Christmas memories are layered year by year, and we all have the annual opportunity to embellish our own holiday filagree. Memories start in childhood and we forge ahead with them, building. When my 92-year-old mother was a child in the 1920s, she remembers that on Christmas all eight children received an orange. That was it for the big family in the little mining town of Fairpoint, Ohio.
When my brother and I were very young in the 1950s, we spent Christmas in Fairpoint with my mom’s sister and Baci, my Polish grandmother. There was a big feast on Christmas Eve, Midnight Mass and then back home to a warm, coal-scented kitchen to open presents. The cousins all received toys and clothes and comic books — and an orange.
By the time my two sisters were born, we didn’t travel to Ohio anymore in the winter, but made our own holiday. The anticipation of Christmas started weeks earlier with the arrival of the big Sears, Roebuck and Co. catalog, with its slick, glossy pages that we perused endlessly. We hung our stockings with care on the mantel in our row house in Philadelphia, with faith even though there was no flue, and found them filled with goodies all the way down to an orange in the toe.
When you marry, you blend traditions, working it out year by year. My husband John’s family didn’t wrap presents; they just woke up Christmas morning to a display of assembled toys. My family’s Christmas morning was a vast heap of crumbled paper, much of it colored comics that my mom saved each week to use for wrapping. I still prefer to wrap; John, not.
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How glad we were when we stopped traveling for the holiday, trying to keep both sides of the extended family satisfied. I remember the first year that we just stayed home and made our own Christmas, my mom joining us since Dad had died that year. We cut out and sewed quilted Christmas placemats that we still use every year. We hung homemade Christmas stockings near our wood stove and also hung John’s red felt stocking that he made in kindergarten, too skinny to hold much more than a small tangerine and some pens.
Over the years, our family traditions deepened, and our treasure trove of handmade ornaments grew. Preschool treasures are the best — Joe’s painted baby food jar candle holder, the red velvet ribbon with a smiling 4-year-old Alex, the glittery star made by Rose — each revisited for annual renewal of our faith in family. That continued for a couple decades, enhanced by close friends that blended us into their holiday celebrations as we blended them in to ours.
Then the inevitable happened; the kids grew up and left town. There were some years that they traveled to see us, more that we traveled to see them. Costa Rica was a fun place to visit Alex in December, even better once his son, Santana, was born on Jan. 2, 2006. Joe and his wife, Neian, also a State College native, settled in Boulder and we all welcomed Lilah to our world on Thanksgiving Day in 2011. Our Christmas that year on the Front Range with the baby was magical. And Rose gave the entire family a wonderful gift last Christmas when she arranged for us all to stay in Austria for an Old World holiday. It is a memory tucked in a sacred place in my heart forever.
If your holiday spirit ever needs to be rekindled, head to Salzburg where the town does it right. Our family assembled and spread out into the three apartments that formed a triangle in the center of the old city. Joe, Neian and Lilah’s apartment had a view of the fortress; my apartment with John was near Mirabell Palace and gardens and an especially robust outdoor farmers market. Global vagabonds Al and Santana crashed on Rose’s fold out couch, in the center of all the action. John brought our Christmas stockings when he arrived on the 23rd and I purchased oranges from Spain. Finally we were all together in that fairytale city.
While many aspects were memorable — the Christmas markets on almost every corner and mountaintop, the Mozart dinner at St. Peter’s baroque hall with opera entertainment, the cobblestone Getreidegasse with welcoming shops — the most important was that we were all there in that one place. On Christmas Eve, I volunteered to take both Santana and Lilah to my apartment so the others could attend Midnight Mass and listen to the singing of “Silent Night” not far from where it was first performed in 1818. Having both grandchildren asleep under the same roof was my Christmas gift.
On Christmas Day, the festivities started early and went late. In the middle of the day there was yet another trip to a Christmas market in a nearby village with special activities for children, but I opted to stay back at Rose’s apartment and tend the goose that was roasting in the oven and set the table with the antique plates that she found at a flea market with forest scenes of Bavaria on them. Just knowing that our whole family was going to sit down together and share Christmas dinner was enough for me.
I have written for the Centre Daily Times for 35 years, and this column will be my last one for a while. I’ve been gone for several weeks, out in Colorado spending time with Lilah, who just turned 5. That joy I felt last Christmas was kindled by family and made me realize that nothing else matters.
It is my time to be available to this little girl and teach her some of what I know about life. We have cooking and craft projects lined up to do for weeks. I get to take her to school and dance class sometimes and just be a part of her world. Hopefully, the four months that I spend here in my temporary house in Niwot will seem much longer to her than the blink of an eye that it already seems to me.
I’ll get to see this Christmas reflected in her luminous eyes as she sits in front of the blazing tree taking it all in, forging her own memories. None of us need presents. We need presence. And an orange in the stocking.
Anne Quinn Corr is the author of “Seasons of Central Pennsylvania,” of several iBook cookbooks (“Food, Glorious Food!” “What’s Cooking?!” and “Igloo: Recipes to Cure the Winter Blues”) that are available for free on iTunes. She regularly posts to the blog HowToEatAndDrink.com and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.