A Big Family Christmas

by Joanne Nesbit

The late Garnet Keaton Parsley wrote in Brown County Remembers of her father who always said that, “There are two things you have to do—die and pay taxes.” But Garnet added a third, “Have Christmas for the children.” And there were ten of them.

Times were hard then, but as Garnet remembered, Christmas was always an important time, and the family always had a big Christmas.

“My mother had a flock of chickens,” Garnet wrote. “She always raised a lot of chickens, and in the fall after the hens started laying, when it came close to Christmas, we would go out after dark to the hen house and we would cull those hens.” Those that were not producing eggs were sold so there would be money for Christmas. Sometimes there was doubt there would be enough money. But her mother also saved the “egg money” from throughout the year, and her dad usually saved a calf to sell for Christmas money.

A cedar tree in one of the family’s fields was identified as “the one” for Christmas. “A few days before Christmas we went out with our little hatchet and we would cut the tree,” Garnet said. Once inside the tree was decorated with cotton, popcorn, paper chains, and bittersweet.

How could Santa Claus find a farmhouse in the midst of Brown County? Well he had a little help. Garnet wrote that her parents always played Santa. The kids would arrange chairs in a circle, hang their stockings on the backs of the chairs, and put a pair of their shoes under the chair. With this process Santa and his helper would be able to tell whose stocking was hung on the chair.

On Christmas morning there was usually a sled or wagon to be shared and something for each child in his stocking and an orange on each chair. One Christmas Garnet found an iron in her stocking. It did not spray water nor was it electric. But it was an iron to be heated on the cookstove. “I thought this was the greatest iron I had even seen,” Garnet wrote. “I ironed for a week.”

Christmas was the only time of the year the family had citrus fruit. Always there were potatoes, meat and gravy, beans, and vegetables. But only at Christmas were there oranges, grapefruit, and bananas.

One Christmas her mother hung a bunch of bananas from a hook in the ceiling. Upstairs, sleeping three girls to a bed, the sisters were awakened by a brother who had sneaked a peek downstairs. Running back upstairs to wake the girls, Garnet remembers her brother yelling, “Get up. Get up. There’s a whole stalk of bananas down there!” The gang of siblings went running down the stairs and started grabbing bananas “just like monkeys,” Garnet wrote. The children continued eating bananas all day and as many as they wanted.

There was always a big Christmas dinner in Garnet’s childhood home with turkey, a hen, fruits and vegetables and homemade mincemeat pies. But on that Christmas Day the children didn’t have much of an appetite for the festive dinner set on the table. They had eaten far too many bananas.