Christmas weaves together a merry mixture of memories and magic! And, as an adult, also a dash of stress, perhaps blended with expectations that we put upon ourselves. This covid Christmas is especially hard not being able to be with friends, parties and big family gatherings. Memories make the holiday special, and we can await better times in the future. This year I do miss the holiday parties and gatherings, but I had time to make more gifts and get everything done early enough to enjoy a few small gatherings.
As a child believing in Santa, I remember the growing anticipation and excitement as the big day neared. Had I been too naughty or adequately nice that year? What gifts Santa would leave under the tree? I certainly remember gazing out into the starry night trying to see Santa’s sleigh gliding through the sky and listening attentively as I drifted off to sleep to hear the prancing and pawing of hooves on the roof. I also tried to imagine him stopping at all the homes on earth and contemplated how he magically knew each person’s wishes and could hold all of those gifts in one sleigh. We always left a plate of cookies (one special one from those we had baked and decorated) with a glass of milk, and a carrot for Rudolph, of course.
Did you know that female reindeer are the only ones with antlers this time of year? It figures that females would be the ones to guide Santa without directions and be organized enough to make and wrap all those gifts! If it were men, it’s likely they would still be shopping on Christmas eve? (Not all men of course, but I had to toss that in for laughs)
And if you, like me, were brought up in the Christian tradition (adopted metaphysical beliefs in the 90’s), you may also have pondered the miracle of the birth of Jesus in that Christmas story recited yearly as I did. One memorable pastor animated it yearly reciting the story from memory. You may even have helped set up the traditional nativity scene in your home. My mother had numerous nativity sets displayed in shelves around her home. About 40 years ago, I crocheted a complete nativity scene (one shepherd is missing from a trek to church) and I also have a couple nativity scenes that are from other countries (I don’t display them anymore). As a youngster, my brother referred to the three wise men as the those ‘wise guys’.
In the 1960s, the Christmas season also meant traditional holiday pageants at school and church. Back then they were still Christian-focused and I play the part of Mary at school and church several times, and later directed pageants at church as an adult. I even made angel wings for my son to wear as a singing angel when he was only a few years old. And for several years as an adult, I sang in the church choir and we sang many wonderful songs and cantatas and always had a great white elephant gift exchange at our holiday party accompanied by a potluck.
Growing up in a large, creative family provided its own magic! (Still does.) My mother always made holidays special, by elaborate decorating, giving thoughtful gifts often specially wrapped for the recipient, entertaining many guests, and baking special goodies. She always referred to herself as ‘the other Martha’, certainly not with the staff or money that Ms. Stewart had but definitely full of ideas, creativity and holiday spirit. When I was quite young, holidays were much simpler, with a single tree and those big colored bulbs. We didn’t have as many choices in the stores for decorations, and many were homemade. On our early trees, Mother always insisted on putting the icicles on one by one instead of throwing them on. By the time she was an empty-nester, her tree was donned with white twinkling lights and a Victorian theme. None of us use icicles any more.
Of course, as time marches on, the holidays changed over time and growing up. Most of us enjoyed time with our own families early on Christmas day, and then made the trek to Mother’s for the rest of the day. It’s just not the same without Christmas at my mother’s home, a tradition for so many years. She would bake a nice meal for the large growing group of us (sometimes we would bring dishes too), and have a ton of gifts for the large crowd of children and grandchildren. She always remembered everyone, even those we were dating.
As children in our big Park Hill home, we had a small hall cookie tree (or branch), and sometimes a tree in the both the living room and den. The cookie tree was donned with decorated cut out sugar cookies that we had made, often a messy endeavor with frosting and sprinkles all over the kitchen and dining room. From Santa’s, and snowmen, to stars and bells, each was decorated with frosting, silver pareils and colored sugars. Guests could choose one from the tree when they left. We also enjoyed baking old family favorites like Mexican wedding cakes and the chocolate/coconut /oatmeal cookies. After skipping several years, I finally baked some Mexican wedding cakes this year, and upon taking a bite, that memorable flavor just cried out “Christmas” to me as memories flooded my senses. Amazing how smells, tastes, and other senses bring back so many memories!
