Christmas 1886

By Walter K. Billings

It was Christmas morning about the year 1886. We had been up early to get down to the kitchen where the eight merry-xmas-1908-pcb4p31astockings had been hung the night before. Now we were all in one big bedroom looking at the candy elephants, pigs, sheep and rabbits that were already pretty sticky by repeated lickings from various tongues.

Breakfast was just starting when father came in from the barn to say that a big snow storm was coming from the east and he guessed with the two feet of snow already on the ground it would not be safe to attempt the trip down home, as he always called the old farm house just out of Brockville on the Chemical Road. However, although the storm had started, father decided the team could make the trip. The big sleigh had been in readiness for a couple of days; straw had been placed in the bottom of the big box and some carpet spread over this and the sleigh had been backed into the shed to keep the snow out of it. At last we all piled in and were away. The toll-gate was just east of our farm house and as we drove through, our neighbour came out to wave to us. We always paid our toll by the year so did not have to stop, but cheered and sang “Jingle-Bells” as the horses raced through. Years later in a letter I had from a woman who lived as a girl at the toll-gate she told me how much she had always envied us our trip to Grandfather’s on Christmas Day. We usually met Tom Billings, his brother Horace, and their father and mother, Bruce and Polly, on their way to Aunt Jule McCrady’s house just west of the village. We of course gave them a “Merry Christmas”!

Old Farmhouse on the Chemical Road

Driving into the yard at Grandfather’s, we were all ready to cry “Christmas Box” to the Johnsons (Aunt Lizzie) and the McLeans (Aunt Ida) whom grandfather had already brought out from Brockville for the day. Such a racket as we always yelled them down and fairly smothered them with hugs and kisses! Then, into the big kitchen we went where on the table was a large bread pan filled with popcorn all salted and sweetened, and on the side table six mince pie that had been brought in from the back porch where we knew a thirty gallon milk can contained many more. These six pies soon would be placed in the oven to be warmed. Beside these pies was a big dish of the loveliest raisins on the stems, dishes of candy, nuts and oranges, that mother had forbidden us to sample. The delicious scent of the big gobbler roasting in the old stove greeted us! My grand-mother had told me it was the one that had chased me out of the yard a couple of weeks before and I did not feel bad that we were to get even with him now.

merry-xmas-pcb4p27cWith about twenty-five to feed, Grandfather got busy, standing at the end of the long table. Grace was said, plates were passed, heaped with mashed potatoes, squash, cranberries and that turkey. It seemed that we children would never be served as plate after plate went by, but at last we were all told to go ahead. I was short and fat and stubby but I am sure no one that day had more to eat, as Grandfather always had an eye on our plates. Poor mother had some trouble watching for fear we took the biggest piece of fruitcake, but when an extra piece fell off in front of me I didn’t put it back.

Then the candy, dates, nuts, oranges and lovely red snow apples came along but by this time we were nearly ready to rest for an hour or two anyway. The big Christmas tree in the parlour all strung with popcorn and ribbons, was a sight and we went in on tip toe to peek at it. Then the doors were thrown open and we were able to sit around on cold haircloth chairs and sofas until our names were called and we went up to get our parcels. I remember on this occasion there were six or seven pairs of lovely leather mittens in sight, and as one or two of them had fur cuffs I wondered which ones were for me. That was a great day. I got a pair of mittens, but one of the cousins got the ones with the fur on them. But they wouldn’t have been big enough for me anyway.

I can remember Grandmother sitting in her rocking chair in the dining room by the box stove which had been stuffed with big sticks of wood. Grandmother aalways wore a little lace cap and a lovely shawl over her shoulders. Aunt Belle hovered over us to see that we were all wrapped up for the trip home. Uncle Bob Johnson had given me a quarter during the afternoon and I kept my hand in my pocket all day for fear I might loose it. I haven’t that quarter now, but I never took care of a twenty-five cent piece as long again.

Well, horrible thought, father was outside and said we had better get ready at once for home as the storm was worse. merry-xmas-pcb4p32aThey wanted us to stay at grandfather’s all night but to find beds for twenty-five of us was impossible. We climbed into the sleigh, the robes were thrown over us as we sat in the bottom of the box, and in five minutes we were all asleep. The horses plunged through the drifts out in the fields, where the roads were blocked, and finally we were awakened at our own door. What a day! What a memory! Children who travel now in motor cars have never had the lovely experience of a trip to Grandfather’s in the sleigh at Christmas time.

This story is taken from the book “How Dear to My Heart” by Walter Kilborn Billings, published in 1954.

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