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First Christmas Tree

12/20/01 12:00AM By Tom Slayton

Most of us today live in a time of plenty, even of surfeit.

Christmas, that pagan revel adopted early on by the Christian Church for its purposes, is now, for many, the excuse for a frenzy of overindulgence. Fortunately, many also remember the needy among us and provide food and warm clothing, and some Christmas gifts to get them through this dark time of year.

But Christmas 100, even 50 years ago was quite different for most of the people who lived in what was then a very rural and remote part of the United States. Vermont Christmases a generation ago were humbler and simpler than those of today, and yet were suffused with enough warmth to generate memories that have lasted a half-century and more.

Many Vermont families remember receiving in the toe of their carefully-hung Christmas stocking, an orange --and regarding that gift of a single orange as a wonderful treat. There was usually also a community Christmas Party of some sort, where gifts were shared all around - a process that made sure every child in town had at least one present. Gifts were simpler and often useful -- a warm new woolen hat or handmade sweater for the winter months. Yet despite the simpler holiday, there was an almost universal sense of magic and wonder that is consistently found in the Christmas recollections of older Vermonters.

Della Lanpher West, now of Johnson, recalled that she and other young women in her family had to jump-start Christmas in their household.

What resulted was their first Christmas tree and first Christmas celebration--something she still remembers all these years later. The year was 1928 and the Lanpher family lived up in Eden. Della was 12 years old at the time, the 10th of 16 children, and she recounted her Christmas memories a couple of years ago for Terry Hoffer of the Danville North Star Monthly.

"We never did much for Christmas because my father never believed in all that stuff," she said.

That year, however, the girls in the family decided to hang up their stockings -- basically heavy socks like the boys wore in the woods. They hung them on the iron frames of their beds and woke up the next morning, thinking they had received presents, but discovered that the boys in the family had tricked them -- they had stuffed rags in the stockings, and the boys all had a good laugh over their joke.

But Cecil Lanpher, one of the older brothers in the large family, had married, and his wife, Bessie, had been quietly at work for weeks, making presents for all the family. On Christmas Day, Cecil and Bessie went out and cut a balsam fir, brought it back to the house and decorated it with candles and some ornaments that Bessie had made on her sewing machine. It was the first Christmas tree the family had ever had.

"The presents were wrapped up in nice paper," Della remembered, many years after her family's first Christmas. She figured that Bessie must have gotten the paper at the General Store over in North Hyde Park . The redoutable young Bessie had made presents for every member of the family. "There were mittens, aprons, pajamas, night gowns, blouses, stockings, and even a pair of gloves for my father," Della said.

"My father didn't say much," she remembered. "My mother liked it awful. She thought it was nice. We'd never had anything like that."

After everyone opened their presents, Mrs. Lanpher served a big chicken dinner with potatoes, hot biscuits, and homemade pickles, pumpkin and mince pies.

"The boys didn't think it was silly, and they never made fun of us again," Della said.

Later that afternoon a big snowstorm blew in, making the doors in the woodshed creak, and obscuring the view. The afternoon grew dark, and Della could just barely see the lamplight in their neighbors' house .

But even a Vermont blizzard couldn't dim the memory of that first Christmas and the first Christmas tree for Della Lanpher West. Seventy years afterwards, she remembered it clearly.


--Tom Slayton lives in Montpelier and is the editor of Vermont Life Magazine.
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