BY LILY KONGSLIEN
Special to the Star Journal
Preparations began sometime in early November, as the rural teacher searched files and teaching magazines for new ideas for the annual Christmas program. It was the custom to have several plays, a half-dozen songs and quite a number of acrostics and recitations, depending on the number of students in each of the eight grades. The success of the program either raised or lowered the social status of the teacher – even more than her performance in the classroom.
After “parts” were given out and the entire program decided upon, practices were sandwiched into small time units during recess and before classes in the morning. During the last week before the actual program when practice sessions became intense, time was taken carefully from the daily schedule and used for short practices, singing or individual recitations. The teacher always hoped that this was not the time for an unscheduled visit from the Supervising Teacher or the County Superintendent!
Decorating the schoolroom was incorporated into art lessons; red and green crepe paper streamers were cut and stretched from corner to corner and almost made a “false ceiling” of Christmas colors. New border figures for above the blackboards were made by the students during November and December. One of the older boys would bring a tree from the woods near his home; the day before the program it would be brought from the woodshed into the schoolhouse, and then the decorating began. The majority of the decorations were handmade. Sometimes one of the students would bring a favorite decoration from home or perhaps an angel for the tree top. Most of the schools did not have electricity, so no lights were used, and candles were too dangerous with the school completely filled the night of the program with parents, neighbors and relatives. The tree stand was most likely a pail filled with sand or a crude wooden stand made by one of the parents. After the festivities and the program, the tree was given to one of the families who could not afford one. It was dismantled that night and taken home by a happy family.
It was the teacher’s responsibility to include every student in the program, slow learners as well as those who were quick memorizers, since parents, grandparents and friends would be at the program to hear their special youngsters.
Also, this was one time when we, as teachers, could bring into the public school the religious meaning of Christmas. We had no hesitation in those days to portray the manger scene with Baby Jesus, Mary and Joseph, shepherds, angels and wise men. There were no repercussions in the community- the nativity was expected at the Christmas program. One of the plays included the nativity scene, depicting the real meaning of Christmas, and the other was usually a satirical schoolroom scene with one of the older girls being the teacher-and asking questions which were answered in a humorous way by her “class.” It was a fun play and enjoyed by the actors as well as the audience.
The entire school group sang “Silent Night, Holy Night,” “O Come All Ye Faithful,” “O Little Town of Bethlehem” and “Joy to the World.” Secular songs would be “Jingle Bells,” “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” and “Silver Bells.” The best singers led the rest of the students in the familiar tunes. Usually one who was musically inclined was featured in one or two special numbers. I recall one Christmas when I was a youngster in my rural school; I was a member of a harmonica group, and we played several tunes (not very professionally, I’m afraid) during the annual Christmas program.
On the night of the program, the teacher always “dressed up” and looked prettier than during the school days. After the program, it was expected that Santa Claus would make his appearance with gifts for all. When I was teaching, I would have my father be Santa-he was excellent at this, saying something personal to each youngster as he handed out the gifts. (I had carefully coached him ahead of time about each individual student.) I remember how sober I tried to be as he handed “the teacher” her gifts and asked if I had been a “good girl!”
Opening the gifts followed, and then we all wished each other “MERRY CHRISTMAS AND A HAPPY NEW YEAR,” as we headed for home and our Christmas vacation. When I was a child, it was a ritual that the entire family would walk in the moonlight to and from the school for the Christmas program. How magical it seemed, especially after we had performed our best and had received a present from the one who drew our name and also a special one from the teacher. Christmas was and is a blessed and joyous time of the year!
As I recall these memories of Christmas programs in the old one-room rural school, I realize how uncomplicated life was then. We could celebrate the birth of Christ openly and not be afraid that we were “stepping on someone’s toes” with our joyous celebration. All of us, regardless of our religious affiliation, entered into the blessedness of Christmas. I hope you have some special memories of a long-ago Christmas that will bring gladness and joy into your heart at this holiday season.