©Jeanne Walsh, 1997

A Country School Christmas

    The children who attended Possum Hollow, Dist 58, in Polk County,Nebraska in the 1930's eagerly awaited Christmas. Not for just the gifts Santa brought, but also for the changes in the school day. It was the custom to present an entire evening of songs, "pieces" and playlets to the parents and friends a few days before Christmas.

The work on the Christmas Program began at Thanksgiving. I, as a country school teacher, spent the Thanksgiving weekend, going over all the materials I had, materials my sister (who was also a country school teacher) had, and program books I had borrowed or copied from other teachers, choosing songs, recitation pieces, and small plays for all my pupils. The choices needed to be tailored to the students ages and abilities. On Monday following Thanksgiving all of the children would be given their "parts" in the playlets, a piece to recite, or a song. Practice began on the carols. A teacher was judged on her choice of material and how well the children performed.

The first week some attention was given to the learning of the parts and pieces during Language and Grammar classes. The second week the serious work of memorizing began. The last week before the program, an entire class period would be devoted to practice.

We drew names for exchange of gifts, we began making simple gifts for parents. The teacher had to come up with new items to make each year. One year for fathers,we painted coffee cans and painted "NAILS" on the side. Another year the girls learned to embroider and made a tea towel for mother. (Luckily my oldest sister happened to be making tea towels for her hope chest when I needed a nice tea towel for the embroidery and she gave me one of hers.) This too took up some class time.

At Possum Hollow the school board built a temporary stage in the front of the schoolroom the weekend before the program. The teacher had to provide the curtain which meant begging and borrowing the use of sheets (This was the '30's, remember!)

The last day or two before the program almost the entire school day was spent rehearsing. "Louder, speak louder", "Don't talk so fast", "Look at the audience".

Now while this practice was going on, the students at their desks had to entertain themselves quietly, quietly. "You must be VERY quiet when someone is on stage." As a little girl, I would hurry through a lesson assignment to get to the serious business of learning my "piece"or play part   With that accomplished I would then bring some of my paper dolls to school and make dresses for them from scrap paper when the others were "practicing." The few library books were read and re-read.

At about the age of 6, I sang to the tune of "My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean": " O just see my new Christmas dolly" I carried a big beautiful doll (borrowed, of course) and sang her praises for a few bars, then decided she was much too big and too heavy, before turning to my own ragged little doll to sing "I'm going to get my old Molly, she's old but as sweet as can be. Molly, Molly, she's old but as sweet as can be." ----- My parents thought I was a big hit!

The program night -- hair cut and curled, shoes polished, a new dress made over from one of my sisters' dresses -- the boys in new overalls, hair slicked down, small exchange gifts under the Christmas tree,all the stage properties ready., all the children backstage, quietly,quietly. (A teacher was also judged on how the children behaved)

Of course, it was a huge success, always. Toward the close of the program, SOMEONE slipped out of the audience - SANTA was going to appear to hand out the exchange gifts, and the bags of candy the teacher had purchased from her meager salary as well as a small gift for each student, and the gifts the parents had managed to slip under the tree for the little ones not yet in school.

THEN to await the coming of SANTA. The adults were anticipating "Who would play SANTA? Would it be the teacher's brother, her boyfriend, one of the neighbors, who?"

In he came, with much pounding on the door, jingling of bells, ragged cotton beard on a mask, "HO, HO, HO!" One year coming in through the basement, in his exurberance pounding on the chimney and furnace pipes, he damaged the furnace so badly, school had to be delayed while repairs were made.

In he came, attempting kisses on the cheek of some pretty young woman in the audience, picking up a small child who did not appear afraid of this strange mask face. My little sister commented when she had kissed Santa, "Daddy, when I kissed him, his check dented in!"

The pieces recited, the singing of carols,the coming of Santa, the giving of gifts, Santa ho ho-ing back out the door, it was over for another year. Now your own family Christmas and a week's vacation.

Ah, Christmas in a country school, what better way for a child to celebrate Christmas!

Nebraska Schools