Christmas is a time for nostalgia, among other things, and since our extended family no longer gathers for Christmas I thought I'd pretend that we were all together and all the younger ones were asking me, as the oldest of the clan, about "Christmas in the long ago." Here are some of my memories from the later 1950's and early 1960s. I'm all about traditions, even as times change and we no longer keep them, except in our memory.
The Allen Christmas was blessed in many ways, because we kept Christ at the center of our Christmas, and because we were an intact, nuclear family. Yet, our Christmas might have been pitied by some, because we didn't live in the same city as our relatives, and because our Christmas was not a huge gift giving extravaganza.
For those early years, before children's allergies to mold became known, we had a real tree, mostly on the small size. Mom thought a tree should be no taller than 6 1/2 feet, although what looked like 6 1/2 feet in the tree lot often was larger when we got it home. Dad was not a fan of cutting tree trunks (he did it, but muttered the whole time) so perhaps that is why Mom always wanted a smaller tree. We usually put the tree up maybe 10 days before Christmas, much later than most of my friends, but it was always pretty well gone by the day after Christmas, and was always down well before New Year's Day. Our decorations were bulbs and a few shaped glass ornaments, and some glass birds that were clip ons, and a lot of tinsel. When my younger sisters came along, "unbreakable" ornaments were added for the bottom of the tree. I remember when my parents stopped putting some simple paper ornaments on the tree. Those were ones they had made for their first Christmas, when Dad was still in college and funds were tight. They didn't throw the ornaments away, but they didn't put them on the tree anymore, either.
We had a white plaster of paris Nativity set, which had been a Vacation Bible School project when I was about three years old. It was intended to be painted, but the ladies (including Mom) in charge soon realized that was too much of a project for the time allotted and the age of the children who came. So ours has been white ever since, and as I put the scene out for it's 62nd appearance this year, I realized that there are duplicate shepherds, sheep, and wise men. I wonder what the story was about that? Anyway, I was lucky enough to be given this and it now has a simple metal stable to set it off.
Unfortunately, the story I must relate about this is that my younger sister and I were allowed to put this set on top of the piano every year. It was always a big deal to put the baby Jesus in the manger in its place, but since they were all wrapped in soft paper, we couldn't tell what piece we had as we grabbed each piece out of the box. I recall one particular year, to my shame, when my sister and I pretty much came to blows over whose turn it was to put the baby Jesus figure out. Well, sometimes the spirit of Christmas went missing for a few minutes, I guess.
Mom always wanted to encourage us to make gifts and decorations, even though we weren't particularly artistic (in my case, not even a little artistic), One year, we cut apart cardboard egg cartons and covered each holder with aluminum foil, to make bells. I think we had pipe cleaner clappers but I could be wrong about that. Then we strung them on yarn. We tried to add cranberries in between the bells, but they were so hard that not even Mom could get them threaded, so that part of the project was a failure. As we grew older, I remember making candles of different sorts, probably for two or three years in a row. One year, we made trays that were made of cut up linoleum tiles, grouted, using a round pizza tray for a base. I was absolutely thrilled to see on of those trays on display in the home of one of my aunts, when I visited there several years later as an adult.
Mom didn't do a lot of Christmas baking in those early years, but I sure miss her almond crescents decorated with confectioner's sugar. As we grew a bit older, there were more cookies made but I think most of them were given to Sunday school teachers and other church leaders. We probably made more cookies the years we hosted the extended Holbrook family get-together. When I was about 10, Mom found a recipe for a braided yeast bread type wreath, and that soon became a much-loved tradition. The first year, she made one for Christmas breakfast and I can still smell and taste it, in my memory. It was such a hit that the next year we two older girls were enlisted to help, and we made several batches, again for Sunday school teachers, and the tradition continued. We always kept one wreath for Christmas breakfast, though.
I mentioned earlier that we didn't have a huge gift giving extravaganza. Dad was a pastor, in small churches, so there was never a lot of money in those years. Mom told me as an adult that she tried to make sure each child had four gifts under the tree, although three of them may have been small items like coloring books and crayons, or Little Golden books. I remember one year that my main gift was $10, with a promise of $10 more each month until I had enough money to buy a bicycle. We had gifts from aunts and uncles, too, and from my grandmother. One aunt always knew just what to buy me, because Mom had given her a wish list, and I always looked forward to her gifts. One uncle always sent a food package of some kind, knowing that would help the family over the rough winter months when there might not be enough church offering to give the pastor his full salary.
We had one other family tradition that was probably a little different. We never put gifts out under the tree until Christmas Eve. As a familly, we first had a small devotional around the tree, and read the Christmas story from Luke before someone would yell "Scatter!" and that was our signal to go get the gifts we had prepared out of hiding, and put them with love under the tree. Mom and Dad generally would wait until we had gone to bed to bring one more gift out, so there would be a surprise on Christmas morning. Naturally, the thought of presents under the tree, which we had just seen for the first time, made it a little difficult to go right to sleep that night. Santa Claus, in our family, was a happy story but certainly we didn't believe in him or expect gifts from him, so no one ever waited up for a possible appearance on Christmas Eve.
We would open our gifts in the morning, enjoy them for a little while, and then either prepare for our cousins, aunt and uncle and grandmother to arrive, or load up the car to go to one of their homes for Christmas. I especially loved to go to the home of my aunt and uncle for Christmas. They always had a big tree, nicely decorated. For a few years, they had bubble lights on the tree, and I loved to watch them, over and over again. They always had a real tree. I think it's possible that my grandmother had one of those aluminum trees, but I'm not sure about that. (I know friends had them, and I hope they still have them, or that they have sold them for the major dollars those trees get now.)
Wherever we gathered, Grandma always made a mincemeat pie, which was a tradition from her mother and I don't know how many generations back. Unfortunately, it's a tradition I never learned to appreciate. And yes, we always had a fruit cake, too, also made by my grandmother and also not appreciated by me. I don't know whether that was a family tradition or not, but I suspect that it was.
Christmas celebrations have changed through the years, as the children became teenagers and young adults and married (not necessarily in that order), and as my parents became grandparents to 9, and great grandparents to four before their deaths. The nuclear family gave way to extended family, and we generally had our extended family Christmas the Sunday (usually) after Christmas. When Mom and Dad gave up their home and spent their last years in Mattoon, Illinois, everyone traveled to my sister's home for the extended family Christmas, and there was quite a group of us.
I hope we learned some of Mom and Dad's lessons, even though we don't celebrate their traditions in the same way. Christ comes first, family is to be treasured, and giving gifts is much more important than receiving them. Merry Christmas, family!