Chestnut Tree Shoolhouse
Chestnut Tree Hill Schoolhouse
about 1897

Photo: Audrey C. Linke
An Old Fashioned Christmas
A Young School-Teacher's
1927 Christmas in Oxford,

-By Elizabeth Squires
Written for a class at the
University of Illinois in
December, 1929.


schoolhouse - 1932
Chestnut Tree Hill Schoolhouse
January 14, 1932

Photo:  Oxford Historical Society

It does not take money to make a glorious Christmas. One of my most thrilling seasons was the cheapest. Perched high in the Connecticut hills, a little one-roomed school-house overlooks rolling valleys, farms and villages. It sheltered twenty children of various ages and seven different nationalities: French, Swedish, Lithuanian, Russian, Hungarian, English and American. Their parents, who worked in factories or farms, were poor and they enjoyed few luxuries of life. Their wants were few and simple, but Christmas was coming on, and what child's heart does not quicken at the prospect or yearn for something new?

I was teaching at the time and determined to make that Christmas an eventful one for them as a sacrifice of my own. My aunt, in New haven, played "Lady Bountiful" to the children and we decided to help them make their own Christmas. There were so many materials near at hand, heretofore unnoticed, which they learned could be used to great advantage. 

treeFirst, of course, was a huge evergreen, which the older boys proudly dragged in from the forest. Then came the problem of decorations, not with tinsel and costly ornaments, but with things of their own making. Two weeks before the big celebration, the children were asked to be on the lookout for anything which might be painted and hung on the tree. Scarcely a day had elapsed when there came some hickory nuts and walnuts. Others brought pine cones of all shapes and sizes. Still others brought oak apples, hard brown spheres which remain on the tree long after the leaves have fallen. 
-Each day brought new contributions which they had discovered on their way to and from school.  -- three cans of paint: lacquer red, gold, and silver were purchased with the promise that those who made the best grades in certain subjects could paint the deluge of ornaments. They settled to work like Trojans. (Practically every child made "one hundred" in the next two weeks.) The little first-graders, six years old, were scarcely to be trusted with red paint and a brush, but we found tasks for their eager hands.

hollyWith sheets of gold, silver and red paper at their disposal they cut and pasted seemingly endless chains. The supplies ran out. They brought colored magazine covers from home, and more chains resulted. Buckets of popcorn and cranberries were given them to string. If, now and then, during the stringing of pop-corn a crunch was heard and their jaws moved suspiciously, we pretended not to see.

 -A "Daniel Boone" who had explored the woods reported whole areas of running pine which could be gathered and woven into wreaths. No sooner was this suggested than fragrant, green pine was brought in by the armful. More explorers donated sprigs of the bright red alder berry, fat and wax-like, which resembled holly. A running vine was discovered whose brilliant green leaves and red berries made it ideal to interweave with the pine. 

-While the little "cherubs" made chains and strung pop-corn, the boys painted canes, and the girls wove huge green wreaths with sprigs of alder berry and the vine for color. The girls also ran string through the pine cones to hang them on the tree. Busy times those were, not a minute was wasted.  When the ornaments were finished, each child was allowed to place his contribution on the tree, Its green branches were transformed into a riot of red, green, white, gold and silver.

-Plans were being made for a Christmas entertainment to which the mothers were invited. Songs, stories, poems, and plays were perfected, with avid interest. Names were drawn to buy gifts, the older boys traded and maneuvered to get the name of the girl they had originally hoped for. Sly glances, grins, blushes adorned the faces of many.

The "cherubs" suggested we write a letter to Santa Claus asking him to "come see our tree." This was done and signed by everyone in school, not however, without knowing glances and furtive winks from the upperclassmen.  This seemed an opportune time to give them the wise bit of council suggested by my Aunt: "As long as you really believe in Santa Claus there will be one, but the minute you say 'there isn't, he ceases to exist for you."  Same were skeptical, but it set them thinking.

Meanwhile my Aunt was having the time of her life buying presents galore -- not expensive ones, but presents that delight the heart of any child: puzzles, erector sets and games for the boys, sewing outfits, dolls, cut-outs for the girls, moulding clay, and all manner of interesting bits. On weekends, in New Haven, we made dolls of red tarlatan stuffed with candy. (lolly-pop for the face, stick candy for arms and legs, and hard candies for the body).  These were sewed with green yarn, one for each child. Finally the presents were wrapped, hers in red and green paper and my gifts to the children in white. Not even the same seals or cards were used; there was to be NO CLUE to the donor of the extra gifts. Finished, they made an amazing pile.  

