Christmas Memories – and Changing Celebrations (part 2)

Introduction: In this article, Jessica Edwards describes Christmas traditions in her family, including a creche and some very special cookies. Jessica has had a lifelong interest in her family’s history – especially on her father’s side, which goes back to the first settlers in Pennsylvania, Jamestown, and New England – and has documented and added more than 37,000 people to her family tree!

Editor’s note: Part 1 of this series ended with this paragraph:

When my grandparents found out my mother had started making these lists of toys for Christmas, they were horrified. They said my parents were spoiling us – we should just accept what we got and be happy about it. They wanted it to be like when my mother was young. They strongly felt that Christmas should focus more on the religious part of the day and not the presents.

Let’s continue this thread in Part 2:

Actually, we didn’t ignore the religious part of Christmas. My mother had purchased a small nativity scene, or creche, when she got married (it had a stable, Mary, Joseph, and the baby Jesus). That was all she could afford, along with a few Christmas ornaments for the tree they would get (back then it was rare and very expensive to have an artificial tree).

Photo: nativity scene. Credit: Avee558; Wikimedia Commons.
Photo: nativity scene. Credit: Avee558; Wikimedia Commons.

Each New Year’s Day my mother would carefully wrap the nativity figurines and stable in cloth and put them away with the ornaments. The following November she would buy a few more pieces for the nativity scene and a few more ornaments for the next Christmas tree. In addition to the new ornaments bought each year, she would add the ornaments each of us made in school, keeping the collection in a box.

Each Christmas season, she would take out the box (later boxes, as the inventory grew) on December 17th (my father’s birthday) after dinner. My father would test out the strings of lights he’d acquired. As a park policeman in Washington, D.C., he was usually part of the group that were given strings of lights at the end of each season from the trees that were set up in government buildings like the White House or the tree on the Mall. Each president didn’t want “the same look” as the prior year’s decorations, and giving the lights away saved the government from having to store everything. Besides, as my father explained it, this was just a benefit from having protected the officials in D.C.

My mom and dad would put the lights on the house and the Christmas tree we got that year, and then my mother and the three children would decorate the tree. After the tree was decorated, she carefully unwrapped each part of the nativity scene, and she would tell us the story from the Bible of Jesus’s birth. By the time I was in college that nativity scene had pieces that needed replacing (many were ceramic or porcelain, so would somehow break over the year in storage), but the stable was the original one.

Each year the setting up of the nativity scene became a part of the family celebration that we all relished. Unfortunately, when my mother needed to downsize after my father’s death, she parted with the family nativity scene and all its figurines, and just bought this one-piece nativity scene instead. I miss that original set – not because of its value, but because of what it represented: family and memories of us being together.

Note: the below photo is by Jonathunder and is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

Photo: six assorted kolache (kolatchke) cookies served on a paper plate at the Czeck bakery in the Bohemian Commercial Historical District in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Credit: Jonathunder; Wikimedia Commons.
Photo: six assorted kolache (kolatchke) cookies served on a paper plate at the Czeck bakery in the Bohemian Commercial Historical District in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Credit: Jonathunder; Wikimedia Commons.

Another part of the pre-Christmas preparations my mother continued was the making of a type of Czech cookie called kolatchke. She started the tradition of making them about a week before Christmas and it took all of us to make them.

My father had gotten this big, heavy grinder that had to be attached to the table, and it was his responsibility to grind all of the walnuts. Periodically you also fed through the grinder a few slices of bread to “clean out” the nuts – this was mixed in as well.

My mother would mix up the dough and roll it out onto our kitchen table on powdered sugar. It had to be done in a cool room because the dough would stick to the table if the temperature increased too much.

My first job was to take what my father had ground and mix the nuts with sugar (to taste – and I had the sweet tooth in the family) and water (just enough to moisten the mix). This was done in a pan on the stove until it was heated (but not too hot), and then I would take the mix to my mother.

She spooned the nut mix onto the dough. She would tell me whether they were going to be cookies, or small or large rolls, and I’d have to fold up the dough around the mixture to make cookies or roll the dough up to make rolls. I carefully placed them on the cookie sheets and checked the ones already in the oven because they cooked quickly. When my father started working on the weekends, my brother was old enough to help (and later my sister), so some of the cookie jobs changed.

When the cookies were all baked, the final job before we could start eating them was to sprinkle all of them (laid out on newspaper all around the kitchen) with powdered sugar. We then put them in one big container for us, and then on plates that were wrapped with foil to share with my aunts and uncles living near and my parents’ friends or those who had helped us during the past year. Finally, we could eat!

Although my parents continued this cookie tradition throughout their marriage, the amount produced eventually became less and less as it grew harder with less hands (first I left for college, then my brother moved into his own apartment, and then my sister finally also left for college). But even after my father died my mother continued to make these special Christmas cookies (my brother had moved back home to help take care of my father as he developed health problems, and so he helped her) up until a few years before her own death.

By this time I had started making the cookies for my friends and family in Arizona, and then later for myself and friends in Virginia and Utah. It is a rare year to not have any, and even more rare is for any “to go bad” (they are a very moist cookie, so the longer they sit the greater the chance for them to develop mold). When I make them I now know I can freeze them and then microwave them briefly to get that “fresh from the oven” feel.

My mother grew up going to mass (the family was Roman Catholic) either Christmas Eve or Christmas morning (sometimes both), which was one tradition that was left behind in Endicott when she moved to Washington, D.C., to become a draftsperson for “Ma Bell.” When I was growing up, I saw some televised masses occasionally on television but was frankly puzzled at this tradition. However, the tradition of Christmas mass is still strong in some of my friends’ families even today.

What are some of your Christmas memories, and what holiday traditions have your family kept, or changed? Please share with us in the comment section.

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Note on the header image: “The Christmas Tree” by Albert Chevallier Tayler, 1911. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

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