Saturday, December 25, 2010

Holiday Traditions: A Time To Share

Many people do not realize how many of the customs associated with Christmas in America are actually surprisingly recent.  The Christmas tree is a German tradition introduced into England by Queen Victoria's German husband, Prince Albert--and from there, it spread to America. I have previously written about the nineteenth century's tradition of Christmas shooting--the apparent predecessor!
When I was in grad school, I remember reading a rather sad little account about one of the living history museums in the Midwest that had, for many years, done a Charles Dickens' Victorian Christmas in the reconstructed cabin.  Then, some troublemaker discovered by looking through contemporary accounts that at least in this rather Puritan part of the Midwest in 1840, Christmas was not celebrated.  Like those dour Puritans in 17th century New England, they regarded it as all rather suspect, because of the association of the traditional English Christmas celebration with drunkenness, overeating, and debauchery.  But the problem was that visitors to the museum expected something Dickensian--and what to do?

In my family, there were certain Christmas traditions that I have since learned were slightly different in other Protestant homes--and probably in Catholic homes, too.  For example, like most Christian homes in America, there was a tradition of putting up stockings over the fireplace (or as close as we could find to one in an apartment).  When we came out on Christmas morning, we would find that it had been filled by Santa with nuts, fruits, and candy.  These stockings were not actual functional stockings.  In our home, they were made of plaid flannel cloth, of different patterns, with the name of each of us in red material on the front.  We hung them by the fireplace in age order--I was the youngest, and so always at the right end of the fireplace!

Another part of our tradition--and one that was apparently different from some other homes--was that each of us opened one gift on Christmas Eve, and the rest on Christmas Day.  I have since found out that in some homes, the tradition was to open all the gifts on Christmas Eve.  I would be curious to hear of different traditions.

I used the term "Holiday Traditions" in the title for a reason: I know that some of my readers are Jewish.  I also know that in more than few Jewish homes, the osmotic pressure of Christmas caused some compromises, such as 'Hannukah bushes," and gift giving on Christmas.  (Having tried to raise our children in a Christmas tradition that emphasizes Jesus Christ as the reason for the season, and discourages materialism, I am very sympathetic to the struggles that Jews must go through this time of year.)  What I have read tells me that Hannukah has gone from a relatively minor Jewish holiday to a fairly important one largely because of its proximity to Christmas.  I'm curious to hear about what traditions your family had with respect to not only Christmas, but also Hannukah, and New Year's Day.

In our family, one of our New Year's traditions, inherited from my Manchester-born maternal grandmother, was plum pudding.  It came out of a can, and was served with flaming vanilla extract and an incredibly sweet substance called "hard sauce."  I confess: I did not particularly like it.  Perhaps canned plum pudding is the source of the problem!

Some years ago, I spent some time working with an elderly woman, the mother of my best friend, recording her memoirs.  (A fascinating collection of stories, some horrifying, some absolutely hysterically funny, but unpublishable because she has passed on, and there's no market for memoirs of ordinary people.)  Her account of her family's Christmas and New Year's traditions is quite interesting:
My mother does remember that they had a “watch” for the old year going out and the New Year coming in.  For some reason it was celebrated in their home with eating a piece of chocolate cake with a dill pickle at midnight, then going to bed.  I’m not sure if that was a German custom or just something done because her family liked cake and pickles together. It sounds awful to me, but she said that it was a common thing to serve together in their area.  At least, lots of parties served that combination for refreshments. 

When I was growing up we still had “watch” for year end and begin.  I remember dozing through a lot of it and hoping midnight would hurry up so I could go to bed.  We usually had popcorn to pass the time while the clock dragged on.  

My mother remembered most the Christmases before her Papa died, so I will tell about those. She remembered that the tree was brought in on Christmas Eve.  The days before Christmas the children spent making decorations for the tree.  Walnuts were gathered and wrapped in the salvaged foil pieces.  Some were made into chains for the tree.  The children strung popcorn, and by night the tree was beautiful except for the “finishing touch.” There were no strings of lights in the days before electricity, but by saving pennies all year there were candles for the tree.  It makes you shudder to think of the danger of having all those candles lit at one time on an evergreen, especially in those days when the fire department consisted of family and any neighbor who might help by getting buckets of water from the well to throw on the fire.  It is a wonder there were not more tragedies.  Perhaps the lack of news coverage in those days prevented our knowledge of how many of these Christmas tragedies there were. 

At least caution was used in Papa’s time.  On Christmas morning, first breakfast was served, then all the children—even the older ones—were to wait in the kitchen while Mama and Papa went into the living room.  The children were given a signal when to line up, then all went to see the glory of all the candles on the tree.  This was a sight for awe and wonder, which all watched until Papa thought it was time to blow out the candles and see what Santa had put in the stockings. There was always an orange for each child and store candy.  Store candy was hand-decorated hard candy that you still see advertised in some places today as “old fashioned Christmas candy.”  

