Friday, December 5, 2014

An Old Fashioned Christmas

RHYS BOWEN: I'm currently writing a Molly Murphy Christmas book, called Away in a Manger,  which is perfect as I can get into the spirit of the season as I write.... or can I? Would Molly have been surprised to learn that some people find a new car under their tree? That all presents can be bought online? That people fight each other to get into stores on pre-Black Friday Thanksgiving Day sales?

Sometimes I think we've completely lost the spirit of the season with this constant desire for bigger and better gifts, more and more of everything. In a way that's why I'm enjoying taking myself back to Molly's time, when children were thrilled to find an orange, some nuts, and maybe a small toy in their stockings. When the Christmas Day feast of turkey/pies/plum puddings really was a treat because the rest of the year meals were very simple. When carolers sang in the streets, and the air was full of pine greenery, roasting chestnuts, baking potatoes.

I took a Christmas market cruise one year up the Danube and visited the markets in small towns along the river. That's about the closest I've come to old fashioned Christmas: stalls with wooden toys and ornaments, serving hot wieners/mulled wine/gingerbread. A brass band playing. A feast for the eyes and ears and nose. Small children, wrapped up against the cold, standing wide-eyed at the magic of it all. I loved it. But would my family really be happy with a carved wooden train?

I remember one year we decided we would make hand-made gifts for each other and get away from the commercial aspects of Christmas. So we worked on them. Clare made lovely velvet pillows. Dominic made fleece hats/scarves and toys. He also made CDs of stories read by him (he's an actor) They were a big success. I did jewelry and throw rugs with family photos all over them. BUT I went to the store and got real presents (just in case). As it turned out, so did everyone else. We opened our gifts to exaggerated delight and then when we were done, one of us cracked. "I just happened to see this as well," and brought out the store-bought gift. Sheepishly we all followed suit.

So I'd love you to share--what does an old fashioned Christmas mean to you? Can you remember things that happened in your childhood that were special to you? Special foods your grandma made or family traditions? I'd love to include some in the book I'm writing.
And did you ever have a Christmas of home-made gifts?


  1. Old-fashioned Christmas? Things that immediately come to mind are caroling in the frosty air and midnight Christmas Eve candlelight filling the Church. Caroling, to my everlasting disappointment, seems to have fallen by the wayside, but we never miss the Christmas Eve candlelight service.

    When I was a child, we always had a Christmas Eve family get-together that brought out all the family in the area. Extended family, food, presents . . . one year we even turned on the television because the Apollo 8 astronauts were flying around the moon and we were treated to that wonderful reading.

    I think our Christmas dinner was typical when I was growing up. Now we have created our own family tradition because I don't like serving turkey again so soon after Thanksgiving. [We have prime rib roast.] We had pie for dessert when I was growing up; now we enjoy plum pudding, but it simply wouldn't be Christmas without a plate filled with my mom's special recipe made-from-scratch cinnamon rolls to munch on as we peek into stockings and open gifts.

    Handmade presents often found their way under our tree. One year I made my sister a dress in the sewing half of our Home Ec class; when I was a bit older I did a needlepoint top for a stool for my mom.

    Tradition and family are the best parts of celebrating as is remembering the real meaning of Christmas . . . .

  2. A lovely topic, Rhys. Growing up, we got to open one present on Christmas Eve, and it was always new hand-sewn flannel nightwear from my mother's mother. Money was pretty tight in our family, so we only had real butter at Thanksgiving and Christmas, so in the morning my mother made delicious, rich cinnamon rolls with plenty of butter, which I still do.

    Six years ago when I was laid off a job (and started my novel-length fiction career!), I sewed everybody either an apron or a velvet scarf for Christmas, and I still like to give small jars of homemade pesto or chutney as gifts. Simple is good.

  3. I got a stocking filled with fruit and nuts and usually socks and underwear. If I was really lucky I got a book. That was all I used to ask for was books. We went to Gram's for the big meal of the usual turkey with the trimmings. Yes there was plum pudding and hard sauce - I never see this anymore - You?

  4. There were a lot of kids and usually not much money for gifts, so Christmas was always about the food--my dad would buy lots of English walnuts, other fancy nuts, oranges, grapes. My mom would make platters of creamy chocolate peanutbutter fudge with black walnuts we'd helped her crack. She would bake pies galore and as we got older there would be decorated sugar cookies. But the one thing she wanted more than anything was to make a stacked apple cake like the ones her mother and grandmother made when she was growing up. Every year she would try a new recipe, trying to recapture that magic cake with its dried apple filling and many, many layers of cake.