For a few years, my parents talentedly painted the nativity scene on the windows of the Fellowship Hall at church and also on the large front picture window of our home. The Fellowship Hall had 5 tall windows and each had a different scene painted in it depicting the Christmas story. They were up on ladders for days making it come alive! Then, another year they made gold paper mâché’ nativity scenes to set out at church. In her later years, my mother sewed ornaments from the song Twelve Days of Christmas with the same quantities of each verse’s gift and they have been used for many holiday gatherings since. One year for a gag party gift, she took an old hand mirror and glued small carrot pieces around it for a ’24-karat (carrot) look.
If keeping six children fed wasn’t enough, my mother also enjoyed entertaining and inviting others over fairly often. On Sundays, we usually had a nice meal which was started in the oven before we left for church, and finished when we returned home. It could be a nice roast beef, or some other main dish. We had adopted grandmothers in Denver, in particular Goldie and Sara (sisters) and Rose (whose nephew became my mother’s second husband) and Mrs. Wynne. They loved to have a home cooked meal and enjoyed having children around since they had none of their own. As a teen, sometimes I invited friends from school or church over for parties. In her later years, Mother had an open house for Christmas at her home, with two trees, lighted reindeer in the yard, many wreaths, music playing, and of course an awry of finger foods and sweets to eat. She loved to plan parties and church programs and did so until a month before she died in 2013.
Christmas and other holidays wouldn’t be complete without the five Reavey girls having matching dresses (my brother later had a tie or vest to match). My mother would stay up sewing late the night before the holiday finishing our dresses to wear to church. For Christmas, we had turquoise, black, red and green velvet dresses. Easter one year we had dotted swiss and capes. By the time I was a teen, I really didn’t want to wear the same outfit anymore, so my style changed, but not the fabric. We had other matching outfits for many years, and for one vacation trip to Michigan, and even matching silky blouses as older teens for an outing the Nutcracker ballet. We always took up the entire front pew in church and the church ladies would ogle over our latest apparel. Most of the time, we had our family photos taken in our matching dresses. At least once, Mother made herself a matching dress too. I think the first time she made ‘matching’ dresses was when there were only two of us and we had white dotted swiss dresses with turquoise satin sashes (like the song in Sound of Music) and had professional pictures done.
In those stereotypic times, and coming from rural Michigan farming families, my father always wanted his girls in dresses, and prefers to see us wear them even now. My parents insisted that jeans were for farmers and we weren’t allowed to wear them. We couldn’t even wear pants to school for many years. My first pair of jeans were from a babysitter’s brother who was in the Navy, so the jeans were button-down bell bottoms. I was happy to wear them as most of my friends were wearing jeans by then.
Gift giving was of great importance too, though we were never wealthy. We always had stockings hung on the mantel, usually filled with an orange (seasonal), some nuts and maybe some tiny gifts. Mother knew what we wanted for Christmas, and often we got it, or something closely resembling our wish that she could afford. Almost every year, we received one clothing item, and one fun item or a family game. We shopped with Mother who chose gifts carefully with the recipient in mind. One funny story was when we were in elementary school, my mother and dad each took two of us shopping separately for one another and we ended up with the very same gift! One of my rare disappointing gift memory, was in about 4th grade when I wanted a microscope, but was given a tiny electric sewing machine. I think she felt it was more girlish, and it never worked very well. In junior high school, I wanted a pea jacket like my idol Monkee Davy Jones had, and I got a cheap version of it which really wasn’t very warm but made me happy.
Have you ever discovered a gift beforehand and ruined the surprise? Mother told us she discovered one of best gifts in an outer building on her farm before Christmas. It was a hat making kit for her dolls I believe with fabrics, pins, etc. and little hat stands and very special. Obviously, her mother was also good at gift-giving and sewing. My grandmother’s last gift to me was a small cross necklace. Mother collected dolls later on and made quite a few doll clothes over the year, and also 250 bridal gowns and bridal party gowns too. Another story of early discoveries, was the year my teen son found a stereo with speakers I had hidden from him in the basement among other boxes. Instead of leaving it be, and acting surprised on Christmas, he took it up to his room and set it all up that day and said ‘thanks mom’ when I got home from work! Then Christmas morning was a bit disappointing.
