Earlier this month, I was invited to speak at the Choteau LDS women’s Christmas gathering, where I was asked to share a Christmas tradition. In the spirit of the holiday season, I’m going to share my traditions story with the Acantha readers.
My family doesn’t have any unusual Christmas traditions. What we do have is a lot of unconditional love, and it brings us all together at Christmas to celebrate the most important part of this holiday season: to love each other and to work for peace. Sometimes, the rat race of getting ready for Christmas involves little spats here and there over whose house to go to for Christmas, or whether it’s going to be turkey or ham for dinner, and it’s easy to forget that the real Christmas message is to reach out and make a difference, a good difference, in the lives of others.
So I’m going to tell you a story about someone who wanted to make a difference, a good difference, in the lives of children, and how this person nurtured a Bynum School Christmas tradition that has lasted now nearly 85 years.
So we’ll turn back the clock to about 1933, when a young cowboy came to Bynum. He was only 19 years old and right out of the two-year teachers college at Dillon. This young man was my grandfather, Ira Perkins, and he hadn’t had an easy life. He knew what it was like to be lonely, to be poor, to be unloved, and he was called to teaching because of his desire to make sure that the big raw-boned ranch boys and the shy girls who came to this four-room country school, would attain the building blocks for making successful lives.
I’m not sure whether my grandfather found a Christmas practice at this little rural school and continued it, or whether he actually created it, and there’s probably no one left alive now who could tell for sure. But what I know is that Grandpa loved Christmas and he made Christmas at Bynum Elementary School something so special that people from miles around would travel to watch his Christmas program. Just as they do now.
Every year, as fall began to turn into winter, Mr. Perkins and the other teachers (including Susan Luinstra who still teaches at Bynum today) would begin planning the Christmas program — a variety show of skits, plays, music and dancing.
The first step would be for all of the “upstairs kids,” those in fifth through eighth grades, to go over to the gym (formerly a church) and set it up for the program. The big boys would haul the old church pews out of storage, and the girls would take furniture polish and cleaning rags and dust them all off.
The upstairs kids would be handed out their parts on sheets of ruled paper, written in Mr. Perkins’ fine cursive handwriting. The older students wouldn’t be doing any canned Christmas play. No, the Bynum Christmas program always features variety-style skits, written by Mr. Perkins and other teachers. These skits were sometimes political in nature, poking sly fun at current events, local and national. Sometimes they provoked a bit of outrage if they took on a Sacred Cow or two.
The children who played musical instruments or sang would begin working on special pieces to perform. One of my abiding memories of Bynum Christmas programs is a duet of “Silver Bells,” sung by an upper grades boy and girl. I know the girl who sang was April Stott, but I can’t for the life of me remember whether the boy was my cousin, Rock Perkins, or one of April’s own cousins, Jack Stott. I do know that whenever I hear that song today, I’m a primary student again, in awe of how beautifully they sang.
Mr. Perkins was a task master leading up to the program. Every day after lunch, we would adjourn to the gym to practice. The gym has a small stage with no wings to speak of so a heavy curtain would be hung across the back. Behind that curtain, a single row of chairs would be set, parallel to the back wall. Here Mr. Perkins would seat the children who would come on stage at various times to perform. It was imperative that we be still and silent behind that curtain.
Of course, winter is not only the time for Christmas but also a time for colds and coughs. Mr. Perkins couldn’t have coughing coming from behind that curtain, so he would dose those of us with hacking coughs with tiny, black licorice lozenges. Still, more than 40 years later, every time I eat a piece of black licorice, I remember sitting behind that curtain, sucking on a lozenge and trying desperately not to cough.
As the day of the program drew near, the men of school district would go out and chop down a tree and set it up in the corner of the gym. Then the ladies would come with ladders to trim it, hanging bright beautiful lights and a treasure trove of ornaments, handed down through the years, one generation to another. When they were done, it was big and beautiful and filled the gym with the smell of a fresh-cut tree.
On the night of the program, community folk would pack that old church building. There was usually standing room only, with all the men making sure the elderly and the moms with babies had dibs on the seats. Mr. Perkins would welcome everyone and the show would begin.
First the primary children would do their little Christmas play, and then the upper grades would put on their skits and their musical performances. The last part of the program was always the whole student body singing Christmas carols in unison — “Up on the House Top,” “Jolly Old Saint Nick,” “Deck the Halls” and many others, ending with “Silent Night” as everyone was invited to sing along.
Once the applause ended after “Silent Night,” the thing all the kids had been waiting for happened … it happened in the 1930s and it will happen again this week.
There would be a short pause, and then Mr. Perkins would shout out, “Say, what’s that I hear?” And surely, all the children would all hear the sound of sleigh bells, and shortly, the gym door would open and in would come Santa Claus. The Jolly Old Elf would find a strategically placed chair next to that big, beautiful Christmas tree, and he would sit down.
Then Mr. Perkins would invite all the little children in the audience to come up and sit on Santa’s lap, and he would have all of his students line up behind those little kids. And Santa, that old Elf, he would drag a cardboard box out from under that tree. In it were plain brown paper sacks, filled with peanuts, hard candy, chocolate bonbons and a fresh orange. Every child left the gym with one of those brown paper bags.
Today, that orange may not mean a lot, but during the Great Depression, the candy, the peanuts and the orange were a huge treat.
I know many of you probably haven’t gone to a Bynum School Christmas program, but if you do go on Dec. 20 at 7 p.m., you will find the same Christmas traditions are still there though my grandfather retired in 1985 and has now passed away. You will still see plays and skits and hear lovely musical performances. And every child will leave the gym with that special brown paper bag of treats.
It’s become part of my Christmas tradition to attend the Bynum school program every year, and, as I’m standing there, singing “Silent Night,” a wisp of the true Spirit of Christmas softly steals into my heart, and I can feel the presence of my grandfather, smiling down on us, urging us to make sure that everyone feels special and loved at this blessed time of year.