Christmas memories so dear to my heart

Colleen Kottke
Wisconsin State Farmer
Dressed in their ragtag winter garb, Colleen Kottke, right, and her siblings from left, Pam, Bobby and Judy, climbed the stairway leading to the second story of the H.C. Prange store to visit Santa.

When we were little kids, the days leading up to Christmas were filled with much joyful anticipation mixed with dread. What if the elves told Santa that we had poured a bottle of mom’s perfume all over her bed? Or left the water running in the upstairs bathroom sink, only to have it soak through the kitchen ceiling below?

Dressed in our ragtag winter garb, we climbed the stairway leading to the second story of the H.C. Prange store that had been transformed into a winter wonderland. Up among the giant candy canes and mechanical reindeer and elves, there sat Santa in all his glory. With our lists in hand, did we dare ask Santa for that coveted toy not knowing whether we fell in with the “naughty” or “nice” crowd?

On Christmas Eve we were shuffled upstairs to bed early, our heads filled with the warning that Santa might bypass our house if we happened to be awake while he was cruising over Fond du Lac. Looking back now, I realized that our early bedtime was a way to buy time for parents who worked through the night to haul in the Christmas tree and trim it with lights, ornaments and strands of tinsel, and assemble toys and fill stockings. No wonder they seemed so tired when we rousted them out of bed at the crack of dawn.

With our treasured new toys in hand, we made the rounds on Christmas day. First stopping at our grandma’s house in the city and then off to the farm where we would meet up with our five cousins. 

On any given Sunday us band of cousins would head off to the barn to play in the granary and hayloft or explore the creek for frogs or hickory nuts in the nearby woods. In wintertime we would don layers of snow pants, parkas, gloves, scarves, hats and boots and head off with the sleds, saucers and wooden toboggan in search of the best sledding hill. Out on top of the Ledge there were plenty to choose from.

The climb to the top was a ponderous affair. And when we finally crested the hill we piled on for the thrilling ride to the bottom – if we were lucky and didn’t crash halfway down.

After all these years, Wisconsin State Farmer editor Colleen Kottke, petting dog, says time spent on Christmas Day with her cousins are among the best memories of her childhood.

Dressed in our new Christmas clothes, we were confined to the house but still found plenty to do downstairs playing pool or trying to make a high score on the old pinball machine that grandpa rescued from the town dump. We also raided grandpa’s assortment of chocolates – poking holes in the bottoms to avoid the pink or orange-filled ones in search of the prized caramels.

After a hearty supper of goulash and soup, the younger crowd hurried through washing and drying dishes so we could open presents. Afterwards we would beg grandma to set up the slide projector. Sitting in the darkened living room we watched image after image of our grandparents’ travels out West, and then shrieked with laughter when pictures of us kids would appear on the screen.

I’m so glad I missed growing up with smartphones. We were reveling in the present moment – laughing, teasing, fighting and enjoying each other – all together in one place. Grandma and grandpa have been gone now for nearly 30 years, the sledding hill is dotted with houses and we all have lives of our own.  Sadly the only time we gather together now is for weddings or funerals.

I don’t remember what I asked Santa for, or what my favorite gift was, but I do remember seeing Grandma’s lit Christmas tree standing in the window, a welcoming beacon to a band of tired, red-cheeked, happy kids trudging back from a long day of sledding. Christmas isn’t about the decorations or presents, but the preciousness of joining together with loved ones and making memories...and that’s what I hold dear to my heart to this day.