Cedar Falls elderly couple reflects on old fashioned Christmas times

By Willa Simmet 2008

“Lord, I don’t know if we are going to have time for Christmas,” 87-year-old, newlywed Bill Callagan said.

“Well, Bill,” I thought, “you certainly aren’t alone.”

I consulted Bill and his 74-year-old fireball of a wife, Bobbye to tell me about the Christmases of yesteryear. The couple, married just over a month ago, will be celebrating their first Christmas together.

“We plan to go to one of the kids’ houses to celebrate Christmas,” Bobbye said, right after telling me about how she usually has her presents bought and wrapped before Thanksgiving, but this year she hasn’t even started.

Bobbye, and animate woman with a southern accent, has four children and Bill, a World War II veteran, has one son, who coincidentally lives next door to me.

It seems as time moves on so does the pace of the holiday season. In many families the parents are busy with their full time jobs, the little ones are at day care and the older kids are busy with schoolwork and extracurricular activities. In my family, with both of my parents busy with work, and my brother and I with school, we hardly even have time to buy a Christmas tree. Actually, we still have to do that.

I’ve finally had time to crack out the Christmas music and am listening to Big Crosby’s “White Christmas” and some song about being a turkey by Elton John as I write this article. And as I learned from Bobbye and Bill, the holiday season hasn’t always been such a “WHAT! tomorrow’s Christmas Eve?!” type of thing.

Bobbye, who grew up on a rice farm in Walderburg, Ark., and Bill, from Pennsylvania coal country, remember Christmas during the Great Depression. they both remember the Christmas play being a huge deal.

The church would start preparing right after Thanksgiving and would be busy with it until Christmas Eve when it would be performed.

“Boy did it itch!” Bill said, remembering the costumes the mothers would make out of potato sacks for the Christmas play.

After the play Bobbye and Bill received brown bags or in Bill’s case animal cracker-sized boxes or ribbon candy and oranges.

“I don’t know what it was about those oranges. We got them every year,” Bobbye said.

“It was the most wondrous time of the year,” Bill said.

Bill tells me the most magnificent sight ever was coming our of church with his sweetheart after an actual midnight mass (compared to the midnight masses of our era which may happen any time between 9 and 12) and watching the snow wafting down.

Bobbye tells me that even though it was the Depression she and her siblings still received all the presents that they had asked for. “That’s why I believed in Santa so long,” she said.

Bill remembers receiving a new pair of black hose (socks), a shirt and a toy of some sort. He really enjoyed the game lotto, which was a take off of bingo, and the Lincoln Log set he got.

“It was a small set,” Bill said. “You could build one hut and that’ about it.”

Bill and Bobbye would find these presents on Christmas morning under Christmas trees as high as the ceiling, with pinch candles a little bigger than birthday candles.

Now, we can’t forget the food. Bobbye recalls the eight pies her mom would make, her grandma’s fruitcake, the turkey and, of course, the Christmas ham.

“Christmas was a big deal at our house,” Bobbye said. “It was family.”

One thing Bill and Bobbye think will never change is their family togetherness at Christmas time.

“Years ago we had family togetherness, and we have it today. I don’t believe it will ever change,” Bill said. “Holiday strengthens family. It’s a good excuse to come home.”

Ever since Bobbye was a young girl, the Christmas story was read to her at her family’s Christmas gathering. This tradition has continued, and at her family gatherings, the story is still read.

As a World War II veteran, Bill spent four Christmases serving our country.

“It’s a terrible homesick feeling when you are forced to be somewhere, and you don’t want to there, especially on Christmas,” Bill said.

Bill’s first Christmas away from home, at a training camp in Baltimore, Md., was spent shoveling snow, but he does remember having a nice Christmas dinner and getting a big red apple to take back to his bunk with him.

Bill remembers Christmas in Belgium at the Battle of the Bulge.

“We had Christmas dinner in a mess kit,” Bill said, chuckling. “It was very nice considering where we were and what it meant.”

Apparently, back in yesteryear, school work was obsolete during holiday season.

“We had nothing!” Bill said. “We believed the holiday was a relief time!”

This makes me think of the array of homework that I have, and the piano to be practiced.

“Although times have changed and time seems to drip away, don’t take for granted being able to be with your family this Christmas season. Bill’s granddaughter, who is flying a Blackhawk helicopter in Iraq, along with all of the brave soldiers fighting in Iraq, Bill, and any other veteran can couch for the way it feels to be alone at Christmastime.

Try to find some time to enjoy your friends and family and experience the joy of giving this holiday season.

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