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  • Last modified 29 days ago (Dec. 20, 2017)

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A coal-fired Christmas wish

My Christmas wish for all of you this year is to find a lump of coal in your stockings.

While that seems a wish emanating from a bizarre cross between Ebenezer Scrooge and the Grinch, I assure you it is not. Read on.

Perched on the precipice of tumbling into my seventh decade on the planet (a convoluted way of saying it’s almost my 60th birthday), I find I’m increasingly interested in history. Perhaps, as one accumulates personal history, looking at things much older is a way to feel much younger.

Thursday night I was at the library, feeling every bit the spring chicken as I pored over the pre-Christmas Marion County Record from 1917, and a little more.

I couldn’t resist a chuckle when I saw a piece about a visit by Congressman Dudley Doolittle of Strong City. Today’s Congress appears to have adopted his last name as its work ethic.

Christmas cheer was tempered that year. The country was newly at war, and many men already had left to fight World War I. Many more saw their names in print that week on a list of those required to register for possible induction into the military.

Schoolchildren were conscripted as fundraisers for the war machine. Tampa reported to the county school superintendent that about 40 children had signed up for $5 War Savings Certificates, the equivalent of about $75 today. Marion National Bank marketed something similar to adults as “a gift that will save the life of some American boy.”

Merchants were pushing “useful and sensible” gifts. Sell’s Big Daylight Store in Hillsboro advertised a “Greatest Sacrifice Sale” with “bargains to spread Christmas cheer” in the absence of those gone to war. Deals included 39-cent suspenders, 41-cent ladies’ silk hosiery, and $1.35 overalls. Another ad encouraged pie-makers to conserve by baking “war pies” with no top crust.

In 1917, most homes had hand-fired coal furnaces, and at Christmas the chill of war and chill of winter were intimately connected. Coal was in high demand for the war effort, and therefore was in short supply locally, right when it was needed most.

At a meeting in Marion, men organized wood-chopping forces due to the coal shortage. Churches even combined services, rotating from church to church to heat just one coal-warmed sanctuary at a time.

Coal, a once readily available afterthought, suddenly was a precious commodity. The warmth it made possible was coveted far more than suspenders, hose, and overalls.

Therefore, I wish for you a lump of coal, a reminder of a Christmas a century ago when simplicity was more important than extravagance.

I wish it as a symbol of the precious warmth that flows from treasuring family, embracing community, and celebrating the reason for the season. A lump of coal can be as precious a gift as gold, frankincense, or myrhh. It’s all in how you look at it.

— david colburn

Last modified Dec. 20, 2017

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