In the days of loose hay when the cattle were fed by hand, Christmas meant two days of extra work – the day before and the day after. In order to lessen the time spent with the cows on Christmas morning, most ranchers spread the next day’s hay in an adjacent meadow, then closed the gate. That meant feeding twice, a process that took all day. If things went correctly, all a rancher had to do on Christmas morning was to open the gates and let the cattle onto the hay that was put out the day before. There were always a few small bunches that had to be taken care of, but that chore didn’t take long. The day after brought still more work, because all the hay racks were empty and had to be loaded. It was always standard practice to have loaded racks every morning, except for Christmas and the New Year.
The gifts the adult men received for Christmas concerned winter work and were almost always the same. A standard present was a pair of leather mittens with wool liners. In those days they were the only ones that would keep a person’s hands warm while gripping a pitchfork in -40 degree temperatures. Winter footwear consisted of what they called “felts and overshoes.” Felts were a wool felt boot about 10 inches high. They laced and had hard plastic soles which were unbelievably slick on snow or ice, so rubber overshoes were necessary. Most users put felt insoles in them to increase the insulation factor. Everyone used the old buckle-up overshoes over their felts. The boots could be kicked off when the user went into the house, and the perspiration dried instead of increasing while the rancher was in a warm environment. The wearer didn’t suffer with damp feel all day. They were the warmest footwear I ever used, but were heavy and awkward, especially when wallowing around in loose hay. A special but expensive Christmas present was a pair of wool pants. They insulated when wet, and being baggy, were easier to move around in than jeans. In those days all the winter clothing was wool – the underwear, shirts, hats, and the rest. Some people used silk neck scarves, but those were the only items that didn’t come from a sheep.
Our paternal grandmother was the main gift giver on our ranch, and she was generous. Almost everything was “sent away for,” being ordered from the Montgomery Ward (“Monkey Ward” as we called it) or Sears catalogs. One year, to make things easier for herself, our grandmother sent the catalogs to the house. She had us make lists, including the order number and price, then return them to her. We were in heaven, thinking we were going to receive everything that we wrote down. I spent hours and two or three pages of Big Boy tablet paper ordering everything I ever wanted or thought I might want. The catalogs were almost worn out before we got done. Life was good. When she saw our enthusiasm, our mother warned us to expect only three or four items from our huge wish lists. That tempered our hopes, but not our greed.
Another ritual we face was midnight mass at the Catholic church. I think our parents hauled us to it so we would sleep later in the morning. But it didn’t work for me. Even when I got older and my Santa Claus had died, I always got up at 3 or 4 a.m., sneaked into the living room and found all my presents. I opened them slowly and quietly, put them into a heap, then fell asleep on the sofa. Once I tried to wake up some siblings to join me, but the effort was futile. They wanted to sleep instead of enjoying what our Christmas was all about. When the others got up, all I could do was sit and watch their glee. My
Christmas had been over for hours. It was a struggle for me not to tell them what was in the packages they were opening, but they had a pretty good idea after seeing my unwrapped loot. I kept a close count to make sure that no one got more than I.
Our mother, of course, had to go directly to the kitchen and begin her long day’s work, stuffing turkey and cleaning up after our frenetic morning tearing paper from things we didn’t need. Our father went out to open a few gates and feed some livestock. Through all the preparation, and then the consumption of Christmas, the women were forgotten. They did all the work and all the present buying. They were the forgotten distaff Santas. They never complained; they just worked and worried.
This column by the late Dick Geary, a Helmville native, was first published in some Montana newspapers in December 2018. It is reprinted here with permission of members of Geary's family, who recently published " ... And That's All I know: The Collected Columns of Dick Geary," earlier this year. Belgrade News Staff Writer Karen Davis reviewed the book in November. It can be purchased at Amazon.com for $15.