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By Missy Klatt
June was born six miles north of Glenwood City, the youngest of five children born to Leon and Camilla Swanepoel. Leon and Camilla emigrated here from Belgium but it took a while for both of them to get here along with June’s oldest brother, Bill who was also born in Belgium.
June’s dad came earlier to get some land and then World War I broke out and her mom and brother were stuck in Belgium. June relates the story that her mom told her, “after the war was over he sent money for her to come and she was going down to exchange the money and she said to the girl ‘I don’t know how to do this’ and she said ‘well I do’ but she never came back with the money.” June wasn’t sure how long it took before her dad could send money again. By the time they made it to the United States, Bill was eight years old and her mom was 30.
June states that for Christmas they never really celebrated at home, no decorations, no presents. They would go to mass at St. John’s on Christmas day and they would have a nice meal and “of course it was chicken, because they raised chickens,” noted June.
June also commented that they didn’t do any special baking at Christmas time either but her German neighbors did. They would make cookies and fruitcake. “They would send Alice [June’s friend] over to borrow my bread pans because she wouldn’t have the right size she wanted, so Alice would come and get our bread pans. But I never did get to taste Mrs. Willard’s fruitcake,” recalls June.
When June was five or six years old her brother Emil brought home a Christmas tree. “One day he came through the door with a tree and he said ’this is what people do, they put a tree in their house’. And my mother looked at him and she always said ‘you little devil’ but she’d say it in Belgium but I knew what she was saying. He said ‘this is what people do’ and she said ‘well what do we do with it’ and he said ‘I’ll set it up in the living room’. We had nothing to put on it,” smiles June.
June can’t recall for certain but she believes from then on out they would have a tree and eventually they got some decorations for it.
June attended Camp 14 grade school. June comments, “I remember being in one play about Christmas and I remember they used sheets for the curtain but most of all we just sang songs. I remember that was the first experience I had with a Santa Claus. I knew nothing about Santa. He would come and the district would buy candy and everyone would get a little sack of candy [from Santa].”
When June first saw Santa she thought it’s weird, kind of strange because some of the older kids were saying things like ‘I think it’s Charlie Stiener or I think it’s Mr. Veder.’ And of course she had never heard of him at home because they knew nothing of Santa Claus.
Even though June’s mom wasn’t familiar with all these traditions June said she enjoyed the programs. She liked it when June and her sister would get up and say a piece in front of everyone. June mentions that her brother Frank wouldn’t do it because he was so shy.
June said that they never got Christmas gifts but one time when she was between six and eight years old she got a doll but it wasn’t from Santa she just remembers that her mom handed her a beautiful baby doll, not wrapped or anything and she said nobody else got anything. She said we just didn’t do presents. “I can’t say I grew up poor like some kids my age” but she says they grew up frugal.
June goes on to say that they had a nice living room but that room was never heated in the winter time. “That’s when we would say, ‘oh boy we can have jello now” because they didn’t have a refrigerator at the time and they could put the jello in the living room and it would set. June laughs at this memory and she remarked, “my sister and I we just couldn’t wait till it set and Frank would beat us to it sometimes and he’d say ‘I’m going to get some first.’”
In 1946 June married Harold and they went on to have nine kids; Jennifer, Charlotte, Rita, Peter, Carol, Jeanne, John, Joe and Tom. And when her kids were little June said she did everything as far as Christmas goes. “I really got into Christmas.” She said about tree decorating, “it wasn’t very much at first but I remember icicles (tinsel), we did a lot of that, we had lights and for ornaments it was ‘Christmas balls’. It was kind of bare at first because we didn’t have much money” notes June.
Santa brought a present for each of the kids and June would always have Christmas dinner. She would have Harold’s parents and his aunt and uncle who had no children. She would prepare a big turkey dinner with all the fixings. For their Christmas dinner she would also make pies and all the bread and buns as well.
When the kids were young there was a midnight mass on Christmas Eve that they would try to go to. They would have to wake the kids up to go to mass.
June started making fruitcake (with a recipe she found in a cookbook). She was a member of a homemakers club and some of them talked about making fruitcake and she wanted to try it. June mentions that when the kids were little they didn’t like the fruitcake. She would give some to Harold’s mom and his aunt and uncle.
June made fruitcake up until a couple of years ago and now her daughter Jeanne helps her. Jeanne states the longer the fruitcake sits (before you cut into it) the better it tastes.
June hosted Christmas dinner for the family for many years. In the later years hosting duties now rotate between Jeanne & Arvid, Tom & Nancy and John & Deb. The Saturday before Christmas is when they usually get together and the count is now up to 57 family members for the gathering.