Articles & Stories

"Christmas Time's A'Coming":

Recalling The Simple Years

Fruit, Candy Sticks, And A Cap Pistol Were Highly Prized

By Imogene Herald - 2012

Back in 1951, Kentucky boy Bill Monroe informed us "Christmas Time's A'Coming." I expect Bill's song started playing probably in November. Nowadays, he might start in September. Before long, Santa will be hawking firecrackers in July. For those of you who remember the song, you know he sang "Snowflakes falling my old home is calling. Christmas time's a'coming, and I know I'm going home." Maybe you're going back physically. Maybe you can only go back in your memories. What was Christmas like when you were a child?
My father, Wilburn B. Herald, is 93. His cousin, Buck Herald, is 79. Daddy remembers his family having a Christmas tree occasionally. Buck remembers having one every year. Both talk about the fun in going out into the hills in the Long's Creek area of Breathitt County, Kentucky, to select, cut, and fetch home a pretty cedar tree with that nice cedary smell. Decorations were simple and homemade, such as strings of popcorn. The kind of paper used to pack apples in boxes could be folded and cut to look like lanterns. If crepe paper or any colored paper was available, it could be twisted or cut into strips to make chains with homemade paste. Both remember having trees at Elsom School sometimes, but not at Macedonia. A tree was more likely, if the teacher was a woman. The older boys were allowed to go chop down the tree and carry it back. Nowadays, students wouldn't be allowed to leave school grounds, and the teacher would be arrested for having an axe at school. Some teachers would treat students to mixed candies from a bucket. Some women teachers put together little individual bags of candy. Teachers such as Lizzie Turner, America Turner Sebastian, Grace Turner Stamper, Martha Turner, Rachel Turner Deaton, and Odessa F. Herald usually had the students put on Christmas plays. (Martha and Rachel were Lizzie's sisters, and Odessa was my mother.) Sometimes, the plays would be put on in Sunday School, again taught by women. On Sunday, church was for preaching by the men. In those days, separation of church and state was not such a hot issue. The same building was often used for school five days a week and church on Sunday. At Elsom, the Presbyterian Church, under the mission work of Mrs. Patsy Turner conducted Christmas programs and gave out gifts of toys and clothes. One year she got her brother-in-law, Wise Turner, to dress up as Santa Claus.

A Special Christmas, ca. 1969.Twins, Sigel and Reuben Turner, Jr., sport their new caps and jackets on Christmas Day in the photo above. Linda and Wanda Turner show off their new outfits and necklaces in the photo below. These are four of the five children of Reuben and Rachel Herald Turner. The oldest daughter, Martha, is not shown. These children were reared just up the road from the old Turner Elementary School, across the Middle Fork River from Lick Branch in Breathitt County, Kentucky.

Tree or no tree, the children would put their stockings by the fireplace. Daddy remembers usually getting an apple or an orange, items not readily available in rural Kentucky in the winter, and maybe some candy. There might also be new clothing items, again handmade. His mother, Martha, would knit socks in a pretty "saw-teeth" pattern, using a brown dye made from walnut hulls to color some of the thread. Daddy's aunt, Aggie Raleigh Herald, knitted lots of socks, caps, and gloves for her children, nieces, and nephews. Buck's mother, Rutha, made clothes for her nine children too, sometimes using feed sacks. As a child, Daddy did not remember getting toys. Neither did my much younger maternal uncle, Beecher Herald, who grew up in Laurel County. Daddy's sister, Rachel, got a little rocking chair for her first Christmas. When her nine-year-old brother was asked to choose between the chair or a doll for his little sister, he chose the chair. I asked Rachel which she would have chosen. After a moment's thought, she said, "Probably the chair because it was red." She still has that chair today. Eventually, she got a doll. Often, dolls were handmade rag dolls. My aunt, Glenna Anderson Herald, remembers getting her first doll that would break when she was seven. Her sister immediately dropped it and broke its leg.

Imogene Herald must have been a very good girl, for Santa Claus had been good to her. In this 1955 photo she proudly shows off her new dollhouse, dolls, and other items. Imogene is the daughter of Wilburn B. Herald of Batavia, Ohio, formerly of Breathitt County, Kentucky, and the late Odessa F. Herald.

Buck remembers that he and his younger brother, Jesse, got highly-prized cap pistols and boxes of caps ammunition. In their case, older sisters had married and moved to Newport in Campbell County to work. They were able to buy toys their parents had not been able to find or afford. Buck recalled that of all the toys, books, and presents Mrs. Patsy gave children at Elsom, she never gave toy guns. In addition to an apple or an orange, Buck still drools over foot-long peppermint or peanut butter candy sticks thicker than a man's thumb and lots of homemade candy and cookies. The whole day before Christmas, women would cook all kinds of cakes, pies, candies, and cookies. Daddy's mother made lots of apple stack cakes and put them down in a barrel. Was it to keep them fresh or keep little fingers out? Christmas dinner consisted of a chicken or ham but not turkey. Often, families would fatten a hog to kill in the cold weather of Christmas, so fresh meat would be on the table, as would honey, if it could be found. The children would be out sledding or skating on the frozen rivers and creeks. Buck recalled one family of poor children who skated wearing only big yarn socks. He still shivers.
It was long a tradition (one that has nearly died out) in our area of Breathitt County to shoot firecrackers all through Christmas. For Buck a string of ten cost a nickel. Boys would have competitions. I was born in 1952 and can recall going outside in the cold winter night and listening to the pop-pop coming from all over and guessing whose houses the pops were coming from. Then, we would respond.
Pretty lights and store-bought ornaments and gifts didn't become common until after WWII. Electricity didn't come to the Middle Fork River area until about 1947. By then, money was more readily available. Many had left during the war to find work. They sent or came back with money and presents, especially at Christmas, like Bill Monroe sang. In 1967 Felice and Boudleaux Bryant wrote "Rocky Top," a song that had nothing to do with Christmas. Immediately, the Osbourn Brothers, and later many others, recorded it. In it the lyrics say "it's a pity life can't be simple again." There was no Christmas in July, no standing in line for hours to get that one gift the children "must" have, no piles of empty boxes and torn gift wrappings, no missing instructions or batteries, and no trying to remember whether it's "Merry Christmas" or "Happy Holidays." Daddy is still mulching leaves and Bing Crosby is "Dreaming of a White Christmas."

Imogene Herald, 3635 State Route 222, Batavia, OH 45103; 513-797-4733; [email protected], shares this article and photos with our readers.