A Christmas Essay by Kim VanderWerf for goodfoodgreatdesign ™ (previously posted on my blog Feast 12/12/15)
I grew up in the 1970s in a little valley about thirteen miles from the nearest town and belonged to a family of five. Which was made up of mom, dad, a younger brother, and a younger sister. We lived in a hundred-year-old farmhouse next to our grandparents’ on the family farm. From our home, we could see our grandparents’ next door, our neighbors across the main gravel road in front of our home, distant neighbors by their barn light (known as a security light now) and the wisps of smoke from their wood stove. Occasionally we would hear the bark of that distant neighbor’s coon hounds if the wind blew just right. As the year wound down and the holidays grew near, a certain mood took over in our household. Christmas time was a special time in our home; a time when it seemed my parents’ moods brightened and even they had a child-like state of mind. You know the one I’m talking about. The happy, peaceful and hopeful feelings that every child has at Christmas time. My siblings and I didn’t have to be reminded to behave, nor do I ever remember being threatened that Santa would not come. Though no doubt we were anxious, and probably at times slightly giddy, we knew that Christmas was about more than just presents. You see our parents’ weren’t like some of the parents’ of the time, they did not compete at Christmas time with the Jones’.
First and foremost in our home at Christmas time it was all about Christ. Christ was brought into our lives by way of the church we belonged to and its annual Christmas program. It was there that we learned the story of the baby Jesus as each year one of us took a turn participating in the play. Though I loved going to church and enjoyed watching the Christmas play, I really looked forward to the box of candy we were given as we exited the nave. The play was held at night time so all the way home all you would hear from mom was “no candy before bed”. To which of course meant I had very little time to ever so quietly sneak out the biggest piece of peanut brittle I could find.
Christmas time meant a lot of time spent with the elder members of our family. I grew up with four step great aunts all in their 70’s and a step great uncle. There was also a reverend in our family along with a church choir director. So one could say I was brought up surrounded by Christian influence. Often my father would include bible verses in simple conversation even though he himself was a lapsed Lutheran. Whether it was the ever-present Christian influence or the spirit of the season, mom made sure that giving to others remained an important part of our Christmas festivities. She was ever busy trying to find just the right gift for the elders, wrapping them just right, and making arrangements from one to the other on when we’d come over to visit. Even at their ages each great aunt had their home warmly decorated for Christmas and all had made the customary goodies from their native country of Norway. Once the meal was ready we would enjoy Swedish meatballs, mashed potatoes, carrots, corn, and gravy. Desserts were varied but usually were cranberry salads, glorified rice and of course- lefse, rosettes, and sandbakkels.
After the meal we three kids would sit quietly amongst the adults as they visited. Then eventually we’d be handed our gift. From the elders, our gifts were usually homemade. Over the years my sister and I received hand knit Barbie clothes, stocking caps, mittens, and homemade Christmas tree ornaments. Never did we look down upon these gifts even though we knew our friends were receiving the store bought kind from their aunts and uncles.
Because of the different groups, my mom belonged to there was always the Secret Santa gifts to look forward to buying and receiving. It was fun to watch her get someone’s name and then have to go out and try to find the gift requested. It was even more fun to see her expression when someone who wasn’t shopper savvy would draw her name and ultimately give her a gift she hadn’t requested. But of course mom would make good use of it and the rest of us, well, we’d sure get a good laugh out of it. My sister and I belonged to 4-H so we would also have a Christmas party and exchange gifts. I always asked for a Lifesaver’s Storybook for my gift and sometimes I would actually get one. For me, that was the ultimate gift and one I still asked for up to a few years ago. As a family, I think we enjoyed the giving of gifts way more than ever receiving them.
Christmas Eve was always spent at our grandparents’ home watching Doug Henning, the magician, on t.v. while grandma prepared her Oyster Stew. Neither of my siblings, nor I or mom, would eat the Oyster Stew so grandma prepared a casserole for us. Of course, it goes without saying my eyes were constantly perusing the candy dishes because grandpa would usually have quite an assortment of hard candy at this time of year. After the evening meal, we would present grandpa and grandma with their gifts. Grandpa was easy to buy for because like me he had a major sweet tooth. So he usually got a flannel shirt, some mixed nuts, and hard candy. Grandma liked the prettier things in life so her gifts were pretty knick-knacks, gloves, or her favorite– a gift set of Chantilly dusting powder. Before the end of the night, grandma would open a box of chocolates and each of us would be able to pick one. I always wanted the vanilla cream one but usually ended up with a caramel nougat. Then back to our home we would go where we would shortly be sent up to bed. After a few reminders that “Santa won’t come if you’re still awake”, we would settle down and go off to sleep.
