Creating connections through the arts and across cultures

Generations of Family Christmas Traditions by Erwin A. Thompson

Evergreen Heights sign
Evergreen Heights, the place pioneered by E.A. Riehl, my father's grandfather

As a family, over generations, we developed some of our own Christmas traditions.


My Grandfather Riehl was a pioneer in this part of the country in raising evergreen trees for Christmas trees. We took orders, in those days, and had a regular clientele of customers. Jacoby Furniture in Alton, Illinois, bought a large one each year and put it on top of their building.


So, of course, one of the things we needed to do to get ready for Christmas was to secure a tree and decorate it.

One problem was a proper stand. I am sure that when Grandpa was in charge he secured the tree with a proper stand. But after his death we had troubles. One year Aunt Em and I went Christmas shopping in St. Louis. She found a sturdy one that was built in five parts. They could be stored easily, and put together in a few minutes into a fine, sturdy stand that would pass any reasonable test.

It was heavy! I was either ten or eleven. I remember carrying it part of the time to the inter-urban street car which we could board in Alton and end up in down town St. Louis. We were glad to reach the St. Louis end of the line with our prize! We still have the stand.


Before the coming of electricity, the tree was lit by candles. They were held in a special holder with a wider place to catch the melted wax, and a little ball placed at the end of a wire to keep the candle balanced and upright. We never lit the candles unless someone was intending to be in the room and monitor the burning candles.


I think probably because of chores needing to be done in the morning, we started having our Christmas present exchange in the evening before. After Ruth and I were situated here on the home place we would come down to the Big Brown House where my aunts lived.

Usually, while we were eating supper in our own house (The White Cottage) someone from the Big Brown House would come rushing up and give the great news that Santa had visited down there and we should come quickly.This was particularly appropriate after my brother, Ralph, started the practice of coming down here for Christmas celebration. This carried on even after his marriage.


So, we all gathered. Someone picked out a present, and read the label, thus discovering who it was for. It was delivered. The person who it was given to, opened it. There was a relaxed attitude that is not always present. Everybody could see what the present was.

Then it was the turn of the person who had received the present to go to the tree and pick out a present to deliver to the person to whom it was addressed. The rule was that it could not be to themselves. We also tried to avoid having it be someone who had just received several presents. We tried to loosely guide things so that nobody felt slighted. I believe that we were successful in our plans.


One by one the older generation have left us. They left us a great heritage that we have tried to live up to. As Julia and Gary married and had their own families and family celebrations and traditions, the group got smaller. Ralph and his wife continued their participation until his death. Janet was in Africa for five years and then to New Mexico and California. She has now returned full circle, and will once again spend Christmas with me this year, but this year we will spend it by ourselves.

Erwin and Ruth Thompson snuggle up on a past wedding anniversary

Ruth, the anchor of our almost sixty-four years of marriage, fulfilled her earthly duty on May first, 2006. There is no way that I can properly log the contributions that she made to the family and to the world.

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2 Responses »

  1. Hi Janet and Mr. Thompson,
    Thanks for sharing your thoughts and memories with me this year. How fun that the Christmas tree stand from all those years ago is still around. Was it cast iron?
    Best wishes for the coming year,

  2. I am wondering who cut down that tree underneath the "Evergreen Heights" sign, and what kind of saw they used, and what had happened to the tree.
    It's a beautiful picture, though there is a certain irony to have a signifier atop that mighty trunk, in place of its former leafy green canopy...
    The picture of Pop and Ruth is beautiful.

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