  5. Dying to know now FChurch, was she ever satisfied with one of the cakes?

    And all those cinnamon rolls--I know Hallie makes them from scratch too--I'm drooling before breakfast!!

    Our family was all about the stockings too--great big long ones hand-knitted by my aunt and filled to bursting. We still use them!

  6. I declared a battery-free Christmas the year we acquired a knock hockey and a table soccer game. I remember mince pie and plum pudding with hard sauce (the recipe for hard sauce is in the Joy of Cooking). Christmas crackers from England were a later, but much enjoyed, tradition. And listening to Kings College Cambridge lessons and carols on the radio Christmas Eve morning while I'm cooking.

  7. One way to enjoy an old fashioned Christmas is to visit a living history area. Here in Maine, Norlands-Washburn will have its mid-19th century celebrations this weekend. One of my favorite Christmas memories comes from 1970 when my husband was stationed in Virginia in the Navy and my parents came to visit. We celebrated by going to Colonial Williamsburg for an 18th century Christmas Eve.


  8. Lucy--no, she never felt any of them could match the cakes of her memories. Even her sisters tried making them for her--sneaky way of getting extra cake, Mom!

  9. Our extended family strives to keep things low-key and focus on experiences--holiday plays, museum trips--rather than too many "things."

    My 10-y-o granddaughter sets the best example-- she creates hand-made presents for everybody (usually during summer camps): candles, weavings, potholders, aprons, and the like. Her most notable presents are some form of origami: mobiles for her younger cousins and earrings for lucky aunts and grandmother!

  10. I always made Christmas ornaments with plain satin balls, ribbons, beads on pins, etc. Now we do an annual ornament-making holiday party with sculpy clay! (Carve, then bake —voila!)

  11. I get so disgusted; each year it seems to get worse with more, more, more.
    I grew up in the 70s. I remember going to Christmas Eve church service and wriggling with impatience to get home to open presents but on the way home my Dad would say "Let's go look at the lights" and drive around the neighborhoods just to extend the torture.
    In giving gifts, I've usually been the book giver. Or if not a book, then something from the bookstore such as a puzzle, magazine subscription or calendar. Most recently I have to admit it is so much less hassle to purchase online. After managing a children's photography studio 10 years ago in the mall (Christmas time is the worst!), I won't step foot in malls anymore.
    Christmas food: we're of Norwegian descent so we always had krumkake, lefse, and julekake. We'd always beg mom to make rum pudding but it didn't always turn out so she was reluctant to do it, hence the begging. Does anyone remember the hard candy shaped like curled ribbons?

  12. My mother, a nurse, almost always had to work Christmas Eve or Christmas Day. So we took to opening presents at midnight. Dinner was a roast, but then my aunt insisted on taking over the meal and it was turkey - again (she also excluded my grandparents on my dad's side, saying it was a Smolkovic Christmas dinner - that just meant we got dessert at the other grandparents' house, which was much more fun).

    My aunt was ultra-crafty, so lots of handmade ornament presents, diaries I never used, things like that. I didn't appreciate them as a teenager, what I really wanted was a book. =)

    Now we try to keep the gifts limited, and Christmas is all about the cookies (next weekend is a baking weekend). Always cut-outs and chocolate-chip. My girl has asked to be in charge of holiday decorating this year, and I'm glad to let her at it!

  13. I guess I'm too young, but I love being able to shop on-line. It's not that it makes things any less special, but it is so much easier.

    We've never done the home made gifts thing. I'm not even sure what I'd do if I did.

    One family tradition we had was sleeping around the Christmas tree as a family. It was always a special time we looked forward to each year.

    (Oh, and Rhys, one tradition I have is giving my aunt the next book in mystery series we both enjoy. Two of those series are Molly and Georgie.)

  14. My Christmas memories are watching, helping my dad set up the tree while Frosty, Charlie Brown was on TV. Going to mass on Christmas Eve and then returning to a house full of people which seemed to last all night. We were allowed to open one present on Christmas Eve and as we got older, we all seemed to stay up all night and then sleep in on Christmas Day until we had lunch at my Granny's house. My fondest memories are just being with family and friends and laughing, re-telling stories from prior Christmases and singing.. there was always singing! :)

  15. Having a fun morning reading about everyone's Christmas traditions.

    Rhys, your comment about an orange in the stocking hit home with me. The only time all year we got oranges was St. Nicholas Day (in our shoes, set outside the door--and tonight would be the night if my children were still small!), and Christmas morning, in our stockings. Also in our stockings were an opera cream candy, just one, and sometimes some small piece of costume jewelry, just a trinket.

