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Christmas reflections from long ago

Mike Watson writes: This was written by Adair County's own Henry Giles, a well-known humorist and philosopher, among many other talents. It first appeared in the Adair County News in 1961 and was repeated, for the message was timeless, in December 1975. Enjoy!

Christmas Long Ago by Henry Giles

Each child hung up only one stocking, but its contents seemed wonderful. And there was fruit and brought-on tidbits that were rare indeed. The title has been forgotten, but each year as the season approaches, a little four-line Christmas poem still echoes from 'way back yonder.'

Close your eyes and listen to it as recited by a slender little six-year old girl--blue-eyed and blonde, Cousin Pearl.

Dressed in a stiffly starched, red-and-white checkered dress, Cousin Pearl tips noiselessly to the center of the stage in front of the big Christmas tree. All is quiet in the little one-room school house at Spout Springs in Adair County, as she holds up a small stocking and recites:

I'm going to hang up a stocking.

I want to hang up two.

But Mama says, "No, Pearl,

One will do."

Many recall the late 1920s and early 1930s and hard times. So, by today's standards, ours of some 30-odd years ago could be classified as strictly one-stocking Christmases; but to us, then, there didn't seem to be anything amiss. And time has since blended and fused all those Christmases into one long, joyous holiday. In memory, there is only one giant school Christmas tree; one Christmas stocking; one long, Christmas Day rabbit hunt; and one great feast and Christmas meeting at the church on Christmas night.

Planning: It started early for school and home. Here, Christmas had to start early. In October we began "saving up for Christmas." First, there was the black walnut crop to bring in a little money for the women folks. The men and boys could trap and hunt animals for their pelts, cut logs, hew railroad cross ties, or split a load of spoke timber for automobile wheels of the era. Some years none of these would pay off, but we could always sell enough old hens to bring in money for extra flour, sugar and trimmings for Christmas cakes and some to buy Old Santa with.

Most years we had at least three cakes for Christmas: a chocolate one covered with chocolate fudge, a white one with white icing and what we called a fruitcake. Our fruitcakes were ordinary layer cakes with spicy dried apples between each layer, spread on top and around the cake. And bright red, pill-sized cinnamon drops--whiskey killers, the men called them--were sprinkled all over the white cake.

The day before Christmas was a busy one for all. Dad would make the 8 mile round trip to Knifley to "find old Santa." Mom and my sister, Irene, were in the kitchen most of the day, and it was up to me to get in plenty of wood, carry water, and keep the house warm.

First off, though, we went into the potato hole--that big mound of dirt in the corner of the garden with a shock of corn over it. It had been there since early frost when we buried our garden sass for Christmas. Potatoes were on the bottom, then turnips, and on top, a dozen big heads of cabbage. There also were some late ripening apples and a gallon or so of chestnuts.

At school: The tree was 10 or 12 feet tall. Dad was home in time for an early start to the Christmas tree and party at the one-room schoolhouse. The big cedar tree reached to the ceiling, 10 or 12 feet high. It was decorated with colored ribbons, paper chains, popcorn strung on sewing thread, pinches of fluffy cotton, some candles, and presents wrapped in different colors of crepe paper.

As the teacher signaled for quiet, some of the bigger boys outside set off a volley of giant firecrackers. When the booms faded away up the hollow and across the river, Cousin Pearl made her appearance. After a short play or two, more recitations and a carol or two, it was time for Old Santa to hand out the gifts.

Every pupil got something, although we hadn't "drawn names." If a certain boy liked a certain girl, or vice versa, they might, for fun, give each other a baked sweet potato, or a matchbox full of parched corn. And from the teacher, each of us got a sack of mixed candy.

At home: A toy was in each stocking. From this schoolhouse we went home to await Christmas morning. For a while we sat around a big fire and roasted chestnuts in the hot ashes, and ate popcorn and short-core apples--killing time, so the night wouldn't be so long. Then the fire was fixed so it would hold 'til morning.

Christmas morning: In our stocking, each of us got a toy--a saw-dust filled doll with china arms, head, and legs for Irene; and a 10-cent tin handled knife with chain, or a Barlow, for me. I often lost it during Christmas week, of course. Each of us would get a big red, brought-on apple, an orange, a nickel stick of candy, a package of small firecrackers, and maybe a box of popcorn with a prize in it.

On a small table nearby Santa usually left some extras: a coconut, some chocolate drops, stick candy and horehound slabs, and a sack of fancy candy--odd shapes of sugar candy, ranging in flavors from chocolate through sassafras to something like talcum powder; some sparklers, big firecrackers, Roman candles, and a couple of skyrockets; a few extra oranges and a pound or so of mixed nuts.

Before daylight we shot off some of our fireworks and saved the rest for later. Then there was breakfast: fried rabbit or squirrel, cream gravy, jam, butter and biscuits. By then it was light enough to start hunting--just as Kentucky men and boys had done since that first Christmas in Louisville in 1778.

Armed with single-barrel shotguns and .22 caliber rifles, a squad of us would meet at some forks of the road and take off. We never deliberately wasted ammunition, but when one of us fired, everyone else was likely to follow suit.

Some incidents of those Christmas rabbit hunts remain as vivid as though they had happened last year. There was the fox squirrel our dogs treed in the top of a hickory tree that looked to be a half a mile high. When the smoke from all the shotgun blasts had cleared, the squirrel hadn't been touched. A rifleman fired, and the squirrel slumped into a fork a couple of feet down and lodged there. All the riflemen lined up and took a shot at it, trying to dislodge it. Then they shot off the limb, and the big red swapped ends a few times, and lodged again in the main fork of the tree, where only its tail could be seen.

Once, we saw a cousin kill eight quails at one shot. "Caught 'em walkin' a straight line," he said. At another time we were climbing over a rail fence when a rabbit bounced up and headed for the pea patch. Hounds bellowed, squirrel dogs yipped, rifles cracked and shotguns roared--and the rabbit waved goodbye with his cottontail as he disappeared over the hillside. Minutes later the dogs were back, apparently as confused as we were about the rabbit. Again, the old-timer knew: the rabbit had run into a hole and pulled it in after him...

Merry Christmas, Mike Watson.

This story was posted on 2021-12-28 13:43:50
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Christmas memories from Spout Springs

2021-12-28 - Columbia, KY - Photo from Adair County Genealogy and Research Center.
Reflections on Christmas from long ago is sent by historian Mike Watson. In the accompanying article by Henry Giles, he writes, "...In memory, there is only one giant school Christmas tree; one Christmas stocking; one long, Christmas Day rabbit hunt; and one great feast and Christmas meeting at the church on Christmas night..."

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