Glowing memories of Christmases past

Columbian readers share some of their most cherished Yules gone by

By Sue Vorenberg, Columbian features reporter

Published:

 

Christmas in America

Mary Sicilia, Felida

When I was 8, my parents began running a boarding house in Duluth, Minn. It was my mom, dad, me and nine "guys" for Christmas Eve and every other eve for that matter.

Mostly they were Great Lakes shore men or steelworkers — all of them were immigrants or first-generation Americans — from Finland, Sweden, Italy, Croatia, Serbia, Poland and Wales.

One or two of them spent the holiday with their families, but most were alone. At least as alone as you can be in a household of 11 grown adults and one very chatty child.

Each year, everyone gathered for a fine dinner and then we exchanged simple gifts, most of them lovingly but clumsily wrapped by the men. We came from different cultures, spoke several different first languages, had widely varied political and religious viewpoints, but Christmas Eve, we were all the same — human beings longing for home.

One Christmas Eve, a particularly snowy night as I recall, Mr. Ragoni, our Italian boarder, returned home from Mass sometime around 2 a.m. I remember I could hear him whistling as he rounded the corner at the end of the block. I snuggled deeply into my quilt and began to drift to sleep. With his arrival, everyone was safely home.

But suddenly I heard him stamping up the front steps loudly. The door bell rang wildly. "Buon Natale, Buon Natale!" he shouted at the top of his lungs. "Wake up! Wake up! It's Christmas in America."

Suddenly the sleeping house was alive with lights and slamming doors. Men appeared from every corner of the house, mostly in ragged long johns, sweaters and boots. Running into the cold night air, they shouted, heads thrown back in laughter, eyes ablaze. They stooped down, packing snowballs to lob at Ragoni and one another. Most of the men were in their 50s, 60s or 70s, bent by the burden of impossible work, rendered silent much of the time by the weight of difficult lives. But at that moment in the earliest hours of that Christmas morning, they were little boys, running and ducking and laughing wildly.

After awhile, the uproar died down. They stopped fighting and started shivering, stamping off the snow, stomping up the stairs. My dad got out the wine, we toasted one another and, in eight different languages, truly wished each other a Merry Christmas.

Coming home for Christmas

Sharon Crisp, Mount Vista Neighborhood

My Christmas memory doesn't include gifts, good food or visits with cousins, although they did likely occur.

I remember Christmas Eve when I was 4. World War II was in progress.

I was in the car with my dad returning home from some errand I don't remember. It was pouring down rain, a dark Vancouver night.

He suddenly pulled to the side of the road, reached across me and pushed open the passenger door. There stood three soaking wet sailors. "Get in," Dad said. It wasn't unusual to pick up hitchhikers.

Three huge men scrambled in. I was moved to the back seat to sit between two of them. My head didn't reach their shoulders. They were so wet their peacoats steamed.

I cannot smell wet wool without remembering that day, how the sailors laughed and in big voices said they were heading home for Christmas, how grateful they were for the ride, how I loved listening to the conversation, how unafraid I was.

It was truly a memory gift to me, an opportunity each time I smell wet wool to remember those sailors and all servicemen and women.

A special Christmas feast

Wanita L. Gray, Smith Tower

I didn't know we were poor when I was little because Mama never told me we were. We lived on welfare and Mama's dressmaking.

I always had 10 cents for a Saturday movie on Clark Street in Chicago, where I grew up with Lincoln Park for my playground.

I didn't think about not having a tree because we waited until Christmas Eve to get one cheap, but I wondered why our three-room flat wasn't decorated yet. Mama said with a twinkle in her eye, "This year is special."

I found out how special when I went into the front room and found a quilt spread on the floor, candles in the middle, and a can of cold pork and beans.

"This year we are cowboys around a campfire telling stories," she said.

She didn't mention that our electricity and gas were shut off. I actually felt sorry for all the other kids.

(Note: Dedicated to my strong, unique, joyful mother, Lydia Bottenhagen.)

A gift to us all

Tawnya Melton Mueller, Battle Ground

Many years ago when my mom started a new Christmas Eve tradition, I don't think she realized the forever gift she was giving to our family.

It was always tradition that once it was dark enough to turn on the red lights on the house, it was time to gather around the Christmas tree to open our gifts.

