Roots and Branches: Wooly winter memories

Maija’s Finnish Santa.

‘Tis the season for Christmas programs, having already attended two Dance Academy Christmas programs, and, by the time this runs, three Mid Valley Elementary programs. They are a great harbinger of the holidays, getting people in the spirit of any celebration of their choosing. You can see the excitement and hope plastered across the children’s freshly washed faces, smiles spreading from ear to ear. Parents waving enthusiastically from their seats in the audience, attempting to catch their kiddo’s eye. That wide-eyed moment when the child spots their family and begins jumping up and down, both arms and hands flapping furiously, setting the risers rocking with their enthusiasm.

I remember feeling that magical moment when I attended my first Christmas program at Oak Grove School in 1953, watching my sister Ginny, then, two years later, my brother John sing carols. My first performance was in ‘56 and it is still a magical memory when a dreary, drafty school cafeteria was transformed into a winter wonderland.

Iola Eastman was the chief control officer of the school cafeteria, i.e. the school cook. She was an amazing lady with a deep, throaty voice that frightened some, but was a familiar family friend to me. As the school cook, “Oly” was obligated to serve some mundane school lunches with the canned vegetables sent her way via the government food programs. Who could forget the gargantuan gallon cans of spinach that were stewed in massive kettles on the stove, the lifted in slimy strands from the pot and plopped into one of the three compartments in your green melamine tray? A tiny lemon wedge would pathetically attempt to garnish the greenish grey mass. Even a first grader understood that serving spinach was a lesson in futility, regardless of how many Popeye cartoons we had watched that attempted to convince us that spinach would give us bulging biceps and super powers. All the students would simply scrape the spinach strands into the garbage pail, sometimes even before they sat down at the lunch table. Why couldn’t they just empty that can directly into the garbage and save everyone the trouble?

Alongside the spinach, you might find a gelatinous blob of beef with wagon wheels floating in a grainy brown gravy. Then there was the dessert section of the tray. It often held some rubbery Jell-O or dense vanilla pudding, both able to pass the current Dairy Queen marketing technique of turning the Blizzard container upside down to demonstrate its density.

In direct contrast to the mandated menu, Oly could turn out some great Christmas cookies during the holidays. Her true cooking skills shone as brightly as those huge circular fluorescent lights that hung over the cafeteria tables. As soon as the smell of freshly baked cookies reached our upstairs classrooms, we would rush down the central staircase to the cafeteria. In the dessert compartment was a delectable sugar cookie in the shape of a snowman, Christmas tree or snowflake. The frosting was silky smooth and brightly coated the cookies in a blanket of red and green. We all secretly wished that Oly would substitute chocolate chips for the raisins that liberally dotted the snowman’s tummy and Santa’s eyes, but nary a complaint was ever uttered. These cookies were the Mercedes of school lunch desserts and we weren’t going to spoil the tradition.

Holiday cookies meant the Christmas program was coming soon. We worked for weeks cutting and pasting strips of red and green construction paper, forming them into rings, then joining them in a festive chain to drape around the massive Douglas fir tree set up in the corner of the cafeteria. Years later when I visited the school’s new inhabitants, the Macht family, I realized that the ceilings were not particularly high at all. The tree was only enormous in the eyes of a 6-year-old. There were several other discoveries made during the school’s transformation into a family home. There really were bats in the belfry, as well as tons of bat guano. There were initials carved in the stairwell of long lost boyfriends, treasures found under some loose bricks, but no monster lurking in the boiler room, a childhood fear that was reignited by the Freddy Kruger movies.

My daughter Kim and I visited the Machts fairly often, since they were Papa Sulo’s neighbors and on the walking path to Oak Grove Store. Kim referred to them as the M & M family, not because they served M & Ms, but because of their names, Mimi, Madison and Marlow Macht. It was special that this family that brought life back into the school carried on some of the same crafty traditions we had learned in the classrooms. And better yet, that the new “Ollie,” the school’s resident grandma, called the old gym her workshop. Diminutive, like a tiny fairy, Ollie created the most intricate blown eggs and Easter baskets for many of the big-eyed neighborhood children, including my own.

But I digress. For all the Oak Grove students, the Christmas program was the highlight of some deep snowy winters. Yes, we really did bundle up like Ralphie in the “Christmas Story.” We wore itchy woolen snow suits over layers of sweaters and pants. Our hands were clad in mittens, and our brothers oversized boots stuffed with Dad’s woolen socks. And yes, I remember putting my tongue on the freezing metal swing bars to see if it would really freeze to the metal. Such an odd tradition.

We would be summoned back to class by the pealing of the massive school bell, still a fixture at Oak Grove park. It was a race to pull off our boots and winter woolies and scurry back to our Christmas crafts. Each grade made specific decorations for the Christmas tree. We would place our ornament on the tree for all the parents to admire when they came to hear us sing. We also made gifts for our parents. Popsicle stick picture frames for our school picture, clothespin reindeer and cotton ball snowmen all carefully wrapped in tissue paper that sparkled with glitter.

The night of the program, our cafeteria was transformed. The cream-colored wooden tables and benches were moved aside and replaced by rows of metal folding chairs. The Christmas tree was covered with our handmade ornaments and festooned with extremely hot light bulbs of red, green, yellow and blue. Around the bottom of the tree, like a Swedish snow princess crown, was a circle of bubble lights that could hypnotize any child with their mesmerizing bubbles flowing from the lamp at the base to the candle’s top. A flurry of silver icicles had been thrown at the tree by the littlest of hands. Mrs. Kilpatrick, our stern first grade teacher, a transfer from the Alaskan frontier, would carefully retrieve each slippery icicle from the floor and place it precisely on the tip of each branch “where a respectable icicle is formed.”

The cafeteria windows were decorated with snowflake stencils, tempura paint dabbed on with a sponge. I remember thinking the paint was Pepto Bismol, thick and smelling of peppermint. Risers stood to the north of the tree and behind them was the massive piano, where many a Christmas carol was pounded out as we practiced daily for our debut.

I was most proud of the painting of Santa Claus hanging from the heavy blue curtain at the back of the stage. My mother had painted that cherubic face and it held this place of honor for many programs to come, years after her death. It was the Coca Cola Santa of the ‘40s, red chubby cheeks, snow white beard and mustache, ruby red lips and twinkling eyes. She died two years later and was buried on Christmas Eve. I searched many years of my adult life for a Santa with that look, finally finding one in a Cannon Beach shop in the 1980s, a true Finnish Santa (see photo). It is the center of all our Christmas celebrations.

My love for Christmas programs and the joy it brings has been a lifetime affair. I haven’t missed a Mid Valley Christmas program in 47 years, which must be some sort of record for a non-teaching professional. The chain began when Dag Yasui entered the second grade at Mid Valley in 1970, followed by my children and now their children. There have been singing Christmas Trees, nativity scenes, rocking jingle bells, angels, elves and reindeer. Woven in the new traditions are those of the past, paper chains and clothespin reindeers. And those uplifting smiles of all of the children singing their hearts out, mirrored on the face and the heart of my special Finnish Santa.

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