Christmas then and now

Published 6:15 pm Saturday, December 23, 2017

“Now after many patient weeks, the kiddies have their tree;

They scamper out of bed in haste and romp down-stairs in glee!

A wonder comes into their eyes as hand in hand they gaze,

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To try and understand old Kris and his mysterious ways.”

– Poem published in the Dec. 26, 1921, issue of the Mower County News

Christmas decoration on the Paramount Theatre, 1930. Photo courtesy of the Mower County Historical Society Collection.

With Christmas Day around the corner, Mower County residents are getting ready to celebrate. Whether it’s last-minute shopping, buying the final grocery items for Christmas dinner, or preparing the house for out-of- town guests, people are working to make it the best they possibly can.

While some aspects of Christmas have changed over the years, spending the time with family and friends has remained the norm, as some of Mower County’s senior citizens can attest.

“We usually went to my grandma’s in Peterson, Minnesota,” said Carol Stethem, who grew up in Austin. “My cousins would all be there, and I always got Juicy Fruit gum from my grandma.”

“We always got together with family on Christmas,” said Wayne Skov, who grew up in rural Lyle. “We’d celebrate with my mom’s side and my dad’s side separately. Living in the country, it was a rural thing. I guess it was nothing special, but we enjoyed it. There was always a lot of food prepared. My grandmother made lefse and some of those Norwegian things, because they were of Norwegian descent. It’s still a family tradition. Family is very important and always will be.”

In the case of Nancy Cox, a friendly get-together started by her mother in Mankato turned into a regular Christmas tradition.

The Austin High School Band Orchestra and Show Choir before a Christmas concert performance, circa 1950. Photo courtesy of the Mower County Historical Society Collection.

“My mother started ‘The Old Hens Party’ when she was 16 years old,” she said. “She got married when she was 16 and the boys were off to (World War II). She and four of her friends started ‘The Old Hens Party,’ though at that time it didn’t have that name.

“When my father got back from the war was the year that my mother had the party. They were at the house and my father had to sleep during the day because he worked at night. While the party was going on, he got up and said, ‘It sounds like a bunch of old hens cackling out here.’ So that’s where the name came from. Over 50 years later, the party is still going with the daughters, the nieces and grandchildren. My daughter is going to have it next year in Owatonna and I’m due to have it pretty soon again.”

Shopping has not really changed either.

“(Austin was) busy,” Stethem recalled. “Everybody was shopping here. Woolworth’s (on Main Street) was packed. Every place was very festive.”

“We mainly came to Austin (to shop),” Skov said. “We rarely went to Rochester. You didn’t get around so much in those days. Austin was our big town for shopping.”

Things have changed.

“Now, I think we tend to buy all year,” Stethem said. “Back then, it was a rush in the last month.”

Santa Claus arrives by sleigh in front of the Mower County Courthouse, circa 1930. Photo courtesy of the Mower County Historical Society Collection.

Some traditions have faded over the years, such as caroling in the streets. In a Dec. 26, 1921, article entitled “Old English Custom Revived by Students,” the Mower County News wrote, “Thursday evening 50 high school students went ‘a caroling.’ One group went on the East Side with Miss King of the Y.W.C.A., and the other group went west with Miss Johns. After they returned from their caroling trip, they were entertained at a party given in the YWCA rooms.”

But one of the biggest changes comes with the stress of the season.

“(Christmas has) changed,” Stethem said. “It’s become more commercial. It was much more fun back then.”

“Seems like it’s gotten more hectic as I’ve gotten older,” Skov said. “Maybe that’s just because of my age.”

But in the end, Christmas will still be special for Mower County residents, especially children.

Christmas nativity group and choir of angels at Church of Christ in Austin, 1943. Photo courtesy of the Mower County Historical Society Collection.

“I always wanted a doll when I was younger,” Stethem said. “One year, I got ice skates, I remember, for skating at Skinner’s Hill. We had a lot of fun.”

“When you’re younger, you always look forward to Christmas,” Skov said. “It was a special time with a lot of excitement, gifts, and when you were smaller it was a big deal.”

“At this Season of the year our (thoughts) turn to those whose friendly business has made possible better and bigger things, and we extend to you a hearty greeting for Christmas and best wishes for the New Year.”

– Mower County News, Dec. 26, 1921