To say I’ve always loved Christmas, my family will tell you, is an understatement. I come by my love of Christmas naturally, because my grandparents, Art and Ruth, also loved it.
I may not remember many Christmas celebrations with my grandparents, but I am grateful that my family, especially “The Aunts,” have made our family parties through the years so special. They have shared the treasured traditions of their childhoods, and together, we have created new ones — including singing “The 12 Days of Christmas” to celebrate the family of 12 that Art and Ruth created.
Because I am so appreciative of the support this digital history project has received in its first year, I decided to thank our readers with a special feature for the next 12 days. Highlighted daily will be special poems about Christmas and winter themes, written by Arthur Mapes and others, and other reflections on Christmas stories and traditions. I hope you will find beauty in this celebration of our common values of family, joy, love, and peace. Check in every day by liking us on Facebook or subscribing to this blog.
On this first day, I’ll share a newspaper column from 1982 — my first Christmas — that includes two poems. One is a favorite poem of our family, “My Old Iron Rabbit.” Written with childlike simplicity, it’s the first poem I recall memorizing as a kid.
I’ve mentioned this column on the blog before, because I really appreciate it for helping me understand my grandparents a little better. The stories about their childhood Christmases — sleigh rides, homemade doll clothes, and crackerjack — are priceless to me. Following is the entire article, which also is archived in its original form here:
“Christmas Traditions” by Grace Housholder
The News Sun, Kendallville, Ind.
Arthur Franklin Mapes, author of our state poem, is counting the days till Christmas. He and his wife Ruth are the parents of 10 children, and they are expecting about 40 children and grandchildren for Christmas dinner.
“They’ll start drifting in Christmas Eve,” Mapes said, seated in a comfortable chair facing the Christmas tree. “But there are some in Florida, Washington and San Diego who won’t get home this year.”
The Mapes’ one-story home on Brillhart Avenue, south of East Noble High School, has been ready for Christmas for some time. The tree, topped by a revolving globe that casts multi-colored lights on the ceiling, was put up soon after Thanksgiving. A ceramic nativity scene painted by one of their sons graces the top of the television set, and red and green Santa and reindeer stencils dance on the picture window.
Underneath the tree is a ceramic church with a lighted interior, some presents that have piqued Mapes’ curiosity, and, of course, the old iron rabbit. Mapes received the rabbit, which has a slot in its back for coins, for Christmas when he was 6 years old, and it has been a family tradition to put it under the tree each Christmas.
The rabbit is smaller than I thought it would be. I had imagined something about the size of a doorstop, but the antique toy is small enough to fit easily in a young boy’s hand.
My old iron rabbit
Still stands on the shelf,
A toy of my boyhood
I’ve kept for myself.
Just an old iron rabbit,
An old fashioned toy,
I found in my stocking
When I was a boy.
He came on a Christmas
Long, long, ago
When winter was weaving
White magic with snow.
He has long iron ears,
And a slot in his back
Where I saved up my pennies
To buy crackerjack.
The children all love him,
He adds to their glee
At Christmas they put him
Down under the tree.
His value, somehow,
Has grown beyond measure.
The passing of time
Has made him a treasure.
Since I was a boy
I’ve made it a habit
To love and to cherish,
My old iron rabbit.
The rabbit is one of many Christmas memories Mapes holds dear. Raised in Kendallville, the seventh of eight children, Indiana’s poet laureate recalls being bundled in blankets for a sleigh ride to downtown Kendallville. In the 1920s the merchants put up a Christmas tree on a platform on the corner of Main and William streets. With the bells on their father’s bobsled jingling, the children would ride downtown to see the tree and join in singing Christmas carols. Each child received a paper sack with apples, bananas, oranges, crackerjack and Christmas candy. Before the trip home, Mapes remembers warming up by Mrs. Klinkenberg’s wood stove in the back of the store.
Mapes and his wife said when they were young children they were satisfied to get just one gift. Mrs. Mapes, one of 10 children, recalls one Christmas when her folks didn’t have any money. Her mother made her doll clothes — for the doll she shared with her sister.
Mapes remembers receiving book every year. His favorite was “Hans Brinker and the Silver Skates,” which had been written by his grandfather’s cousin.
Mapes, who is 70 now, has been very ill at times, but he is grateful he still has his memory. He said he still writes poems “up here” (tapping his head), but his typewriter is broken so he doesn’t put the words on paper. He tries to take a walk every day, the exercise his doctor has prescribed to help prevent strokes.
In just a few days the family will be experiencing another Christmas together. They will munch on the 600 Christmas cookies Mrs. Mapes made with some of her children last week. Maybe they’ll pop up a dishpan full of popcorn and make popcorn balls.
“If a person can’t remember doing that, they’ve missed something,” Mapes said, thinking back to his boyhood. “Or if they can’t remember seeing stockings hanging all in a row, they’ve missed something … It’s amazing how much they hold.”
Christmas is so many lovely things,
Like silver bells … and stockings in a row;
The carols … that a children’s choir sings,
The candles gleaming through the falling snow.
Christmas is the main street of our town,
The color guards, the floats, the marching bands;
The crowds that gather … tho’ the snow comes down,
The shouts of glee … the many waving hands.
Christmas is the stores … the busy street,
The decorations hanging here and there;
The smiles and handshakes from the friends we meet,
The Christmas music ringing in the air.
Christmas is the sparkling tinseled tree
When Santa Claus brings bright new Christmas toys.
A time for dreams … and old time memories,
A time of happiness for girls and boys.
Christmas makes the Winter seem sublime,
And blends its cheer with cold and dreary days.
Our hearts respond to every song and chime,
And we love Christmas in so many ways.
Christmas is when heartaches seem to cease,
Both here at home … and in the lands afar;
As men on earth still seek good will and peace,
Still guided … by the glory … of a star.
(Used with permission of KPC Media Group, http://www.kpcnews.com)