Volume One Special Coverage: Pulling Together While Staying Apart

« BACK


Christmas in a One-Room School

children, teachers, and everyone else became part of the annual Christmas program

Connie Russell

The Nativity scene during the 1953 Christmas program at Pleasant Hour School in Chippewa County.
The Nativity scene during the 1953 Christmas program at Pleasant Hour School in Chippewa County.

The return to school after Thanksgiving during the 1940s and ’50s marked one of the most important events during the school year at Pleasant Hour School-: preparation for the Christmas program. Teachers brought out poems, skits, plays, and songs for us to learn, and every student from first to eighth grade participated. In the early weeks we memorized our pieces and practiced with each other at recess. About two weeks before the program, practice became very serious and time during the school day was allotted for us to go through the program. However, Miss Anna Thorpe, Chippewa County superintendent of schools, had declared there was to be no practice during the school day except at recess and during the month of December, and she made random visits to the rural schools to enforce the rule. But teachers knew how important the program because everyone in the area came, whether or not they had children in school. It was a big occasion, so teachers typically responded to Miss Thorpe’s declaration by posting someone at the window to serve as lookout. If the lookout saw Miss Thorpe coming, he’d give the teacher a warning, and students would scurry back to their desks and pull out textbooks in a hurry.

Mishaps occurred. Students forgot lines and dropped props, and small children in the audience cried, but mishaps only added to the frivolity. The final act was the Christmas story, and even the unruliest boys quieted down for the manger scene. The three wise men and Joseph donned their mother’s or father’s bathrobe, while angels dressed in white dresses and wore cardboard wings. Mary wore a blue tablecloth as a cloak that covered her head.

 All the students, and I believe most of the teachers, were afraid of Miss Thorpe. She dressed in black, wore a black hat with a veil, and managed a stern face most of the time. Once she stopped by my desk and asked me to give meanings for the word “close.” I said, “When you’re standing close to someone and when you feel close to another person.” She said that was good but reminded me that “close” also meant being tight with the dollar. I have no doubt about that meaning fitting her outlook on life.

One of the neighborhood farmers who lived next to the school brought hay or straw bales to make a stage at the front of the classroom. Boards were laid over the bales with a canvas tarp covering all, making the whole room smell like straw. Dusty curtains were brought out, shaken, mended if necessary, and hung on wiring strung from one side of the room to the other in front. Teachers and parents provided costumes for plays and skits. Poems and plays ranged from humorous to serious and were interspersed with secular and religious Christmas songs. Skits and plays had titles like “Let’s Have a Quiet Christmas,” “The Naughty Mouse,” and “A Trip with Santa.” But music prevailed.

We sang by grade, by gender, and as an entire student body. The teacher adjusted and readjusted the rows of students when we practiced for all-school songs so that all children could be seen. Some teachers played the piano. If they didn’t, one of the PTA mothers, a neighbor, or a former student was the accompanist. 

One of the neighbors always cut a fresh tree and hauled it in for us to decorate. A few balls were saved from year to year, but we made most of the decorations on a yearly basis, stringing cranberries and popcorn and fashioning paper chains out of construction paper. Rarely, we would have shiny paper to fashion stars. The teacher used a hectograph (an ancestor of the copy machine) to produce Santas, candles, Christmas trees, holly wreaths, and bells on white construction paper for us to color as decorations for the schoolroom. 

When that night finally came, students entered the school as young ladies and gentlemen ready to perform. Boys came with fresh haircuts, shiny faces, clean fingernails, and newly pressed shirts and trousers. Girls appeared in dresses with their hair adorned with ribbons or fancy barrettes. I remember the new dresses made by my mother, long white stockings fastened with a garter belt, and black patent leather shoes saved for that special evening. When I came home from school the day of the program, my mother wound white torn cloths tightly around strands of my hair to make long sausage curls. Just before we left, she would remove the cloths.

Parents and grandparents, as well as neighbors who had no children or whose children had grown, looking their best, squeezed into students’ desks and folding chairs lined up along the side or sat on the back cupboard. When these spaces were occupied, people stood wherever they could find room. Only the heartiest took the seats next to the potbellied stove. The teacher stood in the washroom keeping order, getting students lined up for the next act, and prompting any nervous students who had forgotten their lines. She also did plenty of shushing. Older boys had the privilege of pulling the curtains.

Mishaps occurred. Students forgot lines and dropped props, and small children in the audience cried, but mishaps only added to the frivolity. The final act was the Christmas story, and even the unruliest boys quieted down for the manger scene. The three wise men and Joseph donned their mother’s or father’s bathrobe, while angels dressed in white dresses and wore cardboard wings. Mary wore a blue tablecloth as a cloak that covered her head.

After the program, older students and the teacher passed out the gifts from under the tree. We always exchanged names and bought gifts for each other, not to exceed 25 cents. Often the gifts were little boxes of Lifesaver candies fashioned to look like a book. More ingenious shoppers wrapped little cars, scarves, or knickknacks. 

Nearly everyone also brought a small gift for the teacher. They got handkerchiefs, perfumes of dubious quality, homemade and what we called “boughten” candy, and stationery. Sometimes the students had made the gifts themselves. Teachers also had to think of and supervise the creation of homemade gifts that were presented to parents. Usually this was the only gift students could manage to give to parents for Christmas. Sometimes a teacher’s husband helped with gifts for the fathers. Once Yule logs were made from chunks of birch. Another time, we warmed old 33 RPM records, bending them into bowls and pasting decals or parts of old Christmas cards in the center. Calendars were made, and mail receptacles were fashioned using half paper plates stitched with yarn to whole paper plates and decorated. Parents treasured and used the gifts we made.

The last event of the evening was Santa who entered, shaking his bells and shouting, “Ho, ho, ho.” From his pack, he pulled out brown paper lunch bags containing hard ribbon candy, a Delicious apple, and peanuts in the shell to give to preschoolers as well as the Pleasant Hour students. Each year, the adults and older children tried to guess who was under that Santa suit. One year, Santa forgot to take his ring off, so he was identified immediately. By the middle of first grade, we had all been told by the older students that there was no real Santa. That was quite a blow, although we put up quite an argument. 

The Christmas program seemed to be magical. Students toned down their mischievousness, forgot their quarrels, and became a part of a special community as they waited for their turn on the stage. On this night, neighbors greeted neighbors, and parents beamed with pride. As we finally filed out the door of Pleasant Hour School, calls of “Merry Christmas!” and “See you after vacation!” filled the cold, crisp air, and warmness filled our hearts.


Connie Russell lives with her husband, Tim, on Lake Wissota where she reads, writes, and works with the Friends of the Library.

Lasker Jewelers
Lasker Jewelers

Pulling Together Partners

The following organizations are currently supporting Volume One’s work in the community during the pandemic:

Lasker Jewelers

L.E. Phillips Memorial Public Library, Eau Claire

Downtown Eau Claire Inc DECI

University of Wisconsin Eau Claire

Pablo Group

Wisconsin Independent Network

Middle West Management

Bon Iver

Royal Credit Union

Silver Spring

Evergreen Surgical

Charter Bank

The Murty Henriksen Family

The Larry and Marie Past Family

The Dan and Kerry Kincaid Family

Anton and Rae Schilling-Smets

Brady and Jeanne Foust

If your organization is interested in supporting Volume One during this difficult time, nick@volumeone.orgcontact us.