For most of us when thinking of Christmases past we can’t avoid using such phrases as “magical,” “joyful,” or “wondrous.” This holiday is truly special and easily idealized into a time remembered when everything seemed softer and more beautiful; when the air was filled the sounds of holiday songs and the squeals of excited children, all blending with the smell of apple pie and evergreens; a time when families gather together at grandma’s house to celebrate the love that united them with each other.
In December 1906, there was in southern Derry a family of six living in a farmhouse by the side of the road to Salem. The family was constantly struggling to make ends meet and the father had recently been forced to give up farming so he could teach part time at Pinkerton Academy. His yearly salary, while only $500, was better then the vagary of an income earned by farming.
The four children were home-schooled and part of their education required that they write a journal of their daily life. The journal of Lesley, the family’s oldest child, was published in 1969 in a remarkable book called “New Hampshire’s Child.” One page from her original journal somehow got missed and wasn’t included in the book. Here published for the first time is the recently discovered missing entry which is about Christmas Eve in 1906. It is reprinted with the kind permission of her daughter Lesley Lee Francis of Arlington, Va. And as you may have already guessed, the story was written by the precociously talented Lesley Frost Ballantine (1899-1983) the daughter of America’s favorite poet, Robert Frost.
The story is titled “Papa Goes to See Santa Claus” and is here presented exactly as the 7-year-old girl wrote it 106 years ago.
“One day before Christmas papa said to us i am going out in the alders to see santa claus and i must take the axe. I tried to make him tell me what he was going to do with the axe but he would not.”
“After he had gone we went out on the hill and shouted about santa claus till papa could not stand it and he sent us home. Pretty soon papa came home. But he would not tell us what santa claus said. And we never knew till Christmas what papa went out there fore. It was a Christmas tree. Jan.17 1907”
The rest of the story is found in her book “New Hampshire’s Child.” Lesley writes about how later on that Christmas Eve she and her siblings had a difficult time sleeping in anticipation of what was to come. On Christmas morning, the four children were required to stay upstairs in their room until their dad rang a bell. At the sound of the bell, “Mama went down and lit the fire and we come down and dressed and came in the front room.”
“There was a Christmas tree with candles on it. The children liked it very much. Carol (the son, age 4) had an automobile and some tules. Irma (age 3) some dishes and the noars ark. And i had some dishes and we both had dolls. I had a go-go and a trunk.”
“Marjory (age 1 1/2) was so astonished when she came in that she did not no what to do. That night we lighted the candles again and Marjory ran back and forth and laughed and played till mama said we better come to supper.” Even though Lesley’s story relates events more then a century ago, they are probably very alike to the memories of your own childhood. I know that the Yuletime excitement of the Frost children in 1906 is perfectly mirrored by that of my own grandchildren in 2013. The desire for parents -- and grandparents -- to make sure that each of the children has wonderful Christmas memories is the same now as it was then. May we all have as our personal prayer that love for family, like that of the Frost family in 1906, remain a constant and never go out of fashion.
From the Holmes family to all, a very happy holiday albeit religious or secular. May you all have a merry Christmas, a Hanukkah that was filled with peace, a wonderfully family-centered Kwanza, a holly, jolly Festivus, a generous Boxing Day and Aselah Malakim to both stranger and friend, regardless of whether you be green, orange or in-between. May your new year be filled with laughter, prosperity and good health. Dona Nobis Pacem.
Rick Holmes is the official town historian of Derry. His office hours at the Municipal Center are Mondays from 8 a.m. to noon and Wednesdays from 4 to 7 p.m. Several of his books on local history are available at Mack’s Apples and Derry’s libraries.