Saturday, December 24, 2011

An Indiana Christmas Remembered - Presents, Meals and Live Christmas Trees

The house we moved to in Berne during the Storm of the Century (1978)
I believe the reason the Holiday Season is so hard on everyone and so many people end up depressed is not just because of so much time with family or the hustle and bustle of shopping but trying to recreate that childhood experience.  Our younger years are usually remembered as a more magical time when the challenges of each day were a mere haze.  At least that's the way I remember it.
The family photos are from Christmas 1995 - a few of my nephews and nieces
Each year Dad would bring home a live Christmas tree and we would assist Mom in decorating it once Dad got it set in the stand.  Popcorn was popped (on the stove of course) and thread to make garland, lights were untangled and each bulb checked, ornaments were hung carefully (a few were broken in the process every time).  Dad would climb the limbs of the 50' pine tree in the front yard and string it with the larger outdoor bulbs.  As dozens of Christmas cards arrived throughout the month from family, friends and Dad's business partners - Mom would tape them to the door frames coming into the kitchen to put each on display.  Generally the house was made festive and ready for the Season.

Mom and Dad surrounded by family opening gifts
Oddly, presents didn't accumulate during the month.  On Christmas Eve, we would gather around the tree in the living room and enjoy some family time.  Finally we were forced off to bed 'before Santa arrived'.  One year we heard Santa's sleigh bells which initiated the chaos of three of us younger kids screaming and running to hide so Santa wouldn't see us still awake.  One of my brothers and I ended up in a cabinet under the kitchen sink.  I'm not saying that's where we should have ended up, that's just where we did end up.  I found out later that one of my older brothers (there were seven kids at that time, two more came along since that particular Christmas) took a strand of old sleigh bells and ran around the house through the snow shaking them.  Like I said, it was a magical time when Santa really did come to our house.

Family photo just before opening presents
We finally would get to sleep and dream of all the excitement of the approaching dawn.  I've never been a morning person except on those special days like Christmas.  As soon as my eyes would open a smile would form on my face.  My brothers and I would wake each other up with a shout, jump from bed and race downstairs to the tree.  Under and around the tree presents were wrapped and stacked high for us to stare at in utter amazement, but nothing was unwrapped without due process.  Its Christmas after all and we had more to experience first.
Everyone carved out a spot to open their presents
Our kitchen was large with a dining table to the side that actually fit the nine of us.  The turkey was in the oven cooking away, pies were made and all manner of pots were busy creating our fantastic meal.  On the dining table each Christmas morning we would find at our seat a plate made specifically for us with an orange, and uncracked nuts, candy and chocolate.  Again, it all appeared as if by magic over night!
The kitchen with Mom and Dad in full swing
When Mom had everything just right - as a family we would meet in the living room around the Christmas tree.  Dad would read the Christmas story from the Bible followed by a prayer and then we would all sing Christmas carols together (sometimes that part was a little frightening since most of us can't carry a tune to save our lives).  The excitement continued to build until the songs were all sung and the older kids were allowed to begin pulling presents from around the tree one by one.  The name on the present would be called and the present handed over.  Its at this point that ceremony was gone (its hard to hold a rabid dog back) our parents always knew to let us dig right in and tear the wrapping paper apart to see what Santa brought us this year.
My brother Myron and his wife Liz
It was years later when I found out that Mom would hide the presents around the house during the month as she purchased them.  She was good at it too!  Even after finding this out, we couldn't find the secret stash.  On Christmas Eve after we went to bed she would wrap all of the presents, catch a couple hours sleep in between putting the 20 - 30 pound turkey (that is not an exaggeration by the way) in at 4:00 AM and prepping the rest of the meal.  Talk about magic!  What she was able to do to create that feeling for us is nothing more than one of the amazing secrets of the universe!

Bowls of candy, fruit and nuts are a must
The Christmas meal evolved over the years.  The younger years it was very traditional with the oven roasted turkey with stuffing cooked inside, mashed potatoes and gravy, sweet potatoes with marshmallows on top, green beans, creamed corn, cranberry sauce, green jello salad with cottage cheese and pineapple, hot delicious rolls with butter and more.  The desserts were many of the standards like pumpkin pie, pecan pie and decorated sugar cookies.  To this line up (since Mom loved to experiment with new recipes) were all manner of foods that she would 'try' on us.  Not all were successful and we weren't always willing to comply but through this several of our current day 'traditional' Schwartz Holiday foods were born.  I still remember the first year she explained the Seven Layer Salad which became one of her staples at all the big gatherings for years.
Sometimes you just have to stop and savor the moment
The remainder of the day was spent putting tracks together for our train or race car set, assembling presents and playing with our new toys.  It was agreed that with permission we could play with some of the stuff another sibling got but that wasn't always a sure bet.  We snacked on candy, goodies and left overs through the rest of the day.
Mom and Dad
Christmas is a magical time of year when we allow it to be.  While we had our traditions they did evolve to handle a rapidly growing family with new ideas and new recipes.  Many of the old ones were still used but Mom isn't the only one in the family that 'tries a new recipe' on the rest of us.  The old traditional family dinner turned into a Brunch eventually complete with Mom's famous sausage gravy and biscuits.  The old and the new with the old and the young - seems fitting that we combine the best of both since that's what life does for us anyway.
I wish you a very Merry Christmas with your loved ones and may it be as special as the ones you remember as a kid!

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