Massachusetts

A Handmade Christmas in New England, c. 1900

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

Wallace recalled his handmade Christmas in an interview with Louise Bessett on Dec. 1, 1938 as part of the Works Progress Administration’s Federal Writers’ Project. He was then 55 years old, working intermittently as a designer in a wallpaper family. He cheerfully admitted he had no ambition, which he considered a joke on his hard-working Puritan ancestors.

Wallace lived in a three-room apartment by himself and drove a rattletrap old Ford. Fewer than 3,000 people lived in Brookfield then, and he knew many if not most of them. He was popular in town, always in demand at parties and always willing to help out sitting with the sick, running errands or chopping wood.

He evoked those virtues of kindness and generosity in his description of his family’s old-fashioned,  handmade Christmas.

Brookfield, Mass., in 1906

Brookfield, Mass., in 1906

Handmade Christmas

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.

He picked up the habit from his mother, born in 1857 or 1858. Her family had exchanged handmade Christmas presents during the Civil War because they they couldn’t afford 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,” he said.

Wallace and his two brothers made fancy pillows, for example. In August they’d start collecting the stuffing: fir tips, pine needles and sweet fern leave, which dried out by Christmas.

Clam shell varieties set illustration from Mollusca & Shells by Augustus Addison Gould. Original from Biodiversity Heritage Library.

They spent two weeks at the seashore in summer. Half the fun, he said, was finding shells to take home and make into handmade 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,” he said.

“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,” he said.

The boys made canes for their father, competing to make the one he liked best. “To spare our feelings, he would carry mine today, Stuart’s, my oldest brother, the next day and Jim’s, the youngest brother, the third day, Wallace said. He showed equal enthusiasm for 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.”

Their mother taught them to knit, and they learned to make wristlets that looked all right, he said. She also taught them to crochet, and they had fun crocheting ribbons to tie around their handmade Christmas presents.

 ‘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.

“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,” he said. They’d put it up a week to 10 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.

Love and Happiness

“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 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.”

marleys-ghost

Marley’s Ghost, from A Christmas Carol. Original illustration by John Leech from the 1843 edition. An essential element of Alan Wallace’s handmade Christmas.

No one, he said, ever hurried.

“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’ A 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.

Laughter in the House

After they listened to the Dickens tale and cleared away dinner, they put on warm clothing and went sliding or skating. They’d then bring home an appetite. Their mother had sandwiches and cake, and they’d pop hickory nuts and chestnuts. They sang every song they knew, and their parents told stories they thought unbelievably funny. “How we would laugh,” he said.

“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 Wallace and Louise Bessett were sitting in his old Ford outside the post office as he reminisced about his mother. He sat for a full two minutes, silent, looking off in to space. Then he laughed, and invited her to his little party the week before Christmas. She accepted.

“Well, that’s that, I’ll drive you home and then I’m on my way,” he said. He then dropped her off in a mountain of snow and went on his way to get a few things together for Christmas presents.

Alan Wallace’s Handmade Christmas, 1938

Bessett described Alan Wallace 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.

His paternal grandfather had wealth and influence, but Alan didn’t inherit anything. Alan’s father came to Brookfield for a venture that never happened, and he lived out his life working a small old farm. He had a small income, but never added to it.

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 could never sing again. Bessett wrote that Alan Wallace loved music. He had a large collection of records for his Victrola, listened constantly to concerts over the radio and deplored jazz.

His small, shabby apartment was in a house owned by a nurse who worked at the Mary Lane Hospital in Ware, Mass. The nurse only came home on weekends and vacations, so he had the run of the house. An excellent cook, he prepared all his own meals. He also had a large flower garden.

“Everybody likes him and Alan seems to like everybody,” Bessett wrote.

She had run into him at the post office, where he picked up a package of gadgets that he planned to put together for his latest handmade Christmas presents.

This story about the handmade Christmas last updated in 2021.

 

 

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