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Growing up in Louisa – About Christmas Gifts! 

 Weekly feature . . . by Mike Coburn

Many adults know that mankind’s hope is hinged on the birth of the Christ child. Kids on the other hand cannot help but think that Christmas is about grand celebrations that end with RECEIVING and giving gifts. We all put emphases on the importance of staying on Santa’s “Good List,” (masking our real motives) so we might find wonderful presents under the tree (Incentive or bribe?)

TV ads, cartoons, and even our teachers encourage a mixture of secular and traditional activities, but they are slow to explain the reason for that nativity so long ago in Bethlehem. Our courts have literally put ‘the fear of (mentioning) God’ in them. The freedom of speech for them is cloaked in the idea of separation of church and state. Indeed, the government ought not establish or favor a religion, but to deny citizens the right to communicate religious thought is a restraint of other freedoms.

The carols, or at least many of them, tell the story of Christ’s birth, but when it is mixed with fictional stories such as the Grinch, Rudolf, and the Polar Express, the truth is watered down in favor of having ‘good feelings’ kinds of stories. They are lovely stories, but they distract rather than explain, with the possible exception of ‘A Charlie Brown Christmas’ wherein the version in Luke 2, is presented to those who are open to hear.

Back in the forties and fifties, at least in Louisa, the Christmas season kicked off right after Thanksgiving. The stores downtown went to work putting up Christmas decorations at that time. Now that day is devoted to ‘Black Friday’ sales. Of course, we didn’t have those sales, nor did we have the following ‘Cyber Monday.’ We didn’t have anything like today’s technological advances so I’m sure we’d miss the meaning of the recently coined word, ‘cyber.’ Today, the holiday season starts much earlier in hope of creating and snagging all the Christmas dollars possible for a healthy year-ending third quarter sales. This was the season that is definitive for businesses, and would spell out a ‘life or death’ sentence for those just hanging on. Investors, storekeepers, and bankers watch the marketplace carefully, holding their breath in anticipation of the results.

Then tradition demanded that stores break out their Christmas decorations and turn on the music we loved to hear year-after-year. Like Palov’s dogs, we salivated and readied ourselves for the festive times ahead. One could watch teachers rushing to help students make Christmas cards, or gifts for parents. Annual rehearsals of Christmas pageants were begun and roles were assigned. Some told the story of that first Christmas with the shepherds and wisemen, while others, such as the classic works, ‘A Christmas Carol,’ by Charles Dickens or Clement Clarke Moore’s poem (‘T was the night before Christmas,) were common themes meant to incite good behavior and a warm feeling for the season. These took us into a joyful attitude and a time emitting a preponderance of hedonistic pleasures that have continued to grow over the years. Granted, in these events, lessons of morals are taught, but the true message of Christmas continues to be ‘watered down.’ This is caused by a focus on ‘gifts’ and marketing strategies, or perhaps out of fear of being outside of constitutional limitations. What became politically correct began its move toward what is ‘legally’ correct. Makes me wonder who’s writing the laws…

Growing up in the forties and fifties, at least in hindsight, many of our families were still suffering from having just come through the Great Depression, and two world wars. In a relatively poor economy, it had become normal for many of us to turn to making hand-made gifts for our friends and family. I remember that fathers and grandfathers often worked for weeks, if not months, to secretly produce a wooden rocking horse, a new baby’s cradle, a child’s rocking chair, or maybe some new shelving for mom. Workshops were ‘off-limits’ during the fall months. They were deep in freshly made sawdust.

Inside many homes, mothers and grandmothers would spend long hours sewing clothing, making sock-monkeys, knitting sweaters, or mittens, or gloves, or even for that special someone, an afghan. I know I was trapped more than once when Granny had me hold a skein of yarn so she could roll it into a ball. The quilting frame told me that a new quilt would soon be stitched that would make the cold spells warmer on those cold winter’s evenings. These patchwork masterpieces added a heavy weight over the sleeping child, but felt so good.

Even felt stockings that were ‘hung by the chimney with care,’ were often handmade, either by older kids or one of the adults of the household. These gifts made with loving hands were long-cherished and kept safely away in cedar chests during the summer ‘off-season.’ Fall was an especially busy time as the holidays were anticipated with a touch of dread that everything was not yet at the ready.

Some families suffered more from the results of war, the great depression, and the ups and downs of the mining industry. Many families simply lacked enough funds to give a lot of things to their children. To many, if not most, keeping up mortgage payments and feeding everyone was often difficult. The gifts pretty much had to be homemade, or were simpler things that could be afforded. Some kids looking in their stockings found gifts of fruits, nuts, penny candy, or other small things that were useful. Toys, other than the homemade variety, weren’t always possible to obtain. Sometimes things like books of fairy tales, or hand-me-downs where saved to be passed out on Christmas morn.

