Three Marengo residents share their cherished Christmas memories.
The postwar 1940s and ’50s was a magical time for Christmas in McHenry County. From goodie bags full of sweets to stockings hanging from the fireplace mantle and those all important visits from Santa, Norman Rockwell himself could not have painted a more vivid picture of Yuletide cheer.
A Picturesque Holiday Scene
Rod Schaeffer is a 1954 graduate of Marengo Community High School. Wise today to the wink and nod once shared between Santa and merchants along main street, Rod recalls fondly how Marengo was a great place to experience Christmas in the decade that followed World War II.
“In the 1940s and 1950s, the Christmas season began when the merchants would put up a huge Christmas tree on the northeast corner of State and Washington streets,” Schaeffer recalled. “The tall tree would be covered with numerous strings of large colored lights and other decorations. Colorful illuminated Christmas decorations were also stretched across State Street. Eventually, a sound system was added, which played traditional Christmas carols and other holiday favorites.
“In those days, Marengo residents did much of their Christmas shopping in town. I can remember walking along State Street on a snowy evening a few days before Christmas, with the colorful lights muted by the falling snow, Bing Crosby singing White Christmas, and being greeted by other smiling shoppers. It was like being in the scene from a Hallmark Christmas card.
“Santa not only came to town on Christmas Eve, he usually made a point to stop in Marengo on one of the Saturdays before Christmas to visit with the local children. I suspect that he may have been invited by the same merchants who did such a great job of getting the citizens of Marengo into the spirit of Christmas.
“The Marengo churches were very active during the Christmas season. Many of them had services on Christmas Eve and/or Christmas Day. The Lutheran Church had a Christmas Eve service, which featured lots of Christmas music and the children of the congregation reciting their ‘piece’ of the Christmas story. The church provided all of the children who attended the Christmas Eve service with a large bag filled with Christmas goodies. The ushers would stand in the church foyer, next to bushel baskets full of the brown bags, and each child was presented with a bag as they left the church. As they walked down the steps and on to the sidewalk, the children would look into their bag to see a shiny apple, a large orange, assorted candy and lots of salted peanuts-in-the-shell. This Christmas Eve tradition went on for many years, as former bag recipients returned to the services with their own children.
“With Marengo being surrounded by glacial hills, many of the local children were able to find great places to go sledding during the Christmas holiday. You didn’t always need [a hill.] After a snowfall, it wasn’t unusual to see kids on sleds being towed around town behind a vehicle of some sort. Mr. Bernard Weaver hauled a string of us on our sleds behind his car on the roads in the Marengo Cemetery. This was a relatively safe activity, except when Mr. Weaver stopped his car, and we had to roll off our sleds to avoid going under the vehicle.”
Mom Explains the Magic of Old Saint Nick
Dorothy Otis grew up on her family farm in Riley Township. Recalling special holiday memories made with classmates, among others, Otis said, “My earliest memories always begin with decorating our tree at home at least a week before Christmas. Then my life would be filled with anticipation over the Christmas Eve program that would be held in our neighborhood, one-room schoolhouse. My life would be filled with excitement as the teacher, Mrs. Robb, would direct all of us students in decorating the school, setting up the makeshift ‘stage,’ memorizing our Christmas carols and our parts in the program. It truly was an exciting time, as Santa ALWAYS arrived after the program, loaded down with boxes of hard candy and fruit.
“Sometimes the weather made it difficult to even get to school for the program, but I cannot remember a time when every parent didn’t go to the necessary extremes to be present for this very special event in their children’s lives. The atmosphere in the school was electric, as neighbors greeted each other and possibly shared their experiences of overcoming weather conditions to get there. It was a great Christmas tradition in my childhood!
“At our home, Santa sometimes stopped by after dropping off his goodies at the schoolhouse. It was a tradition to put out hot chocolate and cookies for Santa, but when he came while we were at the school program, he was too early for our (brother, Gene, and my) goodies. Otherwise, Santa always ate our offerings. Traditionally, my brother and I would wake up VERY early in the morning to see if Santa had come and then RUN into our parent’s bedroom to let them know!
“It always amazed me how Santa could come to everyone’s home. But as my Mother always said, ‘Santa is the spirit of giving and the spirit moves in mysterious ways.’”
Dad Builds a Peculiar Christmas Tree
Steve Otis became high school sweethearts with Dorothy at Marengo Community High School. They married in 1956 after graduating (Steve in ’54 and Dorothy in ’55) and have since shared many Christmas seasons together through the decades. While Dorothy thinks first of her mom, Steve suspects that “most traditions originate with the mothers, but my dad was the originator of our family’s Christmas traditions that remain favorite memories for me.”
“During our childhood in the 1940s and ’50s, while everyone else used multi-colored lights on their Christmas trees, ours were always blue. We often had a green tree, but my Dad was an ‘original,’ creating a lot of fun for us kids, and that included ‘original’ Christmas trees. Two such trees that remain vivid in my memory were the tinker-toy and erector-set trees. These trees seemed quite tall to me as a child, but I suspect they were no more than five or six feet tall. Dad involved me in building these trees. When the building part was finished, we’d string lights on the ‘tree.’
“He then covered the tinker-toy tree with red crepe paper.
“Then there were the stockings, which were hung from the mantle of the fireplace at our home at 121 W. Washington Street. I never did discover how he did it, but it always seemed to happen during the week before Christmas, at any time of the day that he happened to be home and when we kids were eating. Looking back, he’d excuse himself from the table, and he wouldn’t be gone long. But on his way back to the table, he always made a detour by the fireplace, because you’d hear the tinkle of the bells that were attached to the stockings. Not every time, but often, you’d hear him say as he returned, ‘looks like Santa has made a visit!’ Then off we’d run, to see what little toy had been left. He was a creator of excitement and Christmas memories, that’s for sure!”
Classroom visits from Santa, sweets passed out after church services, and sleigh rides through town – even the occasional tinker-toy Christmas tree; these are the memories of Christmas in Marengo. Though McHenry County has changed much through the years, at the heart of the holiday season remains the “spirit of giving” that provided these magical Christmas memories for Rod, Dorothy and Steve. It’s time to grab that spirit by the reigns and create some special holiday traditions for our own children and grandchildren to enjoy, embrace and pass on to yet future generations living in McHenry County.