Children now seem to think of store candy as always being there, but when my mother was growing up, it was a special once-a-year treat.  My mother remembered the beautiful, colorful ribbon candy, the sour balls, red hot balls, and the twisted peppermints.  Of course, there was plenty of homemade candy for Christmas, as the taffy pull was part of the Christmas Eve preparations.  Unless you have pulled taffy you have no idea of the energy it takes.  My mother and her siblings made vinegar taffy and molasses taffy.  They didn’t make saltwater taffy, although I don’t know if this was because they did not care for it or if they were just too tired after making their first and second choices, vinegar and molasses taffy.  The Christmas taffy tradition carried on when I was younger, but only with the vinegar type.  (My mother never liked molasses after World War I. There was no sugar or flour available during the war, so corn bread was the only bread, and molasses was the common sweetener.  She developed an allergy to corn and distaste for any thing with molasses because of this.)  

There was not much money for store presents so there was only one present for each child.  The orange and store candy were the main treat.  Only once a year did they have an orange, and only one for each child; none for the parents.  She remembered later that had she known at the time, she would have shared the orange with Mama and Papa as they would have enjoyed the treat also.  

There was one other item on the tree, a little Santa Claus that had been on the tree in Germany.  It had been given to my great-grandmother along with the family Bible when she left the Black Forest for her journey to America.  My grandmother received it, probably because no one else in her family wanted it.  It was getting rather faded and bedraggled, and had writing in German on it.  It was made of some sort of fabric.  Of course the German Santa is really Father Christmas, not the jolly fat Santa we see in the shopping malls these days.  That Santa was passed on to my mother, probably for the same reasons that her mother had it, then on to me.  It was on all our Christmas trees until the first disastrous move from Malibu that splintered our family.  There was little time to save the dear things; the little dearly loved Santa was lost in the shuffle.  Nothing has been the same since.  I grieve for that poor tired Santa; he was loved by so many, and was lost on my watch.  I should have been more careful with this legacy. 

When my mother was growing up, the shiniest silver piece of foil was always used to make a star for the top of the tree. The gifts were mostly homemade, corncob dolls and the like. However, one year there were two “store bought” dolls under the tree. Aunt Barb was the oldest child still at the doll stage (Aunt Katie was dating by then), so she was given first choice of the store bought dolls.


  1. When I was a child, my family did a split celebration. We would open gifts from each other after dinner on Christmas Eve -- and those were the only gifts that were put under the tree in the run-up to the holiday. Then, during the night, gifts from "Santa" would magically appear and we would open those on Christmas morning. We each had a special Christmas stocking we would hang from the mantel above the fireplace, which "Santa" would fill up. We'd also put one up for the family dog, which got dog treats. (As I recall the dog was more interested in lying in front of the fire in the fireplace -- he was a wise animal.)

    The other odd tradition my family had was that we always had oysters for dinner on Christmas Eve. For many years it was a stew, then later a casserole. We never had oysters at any other time of year. I have no idea where that tradition came from, but to this day my palate thinks oysters mean Christmas.

    My wife's family did their entire celebration on Christmas morning. There was a period of a few years after we got married when we all lived in the same city, so that worked out very well. We'd spend Christmas Eve with my family and Christmas day with hers.

  2. Oranges were still precious to some people much later than you might think.

    This is a story told by "Sgt. Mom" of the Daily Brief. She grew up in the Los Angeles exurbs in the early 1960s; there were fruiting orange and lemon trees scattered around.

    Some English children visited the area. Sgt Mom recalled one child's wonder at seeing the trees, and being invited to pick an orange if he wanted. "To eat?"

  3. We've had a variety of Christmas traditions depending on where we lived, who our friends were, and how old we were. We usually had stockings. Sometimes we opened all our presents on Christmas eve, and sometimes just one.

    In Uruguay, where most of my adolescence was spent, they shoot off fireworks at midnight on Christmas (and New Years). They get presents on the Day of the Kings (Jan 6). Some families give one present each day between Christmas and Jan 6.

  4. Our gift opening time shifted over the years. In the earliest years of my childhood it was after church on Christmas morning (while our small town Lutheran church still did both Christmas Eve and Christmas Day services). I don't remember if it was consistently before or after the meal. It morphed to 'open one gift on Christmas eve' to finally happening whenever depending on when we could all gather. My parents were wonderfully flexible in celebrating holidays once we were out of the house and had obligations to visit various in-laws and such.

    While my mom's mother was still living in her own home we had soup on Christmas Eve, oyster for her, mom, and dad, and chicken noodle for us kids. I did try the oyster broth a few times but never quite took a liking to it. I was never sure exactly where that came from. She was Swedish-American so there might be a connection to some Scandinavian tradition but her ancestors worked for the wealthy families in Galesburg IL so it might have been adopted from their Christmas customs.

    We never had stockings but as we grew up my mom made the habit of obtaining an ornament to contain a cash gift to us, our spice, and eventually the granchildren.

  5. My mother made her plum pudding from scratch, with the fixings (currents, suet, &c.) poured into tins and boiled until solid. The pudding was then doused with brandy and served enflamed. It was satisfactory, but something I only wished to eat once a year. I never saw the point of the hard sauce.

    I suppose the appreciation of it indicates that palates were once formed differently. Julia Child, describing her upbringing in the 1920s, said that even quite well to do families like her own had rather bland diets (e.g pot roast and melba toast). My grandmother was an enthusiastic cook, but the available meals were influenced by Depression-era austerity and wartime rationing.