The word Impermanence tells us that all things end – you, me, everything we love on this earth, everyone who’s ever loved us. It implies sadness, loss, the darkness of grief. But my favorite holiday, the Winter Solstice, shows us that light returns. Sorrow itself is impermanent. Christmas tree lights take me back through other holiday seasons, each remembered tree reminding me of an earlier one, when our daughter was a child, when I was, when my parents were young, my grandparents alive and vigorous. So much gone, so much changed, but so much love and beauty and amazement to recall. I’ve posted my late father’s story of his childhood Christmas in Montana in 1931. His was an immigrant family accustomed to hardships, but always open to joy. May you read it with pleasure this holiday season.
Christmas Time “Back When” By George Bak
Southeast of Great Falls, in the Little Belt Mountains, lies a valley called Belt Park. It is not even noted on most maps, but therein lived quite a community in the days before WWII, with a one room schoolhouse the only place for social activity. We lived a fourth of a mile away and were the closest family to the school. We did not have electricity in the valley, no telephones, a gravel road which was closed in the winter due to snow drifts which horse drawn equipment could not clear. To go out people would hitch a team of horses to a sled and pile blankets in the back (cozy with the five of us youngest cuddled together like kittens in a box).
The school was a wood frame building with three high windows on each side. It housed one big classroom with an annex in front which had room for firewood, and pegs on one wall for coats and caps. To one side there was a table for the two gallon water container and paper drinking cups. The teacher packed the water up the hill from the house where she boarded each morning. The heating stove sat just inside the classroom with the stove pipe suspended the entire length of the room to the chimney on the back wall. To the left of the entry door there was a small library (a cupboard with glass doors) which held a set of encyclopedias, and I remember the huge Webster’s dictionary plus a lot of textbooks, but I can’t recall any story books. Gasoline lanterns were used for lighting.
The year I was in third grade was such a change from my first two years in school. Our previous teacher, a dour, tobacco-chewing alcoholic, had been committed to a mental hospital. What a sharp contrast his replacement was! Miss Randall was an eighteen year old student teacher from Great Falls. She was very pretty, with dark hair worn short in the style of the late 1920s. We learned music and singing that year, and all the Christmas songs. I remember how she taught us to express the mood of each song, the joy in Joy to the World, and the soft tones of Silent Night, all done a cappella.
On Christmas Eve we stood the tree between the library and the stove. We decorated it with colored paper chains, popcorn chains, and tinsel and a star on the top. Wax candles attached to the end of the branches with special clips were to be lit when the people arrived for the Christmas program.
The stage (two big barn doors on sawhorses) was built at the other end of the room where the teacher’s desk normally would be, and a green curtain hung on a wire across in front of it. Two short curtains on each side of the stage made for privacy as dressing rooms.
Everyone left for home and supper and the teacher banked up the fire in the stove so it would burn slowly to keep the room nice and warm. When we returned to get ready for the program we found the candles had all melted and were hanging down from the clips. No one seemed overly concerned. It was just one of those things that people learned to accept in our way of life.
All the people from Belt Park came to the program, and even some from Monarch and Neihart, the two towns which were located seven miles each way from the valley. Even a saddle tramp (a reminder that this was still the Old West) stopped by, tying his black and white pinto to the fence and hanging his gun belt in the annex.
I was the comic of the play. I don’t remember any part of the act except that I got a lot of laughs. Miss Randall sat off stage and prompted each actor if they faltered with their lines. How moving it must have been to these rugged mountain people when we sang our songs. I could feel the warm glow that encompassed the entire gathering. The true spirit of Christmas had certainly entered each soul in that crowded room.
We didn’t exchange gifts, but each of us received an orange, a popcorn ball, and some hard Christmas candy to take home. I could say that a bright star in the east showed us the way as we walked home, and it would probably be true. Our night sky was never obscured by electric lights. The years have dimmed my memory of that walk, but I can remember waking up in the morning to the aroma of Ma’s fresh baked home made sweet rolls. That was Christmas morning “back when.”