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Christmases Past: Lois McIlquham: “I didn’t have to go over the river and through the woods to Grandmother’s house”

By LeAnn R. Ralph

COLFAX — Lois McIlquham, a resident at Colfax Health and Rehabilitation Center, grew up in Chippewa Falls.

Lois is 85 years old and describes herself as a “terrible” Christmas person, by which she means that she loves everything about Christmas: decorating, baking, wrapping gifts, Christmas music, Christmas programs and going to church.

When she was a child growing up in Chippewa Falls, she remembers eagerly anticipating the arrival of her grandparents on Christmas Eve — after Santa Claus had visited the house, of course.

“Santa came on Christmas Eve. We always were sent to the movies for the afternoon. When we got home, Santa had been there. He had so many places (to deliver presents) that he had to start early, and our house was one of the places he started early,” Lois said.

“And I didn’t have to go over the river and through the woods to Grandmother’s house, because Grandmother lived right across the street! As soon as we got done with our Santa presents, we’d run to the window to see when Grandma and Grandpa were coming, to see what else we were going to get. I remember my mother would be so disgusted with us. We were the only two grandchildren, so we came out of that pretty good,” Lois said.

Church services also were an important part of Christmas.

“We always went to church on Christmas. I had a straight-laced Methodist grandmother. She was the type who didn’t believe in dancing or playing cards. So of course we went to church on Christmas. We went on Christmas Eve,” Lois recalled.

The other important part of Christmas and Christmas vacation was ice skating.

“What I remember most about my growing up years is on Christmas vacation, we did a lot of ice skating. There was always a pond just a block from our house. As we got older and could roam a little more, we went down to the mill pond. The mill pond was a little pond where the swimming pool is now (in Chippewa Falls). And it had a warming house. It was fun. Everybody skated. It was big entertainment,” she said.

Special gift

One particularly special Christmas gift from her childhood stands out in Lois’s memory.

“I suppose I was ten or 11, and at least a month before Christmas — my grandpa was a finishing carpenter. We knew something was going on, because we were not allowed to go downstairs in the basement. So we looked through the basement window to see what was going on. And my grandpa was building a garage and a doll house for me,” Lois said.

“We still have it yet. It’s still in the family. My oldest daughter has got it. It’s one of those things you wouldn’t want to go out of the family. We had to act surprised that Christmas, even though we knew what it was. My daughter took it several years back and made furniture and little rugs (for the doll house). I surely want to keep that in the family,” she said.

“The other thing I remember especially, I don’t know why, is that I liked clothes. I got a red plaid pleated skirt, which was so popular back then when I was in junior high, and I really liked that skirt,” Lois recalled.

Christmas baking

Lois says that when she was growing up, her mother did not do any Christmas baking.

“My mother was sick all the time. Now she wouldn’t be sick. She had a goiter that developed when I was three months old. There was no such thing as supplements back then. She laid around and liked to read,” Lois said.

In later years, after she was married and with a family of her own, Lois did a lot of Christmas baking.

“My favorite kind of cookie was what I called Pecan Puffs. I’ve seen them called Tea Cakes. I like the pressed cookies awfully well too. Another daughter makes them now. They all have something that they make as a specialty,” Lois said.

Lois and her husband, Stanley, had been married for 65 years when he passed away in 2010. She has four daughters, one son, 14 grandchildren and more than 20 great-grandchildren.

“The daughter that makes rosettes shares them with her husband’s family and she always wants some for their Christmas. It’s a lot of standing, and it’s hot over a stove. I bought my (original) rosette iron at the Minnesota State Fair. The kids had a rosette-making lesson one time. And I learned what I should be doing right. The oil has to be the right temperature. And the batter has to be the right consistency. And you see how many you can get out of one batch,” she said.

Lois also has a special fruitcake recipe.

“My family doesn’t care for the candied fruit, the citron. They like lots of raisins, light and dark. And lots of nuts. Especially the Brazil nuts,” Lois noted.

Nancy Drew

“Another thing I always got for Christmas as I grew up was Nancy Drew books. They are around yet too, someplace. We did a lot of reading at home. I enjoyed those books,” Lois said.

“We would go to bed about eight o’clock. We had bed lamps, which you don’t hear much about anymore. We’d read until ten o’clock, and then we had to turn the light off. We never took flashlights, though, so we could read under the covers. We did a lot of reading. It was good entertainment,” she said.

