The holiday season is a great time to investigate traditions associated with our families. When we interview older relatives, asking them to share holiday memories often elicits an animated response, and the information can be valuable material for us to preserve later on. One of my best Christmas gifts occurred in the early years of the 1980s, when I decided to write to several of my elderly great aunts and first cousins of my grandparents about their earliest Christmas memories. In several cases these were ladies born in the early 1890s whose earliest memories pre-dated the twentieth century. I still have their letters, which they wrote out in a shaky hand, setting out how my great-, and in some cases, great-great grandparents celebrated Christmas. One great-aunt on the Neal side, who had grown up in an upper middle class home in southern Kentucky, described the paper bell that was hung in the hall, the Roman candles that were given to the children to shoot off (one flame nearly missing another aunt), and a recipe for Christmas custard (egg nog, Kentucky-style), that my great-great grandmother (born in 1843) had always made. I still make it for guests, a Civil War era symbol of hospitality.
Another great-aunt, who had grown up in Goshen, Indiana, in the 1900s, talked about how her parents would decorate the family’s modest tree while the children attended evening church services. My grandfather had gotten stage fright and refused to say his lines in the Christmas pageant, so his little brother had stepped in for him. When they returned home, they found that Santa had come while the kids were at church. Money was tight, but my great-grandmother had scraped up enough money to buy each of the younger girls a bisque head doll. Candles were lit on the tree, but there was always a bucket of water handy in case of fire. A Beatty cousin who lived in the country in the early 1900s said her grandmother, my great-great grandmother (born in 1834), would never light the candles on her tree for fear of fire, since there was no fire department in rural Kosciusko County at the time.
My maternal grandmother, born in Louisville, Kentucky, in 1899, remembered Christmas mornings with presents that Santa had carefully stacked on chairs in the parlor. They had only a very simple tree with handmade ornaments and popcorn strings. Her mother and grandmother, born in Switzerland, would bake Mailänderlis, a Swiss butter cookie cut in shapes and painted with egg yolk before baking. The tradition was carried down, I loved them as a child, and I got the idea in 1990 to video my grandmother (then a spry aged 91), preparing the dough and rolling the cookies out, giving an explanation in the style of Julia Child. Today, sadly, my children hate the cookies, I’m a vegan and can’t eat them, and the tradition has been allowed to go dormant, but I still have the video for any future descendant who wants to take on the challenge.
I’m also fortunate to have a short 78 rpm record, made for Christmas 1939, with greetings from the family, my grandfather singing “O Holy Night” in his baritone voice, and a precious clip of my great-grandmother (born in 1863), sending greetings. My project this year is to photograph and catalog all of my Christmas ornaments (some of which go back to the 1930s), and put together a kind of ornament heirloom catalog with information about where the ornament came from, if known, and who had it before. (Most are of the German painted blown-glass variety).
All of these stories are among my holiday treasures, and you can make treasures like this, too, by sending emails to older relatives, cataloging decorations, and, yes, making videos of traditions and events. The stories and traditions won’t just descend to you – they take effort to record. But in the end, you will find it is definitely worth it.