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North Country natives remember simpler Christmas

December 23, 2009
Several North Country natives who grew up in the region during the first half of the 20th century say Christmas when they were young was more spiritual and less commercial.

"It was very different," remembers Bethlehem resident Pat Bonardi, a retired school teacher, who grew up in the 1940s and still lives in the same house in Bethlehem. "There was a lot more spirit. Now it's very commercial."

The festivities leading up to the December 25th holiday were always simple, practical and inexpensive. It always started with getting a tree. For Harold Burns, the 83-year old Insurance agent and former House Speaker and State Senator from Whitefield, who also lives in his family's original homestead, the search for a tree started in the fall while he was out deer hunting.

Ms. Bonardi remembers one season when she hauled two separate trees all the way home only to have her mother send her back because "it was not full enough." Finally, the third tree met her mother's satisfaction.

Nature rarely produces perfect Christmas trees, so people improvised using various techniques to hide bare spots. Mr. Burns can nearly find the child-like amazement when he describes seeing a more affluent neighbor's tree adorned with store-bought decorations and stringed lights and the shock of seeing someone throw out their tree with tinsel still on it. He remembers commenting to his parents, "Look at that. What a waste!"

Ninety-eight year-old Margaret Carr, who grew up on a farm in East Lancaster, said her family went many years without ever having a Christmas tree. What she remembers most is the spirit of the season and walking. She lived 5 miles from the village and often walked back and forth. "Back then, we weren't afraid to stop (at houses) along the way to warm up," she said.

The school and Grange hosted holiday parties with popcorn and small gifts for everyone. On Christmas day, they'd pile into a horse drawn sleigh for the two-and-a-half mile ride to her grandmother's home for a family reunion of sorts.

Ms. Bonardi recalls "nearly freezing to death in the cold" while going house to house caroling. "People expected to see you," she said. The town and the school in particular were central to the celebration, she said. A town sponsored Christmas party would include a gift for every single child in town. In addition, she recalls the Main Street businesses, including her father's fruit store, would transform their places with holiday decorations and even paint seasonal greetings on their windows. "Bethlehem always had (Christmas) tree," she said, and the churches were packed, especially the midnight mass at the Christ the King Catholic church.

On Christmas Eve, Ms. Carr would hang her stocking from the foot of her bed and in the morning it would be filled. "I suppose you wouldn't find a lot," she said, "some candy and one special thing; for me it would be doll and my brothers it would be a little school table or a baseball."

Before Mr. Burns could open any presents, he had to help his father milk the cows at his family's farm and eat breakfast. His stocking would be filled with candy and an apple, pear or, his favorite, a tangerine. "I just loved them as a kid, they were sweet and just peeled so nice." The presents were small, practical, and often-times clothing. If it wasn't made at home, he said, it was bought in Whitefield at one of the many stores on the common.

In those days, Ms. Bondari said, "to fill a stocking, you didn't need to mortgage the house." Today, Americans on average will spend $417 for Christmas gifts this year, which is down substantially from $1,004 in 2004 according to the American Research Group, Inc.

Santa Claus was a small part of the whole Christmas experience years ago. "It was not a real big thing," said Mr. Burns. "Remember we had no TV," he said, "all there was, was radio. You didn't see Santa as much."

Ms. Bondari agreed, "I don't remember a big Santa thing." In those days religious participation was high and schools were not barred from including the religious meaning of Christmas.

Possibly, the idea of Santa and any form of celebratory excess just didn't sit well with those old–time New Englanders with their flinty frugality and Puritan piety. Those were days, as Ms. Carr said, "of patching and mending." Struggling was commonplace. "You just got used to it," she said, "They were great old days."

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