meant that something very extraordinary was happening: Santa was coming to town. Three-year-old Louise grips her brown paper sack of hard ribbon candy and popcorn ball in her mittened hand. Brownie, Danny Brown manager of the Adams Furniture store dressed in his clip on bow tie and short sleeved white shirt, was busy passing out the gift bags to impatiently waiting children. I’m a very mature 7-year-old who has important accessories, along with my personal stash of candy, in my shoulder bag which was now hanging around my knees. Five-year-old Gale, my little brother, sees a friend behind us and twists around to try to talk to him. We’re hot and sweaty after coming out of the warm, stuffy furniture store into the cold afternoon air. We’re wearing heavy winter coats, snow pants and boots.
If you are a grown up lady you don’t have to wear boots in winter unless there’s lots of snow. There are some women who treated the Saturday event almost as if it was any other Saturday. They came to town with their heads wrapped in scarves to thinly disguise the curlers underneath in preparation for their appearance in church on Sunday. They went about the business of getting their weekly groceries at Johnny Wagner’s Super Value, mailing a Christmas package of homemade divinity to their cousin at the post office, followed by picking up red and white stripped candy canes at Schaefer’s Drug Store. What made this day unusual was that these women, including my mother, brought their children with them because the Merchant’s Assn had a wonderful marketing gimmick.
They put their heads together and decided to encourage the farm families to come to town to shop by sponsoring free movies for the children on the Saturday afternoons in December before Christmas. Vernon Schaefer, father of 5, devout Catholic, member of the Merchants Assn who sold insurance and also ran the Adams Theatre, choose appropriate films for young children approved by the Catholic League of Decency. I think we saw Babes in Toyland every Saturday one year.
On the Saturday before Christmas the air was full of electricity as adults and children filled the stores and sidewalks awaiting Santa’s arrival. Seated his La-Z-boy throne, centrally located in the middle of the furniture store, Santa heard all the children’s Christmas wishes. I wanted a real baby doll with beautiful crocheted clothes. Louise wanted a real puppy to could sleep in bed with her.
That wasn’t something that you wanted to hear from someone you share a bed with. Gale wanted a real tractor he could drive to farm the garden.
We were a typical Midwestern farming community in the 50’s. Sacred Heart Catholic Church stood down the crushed rock road yards from my back door. Little Cedar Lutheran Church was directly across the street from my cousin Linda’s house at the other end of town. Marshall Lutheran Church was out in the country. We passed it going to my grandparent’s farm. My dad grew up there and two of his three sisters still lived there along with his parents.
We were not a diverse community. Migrant Mexican farm workers picked potatoes near Blooming Prairie, but that was miles from us and we certainly never came in contact with them. I never saw a black person, except in Missionary pictures of pagan babies, or Life magazine until I was 10 years old.
You wouldn’t know it to look at us, but my two brothers, my sister and I were all the result of a mixed marriage! Our definition of a mixed marriage meant that one party was Lutheran and the other was Catholic. My father was raised in a very strict Lutheran home. My mother’s mother was a devout Catholic who attended daily mass. Grandma was a favorite of the nuns and they often walked past our house on Friday, baking day. Grandma always generously gave them a fresh loaf of bread to take back to the convent.
Despite the fact that we lived a block from the center of town, we kids were never allowed to run wild like a pack of Indians. Getting uptown for the December movies was a mixed blessing. A small taste of the high life, while we were expected to be on our best behavior because after all Christmas was only days away! The unfairness of the pressure to be good.
My mother had a firm grip on her handbag in one hand and my sister in her other leather gloved hand. Mother hurries us along as Louise stared at her reflection in the Adams Furniture Store window. The bank president is passing buffalo nickels out in front of the Farmers State Bank and then it’s across the railroad tracks and home. I can almost feel the cold metal against my warm palm where I slipped it inside my mitten for safe keeping. A nickel bought a lot in 1957.