Homegrown with Hope: Stories of Christmases Past

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BISMARCK, N.D. - Celebrating this holiday season with a baby at home is to see this Christmas through fresh eyes.

Everything from the sparkle of the tree, to the mystery of wrapped boxes and bags, to the anticipation of a single December morning has become so familiar to us.

My daughter will soon grow to love this time of year. But for now, it's steeped in so much history and tradition that she is blissfully unaware of what it means to us. So, before any more precious moments slip away, we are peering back into the olden days in this week's Homegrown with Hope.

At the Touchmark retirement community in Bismarck, ambassadors of what has been called the "Silent Generation" lend their voices to the stories of Christmases past.

Long before there was tinsel on the tree and cars to shuttle us to church services, there were large families on homesteads across the prairie, finding ways to create magic with whatever they had.

"I was born in 1929. We were poor, but we always had something for Christmas. We always had some goodies of some kind. We had turkeys, I think, because we raised them," said Pete Nagel, who grew up in Linton, recounts of a time without electricity and running water.

Wilma Tesky, who grew up near Hazen, remembers the trees at Christmas Eve church services, decorated in a style that would be deemed far too dangerous today. Illuminated with real burning candles, "Of course, they had two pails of water sitting there in case of a fire," she said.

Under those precarious trees, the spread of gifts may have been simple, but the delight never dimmed.

Pete recalls a sled being one of his favorite presents, offering a way for the children in his family to enjoy their time not spent working on the family farm.

"We got a sack full of candy and nuts. Probably an orange or an apple," said Betty Heinrich, who grew up near Wibaux, Mont., remembers.

Their families would grow and Christmases would become a bigger production, but the sweetest moments they held locked away in memories savored for decades.

"One year at Christmas eve, we had the biggest snow storm there ever was. Oh my goodness, my kids thought Santa Claus wouldn't be able to come that night," Wilma said.

But, with the look of surprise on her face, she turned her family to the window and said, "I see something going over the hill. It's probably Santa, I told them. Go out and check. Of course, there Santa had been."

Often they were unknowingly creating traditions of their own, the kinds that didn't come with a price tag.

"Our big thing was chicken noodle soup on Christmas Eve. My husband and I would make the noodles," Betty said. "One time, I thought well I didn't think noodle soup was so special. I'll make something else. But boy, did I get in trouble! So from then on, it was noodle soup."

Despite their nostalgia, they agree the good old days were great. But the best are yet to come.

"We have four children now and five grandchildren. Two great-grandchildren. So, our Christmases are getting better and better and better," Pete said.

A recent study says just about half of Americans works to replicate those family traditions from their childhood and just a third are continuing those from their grandparents.