Country Christmases in a long-ago Harford

WAY BACK WHEN

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December 23, 2006|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,sun reporter

The kind of Christmases that Kathryn "Kitty" Whistler Burch vividly remembers are those of a vanished rural America depicted in Currier & Ives prints.

And while the years might have robbed her of most of her hearing and she is now nearly blind, Burch, who celebrated her 108th birthday Dec. 13, still has precious memories of those long-ago snowy winters that seemed to hold the world in their grip.

On a late, slightly blustery December afternoon, Burch is sitting in a comfortable chair in a dark-paneled room at College Manor, a Lutherville nursing home where she has lived the past two years, waiting for several visitors.

She begins her recollections in a clear, strong and firm voice, remembering what Christmases were like in the early 1900s at Maplewood, her family's 40-acre farm at Fountain Green in Harford County.

She was the daughter of Harry Whistler, a gentleman farmer, cattleman and successful owner of a fertilizer company, who was related to American-born painter James McNeill Whistler.

"I'm Whistler's cousin and not his mother," she said with a quick laugh. "I'm related but not close enough to talk about him."

In addition to her twin sister, Elizabeth, she had two older brothers, Harry D. Whistler and C. Webster Whistler.

"Christmases back then were old country affairs, with everyone busy getting ready, and there was always lots of snow in those years. It was so pretty and made it feel and look like the way Christmas should be," Burch said.

The house was decorated with greens and holly gathered from nearby woods, which were carefully placed on fireplace mantles, while green swags were draped over doorways, Burch recalled.

"We'd cut down a great big Christmas tree in the woods and then place it in the house. It was decorated with lots of balls and candles, which were never lit because it was too dangerous to do so. It could have caused a fire," she said.

"For several days in advance, my mother baked bread, coconut and chocolate cakes and mince pie from homemade mincemeat. Earlier, she had made fruitcakes that she gave to guests," she said.

Christmas Eve afternoons meant going to the railroad station to pick up relatives.

"Father would hitch up the horse to the sleigh, and we'd go through the snow over to Belcamp and pick up Mavie, Euretta and Maggie, who were arriving from Philadelphia on the B&O. We did this year after year," she said.

"I remember one time when we arrived home and the horse gave a little pull, and the sleigh tipped over and they all fell out into the snow," she said with a laugh.

After supper, she and her sister, filled with Christmas expectations, were put to bed early while her parents and guests prepared the sitting room for Santa's arrival later that night.

"They thought we were asleep, but [we] were wide awake and heard everything they were doing while they trimmed the tree. And I remember that every year, the Philadelphia people always brought us new balls for the tree," she said.

And then the magic of Christmas morning.

"There under the tree were the dolls and their carriages, and we were overcome," Burch said. "And then Old Bob, our hired man, would say, `Who ever says Christmas gifts, Christmas gifts first has to give them out,'" she said.

Christmas morning breakfasts were the same year after year -- of pig's feet served with hominy and sauerkraut. After the breakfast dishes were cleaned and put away, preparations for Christmas dinner began in earnest.

"The turkey, which came from our own flock, was always at least 22 pounds because we had at least 10 for dinner," she recalled.

"Mother stuffed it with her homemade stuffing and cooked it in her cast-iron woodstove's oven. There is no better turkey than one cooked in a cast-iron stove. Turkeys today don't taste like they used to back then," she said.

After dinner, Burch said, the family gathered in the parlor to reminisce about the year just passed, recalling happy and sad events, while she and her sister played with their toys.

"Sometimes we'd take a sleigh ride under the stars, and as we went along up and down the hills, the bells on the horses jingle-jangled," she said. "We kept our feet warm with hot bricks that had been wrapped in cloth, and when we got home, we'd have a big cup of hot milk before we went to bed."

Christmases in the country ended after her father's death in 1928, and the family settled in a Charles Village rowhouse at Calvert and 28th streets.

After graduating from Bel Air High School, Burch earned a bachelor's degree from Goucher College in 1921 and a master's degree in political science from the Johns Hopkins University in 1923.

In 1933, she married Charles Combs Burch Sr., founder of the Burch Window Co., and lived on Wendover Road in Guilford for many years. He died in 1960, and a son, Charles C. Burch Jr., died in 2001.

Burch will share Christmas dinner at College Manor with her surviving son, H. Whistler Burch, a sales associate with RE/MAX in Towson. She also has a grandson and a great-granddaughter.

fred.rasmussen@baltsun.com

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