Dakota Datebook

Ole Saves Christmas

Thursday, December 25, 2003

In her book, “Nothing to Do but Stay,” Carrie Young tells the story of her Uncle Ole, a Norwegian bachelor farmer living next to her family’s farm near Williston.

Ole was never accused of being a go-getter. The oldest of seven children, he was content to live with his parents well into his 30s, hiring himself out as a farmhand on occasion.

Children were scared of him, because when he laughed, his big round eyes would roll back into his head, which he shook back and forth.

Ole was almost 40 when he took his first drink, and for the rest of his life, he regretted not having started sooner. After a night in town, he would gallop his horses back to his farm, wagon bouncing, singing at the top of his lungs. Life was good.

The one thing Ole tried to do was stay sober on Saturdays so that he would be presentable in church on Sunday morning. He served as an elder and occasionally as a sexton.

In 1920, the church decided there wasn’t enough money to buy their traditional Christmas tree or treats for the children. Ole pondered this problem with his friend, Thomas, a giant with bushy gray hair and a long thick beard. He, too, was upset by the news, and Ole put on the coffee. Finally, Thomas slammed his huge fist on the table and said it couldn’t be. They turned out their pockets, and between them, they thought maybe they could afford a small tree for the church.

At the hardware store in town, the only tree left was 9 feet tall. It wouldn’t fit in anybody’s house, so the two men were able to buy it for pennies and have enough left over to buy candy and oranges for the children. This was terrific. As they bounced back home, they began to hatch a plan. They hid the tree in Ole’s barn, and for the rest of the day, they made popcorn garlands. Neither had ever done it before, but they were on a mission.

The next night, families showed up at church for the children’s program and were upset to find the church not only dark but locked. The church was never locked! December was Ole’s month to arrive early and fire the furnace, but he had failed. Pandemonium broke out. Children began to cry. Then somebody noticed lights suddenly coming from the windows. They tried the door again, and they heard somebody yell, “Come in!”

There, at the front of the church stood the weirdest Christmas tree they’d ever seen. It looked like it had been hit by a windstorm. The tree was tall, alright, but its branches were so thin that the popcorn garlands hung in great haphazard loops. The ornaments the men had found in the cellar looked like somebody threw them at the tree, and they stuck however they landed. The angel on the top was resting on her stomach, her wings spread like she was trying to right herself.

Thomas and Ole sprang out from behind the pulpit, dressed in winter overcoats and four-buckle overshoes. Thomas rumbled happily and swished his beard. Ole roared, his eyes rolling back into his head.

“Ledelig jul!” they yelled. “Merry Christmas!”

Dakota Datebook written by Merry Helm

This text and audio may not be copied without securing prior permission from Prairie Public.

Dakota Datebook is a project of Prairie Public, in partnership with the State Historical Society of North Dakota, with funding from the North Dakota Humanities Council.

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