I knew of one family that lived on the principle that frugality would make life easier for everyone in the long-run. While they may have had resources, they elected to remain thrifty. A daughter told me later that she was shocked when her ‘poor’ father, who always dressed in ragged overalls, took her to a car dealership and paid cash for a new family car. Up to then she had no idea her family had any money. She had always assumed they were poor, but discovered finally that they were well-to-do as compared to many others. Her father explained, “I’d rather neighbors like us for who we are than because they think we have money.”

While putting together this article, I started thinking about the things I remember getting, or things that my friends received ‘under the tree’ on Christmas morning. Later, when I was older, as a parent and grandparent, I concluded that ‘noisy’ things should be avoided at all costs. Still, every year it seemed that someone got somebody a drum for Christmas. Others got kazoos and whistles, or dolls that cried, or recited a repetitious song. These distracting devices would add to the din at Christmas. Even the ‘walkie-talkies’ promoted a disruptive environment when I desired a little ‘peace on earth.’ But then, again, it only happens once a year and after a time, the toys will break or be forgotten, and quiet will prevail.

I knew folks who collected certain kinds of things that would be displayed as seasonal decorations each year. Nativity scenes are an example. I also remember a friend from Fort Gay who treasured ‘Hallmark’ ornaments, and porcelain figures. Another family friend kept Christmas dishes, or plates. Others kept little lighted villages to grace the mantle or tabletop. One lady I knew collected different kinds of snow-globes. I remember shaking one and racing to another to keep the action going. One or two also played music when the base was wound. These seemed so magical when I was a kid. It seemed like a wintery wonderland.

 Toys for the kids over the years might have included cabbage-patch dolls, or some little hairy trolls. A girl would get a toy stroller (or pram) to give her dolls a ride. Lucky girls got a new tea set (some porcelain, some of tin, or even plastic, which relatively new.) Kid’s might get a set of Lincoln Logs, an erector set, a chemistry set (bad smells), a periscope, Wheel-lo-Matic, Slinky, a toy kitchen and bake oven, toy soldiers, an electric train, airplanes, a bike, a spinning top, or sporting goods. Whew! So many things, so little room under the tree.

I remember getting several board games such as ‘Monopoly,’ or ‘Clue.’ I got a plastic chess set once, and we were given a nice ‘nutcracker’ to share as a display under the tree. I knew folks who collected ‘Coke’ items, but they especially liked trays and Christmas-related Coke ads. These were usually pretty pictures stamped on metal trays. Some had a picture of Santa, or a pretty girl dressed in a Santa outfit.

In spite of a poor economy, merchants in our little town increased their inventories and displayed the latest in toys, toiletries, tools, and tinsel. The Favorite five and dime (we called it the ten-cent store), the Corner store (under the Brunswick Hotel,) Land’s Sundry, the hardware stores, Wright Brother’s Jewelry, the Bargain Store, and the several department stores, were all primed and ready should someone come in to buy a gift. Street decorations and the storefront displays set the town hopping with customers looking for just the right thing. I remember the friendly people that met on the streets and talked under the awnings while their kids mingled with peers around the supporting posts. It seemed as if music was everywhere, while all eyes were on the heavens looking for that first fluffy snowflake to make the season right.     

 I remember those heavy ‘outdoor’ lights that some strung over the evergreen bushes around their house. These were bigger than the bulbs used in-doors. We also had those bubble lights that were in fashion for a time. In those early days colors were limited to green, red, blue, and maybe a rare yellow, or orange. It would be years later before miniature lights came in single colors, such as blue or white. These have evolved to the point that some commercial businesses use them year around to add mystique to an antrium, or lobby. Even the university near my home has the trees on the walkways lit all the time. It’s as if the campus is a fairyland.

As a family, we used to pick an evening just to walk around town and see the lights. When growing up, nearly everyone had a tree in front of a window, and some had the outdoor lights, but few had the massive displays that can be found today. I doubt circuits would have allowed the use of the required electrical amps, anyway. They didn’t have inflatables in those days, and rarely had much more than maybe a static nativity display, or a plywood snowman figure in their yards. There were some churches that sent out carolers every year. Families would have some hot chocolate and cookies to share with the cold singers if they were lucky. Our church focused on ‘shut-ins’ and the elderly, and sometimes traveled in pickup trucks to reach those further away. The temperature seemed cold, but the carolers would bunch up together to block the wind in hopes of staying warm.

