The 1950’s and early 1960’s were simpler times allowing holidays, family traditions and faith to take their full and proper place in the hearts and minds of children, leaving fond and enduring memories for a lifetime.
Although we had a small extended family that we would see for an American style Christmas Day Dinner of ham or turkey and fixings (from where I still make my Grandmother’s (Oma’s) meat stuffing to this day), when we were young, holidays for us were primarily built around our small nuclear family… first the three of us, then four of us after a couple of years in America and ultimately the five of us.
December 24th and 25th are obviously special days for Christians and for Christian children of all ages as well as for most children in America and the western world, no matter what their faith. The traditions and heritage wrapped around those days and the Christmas Season have been interwoven into the fabric of the United States and a good part of the world. Yet each family and person has their own special memories and traditions attached to that festive season. And so it was with us. Our parents tried to combine their old world ways and traditions with the new ones of this land we now called home plus those of their European Catholic upbringing.
Putting lights up on the outside of your house was something that wasn’t done in Germany and Austria before we left there, but going to see the lighted houses in the evening after dinner was a new tradition we all enjoyed and that we built into our Christmas Holiday ritual. By the mid to late 1950’s the displays of lights and other decorations had reached their zenith having become bigger and greater every year. Whole neighborhoods would decorate in themes while others would compete between neighbors. Some neighborhoods had such spectacular decorations that there would be lines of cars for blocks or more just to drive past the houses or to find parking to walk the neighborhoods. Some neighborhoods were even sponsored like one of the favorites in the Los Angeles area where each home had Disney displays; agreeing to take part yearly was part of the real estate agreement when purchasing a house there.
A few miles from our house was an oversized corner lot with a ranch style home that went all out. It had seemingly endless lights everywhere, moving elves and reindeer, a playhouse turned into Santa’s workshop and a huge sleigh filled with wrapped presents. There were two large pine trees dripping with painted glass globes and other shaped ornaments, icicles and branches thick with snow. You could hear the Christmas music at least a block away and Santa would be out every night for the entire month between Thanksgiving and Christmas Eve to talk to the children after which Mrs. Santa handed out candy canes to all who came by. It really was something to see and we never tired of going by there, throughout the season, year after year. It was always part of our last light viewing tour each Christmas Season.
Most children think their memories and their parents were the greatest, as it should be. But I have to say that my parents did an amazing job of making the holidays, especially Christmas, and other traditions like trips to yearly regular vacation spots and trips to amusement parks something very very special… much more magical than I hear in recounts from others or than I managed to create with my own children, even though I tried.
My father worked for Pacific Bell, part of the largest utility company in America at the time before the government broke it up, and my mother was a stay at home mom, like most moms in those days. On Christmas Eve my father would always come home from work early after a half day. Traditionally half of the employees would work a half day, but were paid in full, which consisted primarily of a company paid Christmas party on Christmas Eve and the other half would work half day on New Year’s Eve. People with children usually got Christmas Eve off and the young and single people tended to want New Year’s Eve.
By the time our dad got home, we were all more than anxious for the Christmas Festivities to begin. We, the kids, would have wrapped our gifts for our parents and put them under the tree; the only packages that were ever set under the live Christmas tree in our living room before Christmas Eve when Santa came. It wasn’t until sometime in the 1960’s that artificial trees popped up, and by the mid-60’s a few of the modernists were putting up silver trees made out of the same material that tinsel is made of, usually decorated with all one color round ornaments and using a color wheel to light the tree instead of strings of lights. We only ever knew one family that had one. In fact they were the only people we ever knew, growing up, that had a fake tree. We preferred the stories of trees with real candles, homemade and traditional ornaments with meaning told from our parents’ upbringing, over the idea of a futuristic Christmas.
Going to get our Christmas tree was always a family event, as were most Christmas related activities, but since we were city kids we did go to a tree lot which was attached to a nursery and garden shop covered with a permanent canopy in aviary fashion. Once inside the sounds and smells of Christmas were everywhere. They played non-stop carols and had somehow piped in the smell of gingerbread. Yet we were almost overcome with the smell of fresh wreaths and rows of trees which seemed to go on forever. We always seemed to look at each and every one of them in our size range before choosing, in the ultimate search for the perfect tree. About the time I turned ten or eleven, flocked trees became popular; for a few years some were even flocked in pink and light blue. We always got an unflocked Noble that our father had to trim down after we got home, because somehow it always ended up being just a bit too tall for the room. And each year on our way to the register to pay for the tree, we got to pick one new ornament from the racks where they had them individually displayed. Years later, after I was already out of the house, the family made it out to the wild a few times to actually chop down a tree, like my parents did in the old country.
