An Old-Fashioned Christmas

December 24, 2018

The wind buffeted the old ranch house with wild abandon. Situated on a point of rock overlooking a meadow and two pastures, there was nothing to arrest the wind before the onslaught. Slivers of light peaked out between the drawn curtains in two of the rooms. The rest of the windows remained dark and blind. A thick frost formed on their panes like cataracts.

The wind found cracks and holes through the walls and around the window casements, and it whistled softly as it entered the rooms. In the parlor, a single Aladdin kerosene lamp sat on a table. The flame in the tall chimney flickered from time to time as the air moved over the top. The parlor stove glowed with a hint of red. With each gust of wind outside, the stove pipe shuddered.

In the kitchen, a gas Coleman lantern provided illumination and helped the asthmatic cook stove as it attempted to keep the kitchen warm. The back door burst open, assisted by a rush of wind. The sole occupant of the house entered with the last armload of firewood for the night. David kicked the door closed, stomped his feet to remove some of the clinging snow, and walked into the parlor where he deposited the wood in the wood box.

His cheeks and nose were a bright red from the cold wind, and a few errant snowflakes clung to his eye brows and eye lashes. On the tip of his nose a single drop of moisture waited.

As he removed his mittens, coat, overshoes and boots, he reviewed in his mind tonight’s chores. All of the livestock were in the corrals by the barns. They had been fed and the heavy metal water heaters in the troughs had been loaded with firewood and lit. With the temperature falling and the wind rising, he was sure the heaters in the troughs would need to be reloaded in two or three hours, so he wound up the alarm clock near his bed and set the alarm for midnight.

Since he was going to have to get up repeatedly tonight, he didn’t strip down to go to bed. Instead he pulled an old Army sleeping bag out of the closet, unrolled it on top of his bunk and after turning down the lamps, he crawled inside and slept in his clothes. He was asleep instantly. The whistles and the rattles of the storm acted like a lullaby.

Three times the alarm clock rang that night and three times he rose and went outside. The last time was six in the morning. Before leaving the house he stoked the stove and set the coffee water on to boil. He added wood to the stock tanks and noted the water level. He would have to pump in more water, which meant boiling water in the house to use in thawing and priming the pumps.

He opened the corral gates and went into the barn. The two draft horses stood expectantly, waiting for their morning ration of grain. He measured the oats in an old coffee can, and as the horses ate, he put the harnesses in place. By the time he was finished, so were they. He led them out one at a time to a hay sled and hooked the traces to the single trees. The sled was loaded with this morning’s hay and stepping onto the sled, he clicked his tongue and called out, “Up Molly; come on Dan.”

The team leaned into their collars and slowly the runners broke free of the crusted snow. Gradually, the sled picked up speed and by the time they rounded the corner of the barn, the horses were trotting. As they passed the corral, the cows began pouring out mooing to be fed.

The team continued to trot until they reached the middle of the pasture. Here he slowed them to a walk, looped the reins around a post in the front sled and went back and began cutting the bales and throwing large flakes of hay off the back and both sides. Each bale produced three flakes. The trailing of cows began stopping to eat.

He emptied the sled, took up the reins and turned back to the barn. After parking the sled where he could load it again with hay, he unhitched the team and turned them into the corner corral where he curried and fed them.

All of the chores save thawing and pumping the water into the tanks were finished by eight-fifteen. He returned to the house. The water in the coffee pot was at a rolling boil. He tossed in the coffee grounds, and sat the pot on the edge of the stove to simmer. He cooked some bacon and fried four eggs in the grease. Along with two slices of homemade bread, he sat at the kitchen table, bowed his head in thanksgiving, and ate breakfast.

When he finished, he filled three metal pails with water at the kitchen pump and placed them on the stove to heat. He drew hot water from the reservoir on the stove and washed his dishes. Then he refilled the reservoir with fresh water. By half past nine the pails were boiling.

Taking two he went to the stock tanks and began the process of thawing the pumps. By ten-forty-five the tanks were full, and he could relax.

Back at the house he looked at the Mercantile calendar hanging in the kitchen. December 24. The boss was bringing out supplies and David’s family for the holiday today.

David hurried about cleaning the house. From the closet he removed three army cots. These he set up around the parlor. The sleeping bag on his bed was placed on one of the cots. Two more army sleeping bags appeared and were unrolled on the other two.

He cleaned the lamp and refilled it with kerosene. The Coleman lamp was filled with fuel. He was just finishing up when he heard a horn honk and the sound of a truck pulling up to the house. Stepping outside David saw his boss standing by the open door. Inside the cab were four smiling faces and three hands waving hello.

“Merry Christmas, Dave!” said Charlie his boss.

“Merry Christmas to you, Charlie!” was Dave’s reply. He hurried to the passenger side door and opened it for his wife. Kay stepped out, and they embraced and kissed. The kids giggled at their parents. Charlie chuckled too. When they stopped, Dave picked up each of the kids and gave them a kiss and a hug. His daughter giggled again, but the boys tried to pretend they were grossed out by this unmanly display of affection. Dave just laughed at them.

Turning to Kay, Dave said, “Why don’t you two girls go in where it’s warm? The boys can help with the supplies.”

