Christmas: the memory making season

John Oncken
The Oncken family  some years ago: (top) Lynne (daughter), Jan, Laurel (daughter) , John C. (son),  (bottom right) John F. (me).

A Christmas play, songs of the season sung by children, Santa Claus, a crowded and often steamy hot building, simple gifts and community spirit second to none come to my mind during the Christmas season.

I guess I’m one of the still-many former farm boys (and girls) who attended a one-room school and remember the hard work and joys of the annual Christmas program. Of course it’s all about nostalgia, family and a simpler life when there was no TV, no shopping malls and active farms were located every half mile or so on rural roads. It was also during a time when dairy barns were cleaned daily with a fork, shovel and scraper, manure was stored on a pile in the barnyard, silage was thrown down the silo chute with a wide fork and hay was stored loose (or in small bales) in the haymow.

What would Christmas be without a tree?

The one room school

The time was prior to 1968 —the year the last of Wisconsin’s 6,000  public rural grade schools closed. Farm consolidation was beginning, meaning the farm families were fewer and further between. And teachers, willing to put up with teaching eight grades and doing the janitor work, were hard to find and were (very logically) unwilling and unable to work for the very small wages the school district was able to pay.  And by large, the farmers and educators agreed that the one-room grade school had served its time and school consolidation swept across the state.

Every rural, one room school had a Christmas program.  Imagine a stage and a jam-packed crowd.

Yet even today the advent of the Christmas season brings fond memories  to many of us who attended these long-gone little schools as we remember  “the big event” — the Christmas program.  Am I the only one who finds that the older I get, the more I think about Christmas celebrations of the past, oft times, the long ago past? I doubt it. It’s logical. As our children grow up, go to school, move away and have their own lives and children, Christmas becomes more distant and less active for the older generation like me.

Faithful readers of this column may remember my past occasional musings about growing up on an 80 acre family farm in the Township of Rutland half way between Stoughton and Oregon on then highway 106 (now 138).

The highlight

The rural school Christmas program was the highlight of the year — everyone in the community attended meaning the building was packed to the rafters. I'll never know how the teacher and a once-a-week traveling music teacher put the hour-long program together. Us students sang carols, mumbled our “pieces” and presented a short play —all without any perceivable talent.

A sampler created by the writer many years ago. A first and only.

I think all of the 32 students (in eight grades) were more scared and embarrassed rather than eager to have to go public with such things, but needless to say, our parents were proud as can be and also silently wondered how the teacher had gotten their sons and daughters onto a stage, in front of people, in the first place.

Still remember teachers

Somehow I still remember the names of  my teachers in my years in Flint School: Joyce Otteson, Gladys Zoellich, Elaine Linzmeier and Ethel Martin, each of which was a “miracle maker” in her own way who not only taught reading, writing and ‘rithmatic to eight grades of farm kids but found time to produce the Christmas program. That meant not only help us to learn our parts in the play, sing songs and play instruments in the band (sand blocks, triangles and shakers) while trying to keep up with the piano. 

The teacher also oversaw the assembly of the stage — 2 x 10 painted planks and table tops (normally used for noon lunch) atop the sawhorses about two feet high that were stored in the basement for that once a year event.  

A tree with lots of presents means children and new memories to be made.

Not so good

That last practice — the morning of the program — was always a disaster: forgotten lines, curtain pullers pulling at the wrong time, mother’s gifts still being finished and I’m sure the teacher just a beat away from a heart attack. A mess! Then someone mentioned he had heard that a bad last practice in a big time Broadway show was a good sign.


And would you believe? That’s the way it went. Even if a few lines were messed up, songs off key and little Sammy wet his pants while reciting his Christmas piece, the packed schoolroom full of proud parents applauded long and loud and rushed to hug their children after the final curtain. Isn’t that what parents always do?

Here comes Santa

Then came the loud rap on the door and in came Santa with a big "Ho, Ho, Ho" and his bag of candy, peanuts and presents. The mothers always received a gift their children had made in school: The only thing I remember making was a cross stitched “sampler” made to hang on the wall. 

Strangely enough Mother kept it on the wall at home and gave it to me when she and dad sold the farm and moved — but, it still hangs in my bedroom for these many years.  I must have been about 10 - 12 years of age and in spite of my total lack of ability to do much of anything mechanical or creative (except for writing a bit) with my hands but still am sort of proud of the accomplishment. 

Not a vacation

No, Christmas vacation wasn't a vacation from the farm — not at all.  There were the cows to be milked, chores to be done and tobacco to be stripped. But we seemed to celebrate in our own simple, family-oriented, way.

Stripping tobacco and bundling it for delivery was a major part of Christmas vacation at the Oncken farm.

Why bring up happenings of decades ago? Because Christmas Day was a big family event when one of dad’s siblings — there were five in total, my dad, his brother and three sisters — hosted a big family dinner (dinner was at noon in those days) and the house was packed with adults and kids.

Turkey or chicken or maybe a goose was the main course and the table was always full of the finest food and enough to stuff the biggest eater. Of course, adults sat at the dining room table, kids at card tables set up in the living room. The adults talked and talked — about family, world events and past Christmas' they remembered. The kids played with the new toys Santa had brought and often short-lived arguments broke out among them as to who should play with this or that and for how long.

Too soon, we had to go home because the cows were waiting to be milked. But, it seems we were always late with the chores — we couldn't leave the gathering without having something to eat. 

Family time

The Christmas season is the prime time for making family memories as everyone over about 40 years of age will know. (Don't scoff younger readers, if you are lucky you, too, will reach the age when your youth will come back to haunt you or fill you with pride and good memories.)

My memories of growing up on the farm are all good; it seems I've forgotten the bad things that I'm sure must have happened. Hopefully you too will make many great memories this holiday season, and like me, tell others about them decades later. 

Merry Christmas!

John Oncken is owner of Oncken Communications. He can be reached at 608-222-0624, or e-mail him at jfodairy2@gmail.com.