Oberlin Heritage Center Blog

Posts Tagged ‘Mack the Birdman’

Oral History: Christmas Traditions

Saturday, December 20th, 2014

(Part Three of a Three-Part Holiday blog series) by Melissa Clifford, 2014 Kent State MLIS graduate student


While scouring through the oral history transcripts, I have stumbled across quite a few stories about Christmas in Oberlin’s past. To me, Christmas has always been a two-part celebration. First there is the religious celebration/observation that occurs but there is also a celebration of family and the spirit of giving. Of course, I cannot forget the fabulous decorations either! I worked at a shopping mall for six years, and during that time my favorite time of year was always the Christmas holiday. I remember being amazed at the joy people obtained by finding that perfect gift for a loved one, although there was the occasional Scrooge who seemed to be dissatisfied with everything. More than anything, though, I loved the decorations that were put up in the mall. I must admit, however, that I am glad that some Christmas decorations have gone out of fashion, I’ll let Delores Carter explain why.

 My early Christmas trees you put candles on. I remember in one of my wild exuberant Christmas moments I flew down to get a package, I bent down and my hair caught on fire. I lost my hair, my eyebrows, and my eyelashes. I was lucky—I could have lost much more. But that was an exciting experience. I haven’t seen trees with candles clipped on in many years. I don’t care if I ever do. That was a bad experience.

speaker-clip-art1–Delores Carter, January 24, 1987

Another thing I fondly remember of my childhood Christmases was the way that my brother would snoop out every single one of his presents ahead of time. He was always able to find my parents’ latest hiding place, and even if the presents were wrapped he could still tell you what the package was. In fact, even at 26 years old my brother still has an uncanny ability to “see” through wrapping paper! It is such a problem that our family has to go to extra lengths to try to surprise him because he can guess all of his gifts before he opens them. While reading transcripts I learned that peaking at Christmas presents really isn’t a new tradition at all:

 One Christmas we were at my grandparents and the cousins were there, which meant there were three boys and I was the only girl. And the doors to the din-, to the living room would shut with sliding doors here and sliding doors over on this side and we couldn’t see anything. Mother took pity on us, she let us peek through that door. Oh, I saw the doll—the baby doll I still have upstairs—and I knew it was mine. And then she felt rather guilty and she said, “Well you know, it might just belong to somebody else.” [laughter] So I had to eat my breakfast all up before we could go in and really have things around the Christmas tree. speaker-clip-art1–Stella Dickerman, January 17, 1987

As some of the other oral history interviewees described in their interviews, sometimes the best part of opening gifts is not the gift itself but the process you go through opening it. In my house my brother and I always opened our presents side by side, and sometimes he would have a few very large gifts and I would have much more smaller gifts. My husband had a much different experience because his parents always made sure that each child had the exact same amount of presents. Some families try to match up number, while some match value. Some children open their gifts at the same time, and some take turns. I found a few very interesting stories about these types of traditions that I would like to share with you.

 Usually sometimes on Christmas Eve and sometimes on Christmas that we would just have all the gifts wrapped and under the tree. That we would have sort of a ritual. Our son Bill likes to give out the gifts and one at a time so it takes a very long time. That person opens his gift and everyone admires it before another one is passed out. Sometimes it actually gets pretty tiring by the end of several hours of opening a series of gifts. But the nice thing about it is everyone tries to get gifts that they feel have meaning or something this person would particularly want. As well as fun things, like maybe bubble pipes and little children’s games that everyone gets. It seems as though everyone enjoys everyone else’s Christmas so much. Because everyone is so aware of what everyone else gets. speaker-clip-art1–Millie Arthrell, February 21, 1985


Well, one time when we got up our stockings were hanging on the top post of the chair and my sister found money in theirs. I didn’t find any and I put my stocking on and shoes and oh my shoe hurt me! I took it off and there was money in there after all. We went to my grandmother’s for Christmas and here my great-aunt had given myself and my cousin that was my age a doll that would open and shut its eyes and had a bisque body and it was jointed so it would sit up or stand. I thought, oh a nice doll, and it fell off the chair and cracked down the neck! But they fixed it with glue and my sister who liked to sew made some new clothes for it so I thought that was a wonderful doll and now my sister has it for her grandchildren. speaker-clip-art1–Mabel Brown, April 17, 1984

Much like Thanksgiving, stories of Christmas are not complete without some descriptions of food. What I have found out about Christmas dinners is that they all seem to have one element in common (and it isn’t food): family. I was pretty lucky growing up, I spent Christmas Eve at my aunt and uncle’s house where we would open up presents and have a delicious dinner. On Christmas morning, my grandparents would typically come over and we’d have another huge dinner. I had two parties in two days for Christmas! Looking back, holidays were one of the few times that my family would sit down at eat dinner together. It was difficult to get everyone in one place at the same time because both of my parents worked.  Sitting down and having a big family meal was a treat. I found a story in our interview collection that I’d like to share because I feel like it truly explains the Christmas spirit, from the idea of family, celebration, and surprise.

 And I remember particularly one year, when my cousin Earl was a Santa Claus, and whether we really didn’t recognize him, or pretended that we didn’t, I’m not sure, but that afternoon we had been to his home and had our supper there and I think that that was the first time that I had ever had pressed grapes. Now, they were not raisins; they were like pressed grapes and his mother had served them in connection with the dinner and so this was to throw us off so that we wouldn’t know, you know, and then we came on home and he followed afterwards and did his part. Another thing that was followed all the days, I think, that as long as my grandmother lived, on Christmas Eve she would always be at our house for supper and we always knew what was going to happen. The plates would always be turned over, and when we sat down at the table, we had to lift our plates up to be served and under each plate there would be a silver dollar. And that was our surprise and we were all surprised, even though we knew what was going to happen. speaker-clip-art1–Mildred Haines, November 23, 1982


SPOILER ALERT: Do not continue reading if you are a believer in Jolly Old Santa Claus!

Finally, to end this blog post I have some new information to share with you. Recently we received information from Marianne Cochran who used to own and operate the Ben Franklin Store in downtown Oberlin. She shared with us the history of Santa in Oberlin. Did you know that since 1940 only 5 different people have portrayed Santa Claus in Oberlin’s Christmas festivities? It is true and here is a summary of those gentlemen.

1940-1941: John A. Cochrane

1942-1948: John Van Bloom who started the tradition of Santa arriving via train in Oberlin

1949-1969: John Maclaughlin who was also known as Mack the Birdman due to his talking parrot Polly who would call out for Mack while children were visiting Santa.

1970: John R. Cochrane

1971-1980: Art Salo

1989-Present: John Cole as Santa along with a Mrs. Claus portrayed by Patti Brubaker

Thus concludes my holiday Oral History blog series. I hope you have enjoyed reading it as much as I’ve enjoyed researching and writing it! Happy holidays to you and your family from all of us here at the Oberlin Heritage Center.