December 22, 2005
Christmas at Thunder Butte Creek
Once, I remember Santa coming—I think it was on Christmas day. He was all dressed in the red suit, white whiskers, and red cap. I had no idea who he really was, but I was terrified of him. I recall lying in bed all excited one time, because Santa was going to come that night. Long before I could sleep, I heard jingling bells in the distance, then the sound of tap, tap, tapping on the roof. I lay there holding my breath—so anxious that I could hardly breathe. Later, I heard the door to the living room open and shut, and I knew that Santa had arrived from the North Pole. Of course, it was probably one of my older brothers jingling the bells and tapping on the roof with a tree branch or something.
Christmas [when I was a child] was not a big gift giving event. I usually got some new socks, maybe even a warm jacket. Once there were two or three oranges in my stocking and some nuts, maybe an apple. Doesn’t sound like very much, but those things were rare around Thunder Butte. I have often wondered how my folks kept a few pieces of fruit from freezing, when the bucket we used for drinking water was frozen solid every morning and nothing was warm until you could get a good fire started in the wood stove. Our blankets would be frozen stiff for about six inches below our chin, where our breath froze on the blankets. Most of the presents at Christmas time came from my Aunt Cynthia [in North Dakota]. She never missed sending large boxes of goodies, toys and new, warm clothing.
[Most people didn’t have much of anything in those days], and even if they did, the emphasis was more on Christmas stories and prayers. Many times, we sat around the big, wood burning heating stove and listened to stories of Christmas and prayers told by my mother and father.
I remember Christmas programs at the school house, where there was a decorated tree, with popcorn balls and stuff, and we kids had to perform. I had to play the guitar and sing songs. That was among my most miserable experiences, since I could neither sing nor play the guitar.
We used to cut a Christmas tree right on the ranch. I remember one year that we had a beauty growing on the cliff that fronted the house, about a quarter mile away. My mother usually strung popcorn with a needle and thread, making long strands that she then wound around and around the tree, from top to bottom. She would sometimes make popcorn balls by mixing syrup with the popcorn, forming it into balls, and drying it over the stove. The final touch was sticking candles to the tree branches and lighting them when it got dark.
In the upper grades, in grade school, we used to color pieces of paper and put a verse on them and exchange them with the other kids, for Christmas cards. I don’t think my parents or anyone [we knew] ever exchanged cards at Christmas time.
There was very little partying, probably because the snow was up to the horses bellies—it was tough to plow through it. Nobody was going out on a bitter cold, winter’s night and plow through snow banks with a team of horses to go to a Christmas program. [At the time,] I didn’t have any idea what the city kids did on Christmas.
I can hardly remember eating anything [for Christmas dinner]. I know that we ate, but it was not a memorable event. The only meal, or lack thereof, that I remember was one time when I got up in the morning and my mother was sitting at the kitchen table crying. I asked her what was wrong, and she told me there was nothing to eat. She heated some water and we drank it for breakfast. I know that sounds terrible, but it wasn’t. I didn’t hurt any. I felt very sad for my mother, but that was all. By the time noon arrived, she had figured out something and we [managed to eat] something.
The only other meals I remember were when I was in high school and living by myself. I got a twenty pound bag of corn meal for about a dollar, maybe fifty cents. I would mix the corn meal with water and fry it for breakfast. Other times, I would boil it and make porridge. Of course, there was always the baked corn meal bread. I think a twenty pound bag of corn meal lasted me for about a month.
I listen [today] to officials talking on television about school lunches, and children getting too fat, and soda machines at school. I always had a lunch hour in high school, but I can’t ever remember eating anything. Maybe it’s some kind of psychological block. I know this all sounds terrible, like I was some kind of deprived child or something, but that was not the case. I was happy. I didn’t want for anything. People couldn’t do any better. You didn’t expect things that weren’t realistic.