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Wednesday, Dec. 24, 2008 04:26 pm

Memories of Christmases past

Santa, 1930s-style.
Photos courtesy Sangamon Valley Collection of Lincoln Library
Real reindeer pull Santa's sleigh through downtown Springfield during a Christmas parade in the 1930s.
Photos courtesy Sangamon Valley Collection of Lincoln Library

Candles and popcorn strings on the tree, and the rare fruit treat in your stocking — they were all part of Christmases past. And they’re so removed from our modern lives, which often feature electrically-lit, artificial Christmas trees and fruit every day of the year.

Here, for your enjoyment, are reminiscences of Christmases long ago, which come from the University of Illinois at Springfield’s online Oral History Collection (www.uis.edu/archives/contents.htm), which includes interviews with hundreds of central Illinois residents about their lives.

“At school there was about a 10-cent limit for a present” for the annual holiday gift exchange, said Cory, Ind., native John J. Staggs in his oral history. Staggs was born in 1903.

“At home, maybe we’d have a stocking. Of course, I was the youngest…and in my stocking, I would usually get an orange. That’s probably the only orange I’d have during the whole year.”

The late Margaret Ferguson, a Springfieldian born in 1904, recalled “during the Christmas holidays, my mother’s friends used to have dinners. Everybody would come and bring something…. This would maybe be a Sunday afternoon during the Christmas holidays.

“You’d spend the afternoon, and you’d play bridge, and you’d turn on the Victrola, and (play) 78 records. And you’d turn them on and you danced. Our house has shook many a time, there’d be so many…people dancing.”

In the 1930s former State Rep. Josephine Oblinger, who was born in 1913 and died in 1998, taught for free at Township Line School, the “only one-room country school left in Cook County,” according to her oral history. “The youngsters had nothing, so any holiday that came along we made a great big to-do about it,” she said. “I don’t care if it was Easter or Halloween, Armistice Day, anytime that was a holiday….

“At Christmastime not one of those children had a Christmas tree in his house, so I’d bring a Christmas tree with some ornaments, and we also made some. Then we’d have a drawing at the end and the winner got to take the Christmas tree home.”

Springfield native Mae Tuttle, born in 1906 and interviewed in 1985, had strong feelings about the holidays. “They’re taking away the spirit of Christmas, having all these Christmas trees decorated downtown. Why, 10 years ago that would have been terrible.”

When her family lived on Stephens Street, she decorated their tree and “put the plug in on the first day of December,” she recalled in her oral history. Then the family moved to Edwards Street.

“One night the telephone rang,” Tuttle said. “It was about the fifth or sixth of December. The lady said, ‘Mrs. Tuttle, you don’t know me, but I was wondering if somebody’s sick at your house of if you had a death or something. How come you don’t have your Christmas tree lit?’

“I said, ‘Well, honey, I’m sorry, but I got my tree lit.’

“She says, ‘Well you don’t. We’ve been by there every night this week and there’s no tree lit at your house on Stephens.’

“I said, ‘Well, I’m sorry, I don’t live on Stephens anymore. I have moved over to Sixteenth and Edwards.’

“She said, ‘Mrs. Tuttle, my children always wait. When Tuttles light their trees, everybody else can light theirs. But I make my children wait till the Tuttles light their tree on the first of December. We got our tree up and I wouldn’t let them plug it in. They was waiting for you to plug yours in.’”

In the “old days” decorating your Christmas tree was much simpler — and cheaper. When James Ray “Bud” Nuckols was a boy, there were no electric lights, he said. Nuckols was an Auburn resident who was born in 1903 in Glasgow, Ky., (and died in 1989).

Nuckols said his family decorated the tree with cranberries and string popcorn, even colored popcorn, “to make colors on the tree. But the only thing you had on the tree in the way of illumination was, it would have to be candles, and you had to be very careful with those because you could burn the house down real easy.”

On the mantel, “you always hung your sock up, one of them big, old long black socks, a clean one, you know,” said former Springfieldian Marie South Williams, who was born in DeSoto, Ill., in 1893 (and died in 1989).

When she was eight or ten, “Grandma put a piece of coal in my stocking,” Williams laughed. “And I was so disappointed…. But after I got the piece of coal out there was a ruby ring down underneath it.”

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