We call it “the most wonderful time of the year.”
We string lights from trees and outdoor bushes, we hang holly and mistletoe from every doorway, we fill our homes with music of the season and the smells of cookies and fudge and pies too delightful to resist.
It’s Christmastime, and never is the world more beautiful.
From attics and garages, from boxes tucked in closets, we pull out our treasures to make the home look like Christmas. It’s a lot of work before it’s done, but it just wouldn’t be Christmas without the ornaments that the kids made in preschool, the star atop the tree that was a treasured wedding gift or the nativity scene handed from one generation to the next.
Across Fort Dodge, families are knee deep in decorating about now, and while some folks create a new theme every year for their holiday décor, most seem to like a familiar look that only grows from year to year.
Nancy Griffel and her husband, Bill, enjoy Christmas in Fort Dodge’s historic Oak Hill District. The couple are just the third residents and owners of the Oleson House, which traces its history to the family of Oleson Park fame. With its quarter-sawn oak woodwork, pocket doors, wide main hallway leading to a grand staircase and ornate features throughout, this home is tailor-made for decking out at the holidays — and really all year long.
Decorating takes about four days, Nancy says, but by the time she’s done every nook and cranny of the downstairs glistens for the season. She is particularly known for her collection of nutcrackers, with hundreds of them standing guard throughout the home.
“My parents gave me the first one, and I have bought at least one every year since then,” she recalls.
That was in the early 1980s, and that lone nutcracker from her parents now has a lot of friends.
In addition to the nutcrackers, she has collected several “smokers.” These figurines hold a small amount of incense in their body and then “puff” out a bit of smoke to fill the air with a perfumed scent.
Adding to the festive nature is a village of collectibles.
The little village has at least 18 buildings, including a general store, carousel, school, bridge and several other special features.
“Kids always love to play with this, too,” she says.
But while the home can seem rather formal, the Griffels make people feel at ease. This is a house that is joyfully lived in. Young visitors to the home have been known to arrange the nutcrackers so they are “talking to each other.” And the little village is any child’s delight to create his or her own historic towns.
The Griffels always put up two real trees, one that holds the typical family ornaments and another that features an old-fashioned flair.
“On that tree in the parlor, we have ornaments that belonged to my grandmother,” Nancy says.
The red and silver glass ornaments have survived many seasons on the tree and still delight.
Nancy also treasures a few things from her own childhood.
“I have two Santas that my sister and I got candy in when we were little,” she recalls. “They’re just plastic, but Santa’s bag is open on the back and you can place little things in there.”
The Griffels enjoy sharing their home this time of year and host an annual party for friends and neighbors. After all, Christmas is about being together with those we hold dear.
“I love Christmas,” Nancy says.
Snowmen fill the home
Stacie Coppinger has a warm spot in her heart for those chilly men of winter — snowmen.
“I just saw one several years ago, thought it was cute, and it took off from there,” she explains.
Coppinger now has so many snowmen that they decorate her home not only at Christmastime, but all year long.
“My husband, Steve, was putting them away one year and told me that he stopped counting at almost 2,000,” she recalls.
There were so many that her husband encouraged her to forget the work of packing them away and simply enjoy her snow buddies all year long.
Sadly, Stacie and her children lost Steve a year ago in a motorcycle accident. It was a difficult Christmas without him for the first time last year, but together the family continues to comfort each other.
They share memories of Christmas past and make new memories for the future. A Fort Dodge native, Coppinger carries on Christmas traditions from her own childhood.
“My parents always took us driving around to look at the lights,” she recalls.
And her mother was especially creative when it came to decorating the tree and wrapping gifts.
“My mother would make ornaments out of egg cartons and swans out of aluminum foil to hang on the tree,” Coppinger says. “She would also wrap a few presents in aluminum foil to sparkle off the trees.”
Her own kids recall making reindeer out of Popsicle sticks and other such treasures of childhood.
Children Icelynn, 16; Rose, 12; Briellye, 10; Aidyn, 9; and Dalton, 8; along with older children Lizzie and John, enjoy decorating the tree as a family. Even the snowmen seem to be part of the family.
“My favorite part of Christmas is seeing all the family and getting presents,” says Dalton with a grin.
He happily remembers shopping with his late father for more snowmen for his mom. Even with 2,000 snowmen in the house, Dalton could always tell his dad if his mom already had a snowman they were looking to purchase.
Icelynn, who would like to attend culinary school, looks forward to baking for all the Christmas festivities to come. She likes to make an eggnog cheesecake for Christmas, and just about all the children say they love their mother’s Tiger Butter fudge.
Made with almond bark, chocolate and peanut, this tasty fudge recipe is a huge hit at the holidays. Many of the family can be counted on to gather around and help out when it’s time to make this special treat.
Clearly, it’s been a tough year of changes for all the Coppingers, but together they are treasuring the joy that still remains for them.
“I think there’s something magical about Christmas,” Coppinger says.
It’s the simple things
Anna Hanson still remembers her first Christmas present. Growing up in the years of the Great Depression, Christmas was a simple time for her family, but the memories are rich indeed.
“I never had a Christmas present until I was 5 years old,” Anna recalls. “My folks didn’t have anything, so I got a present from my godmother. It was a lovely doll; I still have it.”
Her godmother was perhaps wise enough to give the doll when Anna was still young enough to be thrilled by it, and yet old enough to remember the joy of receiving her very first Christmas present.
Today, the large doll is as beautiful as when Anna opened it, with eyes that are lively and almost youthful.
Anna’s son, John Hanson, was more fortunate as a child but says Christmas was still a very simple time for the family.
“My parents always made sure we had toys underneath the tree,” he recalls. “But they were simple things.”
Still, there was one year when he understood what his mother had faced as a child.
“One year we didn’t have anything because my dad was in the Mayo Clinic for about three months,” John explains.
That year, as their father was treated for a prolonged illness, they celebrated in their hearts, without a tree or presents. Doing without perhaps taught a spirit of generosity, for a few years later John would save his allowance money to buy something for his mother that he knew she wanted.
“I bought her a nativity scene at Becker’s for $24.95,” he says.
And $24.95 was a lot of money in the 1960s, especially for a boy of 8 or 9 years saving his allowance and anything he earned doing chores around the home or neighborhood.
Today, the nativity scene still holds a place of honor in the Hanson home. With figures about 9 inches tall, it includes the Holy Family, a shepherd, three wise men, and assorted animals for the manger. A special feature is a small wind-up box on the side of the crib that plays “Away in a Manger” for all to hear.
His Christmas memories are filled with simple joys of being together.
“My mother’s mother lived with us, and she did a lot of the baking and preparing everything,” John recalls.
Many of the foods his mother and grandmother prepared together came from their German heritage — homemade bread, stuffing with raisins, pumpkin pie and more.
Christmas, for the Hansons, is still about giving joy that’s recalled for decades.