All in all, families of the communities worked together to make the season delightful and magical. There were those who knew, or made it a point to know, families that might be struggling. Secret gifts would appear out of the night, as if a greater power knew the need. ‘Goodwill toward men,’ seemed possible somehow in a world that wasn’t always so nice. The Grinches of those days were few and the Scrooges, if there were any, were not intrusive. Maybe peace on earth would be possible, I wondered.      

Our little Louisa became a magical place during the Christmas season. It was be that way on other holidays, too, but it was especially so during this time of year. Over time our memories built up and continued to grow in understanding and taste. As to gifts, it wasn’t the lack of things we remember most, but rather what really mattered. The townsfolk were more than friends, they seemed to be family. More than anything, we knew we had each other. Even in the worst of years we were blessed in some way, and in our hearts, we knew it. While it was normal for some of us to have disappointments, we still had each other and were prepared to stand tall for the sake of others. Christmas was, and is, special. It had a greater meaning than just gifts. The value of the season was far greater than even we knew, and it continues for those wise enough to tend to the traditions.   

The items and events I’ve shared are of things I remember. I plan to write more next week about the spirit of the town that I remember. As I’ve grown older, it follows that I’ve seen many seasons. The first of them arising from my school years at the good old Louisa grade school, and later at LHS. As might be expected, memories are somewhat crumpled together into a montage. I can no longer easily separate some of them into a single event. Still, there is a commonality that continues to repeat year after year, to confirm the worth and real reason for the season. May you, too, find it so and do what you can to keep the faith. Being happy and sharing the reason is not wrong, so be certain to share that message with others, and do what you can also to add to the magic of the season. Let’s purpose to keep it going by repeating the good news given in Bethlehem so long ago. Proclaiming peace and goodwill and remembering the child delivered in a stable may, after all, tell some child what it is all about. If so, it will be totally worth it!  Merry Christmas, my friends.

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December 10, 2017

'From The Rafters Of Rupp'

Kyle Macy, Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History to share UK basketball legends’ stories online

Kentucky Basketball Legends.. hosted by Kyle Macy.Kentucky Basketball Legends.. hosted by Kyle Macy.

Scores of men helped build the legendary University of Kentucky men’s basketball program as we know it today. More than 40 of these individuals, primarily players, have had their jerseys retired in Rupp Arena. A desire to share the stories of these celebrated UK icons is what first got 1978 NCAA champion and All-America Kyle Macy interested in collecting oral histories.

Based on his concept, Macy first created a series of video interviews with this noted group of Wildcats known as “From the Rafters of Rupp,” now in its second year.

Kyle Macy From the Rafters of RuppKyle Macy From the Rafters of RuppBut TV lends itself to shorter-form interviews, and with his program running only 30 minutes, Macy knew there was much more for these legends to tell. After learning about an oral history project with the UK tennis team from his friend, former UK tennis coach and UK Athletics employee Dennis Emery, Macy approached UK Libraries’ Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History in 2015 with a basketball oral history collection in mind.

With only a handful of UK basketball interviews in the UK Libraries’ collection at the time, the idea of teaming up with Macy on the project excited Nunn Center Director Doug Boyd. “Interviewing University of Kentucky basketball players has always been a major priority. It’s just really finding the right way to get access to those players and to get the right interviewer who can connect with them.

“As it turns out, Kyle Macy is a pretty incredible oral history interviewer. When he showed me the program he did with Coach Hall, I was really blown away and I thought, ‘this is important, this is going to have research value for generations to come.'”

Two years later, Macy and the Nunn Center have collected more than 20 long-form interviews with such Wildcat stars as Louie Dampier, Dan Issel, Kevin Grevey, Kenny Walker, Sam Bowie and Tony Delk. And they plan to keep going beyond the original goal as new jerseys are added to Rupp and new Wildcat athletes join the award-winning tradition. After the short-form interviews air on “From the Rafters of Rupp,” the full oral history interviews with the athletes, averaging more than two hours, are made available online by the Nunn Center. Most recently, Macy interviewed Jack Givens.

Now fans can hear the memories of these beloved players from the source themselves and get insight on what the athletes were thinking in those big games or after those amazing buzzer beater shots, as well as their thoughts on the university at the time, their coaches, the different seasons and how basketball has changed over the years.

“It’s amazing some of the older gentleman that I’ve interviewed — Dale Barnstable, Frank Ramsey, Cliff Hagan — they recall games, and opponents’ names, and how much each of them scored, rebounds, all the different details like it was just yesterday. They have all these vivid, great memories in their mind. That’s the thing that’ll last forever now,” said Macy, a business administration and education graduate of UK.

