A Handmade Christmas in New England, c. 1900

Around 1900 on a small farm in Brookfield, Mass., Alan Wallace and his brothers celebrated the holidays with handmade Christmas presents, taffy pulls, a tree decorated with popcorn and cranberries and their father’s reading of A Christmas Carol.

Wallace described his handmade Christmas in an interview with Louise Bessett on Dec. 1, 1938 as part of the Works Progress Administration’s Federal Writers’ Project.. The government project employed 6,600 writers, editors, historians, researchers, art critics, archaeologistsgeologists and cartographers. They produced 48 travel guides known as the American Guide Series, local histories, ethnographies, children’s books and oral histories collected from unexplored corners of the United States.

The interview took place in Alan Wallace’s rattletrap Ford while he and Bessett drove home from the Brookfield post office. It was a cold day, noted Louise, the roads rutty and rough from the recent storms, but Alan drove fast maneuvering his ancient conveyance with the skill of an artist and talking steadily all the time.

Brookfield, Mass., in 1906

Brookfield, Mass., in 1906

Bessett ran into Wallace at the post office, where he had picked up gadgets from a mail order house. He intended to put them together as presents. December 1 was considered early for Christmas shopping in 1938.

The Interview

Here is Bessett’s transcript of the interview:

“There’s nothing like being in time.” I ventured to say.

“Yep, that’s what my mother always said, You see, when she was a kid — she was born — oh, I guess about eighteen hundred and fifty seven or eight, I’m not sure just when exactly but along there somewhere, her family made practically all their presents. The Civil War came and they couldn’t afford to spend money on anything but food. The habit stuck to her and so, when my brothers and I came along she taught us to do many things that ever since makes Christmas to me.”

Being of an inquiring nature I asked, “What, for instance?”

“Well, we boys, used to gather things to make fancy pillows, we’d start as early as August so when Mother was ready to use them they were dry and fragrant, things like fir tips, pine needles and sweet fern leaves.

“It usually went to the seashore for two weeks every summer and half the fun of going was the finding of shells to take home to make into Christmas presents. We’d pick up the prettiest clam shells and scallop shells, a whole basket full, and then when we got back home, we’d paint them in the evenings – make ash trays, pin trays and – and – oh, yes, paper weights and sometimes door stops.

“As I look back on it now I realize that some of them were pretty awful but Mother always seemed delighted with our efforts, no matter how feeble they proved to be. Honestly we got so we could all paint fairly well – you know, birds and butterflies and flowers.

Canes for Father

“We had scads of relatives and by the time we had painted something for everybody we should have been fairly proficient. We used to make canes for Father and what an assortment he had, there was, of course, always a great deal of rivalry among us as to which cane he would like the best, so, to spare our feelings, he would carry mine today, Stuarts’, my oldest brother, the next day and Jim’s, the youngest brother, the third day and he would be equally enthusiastic about each one.

“We always gave him something for his desk. He finally accumulated so many of our gifts he put a good-sized table in his room and all of our efforts were laid out to show them to the best advantage. I don’t mind telling you we were mighty proud of that collection.

“Mother taught us each to knit and I realize as I look back how patient she was for we were so clumsy – but we got so we could knit wristlets that really looked all right.

“I remember one night Mother had the dining room table strewn with clothes pins and some paint cans and brushes. She was making dolls out of the pins. She put dresses on them and she painted the end where the little knob is – that was the head, you know. We were wild to try our hand on painting the faces and she finally let us – we thought we had done pretty well but we were very crestfallen when Mother remarked that it was most evident there were no portrait painters in her family.

“We all three learned to crochet – and we had more fun than you can imagine crocheting ribbons to tie around our packages.

 ‘He’ Boys

“The evenings would fly by all too fast and how sensible my Mother was keeping three big boys so enthused over Christmas that they rarely wanted to go out at night. We were boys, too, real tough ‘he’ boys, and the funniest part of the whole thing was, none of the boys in the neighborhood ever kidded us. In facts most of them spent half their time at our house.

“Mother always caught the Christmas spirit early and she used to spread it around which made our Christmas last longer than most peoples. So many don’t commence to think anything about it until two or three days before Christmas Eve.

Illustration from 'A Christmas Carol'

Illustration from ‘A Christmas Carol’

“We used to cut our trees out in some nearby pasture and was that a ceremony. Sometimes we would spend weeks making the proper selection and there were many serious arguments before we were all satisfied. We would be all ready to set it up a week or ten days before Christmas.

“We decorated it with strings of cranberries and pop corn, then we’d paint silver stars and tuck them in and out of the branches. We put a few little candles, here and there. Not many, Mother had a deadly fear of fire. Everybody had a stocking hung on the tree, even our animals.

“We had our gifts Christmas morning but Christmas Eve we always had a ‘taffy pulling’. All our pals were invited, no one was allowed to bring a present. A number of the older people would come, too, and sometimes bring something for Mother and Dad.

We didn’t call him Dad in those days

It would have been considered disrespectful but they didn’t count, it was our party.

“We had our gifts early in the morning and then we’d pitch in and help with the last minute preparations for dinner and what a dinner it would be. The table fairly groaned as the newspapers say.

“And no one seemed to hurry – no one rushing and dashing around like mad as they do today. Everybody was smiling. To Father and Mother Christmas meant love and love means happiness – doesn’t it?

“If we can always keep the spirit of Christmas alive this old world of ours will never go entirely wrong. Always after dinner, on Christmas Day, Father would read Dickens Christmas Carol, we never grew tired of listening to it – we felt the Cratchits, Scrooge and Tiny Tim were people who belonged to us and came to visit us every Christmas.

