Candlelit Christmas

October 28, 2011

By Joanie Stiers

A dreaded scene unfolded for our family Christmas celebration on the farm a few years ago. The host cook, my mother, lost power 15 minutes before dinner was complete. The newborn pigs’ heat lamps turned cold in the barn. That lamp was protecting them from a temperature of zero that felt much colder with 25 to 30 mph winds.

The night before our family holiday party, the hogs were heavily bedded, and Mom baked homemade rolls. She routinely anticipates weather’s dire consequences and predicted the outage. She knew just as well as the power company that forecasted high winds for the day of our family gathering would be enough for us to lose power after the recent half-inch ice storm. She started the Christmas meatballs early, but, as it turned out, 15 minutes too late. The oven stopped heating just before they were done.

Of more critical concern were the pigs in the barn, particularly the baby pigs that spend the first few weeks of their lives under a heat lamp at around 80 degrees. The men drove to the local farm equipment store for a second generator and borrowed a third from a neighbor. This allowed one generator for the house and two for the pigs in the farrowing barn, where the furnace and heat lamps were too much for one generator to handle.

In the meantime, Mom considered postponing the celebration. She had planned a couple weeks in advance for a smooth day, and now she wasn’t even able to shower, as their country home needed electricity to pump water from the well. We kids and the grandkids insisted it would be OK.

What developed was enough for my suburban-reared sister-in-law to blog about her newest adventure in the country after less than two years of marriage to a farmer. “I had never witnessed ‘survival mode,’ where everyone was working to do what they could to make sure we and the livestock would survive without power,” she wrote.

My dad, brother and husband simultaneously worked to tend to the livestock and fix Mom with minimal household electricity. The farm’s herd of hogs is relatively small, allowing them to heat just one building and its heat lamps to keep the mothers and babies warm. Meanwhile, Dad used his farm-acquired electrical skills to use a generator to power the furnace, refrigerator, kitchen lights and a few outlets for two crock-pots with meatballs and potatoes.

We ate by candlelight, only two hours late, with plenty of hearty, home-cooked food, despite the power outage eliminating one casserole from the menu. The guys again checked the livestock, and we proceeded to open gifts around the unlit Christmas tree. We pulled open the drapes to bring in as much gray light as possible while the spirit of the season filled the room for one of our most memorable celebrations.

As much as we plan ahead for life’s most cherished traditions, we often most remember the unplanned in our lives. My husband recalls a childhood Christmas Day spent between the emergency room and home – without going to Grandma’s house – because his sister developed a fever that spiked to 105.3.
I remember the holiday when Mom shattered a glass from the cupboard into a favorite bar-cookie dessert, ruining its enjoyment for the day but forever giving the recipe a story.

I smile about the year our brother-in-law brought British party crackers from his homeland. After reviewing their contents, Grandpa, at age 93, wore a metallic-gold paper crown from his party cracker while quietly and fervently eating his mashed potatoes with complete disregard to his appearance.

Our candlelit Christmas joins the list.

About the Author: Joanie Stiers writes from West-Central Illinois, where the pigs in the barn at the family farm earned as much attention as the presents under the tree during a Christmas party.

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