Kaleidoscope: Recalling Christmases during the 1950s-60s

by KEN LAHMERS | EDITOR Published:

This year marks 61 Christmases that I've experienced in my lifetime. When my first one rolled around in 1952, I was only nine days old.

Over those decades, there have been many memories, the best ones from my youthful days in the late 1950s and through the 1960s.

When I was a lad, the Christmas season usually started in early December when Dad and I would venture out to cut our family tree.

Most of the time, we'd drive out Oldtown Valley past my grandpa's and grandma's farm to Foster Blind's tree farm, where we'd examine rows of trees and select the one we liked. By the way, a nice 7- or 8-footer back then cost $4.

There was a small cave on Blind's farm, which he told youngsters once served as outlaw Jesse James' hideout in the 1800s. Not really, but the kids were awed by the possibility.

We'd tie our prize possession to the roof of the car by be off. In the late 1960s when Dad bought a Chevrolet Bel-Air station wagon, we could stuff the tree in the back.

Dad would store the tree on our patio for about a week, and then we'd bring it inside, set it up and decorate it about a week and a half before Christmas.

My folks said when I was very young -- before I can remember -- they'd put up the tree on Christmas Eve like many families used to do.

When I can first remember Christmases, we'd set up the tree in the basement, one side of which was a rec room and the other side composed of the clothes washing area, furnace, hot water heater, coal storage room and Dad's workbench and ammunition loading area.

The tree, of course, stood proudly in the rec area, right down the stairs and in front of the closet which was under the stairway.

There was a mantel with a fireplace in the rec area, with one of Dad's shotguns hanging above. The basement was a popular place during the holidays. At the far end of the rec room was my model train layout and farm set.

The room also contained Dad's gun cabinet; he was an avid hunter with two or three shotguns, a .224 high-powered rifle with a scope and a .22 rifle. Next to the cabinet sat a large floor model radio probably from the 1940s, which wasn't operable.

Toward the late 1960s, we began putting the Christmas tree up in the living room. I have no idea why Dad and Mom changed the location. I liked the basement better.

Today, live Christmas trees are so expensive that most people have chosen to buy artificial ones which can be used for many years before they wear out and must be replaced. Live tree lots have dwindled in recent years.

BICYCLE MEMORABLE

My most memorable Christmas gift was a 26-inch Schwinn two-speed bicycle, which I got at about 12 years old. It was black with silver fenders and a carrying rack on the front, which came in handy for delivering newspapers. I no longer had to carry a bag full of papers on my shoulder.

At one time my paper route traversed almost 4 miles daily. A couple of new subdivisions were being developed on the farms surrounding our house, and there was a lot of open space in between them.

During the 10 or 12 years I had that bike, I put on close to 10,000 miles; it had an odometer, so that's how I know. My good buddy Kraut Staley and I took many summer bike trips around Tuscarawas County, some 20 to 25 miles long.

DECORATATIONS OUTSIDE

Every year, Dad and I put up outside Christmas lights -- usually stringing them along the white fence in front of the house, along the rain gutters and around the front entranceway. A lighted snowman about 3 feet high was part of the display, hanging on the front door.

Another thing my family enjoyed during the holidays was driving around the county to look at light displays. Some homeowners had some very impressive ones. More people seemed to have had exterior displays than they do now.

The most spectacular annual display was at a home in Pleasant Valley east of New Philadelphia. It was the equivalent of Clark Griswold's colorful array of lights in the movie "Christmas Vacation." Recorded music was part of the display.

A house on North Water Street in Uhrichsville also sticks out in my mind. It wasn't extensive, but it was really neat because the lights and a pretty Christmas tree stood inside a large window on the second story of a garage.

I still go past the latter location from time to time, and always think about how it looked at Christmas in the 1960s. Unfortunately, now there is no display.

Another favorite display for us to visit -- and people are still visiting it 60 years later --is "Storybook Lane," which features brightly painted Mother Goose characters depicting classic nursery rhymes such as "Mary Had A Little Lamb," "Humpty Dumpty" and "Three Blind Mice."

The 24 nursery rhyme scenes originally were set up on the lawns of East High Avenue residents -- New Philadelphia's millionaire row back then, so to speak. Every night, cars drove slowly past them, sometimes backing up for two or three blocks.

After a few years when the display was mothballed, the scenes have been restored and can be seen during December at the city's Tuscora Park, a venue that has existed for more than 100 years.

There still are some impressive lighting displays around, including Nela Park in East Cleveland, Stan Hywet's new computerized show in Akron, the Guernsey County Courthouse light show in Cambridge, Country Lights at Lake Farmpark and Holiday Lights at Oglebay Park in Wheeling, W.Va.

A handful of private homes still have extensive displays. My favorite is Wachtel's Spring Walk Farm near Nashville (west of MIllersburg) in Holmes County. It features more than 52,000 bulbs, 90 spotlights and 400 figures.

A website which lists many of Northeast Ohio's brilliant displays is at http://findtimeforfun.com/must-see-christmas-light-displays-in-northeast-ohio/.

ACTIVITIES AT CHURCH

Christmas Eve was always spent at St. Peter's Lutheran Church in Oldtown Valley, a rural congregation that my Mom belonged to since she was a child.

It stands among farm fields and provides a beautiful setting on nights when snow glistens on the ground. Back then, the Luther League presented a Christmas pageant on Christmas Eve, and I was part of the cast.

I will never forget the night that a mouse ran up and back down my leg while the congregation was standing and singing a Christmas carol.

At first, I thought it was an itch. When I touched my pants leg, the little critter scampered back down and ran out into the aisle between the pews.

The Luther League went caroling around the valley one night prior to Christmas, riding in cars from farmhouse to farmhouse since the homes were too far apart for us to walk. Afterward, we'd enjoy refreshments back at the church.

Hot chocolate was a delight after being out in the frozen tundra for a couple of hours.

BIG CHRISTMAS FEASTS

Most of our holiday dinners back in the old days were spent at either Mom's parents -- the Springs -- farmhouse out the road or with Dad's mom and sister -- Grandma Del and aunt Violet -- at 10th and High Street in New Philadelphia.

At the farm, my uncle and aunt Gerald and Ruth and my two cousins usually were on hand, and we'd all gather in the large kitchen. As in many families, the adults sat at the big table and the kids at the small table.

At the other venue, my cousin Jerry "The Torg" Torgler, his wife and his daughter usually would attend. Plenty of tasty food always was available at both locations, and the occasions always were festive.

Now, all my grandfolks, my folks and aunts Vi and Ruth are gone. Grandma Del died at 96 years old, while uncle Gerald, the oldest member of the family still living, just turned 97 in November.

Although things will never be like they were back then, Christmas will never fade away, and the fond memories will remain.

Email: klahmers@recordpub.com

Phone: 330-541-9400 ext. 4189

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