“After we had listened to the Christmas Carol and dinner was cleared away, we’d put on warm clothing and go sliding or skating, and would we bring home an appetite — you could hardly believe we had just eaten a big Christmas dinner. Mother’d have sandwiches and cake and we’d pop corn and crack hickory nuts and chestnuts and we’d sing everything we knew and Father would tell us stories that would seem unbelievably funny and how we would laugh.

Laughter in the House

“I have heard my Mother say that laughter in the house was more precious than gold plate. What a Mother mine was, there never was one like her.”

Alan sat for a full two minutes, looking off into space, thinking I am sure, of the dear days that are gone.

Suddenly, shaking himself, he laughed softly, “It’s grand to have days like that to remember, isn’t it?” Without waiting for my answer, “I suppose you’d like to know what’s in my box, wouldn’t you? Well it’s more or less a secret, I’ll show you some of the things when I get them together, they’re not ready to be looked at yet.

“What I said I wanted to talk to you about is that I want to give a little party Monday or Tuesday of the week before Christmas, will you come?”

“Would I come?” Indeed and indeed I would.

“Well, I’ve got to get along, I’m leaving some day the week before Christmas, for Detroit – only be there a few days – my brother Stuart lives there. He’s a very ‘successful’ dentist and has a considerable amount of money. Think’s I’m crazy because I don’t try to made some but I’m happier than he is, I’ll bet my hat.

“I’m anxious to go for two reasons, I want to see him, of course, but I’m itching to do some ice fishing, I’m hoping there’ll be ice there, you know it’s much colder there than it is here. Speaking of fishing, I wonder if this will seem funny to you – it does to me now but -oh-oh how I suffered once.

“When I was a kid about twelve I fished in the ice every chance I had but I was terribly unlucky, could hardly ever catch anything. One day, I asked one of the town’s best fishermen what I ought to do.

“Wal,” he said, shifting his very large plug of tobacco from one side of his mouth to the other, “jest cut yer ‘ole in th’ ice, then put yer net down in th’ water and s-let hit stay kinder long – then holler per net.’ Away I dashed – with this advice from an expert I was sure to get a big catch.

“I cut the hole in the ice – I let my net down into the water, then, standing over the hole I hollered as loud as I was capable of hollering, ‘per net’, ‘per net’, again.

This time the sound I made was closely related to a scream – per net, per net.

“I pulled up my net – there were no fish – I wag bitterly disappointed and as I stood there it suddenly came to me that what he had said behind that plug of tobacco was, ‘Haul up your net.’ I could feel myself blush down to my toes and I was thirty years old before I had the courage to tell the joke on myself.

“Well, that’s that, I’ll drive you home and then I’m on my way.” Dropping me practically in a mountain of snow – he waved gayly, “I’ll be seeing you,” and away went Alan in his funny wheezy little car, on his way to get things “together” so that his friends can have a “Merry Christmas.”

Who Was Alan Wallace?

Bessett described Alan Wallace separately as a big man well over six feet and weighing about one hundred and ninety pounds. “By no chance can he be called good looking, in fact he is really homely; but his large mouth is even smiling and his kind eyes lighted with a twinkle,” she wrote.

Alan was born in Brookfield about 55 years ago. His family came from Paine where his paternal grandfather had wealth and influence. Alan’s father came to Brookfield for a venture that never materialized and he spent his life working a small worn-down farm. Mr. Wallace had a small income from his parents, but never added to it so his children had no inheritance.

They did have a heritage of culture and love, Bessett wrote. Mrs. Wallace was a refined, well-educated woman and a superb mother. She instilled in her children a love for education, music and art. Alan wanted to be a concert singer, and she saw to it that he went abroad to study for several years. Just as he was about to make his concert debut, Alan was stricken with a an illness that left him speechless for more than two years. Eventually he recovered his speaking voice, but he was never been able to sing again. Bessett wrote that Alan Wallace loves music, has a large collection of records for his victrola, listens constantly to concerts over the radio, but deplores the prevalence of jazz and ‘swing.’

Alan lives in the “Over the River” district of Brookfield some distance from the town center. He has an apartment of three rooms in a house owned by a Miss Sibley who is a trained nurse, permanently engaged at the Mary Lane Hospital in Ware. Miss Sibley returns home for occasional week-ends and vacations, leaving the house to Alan. He has a pleasant sitting room furnished comfortably with several easy chairs, a couple of tables loaded with books, a book case and a very large couch covered with cretonne. The room is shabby and worn, but it has a “come in, make yourself comfortable and feel at home” look that many much finer places entirely lack.

When Miss Sibley is not at home Alan has the use of the kitchen and prepares all his meals. He is an excellent cook and can bake, fry and boil better than many housewives. He takes pride in his cooking as in his large well-planned flower garden.

No one in Brookfield, least of all Alan himself will deny he’s lazy. He freely admits he has no ambition and does not mind because he is not a success. He considers it a joke on his Puritan ancestors who worked so hard to make their way, that he, almost the last of the family is just ‘nobody.’

He is an expert designer and has worked for years, off and on, in the wall paper mill in Warren. He talks of his work with reluctance, seems to dislike it and observes that he works only because he must work to live and he enjoys living. He is forever buying Irish Sweepstake tickets, taking chances and trying contests.

He spends much of his time reading and has a large well-selected collection of books. He owns an old Ford and only the bravest  dare ride with him. He is always in demand at parties and invariably is the one who runs a last minute errand, tries to quiet the baby roused from sleep and escorts the spinster school teacher home. Nothing is too much trouble for Alan — sitting up nights with the sick, chopping wood for some old lady, explaining an arithmetic problem to young Johnny or just being friendly and kind. Everybody likes him and Alan seems to like everybody.

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