-It was agreed that she should bring them up in the car the day before, while school was in session, and deposit them at the old New England farmhouse, where I stayed. A huge clothes-basket full, and on top, a letter from Santa Claus, in bold print, with a Christmas seal and impressive red ribbon --this from my Uncle.

The entire lot was hidden under "Grandpa" Treat's bed. Grandpa and his son and daughter-in-law were dyed-in-the-wool New Englanders, cold and conservative, but they "grappled you to their hearts with hooks of steel," once you had gained their friendship.

The Treat family looked on and marvelled. Nothing like this had ever happened before and they were as excited as we were. They had to guard their words, however, for Marion Treat, aged eleven, was all eyes and ears now that the time was drawing near.

The "day before" arrived at last. Lessons were recited, the room and desks were cleaned, the program reviewed, and school was dismissed for the day. The little door, bearing an enormous wreath, was locked and the key put under the step where John could find it when he made the fire early the next morning. John was a Lithuanian, whose big, liquid-brown eyes followed one like those of a Collie. An awkward, gangly boy, who was a hard worker and pure gold.

-Heavy snows had fallen and the country was blanketed in white. That night, long after Marian and her parents had retired, Grandpa and I set out literally to play Santa Claus. Grandpa was bundled to the ears with scarfs and mufflers so that his overcoat bulged on all sides. We lit a lantern, and each taking a handle of the clothes basket, we started up the road.

-"Glory John! But this'll be a surprise for the children," was Grandpa's repeated comment as we carried the basket between us.  "Winds from the northeast -- it'll be cold in the morning. -- have to tell Atwater to fix that window in the barn."

 The sky was a mantle of midnight blue. All at once the moon came out from behind a cloud. From then on the lantern was quite unnecessary. The drifts of snow glistened like diamonds. There was an austerity in the silence that inspired one.

The school was only a few rods away and soon we found ourselves inside. The fire in the center of the room had long ago died out and it was bleakly cold.

-One appreciated John's coming early of mornings to warm things up.  Not a sound, save an occasional creak of a board and the patter of a mouse as it scurried back to its hall. The ornaments on the tree sparkled from the feeble light of the lantern as we set to work.  The presents were piled high around the tree, and the candy-stuffed dolls were strung up from one corner to another. There they hung, their lollypop faces making grotesque expressions at each other. The letter of Santa Claus was pinned on the tree and Grandpa and I departed for home.

True to Grandpa's prophecy, the day dawned cold -- and clear. I purposely intended to be later than usual in order that all the children might get there first. Marion had left a few minutes before. I had scarcely finished my breakfast when I heard a shout down the road. Running to the window I saw the whole school clamoring down, calling my name and begging me to "Come quick -- you can't guess what's happened!  
    "Somebody's left a whole pile of presents."
        "There's a letter on the tree signed Santa Claus.
            "John said the door was locked when he came to make the fire in the morning!

With cheeks aflame, eyes sparkling and blowing little puffs of steam as they gasped for breath, they swarmed around the door.  Soon I was struggling into my coat and running up the road, minus a hat.

There were the presents, just as I had left them; in their mad excitement, not a one had dared to tamper with them. Lessons after that were impossible, so we solved the problem by telling Dickens' Christmas Carol and other stories.  At recess, not a child would budge from the building. They gathered in a circle and glued their eyes to the presents now and then pointing excitedly when they spied their name on a mysterious looking box.

Shortly before noon the district supervisor came to visit the school The children were put to work while we discussed some technical matters.  Every head bent eagerly over an assignment. While we were talking, Joe Gazy, aged six, came running up to show me a problem he had worked. In his eagerness, his sleeve caught an a branch, and the whole tree, ornaments and all, came crashing down on him.  A sickening groan issued from the other nineteen, and Joe's face was livid as he threw his little blond head through the branches. His big blue eyes welled with tears, his chin quivered. But luckily the superintendent had a sense of humor and we burst out laughing.

Little Joe, immensely relieved, forced a grin.  With the help of the supervisor and several older boys we soon had Joe safely back in his seat, the problem long-forgot. The tree was restored and redecorated in time for as exciting an afternoon performance as I have ever seen.

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