Well, hello everybody. I’m so glad all of
you came out here tonight. I know it’s a busy time of year with Thanksgiving just around
the corner. But I think it’s always a good idea to stop and think back a little bit about
how things used to be. And, I hope you enjoy the program. You are the very first audience
to see this program. So, if something terrible happens, just remember that’s part of the
fun of live entertainment. Now in just a minute, I’m going to actually
turn into Laura and I’m going to be talking as her most of the program tonight - though
I am going to make a couple of asides. And when you’re going to be able to tell if
it’s me or if it’s Laura is because Laura has a hat. So, when I have that on I’m going
to talk as Laura and when I don’t, I’m going to talk as myself.
Now, when they asked me to talk about Laura and Christmas, that seemed to be a really
big topic because Laura actually lived a very long time. She was born February 7th 1867
near the shores of beautiful Lake Pepin. Mark Twain said it was true sunset country and
Bryant said every poet and artist in the land ought to visit. And she lived until 1957.
So, she started out with travel by covered wagons and lived long enough to travel on
an airplane. So as you might imagine, Christmases changed a lot during her life. And especially
because a lot of that, the first half of her life, was during the Victorian period, and
it was the Victorians that invented Christmas as we celebrate it today.
So, I decided that the best way to handle this subject, would be to pick a time, and
sort of go from there. So what I’m going to be doing – in just a minute here while
I get on my hat and gloves – is we’re going to be going back to 1939. We’re going
to be in Mansfield, and the reason I picked 1939 I hope will come evident in just a minute.
Oh, I do like to get Christmas letters – 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12 –
It seems like there are more of these cards every day. Ugh, and I will have to get answers
out to them, but – Oh look! One’s from Rose, my daughter, let me see what she has
to say. Oh! She sent me a clipping from a magazine
article – Woman’s Day, December 1939. “We have asked famous author, Rose Wilder
Lane, of Danbury, Connecticut, what she does for Christmas and of traditions in her family.”
Well, this ought to be good. “But I do not do anything unusual at Christmas. There is
a family Christmas tree trimming all Christmas Eve Day. And I don’t like, or have, smart
modern blue and silver trees. My trees are trimmed with the magic idea that the tree
itself bursts into magic flower and fruit. I use lots of very fat tinsel and bits as
short as the tree’s green furry twigs and glittering colored balls and real candles
to be lighted and to be very careful of fire about.”
“Christmas Eve is just a family, including any hired help there may be. Lighting the
tree is a ceremony. In a dark room with a taper, all the candles are lighted on the
tree. It is beautiful. We just look at it for awhile. And maybe we sing or have a phonograph
record, “Silent Night, Holy Night.” Then we turn on the lights and open the gifts till
the place is knee deep in wrappings and ribbons. And we just have fun. Afterward, at midnight
a totally indigestible supper: plum pudding, fruitcake, candy, nuts and coffee. Christmas
Day evening is for the young folks’ party. And the tree is lighted again. Do you know,
most people to the young people today have never seen a real candle light on a Christmas
tree? The tree bears again, this time little gifts. Really party favors, and then there’s
dancing and another late supper. I usually serve waffles and sausages for this. Everyone’s
tired of sweets by now. That’s all and I’m sorry, there isn’t a scrap of any idea in
it.” Well, it does sound like we have quite the
time doesn’t it? I think though, if Rose is being honest, the part she’s like the
best was this: “We open gifts till the place is knee deep in wrappings and ribbons.”
Rose likes to get gifts and to give them. Of course, before we can get to that, we have
to get through all the fun of Christmas Eve. At Christmas Eve night, we would gather together,
and we’d all hang our stockings. None of these specialized things you can buy from
the dime store. They were real stockings that we wore on our feet. And we hung them up and
we waited for Santa Claus to come and fill them.
Now we’ve got a lot of interesting presents in our family over the years.
And I’m going to take that opportunity to step back as Sarah for a second, because I
remembered I didn’t say something. Remember what I said about the fun of live entertainment?