It was traditional back in the 1950-60’s for girls to receive bride dolls and we were no exception. We each got one around kindergarten, and being a seamstress, my mother sewed them special clothes too, usually a nightgown and party dress. I received my bride doll when I was about 5 years old in Michigan. She was a dark-haired beauty with moveable legs and arms (Madame Alexander Cissette doll) and eyes that opened and closed. They are now collector items. Over time her appendages became unstrung, and my mother kindly had her fixed one holiday when I was an adult. In fact, one Christmas surprise was when she fixed all of our bride dolls, made little painted chests for each them, and sewed clothing from pieces of fabric from clothing we had as children. For mine, she made a blue negligee and gown similar to what she had made originally, a checkered dress made from my kindergarten dress, and a dancing outfit, plus the wedding gown and veil of course! It was one of the best gifts I ever received! We each enjoyed that special Christmas gift.
Another adult Christmas she repurposed our photos from childhood into albums for us. One of the more infamous stories was the year she decided to make her “other Martha’ cookbook for gifts. She had to drive to Nebraska to the self-publisher, but she didn’t tell us she was leaving town and when we couldn’t reach her, we were so concerned we called the police. They found a note to her neighbor about caring for the cat while she was away. She could have just told us she was going to visit my sister in Kansas and we wouldn’t have worried. Anyway, she got the cookbook published and gave us copies for Christmas, and gave copies to other family and friends, and may have sold a few. She had to get a second printing, as it was so popular. I still use mine today, and we figured out a few of our favorite recipes were missing, but she didn’t ask us to edit it since it was a surprise! My goal is to make one of my own one of these days.
Also, when I was about 4 years old, my father, being very handy, made me a two-story doll house from wood for Christmas in Michigan. Unfortunately, when we moved to Denver in 1961, there was no room for it in the small trailer, so it was left behind. I’ve never understood why someone didn’t save it for me for later. Anyway, I bugged him to make me another one as an adult. Instead, he inherited two from a client of his and I took one of the large dollhouses with lights, many rooms facing the front and back including an attic and staircase. Sadly, it is so large it just sits in the basement now but is furnished, but I have never decorated it the way I would like to with wallpaper and flooring. And having a son and grandson, they won’t want it, so hoping eventually to have someone in the family who will enjoy it.
In 1961, the Christmas my Grandmother died, we were living in a two-room basement apartment where my mother and I had lived in when I was born and she babysat for the Weber’s three children. That year my father surprised us with a kitchen set that he had built, a sink and stove made of wood. It was hard to hide from us, but we sure enjoyed them, and later used them in our playhouse, which was made from an old chicken coop. The Weber’s had a family tradition of making waffles and creamed eggs for Christmas Eve, a tradition we have carried on since.
We began a new holiday family tradition in 2004, the year my grandson was born. I am not sure whether the incident or the idea came first, but the idea took hold. The way it works, is at the end of the year we share our most crazy and stupid incidents and vote on the winner who did the most stupid thing for that year. My sister found a ceramic pig on a sleigh that is the prize for the year, and travels from person to person that wins every year. We call it the Stu-Pig award. A few years ago, I had a book made with a pig on the front to record all of the winners before we forget, so now we have a ledger depicting the winners and their stupid act that won. Some of the stories are quite detailed, funny and embarrassing!
Most of us have inherited that Christmas spirit and the high expectations of making the holiday merry and bright. It has its pitfalls, when others buy store-bought food and we are slaving away in the kitchen. Some might find one tree with simple ornaments fine, whereas many of us decorate many trees with various themes and attention to detail. We decorate our homes, send out greeting cards (about 100 now for me) with letters, buy or make gifts which we wrap, and entertain friends in a pattern we inherited from a woman with a generous Christmas spirit. Christmas is not the same without her, but we are carrying on many of her traditions and have many cherished memories to treasure.