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Faylene Keilholz Howe: “I remember my grandfather singing ‘Silent Night’ in German”

By LeAnn R. Ralph

COLFAX —  To this day, when Faylene Keilholz Howe thinks about her German grandfather singing “Silent Night” in German, she gets tears in her eyes.

Faylene was born in Eau Claire. Her family moved to a farm near Colfax when she was in fourth grade. She graduated from Colfax High School in 1952, and eventually, after living in Kenosha for a while, she and her husband, Glen, moved to Elk Mound. All together, Glen and Faylene had seven children.

Faylene’s father had just bought a new car before their family moved to Colfax.

“He had to sell that. He got an old car, one that had to be cranked, in order to get the farm,” she said.

“Most of my Christmas memories are from my dad’s side of the family, from the German side. My grandfather came from Germany, alone, when he was 16 to an aunt and uncle’s in Eau Claire. When he married my grandmother, her family had came from Germany, too,” Faylene said.

“I was the first grandchild on Dad’s side of the family, so I was big stuff for a while,” she said with a laugh.

“Then there was my sister, one other girl cousin, and then my brother. We were the only four grandkids until after the war, until my young uncles came back and my young aunts’ boyfriends. Then there were marriages and more kids about the time I was 12. I remember going to my Grandma Keyes for Christmas Eve. That was a big thing. And her tree was always special. The ornaments on it all had meanings for her and for us,” Faylene said.

Devil’s pasteboards

Faylene’s German side of the family liked to play cards when they got together.

“My mother’s side of the family, my grandmother, thought cards were the ‘pasteboards of the devil.’ She was raised in the Colfax area, and she was what my mother called a ‘duke’s mixture.’ So my mother had never played cards. The story was, the first time they taught her how to play Poker, she won enough to buy me a pair of baby shoes. I guess she learned fast,” Faylene said.

“I can always remember having a new dress for Christmas. My mom sewed. Or it could have been a hand-me-down, new to me, from a cousin. And then one of my grandmas was really good with the Rit Dye. Usually there was a doll of some sort. In the lean years, there were new doll clothes for the old doll. One doll would disappear for a while, and if it had that icky hair, she would replace it somehow, and when I got it again, the hair would be new.”

Stuffing

Faylene remembers both her mother and her grandmother baking for Christmas.

“My mother baked some of the Norwegian baking because of being raised in Colfax. My grandma, the German side of the family, always did a lot with decorating the cut-out cookies. And then she usually had a goose. I still use her bread stuffing recipe that had meat in it,” she said, noting she makes her grandmother’s stuffing for both Thanksgiving and Christmas.

“As far as Sunday school programs and school programs, after I was in Colfax in fourth grade, to start out we drew names. Either like a quarter or 50-cent limit on what we could buy. Then it got so later on, the girls bought for the girls, and the boys bought for the boys, but the biggest thing that I can remember is just about everybody got packages of those ‘charms.’ It was four or five packages, and it stayed under the price limit,” Faylene said.

“I think my dad, being from the German side, was more Santa Claus. But from my mom’s side, we hung stockings. When Santa came, it was usually one gift under the tree. And usually the stockings had an orange and an apple and nuts you had to crack and hard candy.”

And then there was her grandfather singing.

“My Grandpa Keilholz would sing Silent Night in German. I can still hear his voice, and I still tear up. It’s one of the really good sentimental memories,” Faylene said, adding that her grandpa was a big gruff man but he had a beautiful, soft, sweet singing voice.

“I don’t remember writing letters or asking for anything special for a gift. But everything was kind of special. There was all the mystery and the suspense building up to it,” she said.

Nativity scene

Glen Howe, who was born and raised in Elk Mound, served in the United States Marine Corps, and when he was discharged from the service, Faylene and Glen were married.

“We had gone together a little bit, and then when he was in the service we wrote to each other, and when he got out, we got married. He just had one sister, and I just had one sister and a brother. I always envied some of my friends with the larger families. It always seemed like they had more to do and more places to go. But they always included us,” she said.

“After I married a Norwegian, we had seven kids. I always did quite a bit of reading in some of the ladies’ magazines, and there were always ideas in there about how other people celebrated Christmas,” Faylene said.

“One year the kids made styrofoam Advent wreathes in Sunday school. I don’t know if it was the fascination of the candles or what, but we incorporated Advent wreathes and lighting the candles and reading some Bible verses at mealtime,” she said.

Although Nativity sets can be quite elaborate, the one that means the most to Faylene came from a dime store.

“My mother-in-law came and visited before Christmas when we had just three children, and we lived in downtown Kenosha. We walked to the dime store. She bought a small nativity scene. We still have that. There’s missing legs on the lambs. It’s made out of paper mache. The creche is cardboard with some straw glued on it. We’ve added to the animals, and over the years, we’ve made a collection of figurines. Nothing expensive. Just things that have caught my eye,” she said.

“Our kids still come to our house for Christmas Eve. It’s a small house, and the house seems to be getting smaller and the family is getting bigger. If you leave your chair, you usually lose it,” Faylene noted.

“We found that drawing names didn’t work all that well for exchanging gifts, so people all bring gifts, and we dump stuff on the table, and we have two decks of cards. One reads the card and you go choose. It can get pretty competitive. When we had teenage grandkids, they’d sit around the table, and sometimes they’d be sitting with something on their lap before they had the card for it,” she said.

