A little family history today. This was written by John's maternal grandmother. How thankful I am for the stories that are recorded that are shared with us!
MY FIRST CHRISTMAS
by Retha P. Nielsen
It was Christmas time in the little village. The year was 1912 and I was very young. Winter time was usually a happy time for the little community of Oak Creek, Utah. Children skated on the ice pond down by the Oak Creek bridge, and coasted on the hillside of the big mountain to the east. Parents, too, could relax a little from the arduous work of summer. Fathers could rest from the hard work and the long, hot summer days in the fields. Mothers had filled their shelves with bright jams, jellies and fruits from the orchards and all sorts of vegetables from their big gardens. They could now find time to relax and visit with their friends and neighbors, make pretty quilts and enjoy their handwork and knitting.
Getting ready for Christmas was a happy time for parents. Though they sometimes had little money, especially if there had been crop failures, low prices or other difficulties they as farmers and ranchers were often confronted with. But after paying their taxes and buying the warm winter clothing for their families, they tried to keep a little money from the fall harvests for Christmas. They had learned from their pioneer parents how to make some of their toys, such as play house furniture, sleds and doll clothes. And for the things they bought, they enjoyed sleigh riding to the stores in Fairview and Mt. Pleasant, where they met people they knew and every one was caught up in the busy, happy atmosphere of the holiday. So this year as Thanksgiving passed and they began to think of Christmas, they were surprised and frightened by the news of a case of smallpox that had broken out. And now just a month before Christmas, the little community lay silent and suffering from the dangerous plague. Smallpox was a highly contagious viral disease, with prolonged fever, vomiting and pustular eruptions or small blisters that covered the body and itched and burned almost beyond endurance. And after the awful disease was over it often left scars and pock marks, and sometimes affected the eyesight and hearing. It was a terrible plague that took the lives of many.
There were no happy children skating on the ice ponds, or busy parents sleigh riding to Fairview and Mt. Pleasant to do their Christmas “trading.” Instead, the parents were fighting and praying for the lives of their children. Many of the parents had had the smallpox when they were young, and now were worried and frightened as they kept long vigils over their children day and night. The epidemic spread rapidly through the little town and stayed on and on until the children were near death with the high fevers and illness it brought. The weary parents were near exhaustion from the long hours without sleep or rest.
The doctor who lived nine miles away, traveled by horse and sleigh from house to house working to save lives and to prevent the terrible epidemic from spreading.
Then slowly, one by one as Christmas day drew near, the gray cardboard quarantines with their foreboding black lettering were taken from the front windows of the houses and the yellow flags from the gate posts, and the terrible epidemic was nearly over. Yet even now the people could not think of Christmas. The children were weak and shaken from the ravaging fevers that had left them close to death. The weary parents had to scrub and clean their homes, burn the clothing the children had worn, and disinfect and fumigate their homes to destroy the harmful virus.
On the morning before Christmas at our home, the acrid fumes of burning sulfur and fumigation lay heavy throughout the house. We sat at the breakfast table, Papa saying how nice it was to have us all together at breakfast again. Mama, looking into the pale, thin faces of her precious children, began to cry. Papa patted her on the shoulder and said, “Don’t cry Mama, it has been bad, but it is over now and tomorrow is Christmas. Let’s start now to make it happy. I am on the committee for the Christmas Eve party tonight and will have to leave right away and stay all day until we have that little meeting house in readiness for the best Christmas Eve party we have ever had.” Mama said, “You are right, and we here at home will do our part and will begin right now by making plans for the day.”
A knock came at the door and in came my oldest sister, Dorcas and her brand new husband, Hyrum, calling “Merry Christmas!” They had their arms full of gifts, including a little red serge dress for me that matched my red coat. They had pretty dresses for my sisters, and something for each of the others. They said they came to help out, so the day began with plans. Mother and Dorcas would be busy all day in the kitchen. Ernest, who was fifteen, and Hyrum, our new brother in law, were going to the big mountain just east of our house to fetch a Christmas tree. Agnes and Mattie, who were thirteen and eleven years old, were going to string pop corn and make paper chains for the tree. I was to sit in the big rocking chair by the huge black cook stove and keep warm and try to get a little stronger.
By four o’clock that afternoon, much had been accomplished. The big kitchen was filled with the spicy aroma of mince pies, ginger cookies, and suet pudding. The Christmas tree was bright with strands of pop corn, tinsel, and the pretty colored paper chains. A little white and silver angel stood on the very top bough.
Mama had begun to watch for the doctor who was coming all the way from Mt. Pleasant to make a last check up on the people of Oak Creek and Milburn. Although the quarantine was over, she was concerned about our going out into the cold night air without first consulting him. She was especially concerned about one of her little girls who they had almost lost.
The doctor came driving up to the gate in a cutter. He had a big furry lap robe over his knees. He was cheerful as he checked us all over and said we could all go to the party. Mama told him he looked as bad as the sick people and invited him to sit down to the big kitchen table and have a slice of warm bread and butter and a cup of hot tea. He said just the aroma of the mince pies gave him the Christmas spirit. So she put a piece of pie on his plate.
The hour spent getting ready for the party was exciting. This was the first time we had been out of the house since Thanksgiving. It seemed so long. I wore my new red dress, red curly fur coat, hood and little white fur muff. Papa had come home earlier in the day and said the committee had asked my sisters to sing on the program. So they were practicing one they thought would do. Ernest was practicing on his guitar. He was going to sing a song an uncle from Idaho had taught him.
Now we were in the sleighs, wrapped in warm quilts with hot flatirons at our feet. Papa called to the horses and off we went down the lane, over the Oak Creek bridge and on to the little church. Sleigh bells and crunching snow under the runners of the sleigh made it all so much fun.
I had never been to a Christmas party. As I walked into the Chapel I could hardly believe my eyes. I had never seen anything so beautiful. There was a ceiling of pretty red paper ribbon, caught in the center with a big red bell. Up toward the front was a great Christmas tree all laden with gifts, and lighted with little flames from the candles burning merrily in their brightly colored little clips. The little red chairs from our Sunday School class were right at the foot of the big tree. There we sat and looked up at the big tree wondering which gift would be ours. If we had attended Sunday School every Sunday during the year, our gift would be very nice as we received a penny for each Sunday we attended.
The little congregation sang, “Oh Come All Ye Faithful,” and I wondered why Mama and others were crying when everything was so beautiful. My sisters sang the song they had practiced earlier in the day, “Once In a Manger Lowly.” My little class walked out in front of the audience in one long row and sang “Jolly Old Saint Nicholas.” When we came to “All the Stockings” we each held up a stocking. My cousin had forgotten hers, so she held up her red mitten.
The program was over and I heard sleigh bells, then right there before my eyes was Santa Claus. This was the first time I had ever seen him. He was giving little tan paper sacks of candy and nuts to every one. When he came to me he said, “Little Retha, you have been so ill.” I couldn’t speak. He was real, and knew all about little children, just like Mama had said.
The next morning, long before daylight, I heard my brother and sisters getting up. I followed them down the dark stairs and waited while they lit the lamp and there by my stocking was a beautiful doll with a little red dress just like my own. I took the pretty doll in my arms and with the little dishes I had drawn from the Christmas tree the night before, I said to myself, “I will remember this beautiful Christmas as long as I live.”
Grandma kept this card and said, "This Christmas card was given to me by my Sunday School teachers in the year of 1912. She gave it to me becaue I wore a red hood, red furry coat and a little white muff. She said it look like me."