Santa Claus is going - and Mrs. Claus, are going to be showing up in some of our pictures.
So be sure to keep an eye out for them. Okay, now back to Rose’s presents.
All right, probably the very first big Christmas present I can remember getting was when Pa
gave Ma the china shepherdess. He carved the rack for it to stand on himself. And ever
after that we knew a place was really home once Ma got out the china shepherdess.
That same year, I got Charlotte. Now before this, I just had a corn cob doll. Her name
was Susan. And Nellie – I’m sorry, Mary – already had a rag doll named Nettie.
And sometimes she let me hold her, but I only did it when Susan couldn’t see. But this
year for Christmas, I got my own rag doll. And she would stay with me until she literally
disintegrated. The next big Christmas I remember is when
we were down in Kansas. We didn’t think we were going to get a Christmas at all. But
then Mr. Edwards showed up with his presents. And he brought us each a tin cup. Now, I’m
sure children today probably wouldn’t be impressed with an old tin cup. But back before
we had this Christmas, Mary and I used to share from one cup when we ate, so to have
our own seemed to be quite miraculous indeed. Then there was the year Mary and I worked
together to make a button string for Carrie. Ma had saved up buttons, ever since she was
a little girl. And she said we could use them for the button string. So, we were determined
to have the most beautiful button string in the world. And we sat and worked hours on
it. And we – Mary started on one end – and I started on the other. We put the buttons
on. We took some off. A couple of times we took them all off and started over again.
It was going to be the most beautiful string in the world. And then Ma told us Christmas
was almost here and we couldn’t make any more do-overs. So finally we got it together
and made this beautiful button string. Then, there was the year Ma asked us if it
would be okay if we just wished for horses that year for Pa. And Christmas morning there
they were, Sam and David, the Christmas horses. And then, there was the presents we got from
Ma and Pa. We saved up our money to buy Ma a hair comb to put back in her hair.
And we had the year that we had the community Christmas tree. I got a little box with a
wee china cup and a wee china tea pot. Carrie got a little brown and white dog. And I got
a fur cape and muff which was even nicer than Nellie Oleson’s.
And, during the long winter, when we didn’t think we’d be able to have much of a Christmas
at all, we were able to put together enough money to buy an embroidered set of suspenders
for Pa. He said that they were too pretty to cover up with his coat. As the temperature
dropped below zero, somehow he found the will power to anyway.
And there was the year when my Manly, Almanzo James Wilder, who I was engaged to, went back
east for the winter and I didn’t think I’d see him at Christmas at all. And he brought
me a pin when he showed up at our house on Christmas Eve. This one. And you can see there’s
a little carved house on it, and a lake, and some wheat. I treasure it.
Later, after we were married, one year Manly made a sled for Grace.
And one of our first married Christmases together, we gave each other a set of dishes from the
Montgomery Ward catalog. When our house burned down, this was one of the few things we were
able to save. Times were hard in those first few years of
our marriage. And one year, Manly got our Christmas present for each other by trading
a load of chopped wood and brought us a clock that he would wind every night for the rest
of his life. Sarah again, Christmas presents were also
strongly connected to Laura because of her fans. For years, much the way Harry Potter
books were in our time, children would wait for Christmas to come so they could get the
next new Little House book. This year is the 75th anniversary of “Little House on the
Prairie.” And every couple of years, for a little over a decade, a new book would come
out bearing that magic name, Laura Ingalls Wilder. And even today, Laura fans look forward
to seeing what surprises that their loved ones got them for Christmas that have to do
with Laura but the loved ones know about it ahead of time or not.
And the food of Christmas! Christmas always meant just a flood of preparations for all
sorts of different kinds of food. We had Injun Bread, or self-rising bread there was all
sorts of goodies and pastries and meat. For Christmas morning breakfast, when we were
very little, Ma would make us a man out of pancakes.
