Christmas time in The River

On Christmas Eve, before leaving for bed, we’d place the chains of pop corn and cranberries and paper chains on the table with a plate of sandwiches and cookies, and a pan of hot cocoa on the stove for Santa.  Mother brought out our store ornaments to place with them and then we hustled up the cold stairway to beds made warm with hot soapstones.

One Christmas Eve something wakened me and I thought I had heard sleigh bells.  I listened, thinking it must be Santa, (although by then I was half convinced Santa was a spirit).  After a long time of quiet, I wakened Esther and Ella and we tiptoed downstairs to the large, warm kitchen.  The doors were closed to the bedroom and parlor.  A lamp burned on the table beside a box of chocolate-covered molasses chips, but no tree and our stockings were limp, except for a piece of kindling wood in each.  Never were there more mystified children.  Helping ourselves to the candy, we quietly crept up to bed again.

We waited until we were called next morning, as we were in no hurry to go down to no Christmas.  In the kitchen we were greeted by Aunt Julia and Uncle Thomas.  When did they arrive?  I thought of the sleigh bells in the night and believed I knew.

Not a word did we say about our trip downstairs the night before, and Charles was the only one to ask where Santa put his engine.  Father laughed and told us, “I saw Santa yesterday afternoon driving north like the reindeer were running away; he called to me, ‘I’m afraid I can’t make your house this year.’”

We were very quiet, not knowing if Father was teasing or not.  But after breakfast, they took us into the parlor and there in all its splendor stood the prettiest hemlock tree, its branches covered with our decorations, candies and a doll for Ella tied to its firm trunk.  The other gifts were around the tree on the floor.  We were speechless.  We seldom used the parlor in winter and Mother wanted us to eat breakfast first, so planned a double surprise.  We never told them about our midnight trip until several years later.  They never heard us, as they were so busy with our surprise.  Chocolate-covered molasses chips are still a big favorite candy with me.

When our tree began to shed its needles, the trimmings came off, were packed away, and the tree placed outdoors with food for the birds tied to its branches.  Then we began to dream of next Christmas.

Not only did we look forward to Christmas at home, but at church, too.  Here the real meaning of Christmas was learned.  We spent many happy hours after school learning Christmas songs and parts in plays.  It was a special honor to have a separate piece to say.  The whole village contributed to the Christmas Gift Fund for all the children who would come.  For years Mr. Humphrey supplied the tree, always a beautiful spruce from his land in Massachusetts, and played the part of Santa Whiskers.  I remember candle-lit trees in the church too, until the insurance company told us we couldn’t do it anymore.  The grownups enjoyed it as much as we children and applauded every effort we made to entertain them.  They joined in the singing of the loved Christmas carols, forgot their cares and a feeling of goodwill seemed to fill the church.
- The end -

Helen Louise Seymour, born 3-20-1897 at Colebrook River; graduated Gilbert 1916; Danbury Training School, 1918; taught at Colebrook schools (Center and River), 1918 – 1924; Durham 1924 – 1927; Hartford 1927 – 1932.  She retired because of health.

Having just completed this memoir by Helen Louise Seymour, I regret not having entered it into the computer sooner than I did, as it certainly supplies a wide window into the life in The River in the first few years of the twentieth century.  The author was the same age as my parents, so those of us who were born in the late twenties and early thirties can easily relate to all of the happenings.  I found it quite interesting to find that her experiences and mine were so similar, regardless of the fact that we were of different genders.  I believe this is partly due to the fact that neither of us grew up with electricity; neither knew paved roads and understood the horse, both as a means of transportation and as a supplier of power on a farm.  Most of the farms were small by today’s definition, but it allowed us to be independent of many of the demands of society.  We all faced the same challenges, enjoyed the same comforts and had a strong feeling of belonging to the same community. 

It is interesting (and comforting) for any “old-timer” to recognize the number of family names that still persist locally; names such as Seymour, Spencer, Deming and Ransom.  Others still have descendents, but with other names, having come down through the female side of the family; names such as Ward, Northway, Baxter, Stillman, Ives, Verchot, Bourquin, Chapin and Rebillard.

The reference to her grandfather being a carpenter in Sterling, Illinois and encountering Indians sent me searching for this frontier town; it is about fifty miles northeast of Davenport, Iowa and twenty-five miles east of the Mississippi River.

The bad experience of going down the steep part of Beech Hill with a truculent horse will almost always revive memories in those of us who lived on that section of road before the days of realigned Connecticut Route 8 and paved roads.  It is about 150 feet almost straight down near the top, and the one-board fence separating the traveler from oblivion that Helen Seymour mentions was to remain in place until the 1950s, after having been there about a century.  When my father was a game warden during the Second World War, he checked a fisherman somewhere along the Farmington who asked, after inquiring of my father where he lived, if that board fence was still in place down Beech Hill.  When he replied, “Yes, it is, I just went past it this morning”, the fellow, who was a gray-haired oldster, said that he had helped build that fence when he was a teen-ager, which would have placed the date around the late 1870s or early ‘80s.

Cliff Moore, from Harvey Mountain in Tolland, the grandfather of George Gray, had a section of Beech Hill Road slide down into the deepest part of the gorge while he was taking a load of hay from Chapin Road.  It missed taking his rear wheels by less than ten feet,

Accounts such as this one by Helen Seymour will help keep alive the memory of that section of our town, which now lies sleeping beneath the waters of Colebrook River Lake.

Read more about Colebrook River in Part XIV >>

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