Old-fashioned Christmas

Photo: Rob Boll Retirement home residents are happy to sit on Santa’s lap as part of Drayton’s Old Fashioned Christmas in Drayton, N.D.

Photo: Rob Boll
Retirement home residents are happy to sit on Santa’s lap as part of Drayton’s Old Fashioned Christmas in Drayton, N.D.

Annual holiday event in N.D. brings joy

By Larrie Wanberg
Feature Editor

An “Old Fashioned Christmas” conjures up different memories for different folks of different cultures.

For anyone who grew up in a small rural town in the upper Midwest, an “Old Fashioned Christmas” is a cherished memory – difficult to match when compared to the “Santa Lands” in the malls and the series of Santas that sometimes line the streets in urban cities.

Yet, for five years on the first Saturday of December, the town of Drayton, North Dakota (N.D.) now Web-streams their annual holiday event that originated 26 years ago. Area residents gather in the city’s “Memorial Hall” for food, fun and festivities to remember Christmases over two generations.

Drayton (population 804) is situated forty minutes north of Grand Forks in historic Pembina County where the first child was born in N.D. in 1807 at the Alexander Henry Trading Post, where the other half of Main Street is literally the Red River of the North flowing into Canada, where steamboats once docked in front of the general store, and more recently, the home of Blessing N.D., a part of the Ox Cart Trails museum that was created in the novel series of Norwegian immigration by well-known author Lauraine Snelling.

I attended last week for the fifth time and joined people undaunted by sub-zero weather.

The setting is façade signs from the town’s early history that line the walls of the community hall, artisans with homemade crafts and products for gifts occupy each booth, forming a “town square” with tables filling the center area like a huge sidewalk café.

Likewise, organizations and churches have booths laden with home-baked Christmas cookies, crafted ornaments, favorite jellies and jams from local kitchens, and a long buffet table that starts with home-cooked favorites and ends with desserts — pies and cakes from old recipes that fill a separate table.

Over the past five years, the program has changed somewhat with a different emphasis or themes from year to year. Because its start-up via the Internet was to connect people with a “bond” to Drayton, viewers responded to the initial innovation from four continents and 13 countries.

My favorite year was 2011 when I visited the Christmas event through a different set of eyes. Santa made a stop in Drayton to visit with children, to hear their wishes for gifts and to engage with a variety of responses – exuberance, shyness, uncertainty or sometimes intimidation by a large, bellowing figure with strange facial hair. Wishes were duly noted and a bag of candy made a connection with each child.

That year, Santa made a surprise stop at a retirement home where a lady had her 99th birthday gathering going on. She sat on Santa’s lap and whispered her wish for next year, “To be 100.” (Her wish was granted).

Music and entertainment are spotlighted in different years, bringing local talent to a large stage at the far end of the auditorium for familiar enjoyment by the community.

In the afternoon, an annual ceremony is sponsored by the local American Legion Post when a candlelight remembrance of those who have passed, either veterans or pioneers. With lighting subdued, a name is announced, a candle lit, a moment of silence and a memory of a passed resident is shared by the community.

This year, it was the “table talk” that rang for me as people recounted personal memories of over two decades of experiencing an “Old Fashioned Christmas” in a rural town. I visited table after table with coffee in hand to hear first hand the Christmas stories of individuals.

I felt inspired by all the senses that are touched from these genuine stories of Christmases that are rekindled and passed from one generation to another.

Next year as themes change, the children’s “Letters to Santa” may be in the form of “Instagrams,” the visit with Santa may connect via a Webcam direct to his North Pole Toy Workshop, and the candlelight memorial ceremony may highlight each pioneer with a digital photo on a projection screen that can show up on tuned-in laptop screens by viewers who are unable to attend or living at a distance. The collective memories that are shared in the community can be visually preserved and replayed at will.

One tradition remains unchanged. Cookies remain on the mantle in the homes of young children and the Christmas story is retold at the family table.

To tune into Drayton Old Fashioned Christmas, visit http://www.draytonnd.com/AnnualEvents/OldFashionedChristmas/tabid/773/Default.aspx

This article originally appeared in the Dec. 20, 2013 issue of the Norwegian American Weekly. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (800) 305-0271.

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Larrie Wanberg

Larrie Wanberg, 1920–2021, contributed features to The Norwegian American for many years, drawing on eight decades of life experience highlighted by three career recognitions: as a researcher through a Fulbright Scholarship to Norway in 1957; as a health care provider in behavioral science through a 27-year military career and awarded upon retirement in 1981 the highest non-combat medal, the Legion of Merit medal; as an educator, through a 50-year career in college education, culminating in the 2010 Public Scholar award at the UND Center for Community Engagement. Wanberg passed away in May, 2021.