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A one-room country school Christmas

December 25, 2018
By Joyce Wiese - Special to The Chronicle / News-Herald , Toledo Chronicle, Tama News-Herald

Soon the one-room "Little red schoolhouse" as they were often called even if they were white, not red, will be a thing of the past, and forgotten. We, who attended them will remember our school days with a sad, sweet, smile in our hearts. High on my list of happy memories will be the highlight of the entire school year, "The Christmas Program".

I attended what was known as the "Whiskey Bottom " school. This was on today's Highway 30 just west of the Meskwaki Casino, on the north side of the highway.

We began looking forward to our program even before Thanksgiving turkey had completely disappeared, actually on the day after Thanksgiving vacation when our teacher assigned our parts. Children who could memorize easily knew they would have lots of speeches and dialogue parts to learn, and while they tried to act as if they couldn't possibly learn it all, sighing loudly each time their name was called, secretly they were proud. Teachers were lenient with those who couldn't memorize well, but of course, everyone was to learn the songs. Since one usually could get by with moving his lips soundlessly, this was no problem.

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Whiskey Bottom School

-Photos provided

After school we hurried home with our program parts, and our parents, (in my case my

Dad) always read them carefully. They wondered aloud if we'd be able to learn it all by Christmas, and though they never mentioned it, I'm sure they got very tired of hearing the same thing over and over nightly during the month of December. We had a week to study before starting rehearsals at school, and we tried to learn at least a line or two that very night.

As the date of the Christmas program drew near, we became practically letter-perfect in our parts. But this didn't mean no one would forget on the NIGHT. A few could even recite the entire program by heart.

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Joyce Wiese retired recently from long-time duties as a newspaper reporter of the South Tama School School Board, Tama County Board of Supervisors and features.

Also close to the holiday we drew names for the gift exchange. If you had sharp eyes, you could tell who had your name because they involuntarily glanced at the person as they read the name on their slip. When a girl received a boy's name, often an unliked one, lots of giggling and futile attempts to trade names went on. It was fun though to wonder who had your name, and to guess with other classmates, and to anticipate the gift that would be waiting under the Christmas tree.

It always seemed to me the program would simply never come. I had my gift bought and wrapped well in advance. I'm sure my parents wanted to cover their ears as I recited my parts almost without ceasing. But finally the day arrived. We had regular classes in the morning and a complete dress rehearsal after our lunch. School was dismissed early so we could rest and get to get to the school early that night.

I would start pestering my mother to leave for school as soon as supper was over. We usually would arrive earlier than necessary, along with several other families and had to wait for the teacher to arrive to unlock the door.

All the kids looked almost like strangers, the boys with neckties and slicked down hair, and the girls with curled hair and new dresses. Even the Christmas tree looked different. Though we had decorated the tree days before and brought our gifts that morning, it surprised us standing in its splendor, this night-tinsel and balls glowing in the light of the kerosene lanterns that lined the walls. We did not yet have electricity.

It was time for the program to begin when everyone had arrived, parents, little brothers or sisters, relatives or others who lived near the school. The teacher rang the bell on her desk to signal it was time to be quiet. She would welcome everyone and hoped they would enjoy the program. Usually she would apologize for our mistakes before we even made them. Then the curtain was raised by a strong eighth grader who stood off the stage and pulled the rope that lifted the curtain, then fastened it on a hook.

First on the program was a Welcome speech, usually by a little girl, one who spoke loudly, clearly, and did not forget even a punctuation mark.

After each performance the curtain would be lowered , then raised when the pupils and props were ready. Next would be a song by the whole school, a rousing "Jingle Bells" or something similar. As we sang every child would search the audience trying to find their parents.

Dialogues came next, usually a humorous one first. A solo could follow the dialogue if there happened to be a student with enough nerve to stand up and sing alone to a piano accompaniment. The song usually would be "Star of the East" or "O Holy Night". At our school Verna Spire (Lacina), Janet Hoskey (Kvidera) and myself would be a trio and sing "Star of the East".

Numerous recitations were intermingled with all the longer parts of the program. Several of the older boys never failed to forget a line. They would stand, silent and begin to grow red in the face, some even giggled. After what seemed like an eternity, the teacher would prompt them softly from the sidelines. Sometimes a boy would turn toward the teacher and say "What", surely driving the teacher wild.

Country schools always had a "rhythm band" where the youngsters beat two sticks or similar instruments together in time to a song. No program was complete without a number from the band. Needless to say, there was more noise than rhythm.

Several songs and dialogues were given and a student with a good memory would recite "Twas the Night Before Christmas" (this was me), preceding the pageant which was the religious part of the program. The age old Christmas story was acted out in pantomime. First came the star suspended by a thread from the ceiling, then shepherds in gunnysacks and angels in sheets. Mary was dressed in blue and Joseph in brown, Baby Jesus was usually a large doll and the Wise Men were in bathrobes, all moving in slow motion with carol music for the background.

The most excitement was saved for the last when we all lined up and sang "Up On the Housetop" with real enthusiasm. On the song's last line, Santa Claus would burst through the outside door ho-ho-hoing, ringing bells and stamping his feet. The parents would smile, children gasp with delight. Every baby in the room would begin to scream. Santa went around the room trying to quiet the babies with his jovial chatter. They usually quieted only after he passed out the candy canes and oranges.

We would then gather up our gifts, put on our coats and wish everyone a Merry Christmas. It was usually a cold , sharp night so we sat close together on the way home. The car heater always got nice and warm just as we were turning into our driveway.

I attended the Whiskey Bottom (Indian Village No. 4) country school all my eight years through 8th grade. As near as I know the only ones who were students with me that are still alive are Janet Hoskey Kvidera, rural Toledo, Norma McCoy Hensing, Illinois, Robert McCoy, Montour, and Clayton Curphy, Colorado.

Joyce Wiese retired recently from long-time duties as a newspaper reporter of the South Tama School School Board, Tama County Board of Supervisors and features.



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