Column – Warm memories of childhood Christmases endure
Published 5:06 pm Tuesday, December 19, 2023
There was something particularly cozy — and memorable — about Christmas around an oil heater.
Most farmhouses, including the one I grew up in, didn’t have central heat in 1950. Free-standing oil heaters, fueled by kerosene, were a pretty standard means of heating a living room, which remained the formal family gathering place in most houses of that era. Our living room heater was a Duo-Therm, a tall upright stove encased in brown, baked enamel metal. We didn’t find it unattractive, and on a cold winter evening it was downright beautiful.
Kitchens were transitioning from wood cookstoves to electric ranges following World War II. Wood cookstoves had provided heat for the room as well as heat for cooking —welcome in winter but suffocatingly hot come summer. They also consumed valuable space, so when the electric range came in, the wood stove went out. It was often replaced by a much smaller wood stove meant only to heat the room. Those “tin heaters” were ubiquitous out in the country and in many in-town houses.
Our house wasn’t large, but like many farmhouses, it rambled. The kitchen and living spaces were separated by a porch, later enclosed but always unheated. Next in line was the dining room. A second oil stove, this one a smaller Siegler, provided heat during Sunday dinners and other special — and rare — occasions when we weren’t eating in the kitchen. It also took the chill off if we three children were doing homework at the dining room table. Most of the time, though, it remained cold.
There was yet another modest heat source. An upstairs bedroom occupied by my sister had a very small tin heater. Her bedroom also had a floor register that drew heat from the living room below. (She being a girl, it was deemed proper that she should have some heat in her room.)
That was the heating system for our home. Left without heat were the two bedrooms my parents and my brother and I occupied, the porch previously mentioned, a hall that accessed the upstairs, and our one bathroom.
There are few things more miserable than a totally unheated bathroom, and my parents didn’t like it any more than we did, so they purchased one of those electric coil heaters with a cone-shaped reflector. GE’s version was actually called a Farmhouse Heater. If you stood (or sat) right in front of it, it provided some relief. You just knew better than to touch it with bare skin or to put it anywhere near water.
There were other preparations made for winter each year. A rug always covered the living room floor. In the summer, there was one made of straw fibers. It was a bit rough to lie on, I recall, but it was cool. In the fall, it was rolled up and stored, to be replaced by a large wool rug that was much warmer. It provided vital insulation for a floor that had no subfloor or other insulation.
The windows always had curtains. During summer, they were lightweight cotton with lacy edges. Those were replaced in winter by heavy, lined drapes that were kept closed much of the time to reduce the wind that easily found its way through rattly window sashes.
Armed with all the above, we were ready for whatever winter might throw at us.
Mornings during the winter followed a routine. My mother, farmer’s wife that she was, was invariably the first out of bed. She went directly to the kitchen, which was the primary family gathering place, where she fired up the tin heater before beginning to cook breakfast. (We rarely had a cold breakfast in winter. It just wasn’t acceptable.)
Every other room was left cold overnight. We children hung our clothes on bed posts so that we could reach up and pull them under the covers with us in the morning. On the coldest days, we would dress under the covers, including at least one pair of socks, then race downstairs, through the dining room, across the porch and into the kitchen, which we knew would be warm.
Christmas morning was different. The living room was where the tree stood, where the stockings were hung and where dreams were to be fulfilled, to the extent that Santa, our parents and the peanut crop that year made it possible. Thus, on Christmas morn, the old Duo-Therm was turned up high and early. We weren’t allowed to enter the room until the average temperature in there rose to somewhere in the 60s. Christmas, in addition to exciting, had to be relatively comfortable.
As we settled in to play with whatever we had received, our mother would quietly slip out and go to the kitchen, which, on that day alone, was the second to be heated. There she would cook breakfast and begin preparing Christmas dinner, a feast that would require turning on the dining room heater, just for that day.
Those Christmases are thus memorable for their family warmth and for the old farmhouse’s literal warmth. It was, for multiple reasons, a cozy place to spend that important day.
John Edwards is publisher emeritus of The Smithfield Times. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.