    I used to make handmade gifts, for decades, but I found the appreciation rarely matched the amount of time and effort (and sometimes money) expended, and it got to be too demoralizing to continue. The only handmade things I give these days are food-related: fruitcake (friends and relatives who actually enjoy it), bourbon balls, blackberry jam from the canes on our farm, and fudge.

    One year I gave everyone reusable grocery bags that fold small enough to fit in a purse or pocket, and gift coupons for Siig water bottles. They were enthusiastically received, much to my shock. Another year I made a "family recipe book" (which I may have mentioned before), for each of my three adult daughters. They loved it.

  16. PK, we used to get that candy in our stockings! I'm not sure I ever ate any--I just liked it because it was so pretty. We have an old-fashioned candy store in our town--I'm going to see what I can get for this year's stockings.

    Rhys, we are an un-crafty family. Totally. The only home made things I've ever given have been food. My cranberry relish, and for a couple of years my mom and I got into making Seville orange marmalade for Christmas.

    We usually open a gift on Christmas Eve, but Christmas morning is always "stockings" and the gifts under the tree for immediate family. We don't usually do big gifts, just things we know are wanted or needed.

    My daughter was almost completely "battery deprived" when she was growing up. I don't think she minds now:-) We ordered most of her presents from an old-fashioned toy company called Hearthsong. Are they still around, I wonder?

  17. PK, we had the ribbon candy in our stockings too. It always stuck to the wool and came out hairy:)

    One year, some sibs in my husband's family put together a family cookbook with all the family recipes. Everyone loved that--and got a big laugh out of the recipe that was included as one of my brother-in-law's favorites. Tuna casserole with tuna, mayo and macaroni as ingredients. period.

  18. I don't think we've ever had a totally home-made Christmas, but have done the home-made frequently.
    The best Christmas present I ever got was from my mother. She was an R.N. who worked 9-5 weekdays (more like until 6:00) and 9-noon on Saturdays (often more like 2:00 p.m.) My senior year in high school I was surprised at Christmas with a lovely A-line white dress shot through with silver. She'd made it at night after I was asleep. We shared a bedroom at that time too. A wonderful surprise!
    When I was first married, we had very little money so almost all my Christmas gifts to other people were homemade goodies: pillows, purses, cookies, breads. I make banana bread every year for my brother and my son-in-law. They'd be very disappointed if they didn't get those loaves at Christmas.
    For years when my daughters were little, I helped them make something for their grandparents and godparents, usually a decoration for the tree, but not always. After my mother died, they got back the needlepoint designs they'd made for her years ago.

  19. Hi Rhys,

    One of our rituals was to drive around looking at Christmas lights, especially in the Marina District in the City--all those old homes with the big bay windows.

    We also had a Christmas ornament collection--every year we'd get a new ornament for our collections, which I still have.

    Susan, my mom made Christmas ornaments like that -- I haven't thought about those in years!

    My dad always worked on Christmas Eve. He owned La Petite in Mill Valley, and he'd always have a Christmas party for the employees--apparently they drank quite a lot. ;-) Anyhow, Mom and we three girls always went to my BFF's parent's Christmas Eve party, which was always fun because they baked a TON of decadent Christmas goodies that my mom didn't go in for. My mom always hung out with the gay couple who lived next door, the three of them having a blast. I remember two things from that: 1) gay wasn't a big deal (thank you, SF/Bay Area for being a tolerant area!) and 2) my mom was actually an elegant, pretty woman capable of having fun.

  20. Debs, I used to love Heartsong. We still have the wooden village and a Noah's ark from them. and candle holders from Germany.

    Lisa--I have to be driven around the Marina to see the Christmas trees even now! I'm just a big kid when it comes to Christmas lights. And I adore candlelight. So magical.

  21. I'm a big kid when it comes to Christmas lights too! I adore this time of year for dogwalking -- I'm a shameless voyeur into other people's windows. :-)

  22. I love Christmas. We used to have a tradition of seeing the Nutcracker ballet. I love the christmas lights and the "main" shopping street in our town has christmas lights, which makes it driving at night easier.

    I love Christmas cookies. Home made gifts are among my favorites. Rhys, you mentioned CD. One year, a relative (a professional singer) and her husband (music prodiucer) made a CD of everyone (mother, dad, and children) reading lines from 'Twas night before Christmas" for my christmas gift. That is among my favorite Christmas gifts.

    Sometimes I go caroling with friends, which is fun!

