Vintage Christmas tree decorations

Christmas decorations Duane Miles photo

This interesting array of Christmas tree decorations goes back generations in the Miles family of Forks. Many once adorned Christmas trees at the pioneer Northup homestead at Clearwater, and later in Forks. Perhaps most interesting is the bracklet-size string of antique trade beads (left bottom) once used by traders who exchanged them for sea otter and seal furs and other items gathered in the Clearwater area by local coastal tribes including the Quileute, Hoh and Quinault. 

An excerpt from Charles Dickens book classic, A Christmas Carol stated this about (the reborn) Scrooge, “it was said of Scrooge that he knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge.” Of such noble character were my Mother’s parents, not only on Christmas Day, but on every day of the year.

Mother, presently at 91, can still vividly remember many of those joyous Christmas celebration moments on her family’s second generation Clearwater River homestead from her youth. Because of the remoteness of the Northup farm right at the edge of a vast wilderness in the 1920s (most of which is now in the Olympic National Park), some limitations did exist regarding both preparations for and the nature of this celebration of Jesus’ birth. We’ll touch on some of these limitations as we go along. But on the whole, little was different from what my grandparents did in those days and this present era.

Parents still immensely enjoy those opportunities for extended family togetherness (or should) plus the mystery generated by the placing of certain objects under a decorated tree positioned inside a home. It goes without saying that the extreme excitement for children during the Christmas season has remained constant for hundreds of years.

Many of the gifts for my Mother, and her younger brother and sister, Chester and Noreen, were things made by their parents. These were such things as rocking horses, small wagons, dresses and shirts. 

But what was it in 1925, that, if a queen yellow jacket hibernating in a crevice of an exterior wall had suddenly, upon being awakened, would have heard? It would have been the cry of “Mama” coming from the direction of young Florence (my Mother). Was the reason for that cry due to the fabricated yellow jacket or for some other reason? We’ll examine the mysterious answer a little later along with a discourse as to whether the breach of an unwritten-unspoken code of honor was committed.

Just after dinner on Christmas Eve in 1925, Mother gazed excitedly at a wondrously decorated six-foot-tall Douglas Fir tree standing toward one corner of her family’s living room. At its base was the reason for her excitement. Here were colorfully-wrapped packages that she was seeing for the first time. Just a few minutes later, she, her mother and brother and sister were listening to her father read about the birth of Christ from Luke’s account in chapter 2:1-20. This was shortly followed by the singing of a couple Christmas carols; Silent Night, Holy Night and O Little Town of Bethlehem with grandmother at the piano. The sharing of those gifts from under that tree ended this traditional celebration for this family that day. Part of Christmas Day, five-and-a-half hours of merriment, was spent with nearby relatives, the Coopers, who were releated by marriage.

But I’m getting ahead of myself or behind myself as the case might be. For instance, just how was much of that tree decorated? And where did that tree come from? In addition, were some of those gifts purchased?

Surrounding the Northup homestead was a forest of huge trees such as hemlock, spruce, fir and cedar. Of those trees, a baby fir is the wisest choice for a Christmas tree. But where does one find a little fir amongst those giants? Out of all these trees, the fir is the least shade tolerant. In other words, it does not survive without open sunlight. So my grandfather probably tolerated its existence right on the very edge of his hay field as he saved it for a Christmas celebration.

For most homesteaders, Christmas tree decorations were not very fancy, certainly no electric lights because they had no electricitys. The Northup tree had a random collection of thin glass-sculpted, attractively-colored bulbs, the largest being about 2 1/2 inches in diameter. Another ornament, colorful trade beads (50, perhaps, would have possibly purchased a beaver pelt from a Shoshone brave in 1825) were threaded together and hung over tree branches. But the capstone of those Northup tree decorations was something taboo in more recent years: lighted candles. My grandparents lit these three-inch metal-cup based candles for about 10 minutes each Christmas Eve.

For the few purchased gifts for Christmas, it was far easier to order from a Sears and Roebuck catalog rather than to travel to civilization. In 1925, Olympic Highway hadn’t been completed and besides my grandparents had no car as yet. With those catalogs one could peruse a vast number of items, send out an order and have an item mailed to him or her. This was truly a practical alternative as long as an item was not too large or heavy.

About every week somebody on horseback would bring the mail from Hoquiam by trail, all year-round. In wintertime this was difficult, especially when the rivers were up.

Anyway, in 1925, Mother noticed a greater flow of mail packages then normal just before Christmas. Having reached that age in which an inquisitive mind is not uncommon, she became extremely curious. Especially when those packages often disappeared into a cloud of mystery. Were some of those Christmas gifts? If so, were any of them for me, she wondered? She dared not ask, but she determined to find out. Just a few days before Christmas, an opportunity for investigation presented itself. When no one was looking, she searched her home and finally found  those mystery packages. They were under her parents’ bed. As she individually examined them, one of them emitted the sound which I revealed earlier. It was obviously a doll, undoubtedly a gift for her. After all, her sister was still an infant and her brother definetly would not appreciate such a gift! Mother carefully placed it back where she found it, as if it were a stick of dynamite. Suddenly she was immsered in a bath of shame. She resolved to never tell anyone of this incident.

As I write these words about my Mother’s misdeed so many years ago it is now factual that after all these years, I am the first to hear of this breach of trust. Now, all of you reading these words know as well. Let’s all go easy on her. Next time you see her, please tell her that it doesn’t matter any more. If you’ll do that, she surely will begin to feel so much better about that unfortunate incident.

Getting back to being serious, I simply must include in this episode the recipe for my grandmother’s (world famous) raisin cookies. They are simply the best cookies I have ever eaten.

Merry Christmas to all!

Raisin Filled Cookies 

Mix together:

1/2 cup butter or margarine

2 cups brown sugar

2 eggs

1/4 to 1/2 cup water

sift together:

4 cups flour

1 tsp. baking powder

1/4 tsp. salt

Add to the first mixture and roll out dough. Cut with three-inch or smaller cookie cutter and place a liberal tbs full of filling on each cookie. Tap with a second cookie. Bake at 350 degrees for 10 to 15 minutes.

Filling: cook together until clear

2 tbs. flour

1 cup brown sugar

1 cup water

2 cups seeded raisin

(I grind the raisins – using two full cups – after grinding)

Be careful not to scorch the mixture while cooking. These are hard when baked, but soften up soon.

Recipe provided by Florence Miles 



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