Memories, past and future

John Oncken

Maybe it’s “the times.”

Maybe it’s because I and everyone I know is getting older.  Most probably it’s because the holiday season is when memories sort of sneak back into our minds: the Christmases when our children were young and Santa’s visit was the biggest of events; trying to find presents for growing teenagers who wanted everything; and then all of a sudden the children are gone from home and Christmas presents have receipts in order to be exchanged.

Then again, maybe it’s because in this era of computers, cell phones, email and technology where answers are instant and patience is almost unheard of, people increasingly look to the past when life was lived on a slower track.

Everyone has their own idea of what Christmas was, should be and is. Our upbringing is the big influence, so I can only speak with any authority for myself.

On the farm

I suspect the Oncken family of my childhood was about average for the times. We were farmers who were absolutely tied to the farm. This meant milking cows morning and night; feeding pigs and chickens; cleaning the barn and spreading manure; and doing all the regular chores associated with a Dane County farm.

Pardon me if that scenario sounds a bit strange. What Wisconsin farm today raises cows, pigs and chickens...and tobacco?

In spite of what in retrospect seems like a lot of hard work with few labor-saving devices (no barn cleaner, manure lagoon, milking parlor or hired employees), we always had time for fun and family during the joyous season.

The Oncken farm as it was in its day with cows, pigs, chickens,  
mother, dad and three children. Hard work but happy times and  
great memories.

The big social event

The grade-school Christmas program was the highlight of our community (halfway between Stoughton and Oregon) social season. Of course, it was about the only event (except for the school mother’s club that met monthly) on the calendar. It also marked the end of the school term.

The one-room brick school was the site of the big event, and an overflow crowd was assured because every child had a part in the speaking, singing and the passing-out of homemade presents to our parents.

The rural school Christmas programs are gone, as are the schools themselves, except for a few. Half way Prairie School near Mazomanie is one that still stands and can be seen.

All of these events were but a preliminary for the really big highlight of the night. The jingling of bells and the arrival of Santa Claus (always the alter egos of farmers Joe Stokstad or Lawrence Halvorson) saw that everyone had a bag of candy and nuts, but even more important, they distributed the gifts the students had bought for each other as the result of the exchange of names.

“See you next year,” we all said.

Rural school teachers did it all: created a Christmas program that entertained and made the parents oh so proud and played the piano, just like Cleo Brockman, Mazomanie, who produced many a school Christmas program during her rural school teaching career.

The shopping trip

We didn’t do much shopping:  Our big shopping event was an official family trip to the “square” in Madison, on a Saturday, to buy our presents.

It has been decades since Madison’s Capitol Square was the shopping center for all of southern Wisconsin. I still remember the lights of the stores: Wolf Kubly and Hersig had everything; clothing stores Rundells, Clarks and the Crescent were always crowded; dime stores Woolworths and Kresges were big attractions; and Badger Sports and Wisconsin Felton Sporting Goods were magnets for my brother and me.

The never-ending line of cars circling the Capital and the crowds made a different world for us farm kids. It was excitement and opportunity.


Presents for our parents were mostly on the practical side: shirts, ties, Rockford work socks and yellow, fuzzy work gloves were always possibilities for dad, and perfume, handkerchiefs, pots, pans, dishes and peanut brittle were good choices for mom. I don't remember us kids giving each other anything (until we were older) — our parents took care of our gifts.

Laurel (left) and Lynne and John C. Oncken on a Christmas card from long ago. The girls live in California, and John is a John Deere dealer in North Dakota.

Santa comes calling

Santa always came to the Oncken farm during the night milking or when we were in church on Christmas Eve. My sister who didn’t milk was sent outside or upstairs to do other things, so us three children always just missed seeing Mr. Claus.

We often attended the little white frame Danish Lutheran Church in Oregon, where I always wondered if that big ship model hanging high over the pews might come loose and fall on the worshipers.

Presents were opened on Christmas Eve (after milking or church), and this was a fun time. Everyone was happy with their gifts. Us kids got clothes but also toys (a sled one year, lead soldiers, an erector set), fruit, candy and usually a game the family could play together.

A Christmas tree with all the ornaments has marked the seasons for many lifetimes.

Family get-together

On Christmas day, we always went to a family gathering at the home or farm of an uncle or aunt. My dad had three sisters and a brother, most with growing families, thus making this day almost a family reunion.

Of course there was food — so much food.  After dinner (dinner was at noon in those days), the adults talked about the weather, economics and their families while the youngsters played together with their new toys.

Milking time

Too soon, we had to go home because the cows were waiting to be milked, but of course we couldn't leave the gathering without having something to to eat. So we were late for chores and milking.

That often meant me climbing the silo and throwing down silage that should have been done in the morning, but wasn't. I still vividly remember climbing the steel rungs up that  chute, pitching silage down from that black hole and climbing back down the 20 feet or so to the silage room. My knees still quiver at the thought.

If we were lucky, no calves were born while we were gone, no drinking cups were knocked off by curious (or trouble-making) cows and we eventually got back into the house, late and tired but so happy with the family Christmas events of the day.

Surviving in the old days

How did we survive growing up without TV, cellphones, email and the internet?  Easily and very well.

We talked most all the time. We laughed a lot and didn’t much worry about things we couldn’t control or even knew about. We were all readers: daily newspapers, magazines and books from the library.  And, we listened to the radio: Jack Benny, Bob Hope, Charley McCarthy, dramas, mystery and news.

Nowadays, Christmas often means spending lots of money for gifts for lots of people: Black Friday and big crowds; credit cards; and serious worry that we won’t spend enough to keep all those foreign workers busy making clothing, toys and seemingly everything.

And my life has changed. My parents; all their brothers and sisters; and my wife and brother are all gone, and my children (Lynne, Laurel and John) live far away and have their own lives.

The gifts are wrapped and the big day is near.

Is that bad? No, life changes, and we adjust and adapt. And we have the memories and are always making new ones. I'm sure you made some new ones this year, and even if you are young and “could care less,” someday you will think back and silently (and almost sadly) remember the days of family Christmas long ago.

Trust me.

Merry Christmas.

John Oncken is owner of Oncken Communications. He can be reached at 608-222-0624, or email him at