I was raised in a large family---a lot of love but not much money. Extravagant gifts were not an option. We had to find other ways to make our holidays merry and bright. Now I find that many of the things we did are right in vogue as people look for ways to consume less, enjoy more, and live more gently on this earth.
My mother, a British WW II war bride, brought many holiday traditions to the US with her. She started the day after Thanksgiving--that was Fruitcake Day. When the batter was ready, everyone stirred three times each and made a wish. This was the signal that the holiday season had officially begun.
Saint Nicholas Day was the next holiday event. On December 6th Mom would wrap small gifts for each of us--a pencil, eraser, handkerchief--nothing expensive, but the gift beside our plates at dinner was always exciting. She usually re-used wrapping paper from the year before for these tiny gifts.
The Christmas Parade: We never missed it! The parade, held at night, passed the corner of our street. We'd bundle up and wave to the floats and to Santa at the end, then rush home for hot chocolate. Sometimes we'd go caroling in the neighborhood, stopping in at different houses to visit briefly and enjoy cookies and maybe some apple cider.
The Manger: Mom set up her nativity scene at the beginning of Advent, but the manger would remain empty until midnight on Christmas Eve. The Wise Men were also not present---they began their journey on the other side of the living room, moving a little each day until they finally arrived on January 5th, Epiphany.
The empty cradle was a challenge. In order for the baby Jesus to have a soft bed, we had to do good deeds, each one rewarded with a straw for the cradle. Some years I'm afraid His bed was a little hard! We stayed mindful of that cradle all month, and tried to do things that would earn a straw to add to the pile.
The Christmas Elf: this little fellow also moved about the house, watching children and reporting on behavior to Santa. We didn't want to be caught being naughty if the Elf was watching.
Cleaning: "You can't decorate dirt," Mom would say. So we'd polish the old house until everything shone--silver, wood, brass, mirrors. The house would be fragrant with the smell of floor wax and lemon oil. Then it was time to put up the tree and decorations.
The kissing ball: Mom re-decorated the ball each year with ribbons and greenery, and hung a sprig of mistletoe in the center. When we got older, we were allowed to help. She used scraps from sewing, ribbons from packages, any little bits and pieces she could find to make it glittering and pretty. It was usually hung in the dining room door and I can remember Dad catching her under it many times. We all loved to see them kiss.
The tree: Always a live one that we cut on a friend's farm, it was always lopsided and oddly shaped, and always decorated by Santa after midnight Mass. The tree would be put up a few days before Christmas, and the lights strung. The living room ceiling was twelve feet high, and the trees usually had to be trimmed to fit under them.
Decorations: lopped-off branches from the Christmas tree, holly, and a vine we called running pine were the main ingredients for our decorations. Greens were piled atop the mantles, around the front door, and twined down the stairs. Red ribbons and gold beads were added as we vied with each other for the best trimmings, re-used year after year and carefully stored away.
Yule log: made from a piece of the trunk of a former Christmas tree, Dad drilled small holes in it that we filled with greenery and Christmas bits of glittery stuff. Three larger holes held candles. The Yule log was always on the mantle in the living room, and the candles were lit on Christmas Eve to light in the Christ Child. A candle was placed in the window for the same purpose.
Christmas Day: On Christmas morning, we could see the tree through the crack between the big sliding wooden doors of the living room. It was shining and glimmering in the dusky light of dawn, and when the doors were finally opened--only after every single person in the house was present--it was a wondrous sight to behold. My parents collected Christmas balls, adding a few each year, making some, getting some for gifts. My last year at home, over 1000 balls hung on the green branches.
Gifts: with thirteen children to buy for, money didn't go far. We liked to buy for each other too but our money was practically non-existent. We learned to be happy with small gifts. Stockings were stuffed with apples, oranges, and nuts. We'd buy a pack of pencils and wrap one for each sibling, or penny candy, and wrap the gifts as carefully as if they had great value. They did--our hearts were in them. It didn't matter that the gifts under the tree were small--there were plenty of them and the joy when they were unwrapped was genuine. We’d have to hurry to get ready for early Mass at 7:30am.
Open House: Homemade eggnog, the fruitcake, and many other homemade goodies graced the table on Christmas night as friends and family came to visit. What happy times those were for a kid--lots of good things to eat, lots of noise, people singing carols, laughter. We baked for days before Christmas to prepare, always the same traditional fare--sausage rolls, mincemeat pies, wedding cookies, stollen (a sweet bread flavored with almond and laced with candied cherries), date bars, decorated sugar cookies, and so on.
Boxing day: this was the day after Christmas when we went visiting, usually wearing some of our gifts (mittens or toboggan hats knit by Mom, or new socks or a hanky from Granny).
New Year's Eve: even the littlest ones were allowed to stay up and see the New Year in, although they seldom stayed awake until midnight. Unspiked eggnog for the children and perhaps something a little stouter for the parents! Leftover goodies from Christmas, along with ham and rolls, were placed on the table once again for a repeat of the holiday feast.
Epiphany, January 5th: On this day our Wise Men finally made it to the crèche, and since they gave gifts to the Child, we also received small gifts at our places at dinner. This ended the 12 days of Christmas for us, although the tree remained decorated in all its glory until January 11th, my parents' anniversary and the occasion for more merrymaking.
And then the holidays were officially over, the decorations were regretfully taken down, and we looked ahead to the start of the next season--and by then it was only 10 and a half months away!