Pausing to reflect on Christmas from long, long ago

John Oncken
Lots of presents under the tree when the kids are still living at home.

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 of days gone by sort of sneak back into our minds.  

Christmas was always and still is the biggest of family holidays. During my childhood days making a trip to a local farm (or city lot) for a tree was always the official family start of the holiday season. Getting the tree set squarely and unpacking the decorations stored in boxes came next. Mother supervised as mothers tend to do. 

A letter to Santa

Then our anticipation of the arrival of Santa grew by the day. I knew as a real young boy that a letter to Santa was a must. I didn’t want to take the chance of not finding any presents under the tree on Christmas Eve or Day. That reasoning continued with our three children a generation later.  

Costs more

Today Christmas is far more expensive for parents than it was for mine. It’s now the era of computers, cell phones, e-mail, and high technology. Buying gifts, especially for the kids, grew more difficult as they grew into their teen years and wanted “everything.”  Then all of a sudden the children are gone from home and Christmas presents are accompanied by receipts in order to be exchanged. 

Jan Oncken rests a moment after getting the decorations “just so.”

Maybe that’s why I and many other 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 influencer, so I can only speak with any authority for myself.  

On the farm

I suspect that 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. 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 big social event

The grade school Christmas program was the highlight of our Flint School community  (half way between Stoughton and Oregon) social season. Of course, it was about the only community event held. It also marked the end of the fall school term.

With families scattered, the family Christmas dinner is hard to arrange.

The one-room brick school was the site of the big event and an overflow crowd was assured because every child (about 30-32 in total) had a part in the speaking, singing and the passing-out of homemade presents to our parents.  

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

At evening’s end we wished each other a “Merry Christmas” and a sort of humorous “See you next year,” goodbye. 

The shopping trip

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

Reese Riskey, the first Oncken great granddaughter - son John's granddaughter.

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 (they 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 I. The never-ending line of cars circling the Capitol and the crowds made a different world for us farm kids. It was both 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. Perfume, handkerchiefs, pots, pans and dishes and peanut brittle were good choices for mom. And, I don't remember us kids giving each other anything (until we were older). Our parents took care of our gifts.

Members of the Oncken family gather for a Christmas photo in 2006 in Wisconsin. From left are Cameron, Trace and their mother Laurel Oncken Curet, Costa Mesa, Calfornia and Megan, Joe and Nicole Oncken (son John’s children), Grand Forks, 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, Audrey, who didn’t milk was sent outside or upstairs to do other things, so the three of us children always just missed seeing Mr. Claus. But mostly Santa came while we were attending the little white frame Danish Lutheran Church in Oregon for Christmas Eve services. It took me years to figure out why my mother was always the last one out of the house and into the car to leave for church. 

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. We eventually got back into the house late and tired but so happy with the family Christmas events of the day.

Laurel, left, and Lynne and John C. Oncken on a Christmas card from long ago (the 70’s). The girls live in California and John is a John Deere dealer in North Dakota.  It’ still appropriate.

Christmas today is different as families spread apart and oh, the pandemic! And my life has changed. My parents, all their brothers and sisters, my brother and my wife Jan are all gone and my children (Lynne, Laurel and John) live far away and have their own lives.  

Is that bad? No, life changes and we adjust and adapt. And, 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 e-mail him at