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By Missy Klatt
Nonagenarian, Don Leier is a relative new comer to Glenwood City, moving here in 2003 with his wife Genevieve, a couple of years after his daughter and her family moved to the area. Don grew up in lower St. Paul and had lived in the Cities till his move here.
Don was the youngest of three brothers born to a German baker. He attended a catholic school, St. Agnes, that had Norte Dame nuns in St. Paul. He said that the nuns were strict and mean. The older ones all came over here from Germany. The young ones were nice but they didn’t get along with the old ones.
At school they always had a Christmas program where the parents could come. It was in the basement of the church where they had a stage. “But it was all to do with religion.” Santa Claus didn’t come. “In the Catholic school, Santa Claus was no, no, no.” comments Don. However he says, that December 6th, Saint Nicholas day was something different. Saint Nicholas was good to the poor.
On Christmas Eve after dinner all of Don’s aunts and uncles (on his mom’s side) would come over to their house because they were the only ones who had a house. They were also the only ones who had kids. His mom had one sister and five brothers but none of them had kids. Don remembers his dad decorating. He had a green “rope” about the thickness of your thumb and he would loop it from the chandelier in the dining room to every corner of the room and then put tinsel on it. And the living room had the Christmas tree in it.
They would all bring a gift for a gift exchange for a man or a woman and they would play the dice game to see who got the presents. “So if you thought what you brought, you liked you could pick your own present.” He said they weren’t expensive gifts, maybe a couple of packs of cigarettes, noting that besides his mom and her sister all of his aunts smoked.
After they did their gift exchange all of the guys would go into the kitchen and sit around the table and they would have beer and other drinks. He said his dad never went to a beer joint but at Christmas he would buy liquor. And the women would be in the living room sipping on homemade wine that his dad made and his mom and her sister would have snacks on the table. His dad would bring home decorated cookies and fruit cake home from the bakery and then they would have coffee. Don said after the adults did all that and opened their gifts then “us” kids would get our gifts from the aunts and uncles. He said it wasn’t much because no one had that much money. One year he got a coloring book and color crayons and he thought that was a lot. Another year he got a metal top that you pushed up and down and it would spin and it would whistle.
When he got bigger, perhaps in the sixth grade, he remembers getting a Lionel train but it wasn’t electric, it was a wind up one that had tracks with it that would make a circle or a figure eight. “I thought that was everything.” He laughs and says “it was probably only $2.98, not even that.”
He said that Santa never came to the house when he was young but he remembers getting a sled from his mom and dad one year when he was ten or eleven years old.
Christmas morning he recalls getting up, getting dressed and going to church and in church the nuns had made a display of the nativity scene with statues that were about two feet high off to the side of the sanctuary. He notes that there was an angel that was holding a plate and you could put a coin in the slit in the plate and the angel‘s head would bow. “When we were kids, we thought, O gosh that was everything.” The church would be all decorated with Christmas trees, real trees.
Don noted that they always had real trees at home as well. They would go down to the market down towards the capital in St. Paul and farmers or whoever would bring in trees to sell. They would walk down there, buy a tree, tie it on to a sled and pull it home. “My dad would put it in the stand and let it stand overnight till the branches thawed out and opened up. Then he would put on the lights.” His dad would also put garland around the tree while the kids helped with the ornaments and then put tinsel on the tree.
A lot of the ornaments that they hung were cookies that his dad made at the bakery. Shaped like candy canes, stars or Santa Claus. Afterwards they were able to eat them.
“Christmases we went to church then came home and then grandma and grandpa, my mother’s mother and dad, would come up to our house.”
In 1956, Don married Genevieve and they went on to have three kids, Tom, Tim, and Nancy.
When Don’s kids were young they would take them to downtown St. Paul to see the Christmas window displays at the Golden Rule. Don says that the Golden Rule would buy their displays from Chicago and ship them here and it would take a week or so for people to put them up. They would also look at the displays at the Emporium and Schuneman’s (which later became Dayton’s), Grants and Woolworths, and Kresege’s but he said that the ones at the Golden Rule were the best and most elaborate.
When Don was growing up his mother and aunt would take him downtown at Christmas time on the street car. They would get off at 7th and Wabasha and walk down 7th to check out all the decorations and displays at the stores like Forman and Clark, Walgreens, and Three Sisters.
The St. Paul area chamber of commerce had contests for people to decorate their houses and Don and his family participated for many years winning a few times along the way. One time they got first place for house only; one time, second place in religious display; one time house and ground. He said he has five or six trophies hanging up in the basement from those contests. They would also drive around and check out the competition. Don said the displays were very elaborate.
Don went to Santa Claus school in Minneapolis and he played Santa Claus for many years from the time he was 28 or 29. He would play Santa at the Minikahda Club in Minneapolis, which is a private golf club. “I can remember I got $200 and all these little brats…” This was a club where all the Minneapolis celebraties went, like Bill Ingram, former anchor on KSTP. He would also go to other businesses in the Twin Cities and play Santa. He said he would stay away from private parties because people would be drinking and act up.
After he moved to Glenwood City he played Santa Claus at the second hand store in Glenwood as well as at Glenwood City Elementary. Jim Celt, former elementary principal lived next door to Don and he got him to come down to the school for many years. “I started getting older and I thought, I can’t do this. I had so much padding” he waves his hand and shakes his head. But the real reason he stopped because at the time his granddaughter Taylor was in the fourth grade and she recognized him. So he told his daughter, I’m quitting.
When Don’s kids were young they would go to church on Christmas day and they would go to his in-laws for dinner and then to his parents but it got to be too much. When the kids got a little older they would go one year to his folks and the next to his in-laws.
When Don’s wife was still alive everyone (which includes his eight grandchildren and their partners) would come over for Christmas but now a days Don’s kids take turns hosting Christmas.