Illustrations by Wendy Harless
Early in this century, winter in the country was a time of hard work and isolation. The holidays brought welcome relief with caroling and skating parties, "humbugs," and school plays.
Caroling by sleigh
Katie Chapman remembers Christmas caroling in a horse-drawn sleigh in the late 1910s and early 1920s. All over the Chelsea countryside, people would be singing. The air was filled with song: "It was clear and still, and voices carried. You could hear a mile away," says Chapman.
Chapman's family lived and worked on the Foster estate, south of Sylvan Center. On Christmas Eve, after they'd finished their chores, the whole family would climb into the sleigh and ride to the farms of people they knew. They'd sing carols as they traveled, sometimes singing in their native Hungarian. (Chapman's parents were immigrants from Hungary.) Many other families in the area sang carols in German.
The roads around Chelsea weren't paved until later in the 1920s, and travel was normally slow and bumpy. When conditions were right, though, the sleigh would glide along smoothly. The sleigh itself was nothing fancy, just an open box that could be fitted with runners in the winter or wheels in the summer (it was usually used to carry hay to the barn or gather grain in the fields). To keep warm, the family would wrap up in horsehides. "We'd bundle up so all you could see of our faces were our eyes," Chapman recalls. A piece of soapstone, heated in the stove, served as a foot-warmer. "We felt sorry for the poor horse," says Chapman. "The cold would bother his nose."
When the carolers arrived at a nearby home, the residents would come outside to listen, joining in if they knew the songs. Then they'd invite the singers inside to warm up, and serve them Christmas baked goods and hot cider with cinnamon. "Everyone grew apples," Chapman says, "good ones that you can't get anymore: Greenings, Northern Spy."
When it was time to move on to the next house, their hosts would hitch up their own sleighs and follow behind. By the end of the night, says Chapman, "there was quite a contingent. We'd end up with twenty-five or thirty people." The evening would draw to a close around 10 p.m. Even though it was a holiday, everyone had to be up by 5 a.m. the next day to start the chores.
Five generations of Christmas baking
For generations, people have come from miles around to buy German Christmas treats at the Dexter Bakery. The custom dates back to 1915, when Joseph Schnebelt started the business. Through three generations of Schnebelts, and two more owners, the bakery has retained its reputation as the best place in the area to buy such Christmas specialties as Lebkuchen, Schnitzbrot, and Springerle.
Joseph Schnebelt and his new bride, the former Alice Johnson, moved from Battle Creek to open the bakery. One of their daughters. Sister Paraclita, a Catholic nun in the Immaculate Heart of Mary order, still lives in Dexter. As she recalls, her parents chose the town because they liked the community and it needed a bakery.
The Christmas recipes were supplied by Schnebelt's father, Charles, who was born in Baden, Germany. In 1923, Charles Schnebelt bought the Dexter Bakery from his son. Joseph went on to run bakeries in several other towns, but in 1936, when his father was getting too old to handle the bakery alone, he returned to help him. Joseph again took over the Dexter Bakery completely in 1941.
Joseph and Alice's eight children all helped in the bakery. Sister Paraclita and her twin sister worked in the front, clerking. The girls had to be at work when the bakery opened at 7 a.m., but the boys in the family had it much worse—they had to get up in the middle of the night to help with the baking. The whole family pitched in on deliveries. At one time they had extensive routes all over the lakes district.
The Schnebelts would begin baking Christmas cookies right after Thanksgiving. Besides Lebkuchen and Springerle cookies, they made cinnamon stars, sugar cookies with seasonal decorations, almond and coconut macaroons, and Pfeffernuesse. The Lebkuchen was so good, remembers Sister Paraclita, that one of her uncles would buy twenty dozen each season and try to make them last all year: "By July, he'd be cutting it up in small pieces, trying to make it last until Thanksgiving," she says.
Besides cookies, the most famous German Christmas delicacy is Schnitzbrot, a special bread, sometimes compared with fruitcake, but much lighter. Delicious but not too sweet, it goes well with richer holiday fare. As Sister Paraclita recalls, her family made it with whatever dried fruits were available: pears, pineapple, prunes, and candied cherries. They also made three kinds of fudge—chocolate; divinity, made with egg whites; and penuche, made with brown sugar—and two kinds of brittle—peanut and coconut. They also learned to make English Christmas recipes, including mincemeat pie (when it was still made with meat) and fruitcake. They sold the fruitcake and some of the other Christmas goodies by mail to customers all over the country.
The bakery even made its own cough drops—small, menthol-flavored candies called "humbugs." Reverend Father Charles Walsh, of Dexter's St. Joseph Catholic Church, had an old English recipe for the drops. But when he made them in the rectory, the sisters didn't like the mess. Since Joseph Schnebelt was one of his parishioners. Father Walsh asked if he could set up his candy-making equipment in the bakery. After that, every Christmas they made humbugs together. Father Walsh took what he needed, and the rest were sold in the bakery. For years Sister Paraclita sent humbugs to her sister in Texas.
Joseph and Alice's son, Joe Jr., stopped making candy when he took over the bakery in 1956. When he retired in 1972, Joe Jr. sold the business to Jack Owen, an employee for seventeen years. Four years ago, Owen sold the bakery to Cambodia-born immigrants Kim and Saing Yam.
