Christmas often required ingenuity in 1940s

Homemade treats, improvised ‘fireplaces’ and creative tree decorating helped make the prairie holidays a festive time

I thumbed through the Eaton’s catalogue until it was dog-eared, my wish list for Christmas circled with far more things than I would ever receive, but it didn’t hurt to hope.

In the 1940s, the festive seasons were bright occasions in otherwise dreary winters on the farm.

The smell of spicy fruitcake emanating from the oven of the McClary wood stove buoyed my spirits considerably, as did the smell of Japanese oranges in the local general store where peanuts in the shell were scooped out of a bushel basket. Soon my mother would be making homemade fondant candies from mashed potatoes and icing sugar. Some were flavoured mint and tinted green; others coloured pink and flavoured with almond, each piece topped with half a walnut. The candies were hidden away to mellow until Christmas drew nearer.

Three times a week the Canadian National Railway train chugged into town, unloading bags of mail containing dozens of Christmas cards. With stamps being three cents each, and cards only about a nickel, folks from far and wide exchanged greetings. Inspired by the many designs, I busied myself in the evenings trying to make homemade cards by the light of the coal oil lamp. Even though my red poinsettia flowers were drawn with crayon, brushed with flour and water paste and sprinkled with salt, they fell far short of the glittery commercial cards I tried to emulate.

Evergreens did not grow naturally in the woods behind our house, but about two weeks before the big day, my teenage brother would strap on his homemade skis, grab the axe and go searching for a scrub oak to use as a Christmas tree.

With no electricity, lights were out of the question, but I fashioned red and green garlands out of crepe paper. Thin strands of tinsel were cut from the tinfoil that came in Dad’s blue tins of Player’s cigarettes or the occasional chocolate bar I got as a treat.

All decked out in additional homemade baubles, I thought the pretend Christmas tree looked quite festive.

One year my older sister decided to make a fake fireplace to add to the atmosphere. She coaxed the local grocer to save a big cardboard box and covered it in red “brick” crepe paper. After fetching Yule logs from the woodpile, she arranged them on the hearth. Come Christmas Eve, the plates of potato candy and bowls of oranges and peanuts lined the “mantle” in anticipation of Santa’s arrival.

Disaster awaited.

Come Christmas morning, I got up to find the fireplace overturned and candy and oranges and peanuts and presents strewn all over the front room. Closer examination disclosed claw marks in the crepe paper “brick.”No doubt exhausted by a rare burst of energy in the middle of the night, the culprit, old Cicero the cat, lay sound asleep in the rocking chair.

Ah well. Wasn’t it Robbie Burns who said the best laid plans of mice and men (and big sisters!) go aft awry, even on Christmas day?

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