Seniors have some of the best Christmas stories and memories, because they a have wealth of experiences. Many are more than willing to share their stories if someone takes the time to ask. The Gazette did.
Here are reflections on Christmas from three seniors at Croixdale, senior housing in Bayport.
Jean Becker, 88, says her Christmas memories aren’t all glad tidings and good cheer.
“I didn’t have a real happy Christmas, because I had a father who was a diabetic in the days before they had … insulin … and he was ill most of the time,” the lifelong Stillwater area resident said. “I remember going into the garage and praying when he was going to the hospital that he was coming back. This was when I was 4 and 5.”
Around Christmas when she was about 5, she also remembers seeing a horse drop dead in the street in front of her.
“That stuck with me,” she said.
But there were good aspects of Christmas, too.
Due to her father’s illness, she said, her family lived with her wealthy grandparents in an old lumber house at the top of the hill on Second Street, across from Pioneer Park in Stillwater. It had nine bedrooms and a formal dining room where they ate dinner Christmas Eve, which always included oyster strew.
On Christmas Eve, she and her brother and sister would have to go upstairs with their grandmother, and when they came down, the tree was trimmed, and there were presents under it.
Her family then went to a church service at midnight at the Episcopalian church.
“It was hard for me to stay awake,” she said.
Despite her traumatic experiences as a youngster, Becker isn’t cynical about the season.
“Christmas is really the best time of year for children,” she said.
Jeannette Schwietz, 93, has fond memories of writing letters to Santa when she was young — until her older brother ruined it for her.
“My dad would help me write my letter to Santa,” she said. “Of course, I had a big brother who crushed all my hopes about Santa. … But I got over that in a hurry, because I knew the source was still there.”
She was about 8 years old when her brother disillusioned her.
Christmas was simple at her house, but she appreciated what she had.
“I was raised during the Great Depression, so I was always happy when I received a book,” she said. “I loved to read. … I have fond memories of Christmas as a child. My parents really went all out, as far as they could.”
On Christmas ever, her French grandfather would sometimes visit, and her mother would make French cuisine for dinner. Then Schwietz and her siblings would go to bed full of anticipation.
“We’d go to bed early, and my parents would trim the tree and tell us Santa trimmed it,” she said.
The children would wake around 5 a.m., while it was still dark, and find presents under the tree.
Before the sun rose, the family would head to church. She remembers one trip in particular.
Although she doesn’t know why, one year the family walked to church. The gas street lamps reflecting on the snow burned an indelible image in Schwietz’s memory.
“The light shining on the snow was sparkling, just like it was a set on a stage. It was gorgeous,” she said. “I remember that morning so vividly.”
After church, the family sat down to a large breakfast before going to visit her other grandparents.
“I always remember my mother in the kitchen,” she said. “She loved to cook.”
One of Charles Swanson’s earliest holiday memories is going for a sleigh ride to the mailbox on Christmas Eve.
At the time, he lived on a farm between Osceola, Wis. and Dresser Wis.
Usually his family would walk a quarter mile to their mailbox to pick up what the postman left. But one Christmas Eve, his father decided to do something special.
“Instead of walking out to get the mail, let’s hook up the horse and get the cutter out,” Swanson recalls his dad saying.
“So they took the cutter out of the barn, and we went for a sleigh ride, an old-fashioned sleigh ride,” Swanson said. “I was about 5 years old. I just barely remember that.”
Now, 88, Swanson smiles at the memory.
In Swanson’s family, the Christmas celebration was similar each year, but he remembers celebrating in several different houses, including one in Dresser, Wis., and on the Andersen Scout Camp north of Houlton, Wis.
At Christmas his family would gather in his parents’ home — three grandparents, three great aunts, plus his parents and two younger sisters would celebrate, no matter how cramped the quarters. At one home, all 11 of them squeezed into a two-bedroom home.
“How did we all manage to sleep?” a younger sister once asked him.
Swanson said he and his grandpa shared the office, and somehow they found space for everyone else.
Christmas Eve dinner featured traditional Scandinavian fare, complete with lutefisk.
Later in the evening the whole family would go to the Christmas Eve service at Trinity Lutheran Church in Stillwater. Even after growing up and moving to Maple Grove, Swanson kept up the tradition of coming back to the St. Croix Valley to celebrate Christmas and attend Trinity’s service.
Contact Jonathan Young at [email protected]