Boyd agreed. “For a lot of these players, you have a lot of media interviews that have been conducted. But those are mostly short-form interviews. And what oral history brings to the table is the opportunity to really explore in a long-form these life stories — the firsthand experiences.

“You can read stats, you can look at the larger trajectories of seasons, and the wins and the losses. But when you sit down with a player, and you really explore the details about their life, and their observations and their perceptions, and their frustrations and their successes over a season through this storytelling that is oral history, it really transforms the experience.”

And Macy also asks the former UK athletes about their experiences off the court, whether it be playing in the NBA or Olympics or serving in the military. “We recently did an interview with Dale Barnstable, and I got to hear him talk about World War II. He served under General Patton, he got to meet Dwight Eisenhower, and he was part of troops who liberated five concentration camps.”

In addition to providing this treasure trove of UK basketball interviews online, the Nunn Center’s OHMS (Oral History Metadata Synchronizer) technology is making the new oral histories easy to navigate and search for specific moments with the players. OHMS is a web-based system that allows users to search for particular terms within recorded oral history interviews. The system provides users word-level search capability and a time-correlated transcript or index connecting the search term to the corresponding moment in the recorded interview online. So, if you want to hear Givens’ thoughts on beating Duke University for the trophy, you need only search NCAA.

The interest in these UK men’s basketball interviews, primarily in video format, is already evident among researchers and members of Big Blue Nation online. The interviews get more than 12,000 hits a month, and with more than 40 interviews already in process for the collection those numbers will only grow. To view the UK Men’s Basketball Oral History Project, visit

The Nunn Center for Oral History at UK Libraries’ Special Collections Research Center is recognized around the world as a leader and innovator in the collection and preservation of oral histories. The center is home to close to 11,000 oral history interviews that provide a unique look into Kentucky and American history and represent an irreplaceable resource for researchers today and generations from now. The Nunn Center’s collections focus on 20th century Kentucky history, Appalachia, Kentucky writers, agriculture, black history, the history of education, politics and public policy, the Civil Rights Movement, veterans, the university, health care, as well as the coal, equine and Kentucky bourbon industries.

The next airing of “From the Rafters of Rupp” will be 11:30 a.m., Dec. 17, on WBKI in Louisville; 5 p.m., Dec. 17, on the CW, and noon (and possibly 5:30 p.m.), Dec. 18, on WKYT in Lexington; 5:30 p.m., Dec. 16, 7 p.m., Dec. 28, and 12:30 p.m., Dec. 29, in Hazard; noon, Dec. 24, on WQCW in Huntington, West Virginia; and 12:30 p.m., Dec. 9, on WBKO in Bowling Green. It will also air on Paducah’s WPSD (date to be determined).

Whitney Hale Writes for UK Now



Growing up in Louisa – Deck the Halls!   

 Weekly feature . . . by Mike Coburn

After all, ‘tis the Season to be Jolly,’ eh? Well, I took some time to research where all of this merriment arose. Frankly, the histories I saw took parts of our ‘traditional’ celebrations back to at least the fourth or fifth centuries. That was a lot for my unsophisticated mind to handle, so I dialed the time continuum forward to at least the seventeenth or eighteenth centuries and started there. If you are left wondering about earlier times you can do your own search to the answers. Besides, you may find things I might have missed, or you may have little interest in ancient history.

My trip told me that while portions of our traditional celebration came from pagan religious practices mixed with Christian practices that had grown up around the celebration of Christ’s birth. It would be the latter part of the eighteenth century when what we know as a Christmas tree, popped up in Germany. As evidence, the song ‘O Tannenbaum’ was part of the German tradition.  Other similar practices amalgamated with traditions through creating wreaths, putting up greenery, having special meals, and giving gifts gave spirit to the winter celebration. Early American traditions merged from other cultures because of the ‘mixing bowl’ effect. International traditions were brought together with the integration of peoples from western Europe and other places. Since I have already done the search I can clearly put my ancestors in that group since I am mostly Irish, Scot, and English. Does that make me a Celtic writer? Well, maybe just a person of Celtic bloodlines.

 The most common activity aside from the Christian church celebration of the nativity as described in Luke 2, was the mid-European practice of bringing in a tree and adding decorations. One cannot imagine today not having a Christmas tree, or perhaps several Christmas trees to decorate our homes. While that tradition may have come from Germany, the practice is so widespread that today will find them in nearly every Christian household around the world, and occasionally even in Jewish, or the homes of other faiths. The legends of Santa Claus, or Father Christmas, who delivers gifts to all ‘good boys and girls,’ also made the trip across the water, and ties neatly into the notion of placing ‘gifts’ under the tree to be opened on Christmas morn. That is how I remember my Christmases past.