The Yams' only baking experience had been making doughnuts in San Diego, but Owen taught them what he knew before retiring to Stockbridge. He also passed along the Schnebelt Christmas recipes. "We don't change a thing," says Kim Yam. Lifelong Dexter resident Bruce Waggoner agrees. Over the decades he's patronized the bakery. Waggoner says, "they've maintained quality all the way through."
Skating on the Raisin
In the 1920s, Manchester teenagers spent their Christmas Eves skating in a cove on the frozen River Raisin. "There was no entertainment" in town, Glenn Lehr recalls. "We made our own."
Several days before Christmas Eve, people would begin collecting wood for a bonfire. "There were trees up and down the river, lots of dead trees," says Lehr. "We'd just pile up the wood." Then, on Christmas Eve, the teenagers would light the fire and decorate the willow trees that lined the bank with stringed popcorn, candles, and ornaments—"the same sort of thing you put on now, but made with glass, not plastic," he says.
The party would start at dusk, or as soon as the young people could get away from their Christmas Eve dinners at home. There would be about thirty teenagers, Lehr recalls, and sometimes a few adults. But the grown-ups rarely stayed long, getting tired and cold sooner than the teens.
Partygoers would skate around in pairs, crisscrossing hands so they skated in tandem. Some skated with their steady girlfriends or boyfriends. (Lehr says he played the field.) They'd also hold 100-yard and 200-yard races, organized by age, or choose up teams and play hockey with homemade sticks and pucks. Some of Lehr's friends played the flute. "The plaintive notes of the flute floating over the ice were really something," he says.
The skaters wore stocking caps, coats or jackets, sweaters, woolen pants, long Johns, and of course, a scarf, usually knitted by a grandmother. Mackinaw jackets were popular with the boys—hip-length, belted, with two sets of pockets, above and below. Some people brought small bells that they hung around their necks or placed in their pockets; the bells would ring as they skated. The skates themselves were blades clamped onto a pair of high-top boots and tightened with a key that was worn around the neck.
When people got cold or tired, they'd gather around the bonfire to warm up, chat, and roast marshmallows and hot dogs (the homemade kind, bought at one of the local butcher shops: Kiebler, Booth, or Haarer). "You could smell those when you got anywhere near the fire," says Lehr. To make hot cider, they'd heat a poker in the fire, then stick it, sizzling, in a cup. Despite Prohibition, sometimes they'd manage to get hard cider; it cost 50 cents a gallon and was made mostly by Germans in the community, who also made wine.
Occasionally, small groups of skaters would walk to town to Mary Singer's saloon (now the Village Tap), where Lehr worked, to warm up around the potbellied stove. But they always made sure they were back on the ice by midnight, says Lehr. When Christmas officially arrived, they'd "cheer, hug, and smooch a little." After another hour or two of skating, they'd finally call it a night.
Christmas plays in one-room schools
Until the 1950s, many children who lived in the country around Saline were educated in one-room schoolhouses, where a single teacher taught twenty or so students ranging in age from kindergarten through eighth grade. Residents who attended these schools recall with special fondness their annual Christmas plays.
The students would rehearse for weeks for the big event. To create a stage, an old curtain was fastened across the front of the schoolroom. At Lodi Plains School, which once stood on Ann Arbor-Saline Road, bringing the curtain out from the stockroom was a welcome sign that the holiday was near. "It was like setting up the Christmas tree," remembers Wayne Clements. "We were all into the excitement."
Lisle Law attended Judd School on Saline-Milan Road. She remembers Miss Tyce, who lived across the street, coming over to play the piano while the teacher taught Christmas songs. Dorie Bable, also a Judd School alum, recalls another neighbor who recited Christmas poetry.
Christmas pictures, collages, and snowflakes decorated the schoolhouse: "We could make anything—string popcorn, paper chains," says Bable. "We'd use the tinfoil that Salada Tea came in and cut out stars for sparkle." Parents would pitch in as well, sewing elf and angel costumes and building scenery out of boxes.The students made invitations for their parents—the Saline Area Historical Society's archives include a collection of invitations created between 1910 and 1926 by children at the Sutherland School on Textile Road. They also made presents to give to their parents on the night of the performance. Law still has a Christmas gift she constructed for her parents: a picture of a bird that she cut out, colored, then pasted to a piece of glass, with tape around the edges for a frame.
On the day of the performance, the kids would move their desks to the corners of the room so the audience could squeeze in. It was a tight fit, as the room was already very full during the day.
While participants remember the theatrical tradition fondly, memories of the actual plots are hazy. Clements recalls being in a skit about the Wise Men. Law remembers that, as a second grader, she and the two other students in her grade sang "We Three Kings of Orient Are," turningto gaze at the star atop the Christmas tree as the song ended. And she recalls that "the bigger boys would get carried away when singing 'Up on the House Top,' stamping their feet."
Often Santa (presumably someone's father—no one ever questioned him too closely) would visit. "Each kid got a box of candy, like animal crackers come in today, with a cotton handle in the middle," remembers Bable. "It was mostly hard candy, and one piece of chocolate. We'd try to open it at the end with the chocolate. That was the 'prize.'"
Bable remembers that the Judd School parents once turned the tables, putting on their own Christmas play for the children. Although she's forgotten the plot, she recalls it had something to do with a mother with a lot of children who wasn't able to get a Christmas tree. The baby of the family was played by a five-pound bag of sugar wrapped in a blanket.
During the performance, the bag began to leak. Soon everyone was watching the escaping sugar instead of the play. "It ended with an empty bag and sugar all over," Bable laughs.