Remembering Christmas on the Farm

Kate’s first Christmas

Kate Flora here, listening to the wind howling outside, and remembering Christmas on the farm in Union. Although she didn’t tell us this until years later, our mother didn’t really like Christmas. Perhaps it was because so much of the work of the holiday fell on her. Not just the expected tasks, like shopping and wrapping and cooking and entertaining and sending out the dozens and dozens of holiday cards. Because we didn’t have a lot of money, a huge amount of work and ingenuity went into producing holiday gifts for relatives and friends. While everybody helped, she was the one who made sure everything got done, everything got packed, and everything got shipped in time to arrive before Christmas.

Note that Kate is holding a handgun in this otherwise cute photo

On Sennebec Hill, the month of December was given over to the production of presents. Mom would get out her cookie sheets and recipes, and make batch after batch of holiday cookies. Butter cookies in plain, green, and chocolate that the cookie presses would shape into wreaths and trees and candy canes. These would then get decorated with red cinnamons, tiny silvery sugar balls, multi-colored sprinkles, or green and red sugar sprinkles. There were tiny meringues with finely chopped nuts, anise cookies, and many other varieties that only got baked at Christmas.

Our dad loved to decorate. Here he’s done fancy fake snow on every window pane. He also loved to wrap presents, and they were beautiful when he was done.

These would get packed into tins and mailed to relatives and to friends back in New York and New Jersey. The tradition was that the tin of cookies would arrive in time for Christmas, and then the friend or relative would travel to Maine in the summer to visit, and return the tin so it could be filled for another year.

At some point during the month, John, Sara, and I would be allowed to bring a friend

Kate and her dad bringing back a Christmas tree

home from school to bake cookies. Mom would have different “stations” set up for us, with the dough all made, and we could bake trays of cookies decorated just the way we wanted, and each friend would get to go home with a tin of special cookies.

While Mom was mixing and baking, little sister Sara and I would be gathering balsam, snipping it into tiny pieces, and then sewing up small, colorful fabric pillows on the reliable old Singer machine. These pillows would be stuffed with the sweetly scented fir and shipped along with the cookies.

While we were doing that, Dad would have gone out into the woods and gathered the various plants for the terrariums that he would assemble in small glass bowls. I remember pillows of green moss and Staghorn moss and partridge berries. These tiny, magical gardens would join the cookies and pillows in the packages that were carried to the post office.

One holiday tradition I do carry on most years is making the Finnish coffee bread our up the road neighbor, Lili Johnson, would bring us every year. Part of the tradition, when we would make her recipe, was shelling the cardamom pods and putting them into the special grinder. Along with the bread, she would bring each of us a pair of handknitted mittens, always wrapped in white tissue paper.

I rarely make holiday cookies anymore, but writing this makes me want to dig through the cupboard, find that old cookie press, and make a tray of sugar cookies, just for the fun of remembering.

Mom, dad, John, Kate and Sara with our Christmas tree.

When you’re a kid, you don’t need much snow to go sledding. You don’t even need a sled.

Skating on the pond across the street

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21 Responses to Remembering Christmas on the Farm

  1. David Plimpton says:

    Thank you for the great Holiday post.

    Who says you can’t go home again? Memories probably are one of the best ways to celebrate the Holidays even if you have to navigate around a few bittersweet and sad ones.

    • MCWriTers says:

      David, you are so right. Back then…I probably should have mentioned this in the post, one huge highlight of the holiday was that we would get the Brentano’s catalog and each of us got to pick one special book. It was absolutely magical to scroll through the pages and narrow it down to that one book. American myths and legends is one that I still have, having carried it around with me for almost fifty years.

  2. C.T. Collier says:

    Lovely memories! I thought of the many trips downhill on busted-down cardboard cartons and sliding on the ice in our boots 🙂

    • MCWriTers says:

      I remember sledding like that. We were on top of a hill, and there were two long hills leading down to the lake. When the snow had a crust, a big piece of cardboard was perfect. It was getting back up the hills that presented the challenge.


  3. Beth Clark says:

    This post was a wonderful way to start my day and helped to boost my Christmas spirit. Christmas can be a stressful time but you remind us that those times can leave lasting memories of the sights, smells, activities and lasting friendships that this time of year renews.

    • MCWriTers says:

      I still have these moments, usually late on Christmas eve even though I don’t have to wait for the boys to be asleep so I can finally assemble their gifts, when I look out the window and think, Well, yes, maybe something magical is happening tonight.

      In the flurry of errands, it can be hard to recall the simpler pleasures.

      Last weekend, I gave my annual party for my neighbors. Shopping and cooking for 50+ is a lot of work, but then there is that wonderful moment when candles are lit and the doorbell rings and people come in smiling and I kiss their cold cheeks and remember that people matter. And we’ve been doing this for more than 30 years, so there’s a perfect level of comfort on everyone’s part. Doing this helps make it Christmas for me.


  4. Dick Cass says:

    Lovely, Kate. Thanks.

  5. Lea Wait says:

    Wonderful post! Mothers make Christmas for their children … and, yes, in hopes that memories, and maybe some traditions, will continue. May it always be so!

    • MCWriTers says:

      It’s only the way we make Christmas that changes…this year we are sending the kids on trips, and I am researching vegan Christmas breakfast, which is a lot of fun. And buying warm socks for a trip to Iceland…theirs, not ours.

      Still, I miss those late, late Christmas eves putting together forts and small indoor climbing structures or assembling the magical cardboard bricks by the lights on the tree.


  6. Sweet post – love the photos! I love that you sent not only cookies but homemade balsam pillows and little terrariums – how cool!

    We have a modern cookie press these days, looks kind of like a large glue gun. Though we aren’tt making that particular variety of treat this year, it’s fun (and sometimes a challenge) to get the dough just the right consistency so it will snap smoothly onto the cookie sheet in various cool shapes. I leave the decorating part to Diane – she is the patient one in our family.

    When we went out sliding as kids we lined our (sometimes leaky) boots with plastic bread bags for an extra layer of waterproofing. It was a precursor to Gore-Tex.

    Happy holidays to you and yours, Kate!

    • MCWriTers says:

      Thanks, Brenda! I do wonder if that green food coloring she put in the cookies wasn’t poisonous, but it looked very festive with a single cinnamon candy on top of the tiny green tree.


  7. Barb Ross says:

    What a lovely post. We had the same ritual with the giving and returning of cookie tins. To some extent I still have it today. But faraway friends got their cookies mailed to them in a coffee tin with the lid taped shut!

    • MCWriTers says:

      So glad you are preserving the rituals, Barb. Mostly, our rituals involve the parties we still give, like the one for our neighborhood, and New Year’s Eve, when we have hosted the same people for more than thirty years. This year it will be sad, because Ken’s sister–and my most able sous chef and consultant–won’t be with us. But she’ll be there in spirit and I wrap on the apron she made me and use her knife to chop.

      I don’t even feel too guilty about not getting much writing done…


  8. Ruth Nixon says:

    Kate, loved this blog. I wished Christmas was more like this and I know I would have enjoyed receiving one of your family gift boxes.

    • MCWriTers says:

      Ruth, you would have loved my father’s tiny terrariums in little glass bowls. He was such an artist with growing things.


  9. Sandy Rowland says:

    Thank you for sharing your memories. With both of my parents passed, it fills my heart to remember the early years and the days of cookie baking and laughter.

  10. Your shared holiday memories put a smile on my face. Thanks, Doc!

  11. MCWriTers says:

    I know, Sandy…it’s hard when there are empty places at the table. But these holidays do give us a chance, when we take it, to remember how much they meant and how much they gave us.


  12. Sennebec says:

    If time travel were possible, I’d be back in Lili Johnson’s kitchen every Christmas. That woman baked magic, I swear. I also remember being fascinated by the colors of Christmas lights. Same colors were present in the world the rest of the year, but somehow, they were extra special in December.

  13. MCWriTers says:

    So true, that woman could bake. I have the recipe, but of course no instructions, so I have to wing it every time. And yeast hates me. But I love the smell of the baking bread, and the cardamom, and braiding the loaves.


  14. sandy neily says:

    Oh Kate (and everyone) that was just great. Am wintered in up in Moosehead, looking at my cookie tins and the butter getting soft next to the wood stove and was feeling down about the money thing and the pressures of creative gift giving, BUT your post just shifted it all! Remembering how simple it can be. (One year, after a moose took out our car, we made banged-up moose cookies by smooshing the finished dough moose just a bit and sending them out looking beat up.) Just love the terrarium part, your Dad and all of you adding your home-grown creativity. (And the first pic: you had great baby legs!)
    Thanks, thanks!

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