Faylene and Glen’s oldest daughter was in seventh grade when they moved to Elk Mound.

“We lived right in town in Elk Mound, within walking distance of church for Christmas Eve service and Sunday school, and that became a bigger part of our lives after we lived in this area,” she said.

“My husband worked shifts when we lived in Kenosha. We had one vehicle, and it was always difficult. So we went to whatever church was closest to us at that time. All the kids were baptized, but they were all confirmed after we moved back up here.”

Cookies

Many children enjoy helping in the kitchen, and Faylene says she did allow her youngsters to help with decorating cookies.

“Later on, we made the cookies they would all eat, different kinds, but the ones that were their favorites. I did make sandbakels a few times, but they were really time-consuming for me. Sometimes, I remember, even with my mom, when she got tired of doing the sandbakels, she would make them into a cookie and put a pecan on the top, and it worked just fine. I do like the cardamon taste,” she said.

“My mom made the berliner kranz, the little bow ties with the egg white brushed on. She also did the rosettes. I never helped with those. We always had to be out of the kitchen because of the hot grease,” Faylene said.

Grandchildren

Faylene has 14 grandchildren and a number of great-grandchildren.

“I’ve almost lost count of the great-grandkids. I have a great-great-grandson due January 11. That will be five generations. I was a five-generation baby, and my oldest granddaughter also was. I had eight grandparents when I was born. I had a grandma and a grandpa in Germany that I never met. And I had a great-great-grandmother and a great-grandmother and then both my dad’s parents and my mom’s parents were living when I was born,” she said.

Several Sundays before the interview with the Colfax Messenger, Faylene said she had three great-granddaughters baptized at her church, Shepherd of the Hill in Elk Mound, on the same day.

One of Faylene’s sons lives in Lakeville, Minnesota. Her other children live in Eau Claire, Chippewa Falls and Menomonie,  

Faylene says her family has what they call “family day” the first Sunday of the month so that whoever in her family wants to come home, she knows to expect them.

“My two youngest grandchildren are 16 and 19, and there was 10 years between them and the great-grandkids. So that way they know each other and are close and have a great relationship. That has worked out well for us,” she said.

“Both sides of the family went to Grandma’s on Sunday, so that’s where the family day for our family came from,”  Faylene noted.

Grandma Freestone’s mittens

Faylene’s father was Leonard Keilholz, and her mother was Dorotha Freestone.

Dorotha “was a change-of-life baby or a tag-along,” Faylene said.

“She was a very small baby. They kept her in a shoebox on the oven door. She was the youngest one in her family. Her dad was a logger. Her mom was left at home with the boys to help with the farming. There was a large family with seven kids. My Grandma Freestone on my mom’s side of the family, my  mother was the youngest. There were lots of cousins ahead of her,” she said.

Grandma Freestone “made mittens every year, the four-needle kind made out of that fine yarn. We all got the same color, but every year, we all got a new pair of knit mittens. I knit mittens with two needles, but when I think of the time it took with four needles and that smaller yarn. And she baked cookies,” Faylene said.

Kathy Freestone Rieder, a cousin of Faylene’s, submitted their grandmother’s ginger molasses cookie recipe for the Colfax Public Library’s cookbook.

“That grandma and grandpa were older by the time I was born. And they raised plants to sell. Cabbage and all the tomatoes. They lived on the corner by the old nursing home. There was a small house on that lot. Across the street was the original grocery store. That was the only place I remember them living. With an outdoor bathroom. They rented it from the fellow who owned the grocery store. And when one of his granddaughters got married and was going to take over the store, my grandma and grandpa had to move. So my dad built a little two-room house in our backyard, so that’s where they lived until my grandpa died,” she said.

Snowmobile

When asked if there were any special gifts her own children had wished for at Christmas, Faylene replied, “well, I think my youngest son still expects to see a snowmobile outside on Christmas. Several of their friends got gifts like that, but our kids didn’t. A lot of their gifts were together, things they could use together. I just got rid of an air hockey game. They wanted football, but by the time I went shopping, it was air hockey left.”

Christmas stockings were a very important part the holiday for the Howe children.

“My sister started to knit stockings for them since the time I had the first two. She knit for all of my kids and for some of my grandkids. They were big, decorated stockings,” Faylene said.

“Their stockings are all stretched out. They were probably a bigger thing than a gift,” she said.

“One year, we got a toboggan for all of them. We were living by the Elk Mound hill. And so one of the things they got for a family gift was a toboggan,” Faylene said.

“One year their grandmother gave them a large amount of money. They had found out ahead of time, but my husband and I didn’t know they had found out. So they weren’t that surprised when they got it. But it’s probably one of their special Christmases,” she said.

“For my Grandma Keilholz, it was everything Christmas. I think she saved all year long and gathered things. Sometimes it was a hankie, but you always got something. One year, the three oldest boys got neckties from her. All they’d ever had were bow ties I had purchased to go with their outfits. So that was a big deal because there were men there who taught them how to tie a necktie. They were happy over that. I don’t know if they were new neckties or what,” Faylene said.

“I really have been blessed. (Children) are your greatest blessing — and they can be your biggest heartache,” she said.

“I really enjoy a real tree. But the last few years, I’ve had an artificial one after I had back surgery. I have so many things to put on there. And that’s another time of reminiscing when you’re putting ornaments on the tree. Ones that the kids have made, or some that are gifts, or some that are really old. So even taking it down again is lots of memories,” Faylene said.