December 14, 2017 By Jan Heise

Childhood Christmas Traditions

Most children love Christmas and imagine that everyone’s Christmas is the same. But holidays are built around family traditions, which give them their rich and unique flavor. We were not a celebratory family by nature. There were only five days that made the cut: Easter, Memorial Day, Fourth of July, Thanksgiving and Christmas.

Grandpa provided the holiday spirit and organized all the decorations. The week before Christmas, he and the older boys would cut down one of our pine trees for the living room. On Christmas Eve we would get out rolls of red and green crepe paper ribbon and string it along the ceiling in the manner of decorating the high school gym for the Junior Prom. Christmas Eve ended with Grandpa cooking up a big pot of cornmeal mush, which was served hot with lots of brown sugar and milk.

My father orchestrated Christmas morning. He would get up early to cook an enormous breakfast. Then he and the boys went into town to the post office. The post office closed early on Christmas Eve so postal workers could be with their families. However, as postmaster, Dad knew the evening train had brought in a shipment of mail that always included some late Christmas packages. So, every year on Christmas morning, he and the boys would gather up last-minute packages and hand deliver them throughout the township.

Our own family gift exchange never happened until mid-afternoon and this was the exclusive domain of my mother. All personal gifts were of a practical nature and Mom was a genius at knowing the gaps in everyone’s wardrobe plus remembering at least one special wish item, which never quite fit into the budget.

It was the Santa gifts however, which showed my mother’s true character. Mom was a passionate teacher by profession with strong opinions regarding child development. She considered most toys as detrimental to a child’s creativity and imagination. Santa gifts therefore followed two strict rules. First, all gifts had to fit into accepted categories: art materials, books and basic sports equipment. Second, no gifts were given to an individual child but were considered the property of the house. We were thankful to have the supplies. Mom was thankful never to have to hear “that’s mine.”

As far as I can remember, there was only one occasion when that rule was broken. I had never had a doll and one spring Dad returned home from a fishing trip in Canada with a big box. That winter, a young Canadian girl named Sonja Henie had won the Olympic gold medal for figure skating and was the national sweetheart. In the box was a Sonja Henie doll dressed in her pink Olympic outfit and wearing ice skates with actual blades. I loved that doll, in part because she was so beautiful and in part because dad broke the house rules to give it to me. Most of all, I loved it because “it was mine!”


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