Memories and Traditions
Tales of Christmas Past
My mom and dad fooled me that year.”
It was the Christmas of 1967 and Oak Ridger Don Bell was 12.
“It was probably the best I can remember,” says Bell. “That was the one. Every year I would sneak in under the tree at night and pull the tape back, so I always knew what I was getting. My parents knew I was doing that. That year, when the three of us kids opened presents on Christmas Eve, I got a few clothes — stuff I didn’t even want. My brothers got a lot more and I was the youngest. I didn’t say anything and went to bed a little disappointed, maybe thinking I hadn’t been good enough.
“The next day my dad said, ‘Let’s go over to your grandmother’s, which wasn’t unusual. When we got there, he said, ‘I’ve got to go somewhere. You stay here.’ I walked into the house and was in the kitchen. Then I glanced toward the living room and there was a brand new, metallic green deluxe Stingray bike. I was so thrilled.
“I can still see it. I got the bike I had dreamed of. I’d just had an old Murray bike from Western Auto called a Wildcat that looked like a Stingray. That Christmas day it was so warm that I rode my bike on Michigan Avenue all day.
“About ‘95 or ‘96 I found a Stingray bike at an antique shop. I have it in my house so I can look at it and think of all those times when I was a kid.”
“There were nine of us children — Iva, Paul, Lee, me, Elsie, Wayne, Carol, Dwight and Ellen.” says Evelyn Norris, 84. “When I was 8, we lived in Philadelphia. We didn’t have a whole lot, but my mother made Christmas joyful and upbeat. My father had health problems, so my mother always had a lot to do. She loved each one of us. There was no partiality with us children. At that point we didn’t have a car, so we walked to church. If it was near Christmas when we went to church, we were each given a little box of candy with a handle. It was a very big deal to have your own box of candy.
“My mother always had Christmas stockings,” she says. “They always had an orange and nuts in them. We never got oranges and nuts any other time of the year. One thing that we always had that meant a lot to me was a nativity scene. It was a punch-out paper one that folded up. We made paper chains out of green and red construction paper and strung popcorn for the tree. We loved doing that.
“My mother made handmade gifts for us – maybe a slip or a stuffed animal that she had a pattern for. One year we each got one and mine was a giraffe. We loved those things. We might get a toy like jacks or pick-up sticks and we got paper dolls several times. One thing that I got that wasn’t from my mother was a Jack and Jill magazine from my grandparents. It came addressed to me each month.
“We always got maple sugar candy from the trees that my grandfather tapped. It came in a box with a piece for each kid. We’d take a little bite and then each of us would hide ours in a special place. One Christmas we got a doll for three of us girls. It was a girl doll about 12 inches tall. When my mother died, we found that doll. She had saved it. It must have meant a lot to her to have been able to buy it. I don’t remember the doll having a name, but she used to have light brown hair, but she doesn’t anymore.”
Roy Ogle, 94, grew up in South Knoxville with twin sisters 16 months older than him. His dad planted a big garden each year and also raised chickens and pigs. One pig at a time.
“A week or two before Christmas we went out in the woods and cut a tree,” Ogle says. “We’d find some woods – we didn’t know whose property it was. We strung popcorn and used icicles.”
“They were the little silver strands that came in a box,” Ogle’s wife, Martha, added.
“After we moved into a house with electricity,” Ogle said, “we decorated with lights. I remember not getting anything much for Christmas – maybe a little toy car with apples and oranges in an old sock — probably my dad’s — with chestnuts, walnuts and pecans. Each year my dad killed the pig just before Christmas so we had a special meal to go with chickens that I caught and my mother killed.”
“His mother baked stacked cakes nine layers high with cooked apples between the layers,” Martha added.
Back in the 1940s, Nancy Smith Triplett was the fifth of six kids growing up in Concord.
“You went to church to get your fruit on Christmas Eve,” she said. “The churches here in Concord had a Christmas Eve service where they handed out a bag with fruit and candy to everybody. I’m not sure about the Presbyterians, but I’m thinking the Methodists and Baptists did.
“At our church the kids put on a play and everybody got a treat bag,” she added. “Our parents would put Christmas under the tree while we were at church and then Mama came in the back of the church to watch the play and walk us home.
“One year, when I was 6 or 7, I found a little dish set behind the door before the Christmas Eve service. I didn’t tell anybody I’d seen it. I just got one gift every year. Our grandchildren will ask us, ‘What did you get for Christmas?’ and I tell them, ‘One thing.’ They think that’s awful, but that’s how it was. All our friends got the same thing. It wasn’t a big deal.”
She said her Aunt Freddy would show up on Christmas Day each year bearing fruit or a home-cooked delicacy. One of her staples was a shoebox full of angel biscuits and Nancy loved them.
“For Christmas dinner we’d have a turkey, ham — everything you can think of,” she said.
“My mother was famous for making fruit cake. She’d make them in October so they could age. She steamed them for three to four hours. That was how you cooked them. I got her recipe. It’s hanging on my wall. I did mama’s fruitcake three or four times down to the letter.
