Features & Stories

Story and photo by Trudy Frisk

The sound of music came from the school house.  “Silver bells, silver bells; it’s Christmas time in the city. Strings of street lights, even stop lights, blink a bright red and green…”  ‘Street lights? ’, the singing children wondered, as they looked out the tall windows onto a darkening landscape where there were no electric lights. Stop lights? Didn’t seem necessary for the horses.  When two teams approached each other, their drivers simply worked out which went first.

As the children sang, flickering lights began to appear.  Gas lamps and kerosene lanterns lighted the post office, general store and nearby homes.

For weeks the school children had been practicing for the Christmas concert, the important social event of the winter. Almost everyone within walking or driving distance attended, whether or not they had children in the performance.  Entire families, from babies to grandparents came. Reclusive old bachelors who appeared in town only once a month to collect their mail and buy supplies were at the concert in their best clothes and on their best behaviour.

How did the teachers do it?  Some were barely out of normal school.  They taught eight grades in a one-room school.  Every December they became directors, stage-hands, and costume designers as they planned the Christmas concert and coached their students in everything from songs to stagecraft.

It was the students’ introduction to drama; for most, their only time ever on stage. Every child had a part, even if it was only to call “cuckoo, cuckoo” from behind a straggly pine tree in Hansel and Gretel. Some children forgot their lines and improvised, which only added to the surprise effect.  Costumes relied on the deft needlework of the student’s mothers aided by the imagination of the audience.

The plays were chosen by the teacher with an eye to the amateur actors available.  One, a shadow play, had no speaking parts at all.  A bed sheet was hung on a line across the front of the stage, and a light directed on it from behind.  The actors mimed their parts.  In ‘Doctor’ the patient was anesthetized by being hit on the head with a hammer. In a complex ‘operation’ various objects, (strings of sausage, a cat, etc.) were removed from the patient’s interior, after which he sat up in gleeful good health.  It was an annual audience pleaser.

On concert night families arrived by the sleigh full.  Early arrivals found room for their horses in the barn adjoining the school. Late-comers tied their horses to the rail. 

Even though there was no electricity, it seemed the room was full of light.

There was always a Christmas tree.  A fine, tall tree, decorated with the best the village could provide.  Money might be scarce but, under the tree, there was a bag of candy and an orange for every child. It was said that the old bachelors gave generously to the Christmas fund. 

Of course there was a Santa.  For many years the Santa in the little town had a strong Ukranian accent and an expert hand with sleigh bells.  Word of Santa’s progress from the North Pole came regularly throughout the concert from that reliable source, the CNR station agent.  Who else could carefully monitor traffic, whether it was on the rails or in the sky?

At last there was a sound of jingling bells, a hearty “Ho! Ho!” and Santa himself appeared in the doorway.  Small children who hadn’t seen this marvel before hid their heads in their mother’s laps.  Older ones looked on in wonder and, when their names were called, went hesitantly to the tree to tell Santa their wishes and receive their gifts.

The evening ended with the whole gathering singing traditional carols.  Silent Night, Oh, Come All Ye Faithful, and Joy To The World rang out over the hushed village.  As friends said goodnight it seemed as if there truly was peace on earth and good will to all.

There’s a highway now to the little village from the outside world.  There’s even electricity.  But there’s still no stop light.  And the Christmas spirit is the same as ever.

Other articles by Trudy Frisk

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