And sometimes, whether either Christmas Day or Christmas Eve, depending on what our schedule
was, we always had oyster soup, with oyster crackers. The year Pa was lost in a snowbank
on the way home, he ate all the oyster crackers and all the Christmas candy, but he didn’t
eat the canned oysters. And oranges were always a big thing when I
was growing up because it was still quite the deal to get an orange all the way from
Florida or California to the plains of South Dakota. But it was getting to be a little
easier with the train and an orange soon became standard fare in a Christmas stocking.
Baking and preparations could go on for days. And any help was greatly appreciated.
And, of course, everyone pulled up to the table. If there was any relatives in the area,
they’d come. And if not, we’d try to invite in friends and neighbors.
Ah. And as I mentioned before, Christmas candy was always a big deal. Especially the ribbon
candy with the multiple colored layers striped like ribbon but frozen solid in sugar. We
used to get some Christmas candy like that only at Christmas. In fact, that was the strongest
memories I have of riding the train when we first went to Walnut Grove to DeSmet, was
that a boy came along with a tray in his arms and he had sandwiches wrapped in wax paper
and little packages of Christmas candy. And Ma got us some, even though it wasn’t Christmas.
I was going to eat one of my pieces and save the other one. All of us girls agreed to do
that. But after I ate the first one, I thought the other one looked like it should have a
lick. Just one. Then two. Okay, I ate the whole thing! Even Mary gave in in the end.
It was such a special wonderful trip treat to have Christmas candy. And in later years,
once we started to have Christmas trees, especially in town, we’d make little - they’d make
little baggies of Christmas candy out of mosquito netting and hang it on the tree.
Now, as we think about Christmas we probably think of a white Christmas – and snow. And
certainly there were places where we were growing up where there was snow pretty much
every Christmas. But, that wasn’t always the case. Pepin seemed to have a talent for
attracting snow. And we tended to have lots of it every year at Christmastime. And where
Manly was growing up, up in New York State, they too got an inordinate amount of snow.
Especially, it seemed, for Christmas. But a lot of places that I lived when I was
growing up, and in later years here in Missouri, there wasn’t snow, no matter how handy it
would have been. And a lot of times you’d be as likely to have a Christmas Day that
looked like this, as you did to have snow on the ground. In fact, the first New Year’s
that we spent in Dakota Territory we had the door wide open during dinner and letting the
fresh air breezes in because it was so warm. Santa Claus has certainly changed a lot since
I was a little girl. You all probably think of Santa as something like this, big, and
plump, and jolly. You might have heard of the poem, “Twas the Night Before Christmas,”
and in there they call him an elf. And that’s because before they got going with Thomas
Nast and Coca Cola, Santa Claus looked a little bit more like this, or even more elf like.
Rather than the jolly fat man that we know today.
When I was growing up I had never seen a Christmas tree at all until I was 9 years old. And then,
we saw a community tree. There’d been an ad in the paper asking the members of the
community to bring their Christmas presents in. And between that, and the missionary barrel,
the whole tree was just covered with presents and little bags of candy. It was something
I had never seen. In later years, of course, we started to have our own trees, as Rose
talked about. Though always the old fashioned kind, and not one with the modern silver bells
and whistles. I always enjoy thinking about Christmas. “Our
hearts grow tender with childhood memories and love of kindred, and we are better throughout
the year for having, in spirit to become a child again at Christmastime.”
And I think we’re all better off at Christmastime for remembering Laura. And they certainly
have not been remiss for reminding us of that in the publishing industry. And I’ll let
you all know that the book in the right hand corner there is available in the gift shop.
Along with, “The Little House Guidebook,” which I highly recommend; and the wonderful
papers to the conference on Laura that was here at the Hoover Library and it’s on sale
now for 10 dollars now which is a total steal! So, thank you for spending a little time with
me as we talk about Laura and Christmas. And I hope you enjoyed the program. I hope that
if you didn’t get your fill of looking at the trees and memorabilia tonight, you’ll
come back between now and January 2nd. Also, find Hoover Library on YouTube. You can see
footage of the 1995 Laura Wilder exhibit. And you can “Like” them at Facebook and
see all sorts of pictures of the event tonight. And you can also find me in all those places
under the name “Trundlebed Tales.” Thank you very much.