She said her mother, Dorothy Dunlap Smith, also made peanut butter pinwheels.
“Mama put potato in it,” she recalls. “She’d cook a white potato and put it in the powdered sugar. I didn’t like it, but Larry always loved it. I’m going to try that again this year. Something always goes wrong with it.
“He was accepted very well,” Nancy said about Larry. “He went over bigger than most of the in-laws. He was Presbyterian when I met him, but he said, ‘If you convince me that yours is right, I’ll go to your church.’”
Larry Triplett grew up right outside of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. “I came to Mountain City, Tennessee, just out of ninth grade when my grandmother died,” he said. “It was just the side of the mountain in Tennessee. My dad wanted to get out of the mushroom agriculture business in Pennsylvania. We moved back to take over the farm.
“We raised beans, corn, wheat, cows, pigs,” he said. “I think it was better.
“As a little kid, we put the tree up the day before Christmas. That was the tradition. It was left up till New Year’s Day. We didn’t get much in those days,” he recalls. “At Christmas you got what you needed and one toy. My brother got the toy at that time and I didn’t, because of our ages. I always got a surprise – something I needed. We had a big meal. My mother usually made a turkey and all the trimmings.”
He said becoming a Baptist wasn’t hard.
“The churches up in the mountains weren’t much different whether they were Baptist, Presbyterian or Methodist. They were all primitive preachers who preached the gospel and shouted, so I didn’t have any problem with it.”
Larry and Nancy were married in Creighton Memorial Baptist in Historic Concord 59 years ago. “I was used to four, five or six people at Christmas dinner, but when we had Christmas dinner at Nancy’s house,” he said, “we’d have 30-40 people. Everybody drew names and after we opened gifts there was a mountain of wrapping paper.”
The Tripletts still live in Historic Concord Village.
Neysa Peterson, 82, is in assisted living at NHC Farragut, but she grew up in Terra Haute, Indiana.
“It was interesting to see how we worked it out together when we had our three girls, since my husband had Swedish traditions and I had American ones. When we were first married, we lived near my husband’s family in South Dakota. We opened our gifts on Christmas Eve — which was also Swedish tradition — at his grandmother’s house with the extended family. There we had a dinner that included Swedish dishes like a potato sausage dish called petatas corve. I learned to make a Swedish rye bread called limpa with fennel in it, Swedish meatballs, and pickled herring. I didn’t like the pickled herring, but my husband loved it. Then on Christmas morning the girls looked in their stockings and opened a present, the way I had grown up. Then we went to a Swedish Baptist church with an early morning service.
“After my husband got his doctorate and we were living in Vermont, we went out and cut our own tree on land a friend owned. Our three girls went with us. When we got home we found a little birds’ nest in it. That was fun because my husband Jim’s family was from Sweden and that’s a Swedish tradition. We added an artificial bird to the nest.
“I’ve been talking to some people here at assisted living,” she added. “It’s really interesting to me that the first memory that seems to come to mind is not a positive one. They remember one in which they were disappointed. I don’t know if it was unmet expectations from the eyes of a child or that their parents didn’t have the money to buy the things they really wanted.
“As a kid my mother was a really good seamstress,” she said. “I had one sister. When I was about 13, my mother made us bathrobes for Christmas. I found them in the closet in the living room. I was trying to decide which was mine. I wanted the pink one, but my sister got it and I got the navy blue one. Its humorous to me that that was the first thing that popped into my mind.”
There was a more upbeat story, though.
“A resident here told me this story of when he was young. There were three boys in the family and they got one bike. How they ended up working it out was one sat on the handlebars, one sat on the seat and pumped, and one sat on the rear fender.
“Our house was just east of Concord Village,” says Doris Woods Owens, 92. My dad made a lot of my toys when I was younger. Every Christmas I would get a different piece of furniture for my dolls. He made a doll bed painted a cream color that was big enough to put a baby in. He made Adirondack chairs painted cream that I put my dolls in and made those for different children. He made a kitchen cabinet painted green. We lived where there were no children, but I was lucky enough to live across the railroad tracks from a rental house where a little girl lived.
“My brother and I were born in Concord in a big two-story house that my grandparents gave my parents as a wedding present,” Owens says. “The depression hit and when I was about 10, a family came to live with us for several weeks. A builder, Charles Turner and his wife, Hazel, were some of my parents’ best friends. They had two little redheaded girls. During the depression everything came to a halt because nobody could afford to build. He had built his own house before he got married, but they didn’t have money coming in and we could feed them. He helped do construction on the house and would help in the garden. My dad was working and had a good job as a rural mail carrier.
When my dad would come in, they’d start working on a project. They laid a hardwood floor and cut an arch into the junk room and made it into a sunroom with six windows. After the sunroom that’s where the tree went. Christmas at that house was very special until the time we were going to have to leave it [because of TVA flooding the area].”