Holidays bring a time to remember

By Blythe Alspaugh -

Carolyn Warner

Carolyn Warner

Ruth Weber

Phyllis Cotrell

Larry Donahue

Arleen Heitkamp

SIDNEY — It was a picture-perfect scene in 1973 the day newlyweds Carolyn and Sam Warner picked out their Christmas tree for their home and carried it, in the fresh falling snow, up the streets of Sidney.

“It was when Gilardi’s was up next to Emerson school. We walked over, and it started snowing. I was carrying one end of the tree, and he was carrying the other end of the tree, and it looked like a Christmas card,” Warner said. “We were walking down the street singing Christmas carols.”

Warner, 73, whose husband passed away in October 2018, believes that the most important part of the holiday season is family. Although she and her late husband had no children, they still spent their Christmases with their nieces and nephews, having a big dinner and playing games in addition to exchanging gifts. For Thanksgiving, Warner’s side of the family would travel from all over the country to visit, and they would set up games to play and crafts for the kids.

“We always got together once a year, especially toward the later years of our lives,” Warner said. “Those are things to really remember, because I have now lost a brother and sister, and my parents, but Christmas, as I can remember, everyone loved coming. I’d do all the baking and cooking, and it was fun.”

Warner also has fond memories as a child of driving around Sidney with her father and siblings, looking at the Christmas lights and decorations, and seeing what she described as an “animated display” in the window of Sidney Flower every year. One year during the holidays, she learned how to ride a bicycle in the snow.

As Warner has gotten older, she feels that she’s realized the reason for Christmas, in her mind, is Jesus.

“My faith has grown so much, and I really like celebrating it for that reason,” Warner said. “I’m not a real religious person, but I know who he is, and I celebrate that. I think it is very important to me, and it helps me keep a positive outlook on life.”

Much like Warner, Larry Donahue, 72, values spending time with his family around the holidays, and most of his memories of celebrating Christmas revolve around his immediate family.

“Christmas was basically just my family—my mother and father, brother and sister—having dinner, opening presents. We didn’t have too many other people coming into the house at Christmastime,” Donahue said.

Other traditions Donahue participated in on Christmas while growing up were playing football and sockball outside with friends, regardless of the snow on the ground. Nowadays, he isn’t fond of the commercialization of Christmas, but finds joy in watching his grandchildren unwrap presents and spending time with his family.

“That’s all I care to do, is be with the family and have a good meal, play some board games,” Donahue said. “That’s the whole thing about Christmas now, is watching them and sharing things with them.”

Arleen Heitkamp, 68, distinctly remembers having real pine trees as the Christmas tree in her home growing up, as well as when artificial trees became popular and what her family’s first artificial Christmas tree was like.

“We had a silver tree with red and gold ornaments on it, and then this light that had this circular thing that would change colors,” Heitkamp said. “The tree would change colors. It looked so good then. It was really pretty, and something different.”

When they had real pine trees, Heitkamp’s family would leave the pine tree out on the back porch until the week before Christmas, so all the pine needles would fall off outside and not in the house. However, it still happened.

“We had to drag the tree all through the house, and needles would fall all over, and of course, I was the oldest daughter, so I had to help clean it up. One year we decided we’d stick it out through the window, and that didn’t work so well. When you pushed it through the window, it just kind of,” Heitkamp said, clasping her hands together before flinging her arms out, miming something of an explosion. “That was a one-time experiment.”

Heitkamp and her family spent Christmas Eve celebrating with her mother’s family, and on Christmas day, they would go to her paternal grandparents’ house and celebrate with her father’s side of the family.

“I can remember one Christmas, I already knew—I was in fifth or sixth grade when I knew about Santa. My youngest sister was nine years younger than I was, and that year mom and dad didn’t have much money to spare, so we recycled one of my old dolls, fixed the hair, made new outfits for it, and she never caught on,” Heitkamp said.

Ruth Weber, 91, grew up during the Great Depression with seven brothers and sisters, and outside of clothes, which were a treat, and sometimes a toy, she doesn’t remember much in the way of gifts for Christmas, but does remember her family being better off than most during those times. Living on a farm meant that her family could raise their own meat from their livestock.

“Our bus driver used to give us an orange for Christmas,” Weber said. “We got a little bag of candy with the orange.”

While her family never had a traditional Christmas tree that she could remember, Weber distinctly remembers a cactus her mother had. The cactus now belongs to her daughter, and she claims it to be over a hundred years old.

“We used that cactus as a Christmas tree when I was young,” Weber said.

These days, Weber’s nine children come to her house to celebrate every Christmas, and her daughter helps her prepare the turkey, while everyone else brings in side dishes for the dinner.

Phyllis Cotrell, 70, recalls always opening presents on Christmas Eve, but not until after she and her family attended Midnight Mass.

“My dad wanted us to open our presents the night before [Christmas], so he wouldn’t have to wake up early the next day,” Cotrell said. “My kids come on Christmas Eve, and we still do that.”

Christmas morning consisted of a large breakfast for Cotrell and her five siblings, and they filled the day playing with the toys and games they opened the night before while her mother prepared Christmas dinner.

“My one brother is my half-brother, and we always had to wait for dinner on Christmas day until he got there,” Cotrell said. “His grandparents would bring him over, because he lived with his grandparents. They were my mother’s ex-husband’s parents, [but] they told the kids, all of us, to call them grandma and grandpa, and they would stay for dinner.”

Nowadays, Cotrell goes to her daughter’s house to celebrate on Christmas Eve. The day is filled with food, gifts, and family; this year, the whole family will be there, including her grandson serving in the military, and her first great-grandchild.

“I do stockings with my grandkids. They get them first thing, then we eat, and then they unwrap gifts afterwards. I’ll do a pair of gloves, a pair of socks, an ornament, and maybe a bag of candy,” Cotrell said. “Christmas should be family, no matter what way you do it.”

Carolyn Warner Warner

Ruth Weber Weber

Phyllis Cotrell Cotrell

Larry Donahue Donahue

Arleen Heitkamp Heitkamp

By Blythe Alspaugh

Reach the writer at 937-538-4825

Reach the writer at 937-538-4825