One year, my mom told my dad, brother, sister and I that she wanted to take a few minutes before we opened gifts to share her feelings.

She said she was thankful for all that she had been blessed with and told each of us how much she loved us and how proud she was to be our mother. Then she invited the rest of the family to share something if we wanted to.

Now every year before we open all the brightly wrapped presents, we take time to share what is in our hearts with our family.

Over the years, my cousin and her family have moved back, my siblings and I have married, babies have been born.

Our family has grown and so has the love! On Christmas Eve, as we sit in front of the tree, we each take our turn to reflect on the blessings and challenges of the year. We take the time to talk to each person and tell them how we feel about them, how proud we are, how thankful we are for them and share stories and memories of the year.

The words are honest and heartfelt. Our hearts are full. It is one of the few times that I see the men in our family shed tears.

With our busy lives, we don't see each other a lot and we rarely take the time to say how much we love and care about each other. But on Christmas Eve, around the tree, we share something so incredibly precious.

The love that fills that living room on Christmas Eve is truly a gift. It's a gift from God, a gift from my mother, a gift that I will always treasure and a gift that I hope you will share with your own family.

The perfect tree

Jennifer Tyger, Camas

According to answers.yahoo.com, perfect means something that is as good as it could possibly be.

Every year my husband and I ask each other if this is the year we get an artificial tree. After all, they are perfect. And each year our son, daughter-in-law and granddaughters ask us to go out and cut a tree down.

We always decide this is not the year and head out to the tree farm with them. Of course, they laugh at us because we just cruise the ends of the rows and find a tree. One year we even took a discarded tree that someone cut down and left.

This year was no different, except that they asked us to go with them a little farther and we would find the "perfect tree" like they were going to get.

We walked along chatting, and they told of the memories of our tree selection, the chubby tree that was bigger around than tall, the one with the empty side, and of course they brought up the discarded one.

But then, as a teacher, I thought of my former students. Not one was perfect. They all came in September with imperfections, but it wasn't what one focused on, but what they were to become.

You envisioned the possibilities of what they could be: perfect. As the classroom year passed by, they did become perfect in my eyes.

Rough edges smoothed and loose ends made straight.

You see, just like our perfect tree this year with the crooked top, it was what we envisioned it would become. As I finish decorating our tree, I stepped back and thought to myself, yes the perfect tree, just like each of my students had become.

An unusual Christmas dinner

Suzy Correa, Prune Hill – Columbia Summit

I wanted to have a picture-perfect American holiday the first year my German soon-to-be son-in-law came to our house for Christmas.

But I've never claimed to be a good cook, so I was understandably nervous.

Honestly, I thought the bird was defrosted when I put it in the oven. OK, it did seem slightly icy, but I was in denial.

I left russet potatoes for my husband to put in at the right time. I figured baked potatoes were a sure thing.

He stayed home to guard the food while the rest of us went off to church. What could go wrong?

I came home and opened the oven to peek at the food. Not only was the bird barely brown, the potatoes had exploded all over the oven walls. I had forgotten to mention piercing them before putting them in to cook.

Mortified and hungry, I tried frying hunks of lukewarm bird, which tasted awful.

There was nothing left to do but laugh, eat salad, deviled eggs, rolls and a lot of German candy that he had graciously brought all the way from home.

He was such a good sport, I knew why he was a keeper.

Special gifts from Santa

Carol Monroe, Battle Ground

On Thanksgiving day, we always got a $20 bill from Grandma to purchase our tickets at the Frederick & Nelson department store in Seattle for breakfast with Santa and to have our pictures taken.

The day after Thanksgiving, the kids in our family always made out our Christmas lists and sent them to Santa, with pictures cut out of the Montgomery Ward catalog. Then we'd put up our tree and wait for Christmas Day.

Under the tree would be a big gift for each of us, wrapped with our favor color bow. Inside the box would be a picture of the gift that we would be receiving after Christmas (the same picture that we sent to Santa).

We had little gifts under the tree, but our special gift would be coming via Montgomery Ward about five days after Christmas.

At that time, we didn't have the privilege of shopping earlier, because all the sales happened after Christmas.