Back in the day, live trees were cut from the forested hills around our town, or from people we knew that lived outside of town. While many have memories of cutting those trees and dragging them home, I was involved in this kind of thing only a few times. I’m sure this was partly because of my tender age, not having equipment or land, or the proper skills to prevent my untimely death. My great-aunt, Shirley Chapman, a high-school math teacher, usually reached out to her students who lived and worked on farms, likely paying them some reasonable amount to have them cut and deliver a tree. I do remember seeing a freshly cut tree on the front porch. We boys had the job of fitting it into a metal stand in our living room. I recall that my Aunt Shirley was a stickler that our tree was a cedar. I never knew why, but as might be normal with kids, I figured she must be right.

There are two general types of Christmas trees in today’s marketplace: real and artificial. Many people swear by real trees, perhaps because of strong family traditions, or maybe because they like the smell of greenery in the house. It might also be because some rebel over the concept that a ‘fake’ tree is meets the traditional requirements. People have the right to that opinion. Others prefer a tree that can be used multiple times and that create less mess. Let’s consider the attributes of real trees:

 The more popular real trees are of Balsam Fir, Nobel Fir, Scots Pine, and Douglas Fir. Some of these, and others have a citrus smell, while others have less fragrance. Some have thicker branches, or have a manmade perfect cone shape, or are known for keeping their needles intact, longer. While Eastern Red Cedar is popular with many, Blue Spruce is a favorite of others. At my age, I don’t really care so long as it looks like a Christmas tree and can hold the family heirloom decorations. I suspect the grandkids worry more about the presents underneath.

Fake trees are of two classes: plastic or aluminum. The metal ones came out as a shiny product of midcentury modern (1950’s), because it went with the sleek, contemporary décor of the day. Some of us thought they were ‘too artificial’ and garish and smacked of space travel. Sputnik and trips into outer space was all the rage and so ‘with it.’ I wasn’t and still don’t like the ‘retro’ look.

Plastic trees have come a long way in that some now closely resemble the real thing. It is hard to tell that it isn’t real once it is fully dressed in decorations. Today, the more expensive ones are ‘pre-lit.’ That solves the problem inherent with running strings of lights. Those become tangled during the off-season, and some require that all bulbs lite. This makes finding the bad bulb a real chore. While there’s no law preventing someone from adding more lights to a pre-lit model, including ‘bubble lights’ of old, it isn’t particularly recommended. Just as the trees have improved, so have electrical circuits and wiring. I remember clearly that our old screw-in fuses had a way of requiring replacement at Christmas time. Today we usually have that covered with larger ‘breaker’ boxes and grounded systems. Electric lights, of course, are far superior to using candles and risking a family fire-night out. Open fireplaces are problem, enough.

Ornaments represent another issue. I know that today my family has a mixture of some very nice trinkets that we continue to pull out every year. When we open the boxes it’s like seeing old friends. Comments such as ‘This is my favorite,’ or ‘I forgot about this one,’ punctuates the conversations. We see the one we made by hand years ago for mom’s special gift. We dig out and discover afresh an old framed picture of a child now grown and having children of their own. Garlands and strings (thinking popcorn) and loads of ice sickles finish the tree except for an angel, or star on top.

My family has traditionally called the kids, even after they’re grown, to meet to decorate the tree and to make gingersnap cookies, sugar cookies, and have some eggnog for refreshments. When the tree is finished then mom puts up the remainder of wreaths, garlands, nativity displays, nutcracker dolls, holly, and mistletoe. The teens pretend to shy away from the kissing spot, but grownups have no trouble. Who knows what really happens when distractions take our attention? The railing and bannisters are all wrapped with sprigs of pine, while bells and ceramic collectables are put on display. We are not far off from putting piles of packages under the tree.

It is time to watch the ‘Polar Express,’ ‘A Charlie Brown Christmas,’ or ‘How the Grinch stole Christmas.’ No matter how old I get, I still enjoy watching the kids watching these films. What a blessing traditions are to families!

 Decking the hall with boughs of holly is a family effort and builds memories for young and old alike. Breaking out records of Christmas Carols is part of the evening. We sing along with Bing Crosby, Andy Williams, Gene Autry, Burl Ives, or others. Old memories are refreshed for us old folks, and new ones are created for the young.

It’s a good time to take a breath, relax, and pull up some of those memories. Maybe you’ll be in one of mine? I strongly feel that the richness of sharing and repeating traditions can’t be beat. We all can make life exciting and fun, if not for ourselves, then for our friends and families. After all, we merely need to ‘deck the halls.’

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