WWII Christmas

Lois especially remembers one Christmas during World War II.

“One year, when my brother was in the service, I think it was 1944. My brother had hurt his knee and needed surgery on it. My dad went to be with him at Christmas, which left my mother and I,” Lois said.

“And yes, I put up the Christmas tree. I almost cut my finger off cutting the top off the tree. I don’t know why I didn’t ask Grandpa to come over. He was so close. Maybe I didn’t ask Grandpa because I had a boyfriend, and he could help. It’s more fun to call the boyfriend than it is to call Grandpa,” she said.

“But the tree got up, just like always. I suppose, as I look back at it, I was the one, as I got a little older, I was the one who saw to it that the tree was put up. I don’t remember anyone else helping me. They got it in the stand. Then I took over and decorated. I am a ‘terrible’ Christmas person. Not terrible in a bad way — I just enjoy Christmas,” Lois said.

On the farm

Lois and her husband farmed for 35 years near Jim Falls and attended the Anson United Methodist Church.

“After we were married, we always had Christmas at our little church. Our pastor has three churches — Holcomb, Jim Falls and Anson. So the pastor spreads himself thin,” Lois said.

“My husband’s people always went to the Anson church and that’s where we went. I’ve been a member for 67 years. I remember we built a dining hall on the church. We served funerals. We don’t have enough people to serve them anymore. They always had a Christmas dinner too. We used to have choirs. But we don’t anymore. We just don’t have enough people who want to get up and sing. Including me. I’m afraid my voice left me. They say if you don’t use it, you lose it. I think that’s what happened to me. I didn’t sing enough. I did up until about five years ago,” she said.

“I enjoy the music. I like good music. I look forward to the Christmas carols. I never get tired of the Christmas music. It’s around for such a short time each year. They stop immediately after Christmas. It’s not like they taper off. The next day after Christmas, you can’t even hardly find a Christmas song,” Lois said.

Family fun

“I had my children in two different bunches. There is 12 years between the youngest and the oldest. They were 14 and 12. Then we started over and had three more. I had ‘double things.’ I had to be in 4-H twice. Took the kids for Christmas programs at the church twice. And it was all fun. It was all very enjoyable,” Lois said.

“I was a great cookie maker, too. I loved to do the Christmas baking. My middle girl has taken that over. She called me the other day and said, “guess what I found?’ She had found a package of mincemeat. That’s our special fruitcake we make with Borden’s Sweetened Condensed milk — and the more nuts you can put in it, the better. She makes the rosettes now too,” Lois recalled.

“One time, longer ago than I want to think, the middle daughter was getting married just before Christmas. A friend who is Norwegian, she was from Colfax and married someone up by us, and her mother-in-law, they asked if we wanted them to make rosettes for the reception. We had a rosette-making day, and we made over 350 rosettes,” she said.

Offhand, Lois could not remember her friend, Eunice’s, maiden name.

“I think her name was Johnson. Isn’t it strange that you forget those things?” Lois said.

Since there was quite an age difference between Lois’s older children and her younger children, the McIlquham family ended up with an unusual situation.

“I’ve got grandchildren that are close in age to my younger children. There were two of them who would come at Christmas and stay for Christmas vacation. They were the same age as my two youngest, a boy and a girl, and the grandchildren were a boy and a girl. And did they ever have fun at Christmas vacation going out snowmobiling,” Lois recalled.

“They’d have a ball. They’d come in the house full of snow. And they’d drop their clothes on the floor, and then I’d have to get them dried them out. Thank goodness for dryers so they could go out again and do the same thing over again. They’d stay for a week for their vacation. It was great fun. And they’ve been good friends ever since,” she said.

Good and bad

“One Christmas Eve that I would just as soon forget, my mother was in a nursing home. We had gone on Christmas Eve to bring gifts to her. And my husband said, ‘Gee, I’ve got a stomachache.’ It kept getting worse. We ended up in a doctor’s office, him laying on a table, moaning and groaning. He had kidney stones, so he was in the hospital for Christmas. That’s one I would just as soon forget,” Lois said.

“We were married for 65 years. That’s a long time. I was a city girl, and I went out to the farm and learned a whoooole bunch of things. Oh, yes, I learned,” she said.

“We’ve had lots of good Christmases. That’s for sure, both when I was growing up and when we had our own kids,” Lois said.