It didn’t take long to unload the truck. With the boys inside, Charlie and Dave stood looking out over pastures. “Everything looks to be in good shape.” Charlie remarked.

“Thanks. The stock is good shape. There’s plenty of feed. I don’t foresee any problems,” said Dave.

As they walked back to the truck, Charlie reached into his inside coat pocket and withdrew an envelope. “Here’s a present. Merry Christmas! I’ll pick up the family next week.”

“Thank you. Merry Christmas!” Dave remained in the yard until the truck turned onto the distant county road and disappeared. Then he entered the house.

Sounds of children playing and laughing warmed the two rooms. Kay was busy removing food from the boxes and putting it into order. Dry goods and canned items went on the shelves.

The food that would require refrigeration went into and old oak ice box. Dave had six square containers filled with water and frozen outside. He put two at a time into the tray at the top of the ice box. When they thawed, he would replace them with fresh ones and he would place the thawed ones back outside to refreeze.

The frozen foods were placed in a special wire mesh covered cabinet on the back porch. There they would remain frozen as long as the cold weather lasted. If a sudden thaw occurred, there was a sawdust insulated ice house down by the pond that could act as a freezer.

When everything was put in its place, Kay brought out a pot of homemade potato soup and made some toasted cheese sandwiches. The soup was Dave’s favorite. Seasoned with black and white pepper, he said, “It stokes your internal furnace and keeps you warm all day long.”

When lunch was finished, Dave and the boys hitched the team to the sled and whole family went out on a hay ride. They were also looking for the perfect Christmas tree. They examined dozens which they rejected for one reason or another, until finally the choice tree was found. The kids took turns sawing away at the trunk.

The youngest, Christine age four, was first. She didn’t last long. Then James, the middle child, age six took over. He sawed with more enthusiasm than skill. The oldest Thomas, Tommy, finished the job. All of them joined together to drag the tree back to the sled. David turned the team around and drove past the cattle, who rose together when he called and began to follow the sled back to the big corral. Driving the team in through the gate, Dave made a big loop, pausing at each feeder to drop off some hay for the night.

By the time they passed back through the gate, all of the cattle were inside. Stepping off the sled, Dave closed and latched the gate. Then he dropped off the sled, cared for the team, and put them into their stalls with their evening’s grain.

Kay went in to start supper and David and the children fashioned a tree stand out of two-by-fours. They shook the snow out of the boughs and brought their tree into the parlor and stood it in the corner. Shedding their coats and boots, the kids asked Kay where the decorations were. She replied, “They’re in the apple box on the porch.”

The kids rushed to porch and retrieved the box. “After supper,” Kay instructed. The kids groaned and placed the box on the floor near the tree.

“Dad,” Tommy said. “Why doesn’t this house have electricity?”

“This ranch is at the end of the road. The nearest electricity is twelve miles away. It would take quite a bit of money to run power out here, so the owners look for someone who doesn’t mind the primitive nature of this life and they hire them for the winter.”

“Oh,” was Tommy’s reply.

“I have a two-way radio if there’s an emergency, and a battery operated AM/FM radio to keep up on the latest news, sports and for listening to music. I have a whole library of books, and I stay pretty busy.”

“Do you enjoy it out here?” Tommy asked.

“I do. For as long as man has been keeping domestic animals, someone has had to watch over them, see to their needs, and keep them safe, shepherds and cowboys. I feel like I have a shared kindred spirit with all of those who have gone before. They were very special people.”

“Supper’s ready!” Kay called out.“Everybody wash up!”

After supper, the whole family came together for the tree decorating. With the addition of candy canes, garlands, tinsel, and decorations, the tree seemed to swell to twice its size.

“But where are the presents?” Christine asked.

“Santa brings those,” James announced.

“I need to go and add firewood to the water tanks,” David said.

“I’ll help!” “Me too!” “Me three!”

The children rushed to get dressed and then they left. It was already dark, but the moon reflected on the snow made it almost as bright as midday.

With many willing hands, the chore didn’t take long, and when they returned to the house, Kay had hot chocolate and a platter full of Christmas cookies waiting. After their snack the kids got into their pajamas and piled into their beds. From the top of the warming ovens, Kay brought three old fashioned cast iron irons which were wrapped in wide strips of old wool blankets and placed in the bottoms of the sleeping bags.

With the warmth from the irons and the lingering effects of hot cocoa, the three children were asleep in minutes.

Then David and Kay crept to the door leading to the second floor and retrieved the boxes of gifts that had been deposited there a month before. With the tree surrounded with presents, and stockings hung, David went out to check on the stock one last time.

Standing in the yard looking down toward the barn and corral, he took a long deep breath of the frigid air and as he exhaled he whispered a quiet prayer of thanks.

When he returned to the house, the parlor was dark and Kay was in bed. The lantern in the kitchen had been turned down, and all was quiet. He took off his coat and hat and hung them up; then he took off his boots and set them near the stove to keep warm. His gloves he set on the kitchen table.

He quietly added wood to the cook stove and then to the parlor stove. As he straightened up he looked around the room at his sleeping family, and he whispered, “Thank you again, Lord!”

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