    Diana in CA

  23. oops I meant producer, not prodicer. Sorry about the typo

    Diana in CA

  24. Oh yes, the Nutcracker. I take my granddaughters every year, even though Lizzie has turned 15 now. They still say "Oh yes please" when I ask if they want to go. And this year I'm adding Clare's twins, aged 11 as they'll be visiting. Fifteen year old Sam politely declined, however

  25. When I think of an old-fashioned Christmas, I think of my Grandpa Harry. He worked at O’Neil’s department store in downtown Akron, Ohio, and there was where the real Santa Claus came to visit with the children. That is what Grandpa told me, so it had to be true. He smoked a pipe, and every year I would get him a corn cob pipe, and every year he acted as if it was the best thing he ever received. My mom was a single parent back in the 50s and did not have a lot of money, so my gifts were always the “off” brand of toys. I had a doll, but it wasn’t Barbie (can’t remember the name). I did not have a Chatty Cathy but I did get a Patty Play Pal. She couldn’t talk like Cathy, but she had my name, so that was ten times better! I loved those gifts and didn’t care that they were not the best or the most expensive. And to this day, I cherish every gift I get, whether it is something expensive or something home-made. He’s no longer with us, but thinking about this, I just might buy a corn cob pipe and put it under the tree. Merry Christmas!

  26. I have always made gifts for Christmas -- this year I made pillow cases for the newlyweds. Most of my ornaments are home-made. The best gift-giver in our family is our oldest daughter who has a knack for finding inexpensive treasures -- she will find an old post card on Ebay and put it in a frame, find a perfect something for everyone. We never get expensive gifts -- we are fortunate to have so much. Like many of you, I grew up with very little money. My mother and I made fruitcakes for the neighbors. I remember a Christmas when my gift was a Brownie belt and change purse. I love the little details of Christmas.

  27. A big orange in the top of our stockings!

    A Drostes chocolate apple--the kind you whap in the table to break open.

    Stringing popcorn garlands with a needle and tread..eating as much as we strung!

    NO opening gifts on Christmas even--no matter how much we whined!

    Champagne and oysters Rockefeller for Christmas dinner appetizers..(we loved oysters if the were covered with cheese and spinach and baked!,) roast beef and Yorkshire pudding for dinner!

    And then my step-father would try to get us to eat roasted chestnuts--which we LOATHED!

  28. Rhys, my mémère from Saint-Jean-Port-Joli, QC made the best ever tourtière for Christmas. No one can reproduce it. But mine is pretty good (better than any of my cousins).

  29. I love Christmas memories. When my twin sister and I were little, Santa put the tree up and decorated it after we went to bed. When we got up in the morning, there were the tree, the presents and the filled stockings. I had an older sister and brother and I don't know if they ever helped, but once we were old enough we took over for the younger three. We wrapped the presents and decorated the tree as long as they" believed." This was in the 50's and 60's.

  30. I remember laying on my back under the tree waiting to see which bubble light would be the first to bubble.
    I remember my mom making candied orange peel for her father. I remember the excitement of putting up the Nativity set and waiting for Christmas Eve to out Baby Jesus in it. My dad made eggnog with Canadian Club and we had neighbors in for it and cookies on Christmas Eve.

  31. I was lucky because I was the youngest of four children, with my oldest sister being ten years older, so by the time I was twelve, there began to be nieces and nephews, too. The pile of presents from each other under the tree was gigantic as our family grew, and we always had such fun opening the gifts on Christmas Eve. When there was just the four kids, we were allowed to open one gift and then gifts to and from each other. Christmas Eve has always been an exciting, magical time, even now that my own children are grown, and there isn't a family gathering until Christmas Day.

    When growing up, the smell of my mother cooking up all the delicious dishes is such a great memory. Of course, now I realize how hard my mother worked to prepare the feast we had. My father cured his own country ham, and I can still see my mother bent over the ham putting cloves in it. That was in addition to the turkey she cooked. Dressing balls, corn pudding, turkey, ham, mashed potatoes, frozen fruit sald, green beans, rolls. How I wish I could eat one of my mom's Christmas dinners again. And, of course there was the out-of-this-world jam cake that she made.

    Oh, and books have always been a large part of my Christmas since I was a kid. I can remember my mother calling me from downtown and asking me about some books I wanted. I picture so vividly in my mind sitting at the little telephone stand with the black rotary phone sitting on top and being thrilled having that conversation.

  32. Oh Hank--oysters and champagne. Now that would be my kind of Christmas dinner.

  33. As a child being raised in England (I'm going back eons !) I had the usual apple, orange and nuts in my stocking PLUS a can of Nestles condensed milk....remember those?! I can remember my mother using an old cigar box and painting it and filling it with sewing cottons, scissors etc. I'm sorry to say that here in the US there isn't the same feeling as the stores are filled with manufactured toys etc. Oh well...that's life!!!