Special Helen–102 years and faithfully strong
Helen Donnelly vividly recalls Christmases past; not how people celebrated this most special holiday in the 1950s or 1940s. But back, way back, when she was a little girl growing up in Southington in the early 1920s.
Donnelly, now 102 years old and living what she calls a very good life at Brandywine Living in Litchfield, was born in 1917, the year the United States entered World War I. Her mind still as sharp as an icicle hanging from a roof in late December, she sat on a sofa at Brandywine and thought back to some of her fondest memories of Christmas.
“It was a very big deal around our house. We had a fresh tree that my father [Patrick Ryan] had cut in a forest somewhere and he placed candles on it. My father was an imaginative man and he was always making things. He must have made little vases to hold the candles and somehow clipped them onto the tree.”
And there was a very special person Patrick Ryan arranged for his little daughter to talk to every Christmas. “He and my uncle built a contraption with a wood frame, wires, a light, and a little phone.” Dad would tell her that someone was calling from the North Pole and of course, she believed in Santa Claus as a young girl. “I got on the phone and I thought I was talking to Santa Claus not my uncle. I told him everything I wanted.”
There was also a little village that the family—Helen had three older sisters—arranged around the Ryan’s Christmas tree. Later on, the family had enough resources to purchase a toy train that circled the tree. Donnelly, who summered on Bantam Lake with her family as a young girl—the family still owns a cottage on the lake where she spends time—said much ado was made about food on Christmas Eve. “There was always oyster and potato stew. My mother [Mary Alice] would spend the day making dough that would be turned into donuts that we all had on Christmas Eve.”
Presents, candles on the tree, and good food and friends were always a highlight of Donnelly’s Christmases as a child. But the overriding message of the holiday was a religious one. She and her late husband, Pat, had a son and five daughters. “When I got married and had my own children we always had family and friends over on Christmas Eve. We went to midnight mass and sometimes we would stay up until four in the morning and have breakfast.” It was always a fun, jovial crowd.
The Donnellys had friends that played an accordion and a saxophone and people were “always walking around the neighborhood” singing Christmas carols. “We would invite them in for something to eat and drink.”
She continues to celebrate Christmas with her family that now includes 26 grandchildren and 50 great-grandchildren and “spends as much as I can” on presents. She also tells the youngsters tales about when grandma was a young girl and Christmas was a more relaxed, less hectic time to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ and simply revel in family and friends.
“I still decorate my room here at Brandywine,” she says, pride etched in her voice. “I have a little artificial tree, it’s gold, and I put up lights and decorations out.” But faith remains central to her celebration. “The problem with our country is that people don’t practice their faith as much as they once did, whatever faith you believe in. Life isn’t easy and it’s not a rose garden. But having your faith helps you through tough times.” For Helen Donnelly, her faith has been the central theme in her celebration of Christmas for over 100 years.