Christmas: Family and memories

John Oncken

I sometimes wonder: Are the ‘times' better now with our computers, smart phones, email and the other forms of social media than during my growing up days when the telephone and radio were the media kings? 

(Note - Everything I write from here on in this column will be branded as a product of old age by many but I’ll continue anyway.) 

No too many years ago, the Christmas and New Year’s season was the major event of the year. It was family time on the Oncken farm, the one-room brick grade school down the road was empty and cold, the tobacco stripping house was steamy warm and the sons, John and Donald, and dad, John, worked together every day stripping tobacco, cleaning barn pens and generally “catching up.”

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

We also had the extra job of cleaning up the schoolhouse as dad was the Flint School District clerk and seemed to be responsible for getting the school in shape for the next semester. That meant we swept up the peanut shells and gift wrappings left over from the Christmas program held the Friday night before vacation. We also had to dismantle the stage made of 2 x 12-foot planks and low saw horses that held them up and carry them back down to the basement.

It wasn’t hard work and didn’t take very long but I remember it was sort of sad picking up after that joyous event and remembering the play in which all the 30 or so students played a part — the carols sung by parents and students, the arrival of Santa who distributed candy, nuts and the gifts we made for our mothers. 

Still can’t believe

Even today I can’t believe that one year I made a cross-stitched sampler for my mother that she hung in the living room for decades and which hangs in my bedroom today.  How did a rough and not very handy farm boy make such delicate stitches on that 8 x 10 inch piece cloth? I remember being embarrassed about even doing it — farm boys just didn’t sew with a needle and thread (that was girls work) but it was the Christmas project for the year, so I had little choice.

A sampler made for mother in grade school. How did I do it?

I do know that it is a cherished memory of a long ago time — and that’s what the holiday season is all about, isn’t it? 

Stripping tobacco

The holiday school vacation was also about stripping tobacco on ours and many (maybe most) farms in the Stoughton area of Dane county. It was the “money crop” often used to pay the farm mortgage or in the Oncken home, to buy a much-needed piece of household equipment like the steel kitchen cabinets that dad had installed one year.

Tobacco stripping involves inserting the lath holding six or so shed dried tobacco plants into a wooden holder nailed to the wall that held the plants at chest height thus allowing us to use both hands to strip the leaves from the stem. The leaves were compressed in a paper sheet lined, handmade press, tied in a bundle and stacked in the shed until the crop was sold.

A pile of cured tobacco waiting to be stripped.

Interestingly, the tobacco buyers representing three or four companies all descended on the tobacco farms the same day, offering the same price which in those days was 25 cents a pound or less. (Today the few tobacco growers remaining get a price of about two dollars a pound).

Talking and listening

The job was sort of boring, broken up only by our never-ending, sometimes heated, but always interesting conversations and a radio tuned to country music (Roy Acuff, Hank Williams, Hank Snow etc.) playing in the background. 

Christmas Eve was the single most anticipated night of the year, that’s when Santa made his stop at the Oncken farm (always during evening milking) and left gifts under the tree.

Before the presents were opened.

After milking, washing up and putting on better clothes Mother read the Christmas story from the bible and finally we opened presents. 

Santa comes

In those simpler days Santa’s presents included something for each family member, maybe a family game (checkers, Monopoly, Tiddly Winks) and for sure clothes and candy, nuts, oranges and apples in our stocking hung on the sofa (we had no fireplace) and, of course, the presents we had bought each other.

I don’t remember ever having a disappointing Christmas Eve, after all we were a rather isolated farm family, any gift was much appreciated and there was no TV or internet to tempt us with new things or big sales. 

The big meal

Christmas Day was our second biggest family get together (after the July annual family reunion) when my dad’s cousins (Onckens, Timmermans, Waltersheits and Koltes families) got together at one of the homes for a big meal (adults at the big table, youngsters at card tables) and much talk.

John and Jan Oncken (back row far left) gather with their children, Lynne, Laurel, Joan and John C. and their grandchildren (seated).

Although the families lived close — from Stoughton to Waunakee — during my grade school days, we didn’t travel often and far, so this was a  cherished event.

Always the cows

I was always envious of my cousins who didn’t have to go home early to milk cows and do chores. And, it seemed that too often that when we did get home something had often gone wrong during our joyful day: A cow had broken her drinking cup and the gutters were full of water; a stanchion was dislodged from its fitting and a cow was wandering around the barn or I had to climb the pitch black silo chute to throw down the silage I hadn’t done in the morning.

As I grew older, went to college, got married and had children Christmas naturally changed: my parents and the cousins passed on and we had Christmas dinners with my brother’s family or friends but Christmas Eve presents and the big dinner remained until my wife died about three years ago.

In our family (while we lived in DePere and Sun Prairie), Jan baked a dozen (or more) big coffee cakes that I and my children, Lynne, Laurel and John delivered to friends on Christmas Eve. Afterwards we went to church. When we got home we always found  Santa had been there and put presents under the tree.

One of the most memorable holiday seasons I can remember was the year I met the forlorn and apparently down fallen elderly man (we called him “Mr. Felzer") living alone in a shack near the railroad tracks in West DePere. We put up a small tree and decorated it. Jan cooked a Christmas dinner that we brought to him along with a few presents. He was so happy — and we sort of took care of him for two years. It was a great feeling!

Merry Christmas!

Times do indeed change but I’m certain that my memories of Christmas are much different than those of my parents when electricity wasn’t yet in common use, phones were party-line, Model T cars were slow and had flat tires, paved roads weren’t common and life was all about physical labor and hard work.

Yet, Christmas is about family and memories: children being born, growing up, moving away and raising their own families and remembering the past. Whatever your Christmas may be — enjoy   

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