Season spurs long ago memories of past Christmases

John Oncken
The three Oncken kids, top left to right, Laurel and Lynne and John C. (bottom) adorned the family Christmas card decades ago - they do so again.

We're well into the memory-making season: That slow down time when the farm crops have been put to bed and people think about their families. That includes me and It seems the older I get the more I think of days gone by.

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, then all of a sudden the children are gone from home and Christmas presents often are in the form of gift cards or presents coming by FedEx or UPS. For sure all have gift receipts awaiting the inevitable exchange for a different size or color. 

Then again, maybe it's because in this era of computers, cell phones, e-mail  and high 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 different memories of  what Christmas was in days gone by. 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. 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?

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 community's  social season: of course, it was about the only event (except for the summer school picnic) on the school calendar.  The school Christmas Program also began the holiday vacation that ran until the day after New Years Day. 

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 school play, or carols or the band with instruments made up of sand blocks, shakers, and triangles accompanied by the teacher on piano.     

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) who 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.

The buying of a gift for the person whose name you drew was always a challenge for me:  What to get for an eighth grade girl when you are a second grade boy or conversely, what to buy a third grade girl when you are a sophisticated eighth grade boy? Both major challenges indeed. 

Cleaning up

Our family 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. And, we were the family that lived closest to the school, only a quarter mile away at the end of our long driveway. 

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 30 or so students played a part, carols were sung by parents and students, the arrival of Santa who distributed goodies and the gifts we made for our mothers. See you next year, we all said in parting as we left for home. 

Great granddaughter Avery Riskey meets Santa in Grand Forks, North Dakota.

Teachers that were

I'm still in awe of those school teachers we had in that one-room school, (I had only four different teachers over my eight years.)  Most had but two-year degrees (if that),  taught some 30 students in eight grades, then prepared for a Christmas program that included a play, a pickup band using home made instruments and singing a few Christmas carols.   

Cleo did it all

Cleo Portman, created school Christmas Programs and played piano for them.

Some years ago I visited the Half Way Prairie School between Mazomanie and Marxville, a one-room school appearing as it was in its glory days (it's open to the public) where I met Cleo Brockman who lived across the highway and sort of watched over the old school.  We visited several times later at the school or her house and did a lot of talking about one-room schools and their annual Christmas programs of which Cleo had produced many.

Cleo played the piano so she was far ahead of many teachers who had to depend on visiting music teachers.  We agreed the Christmas program was a big event for farm families and something neither of us would ever forget. (Note: Cleo died several years ago at age 95.)

Family gathers

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 at noon, the adults talked about the weather, economics and their families while the youngsters played together with their new toys they brought to show off. 

Laurel Oncken Curet continues an Oncken Christmas tradition of serving fondue on Christmas Eve.

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.  

Over the years my Christmas activities have changed. My folks and their siblings are gone, my children are far away in North Dakota and California and the last of the one-room schools closed in 1968 but the memories remain. I ran into this e-mail I sent to family members in 2005 - it tells it all:

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year....

I remember Christmas on that little farm at the end of the long driveway so many years ago.  We'd hurry through the milking and rush to attend Christmas Eve services at the then Danish Lutheran church in Oregon. Mother was always especially late those nights ... and we waited out in the car.  When we returned home, Santa had come!

Do you remember when we saw Santa running across the field in Green Bay that bright Christmas Eve?  You were all so excited. 

Then there were the many Christmas Eves at Sun Prairie when Santa often came while we were attending church. 

Although our family is now split apart in terms of distance, we still remember Christmas and each other.

Try as we might, we can't hold on to the past.  Each year is new and different and will be a cherished memory in years to come.  Have a happy Christmas. Enjoy. Remember.

John Oncken can be reached at