My mom and dad told us when we were younger that this was the agreement they had with Santa, and we certainly believed them.

If you think about it, we had two Christmases.

My husband and I have carried this one step further. Each year, we prepare a letter listing 14 things we want to do with each other for the following year. This is our gift from Santa to each other.

Each year we complete what is a wonderful blessing for both of us.

A visit from Santa

Roberta Marchand, The Heights neighborhood

My husband and I told our children that sometimes Santa came to visit good little children in person when they were very good.

It was 1962 and we had three little ones ages 6, 4 and 2 years. We were waiting until we could leave our own home to go to Grandma and Grandpa's house for Christmas Eve dinner and the opening of gifts. Of course the little ones were very excited but were being very good.

It just happened that my sister got her hands on a Santa suit. So it was all set for Santa to come to see our children.

We heard a knock on the door and we said, "Maybe it is Santa." We opened the door and sure enough there he was.

The children were very shy and just stared at him. He gave them a gift and talked to each of them and then said that he had to go and finish delivering toys to other good girls and boys. When he left we got the children busy talking about the visit of Santa. They wanted to see him fly off in his sleigh but when we opened the door, he was gone.

Gingerbread implosion

Marlice A. Bryant, Truman neighborhood

Having been invited to a gingerbread house decorating party, I decided to put together a sweet little 6-by-6-inch house in the 20 minutes before running an errand.

The directions seemed simple: "Stand up walls and glue together with royal icing. Attach peaked roof and hold for one minute until icing sets." No problem. I'd been baking and icing cakes and cookies for the past 40 years or so.

I set up shop on the living room love seat in order to keep watch on squirrels that kept raiding my suet cake in the redbud tree. But as I worked, a corner of siding broke off. I wasn't worried. I just added a little more icing to fix it. It would be a snow-covered cottage after all — what's a little more snow?

I stood up the sides, attached the roof and held it together. The sides didn't meet at the corners like the picture on the box. I had 15 minutes. A headache started behind my eyes.

A squirrel leaped on the fresh suet cake! I had to move fast. The gingerbread house was getting more solid by the minute. I wiped my hands on a wet washcloth, opened the front door and screamed at the squirrel.

Fluffy, an adored long-haired cat who'd been watching the house construction with fascination, apparently got frightened at my loud voice. She careened off, leaving white hairs in the icing.

I couldn't get the offending fur off. Well, white hair and white icing — maybe this was what the "mortar" needed? We weren't going to eat the darned thing anyway! I had 10 minutes left and the instructions said "hold for one minute until icing sets."

But everything collapsed inward. It imploded in a brown-and-white muddle. All the pieces were covered with icing. The cottage was completely covered with snow. I could add frosting sugar for sparkle, just like real ice crystals, I supposed. I found new energy but had somehow acquired an eye twitch.

By 10:30 a.m. I was holding three intact walls, one broken wall and two roof pieces. They didn't match up. There was a one-inch gap in the roof. I planned to pretend this was a sunroof. Or maybe a chimney hole. I added more icing and watched as it dripped down the edges and puddled at the corners.

I moved the whole shebang to the kitchen counter and got ready to go. The cottage collapsed onto the floor. So I walked out and slammed the door.

Hours later, when I got home, the icing still hadn't set. That cottage was doomed from the beginning. So I picked up a little "ginger kid" and ate him.

Memories of Christmas

Helena (Hotvedt) Snyder, Washougal

When my parents and older brother were released from Japanese concentration camps during World War II, they were sent to Australia, where I was born in 1946.

They waited for visas to come to the USA, and when I was 4 we entered via New York.

We finally settled in Glendale, Calif.

One of our first Christmases in our new home, we had a beautiful Douglas fir. Mom hung candy canes and glass bulbs, and back then Dad would wrap the ends of candles and clip them with wooden clothes pins to the branches.

At night he lit the candles, unheard of today! We would get together with other Norwegian (Dad) and Dutch (Mom) immigrants, where a play was held before St. Nick arrived.

One year I played the main part of Santa Lucia with a crown of lighted candles on my head.

Another fond memory was Dad singing along to the novelty Christmas record "I Yust Go Nuts at Christmas" by Yogi Yorgesson. I still play it every year, but now my son sings along.