Come Christmas morning we would wait for two (sometimes more) hours for dad to finish chores. While Mom was in the kitchen making a special breakfast of sausages and eggs we were allowed to open our stocking. Our stockings were stretched out old socks once worn by Dad now retired, clean, and full of goodies. Each stocking contained a handful of hard candy in cling film, a candy cane, and the ever traditional orange. You can read the story behind the tradition of putting oranges in stocking here, which I thought was very interesting. Having cared for many elderly people throughout my healthcare career, I know that getting an orange for Christmas during the Great Depression was a real treat and sometimes all a family could afford. Mom no doubt was carrying on a tradition started by her grandparents as she was born a few years after the final year of the Great Depression in Canada. Fruit at Christmas time and all through the holidays is a big thing throughout Europe, the U.S., and Canada. There’s fruitcakes, fruit baskets, and fruit of the month clubs to name just a few things that promote the giving and partaking of fruit during the Christmas holidays. Of course, as soon as I saw the hard candy or candy cane the orange I was given was soon lost to the world. Just kidding, it was set aside to eat AFTER the candy and breakfast was eaten.
Once dad was in the house we could open our bigger present; as we each got one big present. I usually asked for LP records, while my sister asked for games or clothing. Our little brother always wanted whatever new John Deere tractor or piece of machinery was popular that year from the local farm implement. Smaller gifts were Christmas nighties or slippers, new denim jeans or socks. After our presents were opened it was dad’s turn and I think all of us were most excited for his reaction. Each year he got the same things, yet, he was always thankful and happy to get new ones-socks, long underwear, and that ever-present winter staple in the Midwest– a flannel shirt. And what about mom you ask? Well, she purchased her own Christmas gifts because she was ever so particular as to what she would want. Usually, she wanted a flannel nightgown, soft socks or slippers, and sometimes a soft sweater or housecoat. She bought the gifts I wrapped them and come Christmas morning they were a complete surprise to her.
Christmas decorations in our home were simple; our tree was always decorated with handmade ornaments. The traditions were abundant from the meal we ate on Christmas Eve with our grandparents’ to the oranges in our stockings Christmas morn. Christmas vacation was a time for sledding parties and ice-skating and one year even going for a horse-drawn sleigh ride. Mom would spend two weeks every year making her famous homemade fudge and special Christmas Sugar cookies. Which of course meant that between all the Christmas break activities I was forever sneaking into the pantry eating fudge and sugar cookies. Christmas dinner was usually mom’s famous baked BBQ ribs but sometimes it was a ham with her delicious scalloped potatoes and creamed corn. I loved, loved, loved my Christmases growing up. It set in stone how I’ve spent each Christmas since I’ve left home. Steeped in tradition with its common theme in giving, Christ is still the reason for the season in our home.
Each year at this time I look back and the ghost of Christmas past is very present. It’s a great experience, I’m very thankful for the memories I have. As I grew into an adult I passed some of my family’s Christmas traditions onto others, and I am certain that if they’ve remembered the giving part rather than focusing on the receiving part their Christmases have always been memorable. When I first met my husband he was very stressed at Christmas time. His family celebrated, throughout his childhood in the states, Christmas on December 5th. That is the date that people from the Netherlands celebrate Sinterklaas Day. I’ve written about this day on my blog a few times. In short, it is a day dedicated to the children in the Netherlands where St. Nick arrives by boat and gives gifts and candies to all. As adults, my husband’s family drew names and then got together on December 5th to exchange the gifts.
When we got married I was expected to change my day of celebration to December 5th. But I would not do that. Instead, I compromised and did both because there was no way I was going to give up the way I celebrated Christmas. Their celebration did not involve Sinterklaas arriving in their home giving gifts to kids but instead was each adult drawing names and then buying the gifts from that person’s list. Christmas dinner was the same meal served at family get-togethers throughout the year. And although we enjoyed getting together with family on Christmas day what inevitably happened between family members and gift giving made it a very stressful day for us. Let’s just suffice it to say what usually happened would definitely rival some of the Christmas movies made today where the entire family is having a meltdown.
By our second year of marriage, I had taken my husband home so that he could see how my family celebrated this special time. I wanted him to experience how warm, and friendly and giving centered my family made the special day. After that experience, he was sold on celebrating Christmas the way my family enjoyed celebrating it. By the third year of our marriage, we were celebrating in our home with some of the traditions I had grown up with and some new ones of our own. Now twenty-one Christmases later Christ and the gift of giving is still the main focus of our Christmas time.
As your family gets ready to enjoy whatever celebration you have in the month of December don’t let how others choose to celebrate the day affect how you enjoy yours. Comparison really is the thief of all joy. Enjoy your traditions and make new ones. Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays and Good Cheer!
Here are a few more Christmas decor pictures. Notice half-way through our little ham needed to get in on the action. He kept posing in front of the camera each place I stopped to take a snap. Finally, once I got the hint, I took his picture. Our Christmas tree is decorated in Blue, White, and Red as a remembrance of those who lost their lives and the families of those whose lives were lost in Paris. You may also notice if you click on the photo that there are spaceships. Yes, spaceships. For nearly twenty-one years my husband has been collecting Star Trek ships (Hallmark Ornaments) and this year I promised him they could go on the tree. So they are there amongst the blue, white and red and if I may so I think they look just grand!
Until next time always remember to eat good food!
Written by Kim A VanderWerf