Cooleemee students learn about Christmases past

Published 10:59 am Thursday, December 17, 2015

COOLEEMEE – Nearly a hundred little coats were piled neatly in stacks at the Zachary House, as all the school’s kindergarten students came to learn about how Christmas was celebrated here in the “old days.”

The field trip meant a brisk walk from Cooleemee Elementary School for a simple history lesson about a time when cash was hard to get in 1930s Cooleemee. Still, Christmas was experienced as a warm and magical time.

Children came with their handmade decorations they placed on the 10-foot tall cedar tree chopped down by farmer Ray Crotts. They reveled in throwing “snow balls” at the tree, fashioned from raw cotton grown by retired Woodleaf farmer Bob Cranford.

A number returned for the town’s Christmas event to show off their work to parents and family.

Upstairs, a huge display of toys captured their imagination. None had batteries. The children learned that a single toy was left by Santa under the tree, to be found on Christmas morning. After a brief introduction to the exhibit, they had a little time to play with an old toy of their choice.

Back to the Zachary House living room, story-teller Bonnie Byerly shared the legacy stories gathered over the years from Cooleemee elders about community Christmases past. The tree was always cedar and usually chopped down on company land. It was adorned with strings of popcorn and homemade decorations.

On Christmas Eve, families went to church and children performed the Christmas pageant.

Christmas pokes (sacks) were distributed which contained the much coveted orange, an apple, raisins, nuts and candy. These were carefully guarded from brothers and sisters.

A highlight of the poke story was the hands-on demonstration of how to take the stick of candy, “get your mother or father to cut a hole in the top of the orange,” and use it as a straw to suck the juice of the orange.

Byerly emphasized that to understand Christmas in old Cooleemee was to remember that the holiday was about the story of the birth of baby Jesus. Then, she asked the children to stand, gather around the piano and help her sing two tradition carols, “Away in a Manger” and “Silent Night.”

By then, it was time to get back into their little coats and leave the warm Zachary House for school. Each student received their own poke with nuts, an orange and a stick of candy. “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” rang out.

“The only traditions that survive are the ones that are passed on,” says Discovering Our Heritage coordinator Donna Henderson, a retired teacher at Cooleemee School. “This takes a lot of volunteer effort, but these kids lessons are the best thing our history association does.”