(Editor’s note: In keeping with a holiday tradition, the Christmas column written by Fritz S. Updike, former Sentinel editor, appears today. Mr. Updike died Dec. 27, 1995.)
If we could wave a magic wand and have one wish come true: To be again at Christmas time on Grandpa’s and Grandma’s farm.
It was a dirt road place five miles from the village, high on Potato Hill in Schuyler County, overlooking beautiful Seneca Lake. Five miles in those days was a long way in winter, with roads often blocked by snow drifts and the bobsled team striking off across the fields.
Grandpa did certain things at Christmas the same way, year after year. So two days before Christmas, he hitched the team to the bobs, lifted the young grandson aboard and drove to the lower woods. There was the tree, at least seven feet high and well shaped.
Grandma, too, as Grandmas always do, began thinking of Christmas long before. Looking back, we know the charm of Christmas on that back country farm was in the self-reliance of the family.
Grandma had no electric Christmas lights, tinsel or glass ornaments, except for a few decorations she had purchased when she went to Niagara Falls or to Oregon on a cross-continent train, her only two long trips away from home. She made her own candy canes, strung long strings of cranberries and colored popcorn, decked the tree in tiny red ribbons and hung cookies, shaped like stars and trees and elves, each from her oven.
There would be only one candle on the tree, at the very top, and that lit only for a few minutes on Christmas Eve. Grandma made the candle. They probably didn’t have more than $400 cash money all year, but they had plenty of other things, including a great love.
Hams and bacon slabs hung in the smokehouse, there were apples in cellar bins, flour from their wheat, horses, cows and sheep in the barn, chickens in the henhouse, vegetables and nuts stored away. Shelves were stacked with canned food and over in a dark corner Grandma’s elderberry wine. And two big barrels of hard cider Grandpa drew on when neighbors came. They were wealthy in the fruits of their land, which they had cleared and on which they had built their home, on top of that windy ridge, when Grandpa returned from the Civil War.
The farmhouse had many mysteries for a 3-year-old. There was an old suction pump by the sink in the kitchen, a wood box that filled from the woodshed but opened into the kitchen, and a big horsehair couch behind the kitchen stove, for Grandpa’s nap.
We were never permitted alone in the unheated parlor, filled with eye-catching things. Mother had been married there, she said, and we saw an uncle buried from there. Two things we remember in that parlor -- a big decorated shell you held to your ear “to hear the sea” and a never-used ashtray lined with cigar bands under glass.
Grandma and Grandpa lived in the kitchen, the long narrow dining room, the cold bedrooms and the living room heated by a big chunk stove with small isinglass windows. The heat on a cold night was in direct proportion to one’s distance from the stove.
Come Christmas Eve, the family gathered in front of the tree in the corner. There were no presents in sight. But there always were when a grandson got up early the next morning. Not many, perhaps, a game from his parents, a pair of skis Grandpa had made from barrel staves, and little homemade things from Santa Claus. His other name was Grandma.
Christmas songs were played on the Edison phonograph, with big painted horn and cylinder records. Mother would go to the pump organ and the family would sing about the Babe whose birthday it would be.
Grandma would supervise a collection of popcorn, apples, sweet cider and all the walnut, butternut and hickory nuts you could crack, using a hammer and one of her old irons.
When it got late, about 9, Grandpa would stand, all would be quiet and he’d say a prayer of thanks for all the goodness, ending with a request for continued blessings. Then he would take the boy by the hand, help him put on his felts and overs, and they would tramp through the snow to the barn.
When he rolled back the big door you could see steam rising from the noses of the stock. Grandpa would give another feeding to the horses, the cows, pigs and sheep. “It’s Christmas for them, too,” he’d say.
As the two walked back to the house, Grandpa would wonder out loud -- about what direction Santa Claus would come, whether anyone would see his tracks the next morning, and wasn’t it too bad the reindeer couldn’t draw the sleigh up the hill? Seemed Santa Claus would have to use horses.
The 3-year-old would wonder too, as he was taken to bed in a big, cold upstairs room, warm under the three blankets atop a sheet on a mattress filled with crinkling corn husks, Grandma had warmed the nest with a bed warmer.
As he wondered, he’d try to match the wallpaper squares, the room lighted by a lamp Grandma left lit on a dresser until one fell asleep.
Grandma had papered the room out of sample wallpaper books. We never found a single one of the 18-inch squares that matched, on walls or ceiling.
Come six in the morning, Grandpa would pound on the ceiling of the living room below with the end of a broom. Out the boy would tumble, pulling on his clothes in the cold and with Grandpa go looking for Santa Claus’ tracks.
They were there!
One year they were in the snow across the backyard and up to the woodshed door, the next year across the front yard to the front door. We always were too excited in those priceless short years to follow them back. If we had, we know now they could have led to the barn because Grandpa went out every Christmas Eve, after the grandson had gone to bed, hitched the team to the bobsled and made the tracks for Santa Claus -- and a little boy.
Brick Hasfield says: