Christmas in Iowa: Stories from Michael Zahs

Uploaded by HooverPresLib on 03.11.2010

To say that Michael Zahs is a master teacher is an understatement.
To say that his knowledge of his native state is unparalleled is simply a statement of fact.
So you're in for a real treat
uh, as the sage of Washington county, Michael Zahs regales us with a few thoughts about Christmas in Iowa,
Memories and tradition. Michael Zahs!
Don't you wonder if they gave introductions after the speech how different they would be?
Wanted to introduce you to my family that's here tonight. My wife, Julie,
our daughter Hannah,
and our son-in-law Collin.
They don't know it, but I've got jobs for them later.
Um. When I was asked to do this, I
I rejoiced on the dates because I thought
three very special ladies in my family
I was hoping could be here tonight
and that didn't work out, but one might. Today's my mother's eighty-fifth birthday.
and I was hoping she could be here but she had a big day and it didn't work out. Tomorrow is my
wife's birthday. She will be a year older.
And Sunday is Edna
Edna Jones's birthday, who is one of my dearest friends and she would have been a hundred and one,
but she passed away two weeks ago today.
And she was going to be here. So...
But anyway, she helped with the program.
When asked to do christmas in Iowa,
That's kind of like...
How many people are there in Iowa? There's that many Christmases.
there's so many wonderful ways
past and present of celebrating this holiday.
We'll give you just a few glimpses.
Hopefully you'll be thinking of things in your own mind
that have been special to your for this time of the year.
Happy Winter Solstice!
Is that the first you've had of that greeting this year?
Or life?
Uh...we underestimate the Winter Solstice
and much of what we do this time of year is Winter Stol, Solstice-ish.
It's seldom recognized.
The winter solstice falls
either on December twentieth, twenty-first, or twenty second. This year it's the twenty-first.
In the Northern hemisphere.
The sun is directly over the Tropic of Capricorn
forty three and a half degrees south of the Equator
on the Winter Solstice.
We have the shortest day
of our year. There.
We say it's our first day of winter.
The Winter Solstice is six hours and six minutes
shorter daylight
than the Summer Solstice
in June. I thought that would be easier to find, it wasn't. I can do an awful lot of figuring, so if it isn't right, don't tell me,
I like it like it is.
It's six hours difference between June and December
The WInter Solstice is probably the first
and the most widely commemorated natural event
on Earth.
People that we would consider very primitive
the Winter Solstice.
If I had to figure out when it occurred I don't think I could
but people thousands of years ago know exactly
the Winter Solstice when the days started getting longer.
They called it the rebirth of the sun.
The daylight part of the day
begins getting longer.
Probably about a minute and a half, I think.
There are signs that native Americans
had Winter Solstice rites
for thousands of years. Here.
Some Indian mounds in Northeast Iowa
and Southwestern Wisconsin
are lined up so that the
Winter Solstice sun and the Summer Solstice sun
are lined up with those mounds.
I can't think that that's an accident.
Almost all the peoples in the northern hemisphere have celebrated the Winter Solstice
with light being the overall theme.
Bonfires. Candles.
The color white.
The fires were to help the sun return.
the festival of lights
is a Jewish festival at the time of winter solstice.
Most north Americ-
Most northern hemisphere cultures
used candles,
feasting and generosity
to commemorate
the return of the sun.
Sixteen hundred years ago
the Christian church leaders decided that they needed to stamp out this horrible pagan
so they abitrarily placed the birth of Jesus at the same time.
And totally successfully stamped out
the use of light, candles, evergreens, feasting and generosity.
As we know, nothing was stamped out.
It was absorbed into the Christmas celebration
or the Mass of Christ. Christmas.
The rebirth of the sun
the birth
of the son.
The celebration of christmas did not survive crossing the ocean well.
The Puritans
felt it was necessary to stamp out the celebration of christmas because it wasn't mentioned in the Bible,
so it shouldn't happen.
And they were pretty successful, actually.
Christmas was not celebrated much.
in early U.S.
The Puritans said December twenty-fifth
was not mentioned in the Bible so it should not be celebrated.
Well, December isn't mentioned in the Bible either, but we have it.
earliest settlers
came from states back east
rather than directly from European countries.
But early and middle eighteen hundreds was not a real religious time
in our country.
Christmas was not a big occasion
for many of the early Iowans.
The earliest christmas was probably at fort
at the fort in Fort Madison
in eighteen oh eight or eighteen oh nine.
Probably it consisted of greeting each other with wishes
and an extra dose of whiskey which was already part of your daily rations.
So that was probably the first celebration of christmas in Iowa.
Because of the wide diversity of Iowans, Christmas has been celebrated every way possible
and can best be described as a blending or absorption of many cultures.
I will talk of a few special Iowan Christmas event
or influences rather than tryi to cover everything.
In pre-civil war
midwinter on the frontier was not a great time to celebrate anything.
You were trlying to survive.
Some calling or visiting was probably done.
Neighbors probably shared a meal of wild game
and maybe they saved a precious lump of butter to put on some corn bread
on Christmas.
If someone lived near a timber,
wild nuts
and hickory nuts could be gathered and given to your friends on the prairie.
If you lived on the prairie and there was a hazelbrush thicket close to you you could gather hazelnuts
and give them to your friends from the timber.
And that was probably about the extent of it.
christmas was often not even important in early Iowan churches.
Probably still from those Puritans.
Some early Iowa settlers did recognize the birth of jesus
around the Winter Solstice.
Some Iowans did decorate for christmas.
Few Christmas trees were used
in those early days in Iowa.
Several reasons.
One: Iowa had almost no evergreen trees.
cedar trees were not even widespread in Iowa.
Two: most people on the frontier lived in very small houses.
A fourteen by sixteen by eighteen log house or a cave dug into a riverbank
had very little space for anything.
Imagine twenty people living in your bedroom.
And that's probably the bigger than what a lot of twenty people lived in. Imagine if
well, let's say
move aside and put up decorations.
You know, it's, it's not going to happen.
Evergreens symbolized immortality
A deciduous branch
symbolized rebirth and life.
So both very important
meanings for this time of year.
Since most people did not have access to evergreens, if they wanted to do
a tree
it was usually a deciduous branch. This is a piece of a walnut tree.
And they wrapped it with rags
or paper
and sometimes they didn't have either
so you would just have the branch
and then you would decorate it with things that you had.
Here is a string
of, I said, Iowan cranberries. These are rosehips, the state flower.
And I gathered these and strung them, and
they're prettier than cranberries
probably they dried them and then you chewed on them all winter to get your vitamin C.
Because Vitamin C was not something there was lots of in Iowa.
So we'll put some rosehips on.
Okay, there was twenty-some kinds of milkweed in Iowa.
Because they're native, I don't know if I can
I'm just going to set them here.
One of the things I found was that sometimes people
strung corn
for their tree.
And they would string
red corn.
Well, if you remember the stories about hunsking beeswhen you were-
They didn't have rubber bands on ears, so
Uh, but when you would open an ear and see
a red ear of corn
you could have your pick of the girl there that night.
so I'm sure people dug down through the corn quick if their desired young lady was there.
So, they kept the red ear
shelled it
and strung it and put it on the tree.
Do you know how hard it is to punch an ear of corn with a needle?
I tried
and I'll work some more on it tomorrow. Um, I-I don't have the corn but it was very pretty
to put corn on the tree.
And if you have housemice like we do, they would be
very thankful
for you
to do that.
K'. There were very, very few, as I said, evergreens
in Iowa,
so one of the real treasures to have if you could find it
was a pinecone.
Pinecones were traded items
because that
was as close as you could get
to evergreen.
People would
gift pinecones
and you would hang
nuts. Sometimes you would cover the nuts
with cloth.
Later on, foil.
There's a hickory nut.
And I never found where people did this, but if I lived then I would.
I like balls of goldenrod.
you know, doesn't that look like some of the dangly things we put on trees?
And I like them when more than one wasp attacked the goldenrod
and so I have them with two or three balls on.
Then this would be a christmas tree!
And doesn't that have meaning? There's symbols for everything that's there.
This, the symbolism
is, is very very strong, and
to me that's a lot more meaningful than getting things on special the day after Christmas at Walmart
for next year.
But we, we kind of do that rather than go collect
Pine cones symbolized
the tree of life
or a crown
and so that was why they were important on a tree.
Beginning in the eighteen fifties, people started coming to Iowa
directly from other countries.
Germans, English, Scandinavians,
Bohemians and other ethnic groups were coming to Iowa in large numbers.
News ways of celebrating christmas were appearing throughout the state.
A little-known group of people of immigrants that came
really affected how Christmas was celebrated in Iowa and the country.
These people came from the central European country of Moravia
and settled in several
locations in Iowa.
There were large Moravian communities
back east.
Bethlehem, Pennsylvania
Uh, Salem North Carolina, Hope New Jersey
are Moravian communities.
Eastern churches supported new Moravian settlements
in Iowa.
One lady
who came to Grace Hill, Iowa. Grace Hill is in Washington county.
Had only given fifty cents when her church asked for money to support settlements in Iowa because
she had no idea where Iowa was.
And then she ended up living here
and probably wished she had given more than fifty cents.
The Moravian church is considered the first Protestant denomination
having begun in the year fourteen
You can be a Moravian by nationality, you can be a Moravian by religion.
You can be a German Moravian, you can be a Polish Moravian, you can be a Moravian Moravian.
which may be a Moravian squared, I'm not sure. Okay.
The first christmas celebrated by Moravians in North America was in seventeen forty one.
Moravians were highly educated people
and were extremely musical.
That first Christmas Eve vigil
in seventeen forty one
waslots of music
lots of singing
and they deliberately did it in the stable
rather than their home.
The Moravians were some of the first people to write music in the New World.
Moravian hymns
were some of the
very very first
and they were extremely advance
in their
um, in their works of harmony.
Their first hymn written in
this hemisphere
had thirty-seven stanzas to it.
They still use it. I thought we would sing that tonight and, and I wouldn't have to talk
anymore, that would take up the time here.
The most well-known of all Moravian hymns
is a hymn called the Morningstar written by Francis
F. Hagen
and this is a hymn some of you are probably familiar with.
The Morningstar hymn
was written by a man
who was a Minister in Iowa.
He had, uh, a church in Poweshiek county, Iowa
and I want to just read
the first line of the first four verses of that hymn.
O cheering sight
Arrow, Ere thou cams't, how dark Earth's night!
Morningstar thy glory bright
far excels the sun's clear light.
Thy glad beams, that morningstar, clear the nations, near and far.
Morningstar, my soul's true light,
tarry not
dispell my night.
Didn't that sound like a Winter Solstice song?
And it has a strong Iowa connection.
The Moravians had seven
congregations in Iowa.
All except the Grace Hill congregation
were disbanded
by nineteen eight.
The first Moravians came to Washington county in eighteen fifty four.
They were mostly German-speaking
from Moravia and some were from Bohemia.
They came through Ohio
The Moravians when they settled at Grace Hill, one of the first things they did was plan their cemetery.
Now, some of you may think that's not very optimistic,
But the cemetery is very very important to Moravians.
The Moravian cemetery in Grace Hill is one of the few cemeteries in Iowa that's a nationally recognized
historic spot.
They planned the cemetery with streets.
The streets made a grid
Wherever the streets crossed, they planted four evergreen trees.
Either White pine, Norway pine, spruce or Arborvitae.
So there's clumps of four trees
in a grid
in the cemetery.
they also buried men on one side, women on the other side,
and you were in rows according to your age.
One of the few cemeteries
in the country
with that side of burial.
Catherine Buxbom from Grace Hill wrote us
Uh, she said it was a novel, it was very true, she just changed the names in it.
about Grace Hill
called Iowa Outpost.
It was published in nineteen forty eight.
The Moravian christmas
is decribed in great detail in that book.
It is a medley of sight,
taste, touch,
and smell.
The eldest woman
in the community was responsible for making the candles.
This was considered an honor.
I don't know whether it would be today, but
when you got to be the eldest woman in the community, your job was to make the candles for Christmas.
you started about six weeks before Christmas.
So you would be making candles now
if you were the eldest.
This was a big job.
Also about mid-november, the community cookie-cutters
were gotten out.
There was one set of cookie cutters for the whole community.
And they were started up, they started on their tour of the area.
The Cutters had come to Grace Hill with the family in the October of eighteen sixty five.
They were made in Ohio by a tinsmith by the name of Henry Opalt.
Now, how many cookie cutters
after a hundred and fifty years
do we still know the name of the maker?
I have those cutters.
Here are the cutters from eighteen sixty five.
I don't have all of them. The really, really desirable one is with
a family member in Texas
and I hope to, to get a
tracing of it soon.
Music was very important
a violin
here's my favorite: a poplar tree.
Now how many of you have poplar tree cookies?
now these were considered
for christmas cookies. That's the only time they were used.
A squirrel holding a nut.
This is hard to make a cookie out of this.
You have to have the dough
or the nut falls off.
The cookie cutter that's in Texas is a deer with a full set of antlers.
And almost no one can make the dough to make a deer
'cause the antlers fell off.
And here's one of my favorites,
the candle
with the petticoat
on it.
K'. I'll use the same recipe but some people were just a whole lot better at making them
than others.
The dough had to be rolled out just perfect.
It had to be the right temperature.
They were molasses cookies
and they were said
you should roll
the dough
And they're very good.
I didn't know how many people were coming so I couldn't bake enough
but trust me, they're very good.
The recipe
which by the way I have a copy for you if you want
It says on the recipe
these cookies will last indefinitely.
If kept well-hidden.
Remember the first thing made in Grace Hill was the
That was so they could celebrate Christmas.
Young people went to the cemetery
a few days before christmas and cut evergreen boughs.
The only place there were evergreens
in the whole county in that whole part of the state.
They decorated the church.
They learned their pieces and their parts in songs.
The church became a glowing
fragrant joyous place of celebration.
A putz
or Nativity
was placed in the church.
Some of these have been passed down in Moravian families
for generations.
I do not know of any
in Iowa,
but some of them
have hundreds of figures.
They sometimes take up a whole room
in a family's home.
with all the figures added to it every year.
A special Moravian star was made
and hungover the minister.
I kind of believe in little miracles
and I had a bunch this week. It was just a joyous week.
Uh, this is sort of like
a Moravian star.
Bet you've seen them.
A Moravian star
And they started this in the eighteen fifties. A Moravian star has twenty six points.
Not twenty seven, not twenty five.
Eighteen of the points have square bottoms.
Eight of the points have triangular bottoms.
And that fits.
So Moravian stars either have to have twenty six points
fifty two points
or a hundred and ten points.
I stopped at
crowded closet
and I was sitting
on my trips to the Hoover library this week
when I was hauling things home from the summer exhibit
and what did they have?
They had a kit
to make a Moravian star.
Never seen one before.
Here's what I mean: square points
triangular points.
and you put it together. I didn't put together 'cause I didn't know how I would get it here.
But here--and it's paper
and they would hang one in their home and in church.
And I-I was just
kind of
when I found them. And if you want to put it together, I've got all the parts right here.
After the program at church
and the singing
to candlelight
people got gifts.
One of the first places where gifts were given in church is in Iowa.
The gifts were candy, cookies, nuts
and oranges.
And each young person
got a candle
and that was very special.
Remember that elderly lady would be making candles?
Dipping them
and then making a petticoat around them so
when you burned them, the wax wouldn't get on
your hand.
And every kid got a candle
in addition to the one they used in church.
The last christmas celebration in Grace Hill was in nineteen sixty nine.
I hope that we can revive that celebration.
Maybe next year.
Many young Iowans learned about Christmas first
or first really celebrated christmas
in a one-room school.
Especially if their teacher was German
or Moravian.
Many young Iowans didn't go to church
so they've learned about the Christmas story
at school.
Christmas day was a regular school day
even after nineteen hundred
was not a day off.
There were
programs and decorations and singing.
The window decorations. If you'd ever gone to a one-room school you had to make window decorations at Christmas.
I learned the bible story at
my one-room school
before I learned it at church.
And I remember the verse
Mary, Joseph and the babe lying in the manger.
I thought, 'Wow, that would be crowded.'
But I was just little and that verse always kind of bothered me.
Eulalia Merchant Bentsen was one of my teachers at the one-room school.
She always had a big program
Santa came with presents for all and everyone got bells and candy.
And the boys got a pocketknife
and the girls got a doll.
Can you imagine teachers gave pocketknives?
My friend Edna,
born in nineteen oh eight, said
they never had a tree.
After all, they were Welsh.
But they hung stockings
on a chair as close to the chimney
as possible.
They got candy
and fruit.
And the boys got sleds and the girls got dolls and she'd have a whole lot rather had a sled.
My friend Eula Mae said
they never had a tree
that they cut evergreen branches
stuck it in a bucket of sand, and tied them to the wall as best they could to make it look like a tree.
There were about ten prisoner of war camps in Iowa during World War Two
between nineteen forty four nineteen forty six.
The main two were in Clarinda, Southwest Iowa,
were they had German, Japanese, and Italian prisoners.
And in Algona in North Central Iowa were German prisoners.
They held up to three thousand two hundred German prisoners at Algona.
Prisoners were used in farm work and truck farming.
I once accepted the germans very well. After all, over half of the people of Iowa are part
The Japanese and italians, unfortunately, did not fare as well.
The Algona prisoners
had their own orchestra
and dramatic group.
They were paid eighty cents a day.
They were so pleased here in Iowa
that to show their gratitude
a man by the name of Edward Cobb
who had been an engineer in Germany
decided that be,
with the help of other prisoners,
he he wanted to help so they wouldn't be homesick
and he wanted to show the people in Iowa that they had the same faith.
So starting in nineteen forty five,
Scuse me,
forty four,
and for over a year
they carved
a nativity set.
And maybe some of you have seen this in Algona.
They made the forms out of wire covered it with cement, covered it with plaster,
and then carved a half-sized
nativity set
with over sixty figures.
When it was premiered to people in Iowa
in nineteen forty five
said people
just cried and cried
at seeing it.
One person said
"I learned the true
meaning of peace on earth
on an Iowan hillside
from prisoners of war.
The Algonan nativity
is Iowa's most famous.
I brought several here. I sort of like Nativity sets.
I thought my wife would be flopping around on the floor
Uh, we have
a little over eighteen hundred.
Here's my very first from when I was five years old.
Here's one that you can see closer later. It's a puzzle made out of an oak beam of a barn.
And this one
is made by an elderly man in Earl Mill Iowa
Uh, his name is
Julius Anglican
and he does marvelous
work with Iowa wood.
And we will be displaying all of our nativities with Opera house the first two weeks of December.
Another small miracle
I wanted this puzzle and I wanted this nativity
for tonight.
Eighteen hundred nativities
don't fit in one box.
They don't fit in one room.
I thought, 'Gee I want those two nativities.'
They were both
in the same box
the first one I looked.
So I think they were supposed to be
otherwise I could still be looking.
Feasting with family and friends
has been part of this season for generations.
In Iowa, most farm homes are set up
so that you eat in the room the food's prepared in.
Isn't that nice?
We should always eat in the room the food is prepared.
I'll end with several favorite family stories.
Not all family but some of them are
and I hope it reminds you of favorite stories that you have.
One of my very first christmas trees when I got my own house
had fallen off a truck on the highway and been ran over.
And I took her home
and it was one of my very favorite trees.
My grandparents were married in nineteen seventeen
That same year they ordered for Montgomery Wards
a christmas tree.
Here, I'll put it...
We even called it a Charlie Brown tree.
And the branches do come down.
And I have here
the original decorations
It's made of goose feathers
laid on a wire
and then a tiny wire goes around and splits the feathers to make the needles.
And that's still, still in the original box
from nineteen seventeen. It's the only Christmas tree they ever had.
My great grandparents lived
on a farm for the first seventy two years of their married life.
Under their tree
under their tree they always had a paper mache' Santa Clause
and there he is.
This is Santa is from
a German family
and you know
it's a roly-poly
Santa, and it's
more valuable than I am.
it's not mine.
But that's a German
Germans and Moravians were the two real great Christmas celebrators.
my great grandparents
as I said, lived on the farm for seventy two years
and if you would go visit there
my grandpa would always give you pennies
and my great-grandma
if you were a girl, you could go through her stacks of feed sacks and pick out a feed sack
that would be your present.
And maybe if you were bigger you'd hope that she had another one of the same pattern the next time you went there.
When our son Adam was three
Santa brought him a wooden coaster wagon
It came dissembled
in a flat box.
Santa thought
it would be easier to transport
and hide
if it was left in the box.
So it appeared under the tree in the box.
When Adam
opened the box
in among the dissembled parts
was a dead mouse.
Santa should have opened the box, but he didn't.
Whenever anyone asked Adam what he had received for Christmas that year,
he never said a wagon, he always said a dead mouse.
The local paper put an article in about it and kind of parents would let Santa give this nice little boy a dead mouse.
He did go many miles in that wagon. He's now twenty six and a tax specialist for the US
treasury department. Maybe that was caused by the dead mouse
One of my favorite Christmas stories
is this: an elderly lady said when
she was a small child
she was from a large family. Her father had died
Her mother's
moved in with us. He was unmarried.
And he lived and helped and worked the farm.
He wore
red long underwear
in the winter time
and she said we always knew when christmas was coming
because the old long underwear
her mother had cut in strips
and when Christmas was coming she replaced all the wicks in the lamps with red wicks.
And that was their sign
that Christmas was coming.
Now isn't that a nice tiny little thing
that was very important in that family.
My grandmother
with whom I lived for a number of years
was from a very large hardworking Bohemian farm family.
she said they put up a tree on Christmas Eve
and put
real candles on it
and somebody had to stand with a stick with awet sponge on it
to wash the candles
She said that they always knew what they were going to get for Christmas.
They got the same thing every year
and they looked forward to it.
Every year
we got a pencil
and an orange.
the only orange that we had
all year.
She said I carried the orange around for days thinking about what that's going to taste like.
She said sometimes I almost carried it too long.
Anticipation was a big part of it. It was a very special treat.
We always had an orange in our stocking
and an orange in our kid's stockings
and many of you have orange
You all have Christmas stories
cherish them
Write them down.
I want to close
with a poem from one of my favorite Iowan poets
A dear friend Onita Griggs Fisher.
we walked a mile to Hartzler's woods
and chose our tree
a room-tall pine.
It held a dove's nest.
vacant now
and gave support
to leafless pines.
We sat on needled carpeting
and thought of shade-cooled summer air
of rain in ribbons
through spring nights
of mist like spun-glass
angel's hair.
We talked of stars and frost-sparkled days
of cashmere snow on graceful limbs.
Of wild things, rabbits, mice, and deer, with jays and cardinals for trim.
So when you see our christmas house,
if it is strangely bare,
go north to Hartzler's woods,
and look
at our green tree
we left it there.
And if you go to Hartzler's woods
after thirty years,
the tree is still there.
Thank you.
Happy Winter Solstice and Christmas.