When I was young, we had so many wonderful traditions for Christmas, and I really miss them. The best part of it all was spending time with so many people in the family. There’s something special about traditions and time with family.
At some point around Christmas, we went to the fire house in the small town where my grandparents lived. We were each given an orange, a popcorn ball, and a small box of clear hard candies shaped like houses and animals. That was many years ago, before most of my cousins were born. I can’t remember which day we went – Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, or some other day.
On Christmas Eve, we went to my grandparents’ house. Some of the adults (like my grandma) were in the kitchen all day, cooking. There were aunts, uncles, and cousins; usually at least 20 people. There weren’t enough chairs, and the kitchen table wasn’t big enough for everyone. The kitchen table was moved into the living room/dining room area, and a second table set end to end with it. All available chairs were used, and boards were laid across some for makeshift benches. The table was set with two tablecloths (one to represent the living family members, and the second to represent the deceased ones). A thin layer of hay was under the tablecloth, representing the manger. An extra plate is set out to symbolize the ancestors and to show that people are welcome. Dinner was at dusk, and started with a prayer.
We had a menu that reflected our Ukrainian heritage. It included no meat or dairy products. We had rice halupki (rice wrapped in cabbage leaves and covered with a tomato sauce), pirohi (AKA pierogies – mashed potatoes encased in dough), mushrooms with tomatoes and garlic, bibalki (bite sized bread covered in poppy seeds and honey), kapusta (sauerkraut and butter beans), fish, and a type of flat bread garnished with slices of fresh garlic. There was soda to drink, and we kept all of the bottles cold by sticking them into the snow on the back porch! The children had a strange superstition that if you put down your fork before you were done with dinner, you’d have bad luck the following year. I’m not sure who made that up, but you should have seen all of the strange things we did to keep from putting our forks down. Woe to anyone who forgot and put it down. I’m not completely sure, but I think there were times someone would stop eating just because they accidentally put down their fork!
Once everyone’s belly was full, the leftovers were put away, and the kitchen had to be cleaned. There was an assembly line for getting the dishes washed, dried, and put away.
After dinner and clean up, there were some interesting activities that I really enjoyed. We spread hay on the floor in the kitchen. A collection of change was gathered up, and my grandmother would put the coins and some mixed nuts (still in the shell) in her apron. The kids would each grab a bowl and get ready. Grandma would stand on a chair with the apron full of nuts and money, and throw it by the handful on the floor. We’d all grab whatever we could find in the hay, and put it in our bowl. Of course, some of my uncles would stand on the sides, pick up nuts and throw them at us. Some also would show the youngest ones where to find the money since it was more difficult for them and they were slower. When it was all over, the adults would clean up the hay while the children would count their money. The fight over the nutcracker would start, too! One year, I got smart and bought additional nut crackers for my grandma.
Late in the evening, Santa would pay us a visit. My uncles, jokesters all, liked to go out on the porch and come in, yelling, “ho ho ho” to trick us while we were waiting. After several false alarms, we would finally get rewarded by the actual Santa visit! Santa would come in with a bag of gifts. He would sit in the kitchen, and pick the presents out of his bag, one by one. He’d call the name on the box, and the recipient would sit on his lap and be given a candy cane. There was the usual question and answer session – if the child had been good, and what they wanted for Christmas. They’d be given the small gift to open that night, and then the next person was called. At the end, there was always a piece of coal for the oldest man in the house (my dad, after my grandfather died).
Speaking of coal, my grandparents have a coal furnace. It kept the house VERY warm in the winter. So warm, in fact, that we often went outside on the back porch to cool off. I even remember rubbing snow on our cheeks sometimes!
There were pumpkin rolls, poppy seed rolls, nut rolls, and plenty of candy and cookies. We also had oranges and other fruit, and the nuts, of course. I remember there was always homemade fudge, chocolate covered cherries, and many other candies.
The adults would sit around and play cards for the rest of the evening. Tea was served for everyone while we snacked on all of the goodies.
It was so difficult to sleep that night. Not only were we excited about Santa coming, but we were all hopped up on sugar!
Christmas morning we woke up early. We knew we weren’t allowed to go down until everyone was awake, and our parents had to go down first. My dad would go down while we waited at the top of the stairs. After what seemed like an eternity (but was probably two minutes), he’d come back up, proclaiming that we should just go back to bed because there was nothing down there. We knew he was kidding. He’d walk down slowly – we had to stay behind him. When we got to the bottom of the stairs, we’d run excitedly to the tree. Our parents would pick up the presents one at a time and hand them out.
We went back to our grandparents’ house for Christmas Day dinner. In addition to Christmas Eve leftovers, we had turkey, ham, mashed potatoes, gravy, and salad. Of course, there were also more of the candy, cookies, and other sweets. The dinner was served in the middle of the day, with our double table and makeshift benches. Group effort cleanup and dishes followed again. Then, of course, was the card game.
All in all, it was always a joyful and loving time. Memories are precious.