Getting a tree and putting it up several weeks before Christmas was one of the changes that our folks made. In Germany, the Christ Child (das Christkindl) comes on Christmas Eve and brings the tree already decorated for the children to see for the first time the next morning. In Austria, the family puts it up, but not on until Christmas Eve Day. In Germany and Austria, Santa (St. Nicholas) comes on December 6th and brings slippers, fruit, nuts and candy. In the country areas he often brings a dark character with him, der Krampus, who threatens to take the bad children and stick them into his sack, or he leaves them just a lump of coal. My dad grew up after World War I in a small town in Austria without a father. They got lots of snow and used cross country skis to get to school. Many of the women raised four, five , six or more children on their own with very little money or help after losing their husbands in the war. My father said he remembered more than once, knowing of a pre-teenage boy that was giving his mother a hard time that was picked up by the Krampus and taken on a scary ski ride at night in a big sack. Those are among the traditions and memories my parents left behind, but kept alive by telling stories of their childhood and having an Advent Calendar that included a story or telling of a memory with each day’s opening.
One of our favorite stories was always about the Kaufladen. It was a homemade storefront or kiosk type set-up made completely out of wood for my mother and her sister to play store. It was made with dozens of small apothecary type drawers that were filled every year with new dried beans, peas and lentils, candies, and other items that they could sell, taking turns being the merchant and the customer. It actually survived and went on to our cousins in Germany, and then to their children.
Getting the tree and decorating it was always a special day. Although my parents left pretty much everything behind when we moved here after having already lost virtually everything they had from their childhoods during the destruction of the war (WWII), they managed to pick up some European style decorations here and there that were interspersed between those purchased primarily at Sears and Roebuck, whose Christmas Wishbook was tattered and tagged throughout by us kids for months before Christmas. I remember going to a German store or special exhibit a couple of times that had handmade wooden and glass German ornaments; each crafted and painted by hand, so they were special, but not cookie cutter perfect like those that came out of the boxes here. I remember buying a little skier and a couple brightly colored mushrooms. They were always my favorites. In Germany many people still put real candles on their trees or the spritzers, where the colored water bubbles in the middle of each light; both only impressions in my memory from the stories my parents told.
As we decorated we would play both German and English Christmas carols on my parents hi-fi on vinyl singles or 45’s, as they were called, that you constantly had to change. We sang along enthusiastically to White Christmas by Bing Crosby and Rudolf the Red Nosed Reindeer by Gene Autry, the singing cowboy, as well as to Silent Night and O Tannenbaum in both English and German. My mom always had a batch of her homemade spiked egg nog made-up that we were allowed a sip of and there were always a few special German chocolates and marzipan piglets, as well as cookies and stolen from the German butcher shop. And some years there were goodies out from our Aunt Lisbeth and family in Frechen, Germany, like Printen or Speculatius, plus a fresh homemade batch of American style chocolate chip and sugar cookies. My dad would have a variety of shelled nuts out, that always included walnuts, that he would open for us with his nutcracker. There would also always be a platter of figs and dates, persimmons, pomegranates, tangerines and some type of fruit cake, rum cake or special bread, which he and his brothers and sister considered special treats as they grew up. Those were the days of the strings of lights that would not work if one or more were burned out, so sometimes it could be a huge project just to get the lights working. And after all the ornaments and garland were hung, the tinsel would go on last one strand at a time, so it would shine and sparkle without unsightly lumps scattered about the tree. We always had a big star as the topper with a spot in the middle for a light. Placing the topper was Daddy’s job. Tinsel duty and later supervision as we became older and helped to put it on, was Mom’s. We would end the day with a light German style meal and then go for a Christmas light viewing drive after dinner, as we would several more times during the season and one last time on Christmas Eve.
On Christmas Eve we would all be dressed up a bit more than usual for dinner. And dinner would always be traditional German or Austrian fare. Many years it was a variety of sausages: Bratwurst, Weisswurst, and Blutwurst, mashed potatoes and red and white cabbage (rot kohl and sauerkraut) or cucumbers in vinegar and oil. Some years it would be Weiner Schnitzel with white asparagus instead of the sausages and kraut. We kids, of course, would be squirming around in our seats, much too excited to eat.
As soon as we were done eating, my father would say, “How about we get into the car and go look at the lights one last time? And who knows, maybe Santa will stop by while we are gone?” …same exact words every year, even when we were teenagers. At the last minute, as we were putting on our sweaters, my mom would always say, “You know, maybe I won’t go and get this kitchen cleaned up?” We would always protest and Dad would say, “Yah Maria, that is probably a good idea and we won’t be gone long anyway!”
We would pile into the car. I would get to sit in front because I was the oldest and we would head out. We would basically take a tour of our favorite lighted houses, which normally ended way too soon for us. But on Christmas Eve, it always seemed like we were gone forever, even though I’m sure it wasn’t nearly long enough for Santa!
We would get back and run to the back door where we entered from the garage. My mom would be changed from what she was wearing at dinner, have the kitchen completely cleaned up and as we entered the kitchen we’d all be asking, “Was he here? Was he here?” She would always respond with, “No I don’t think so. I didn’t hear a thing in there!” We lived in a small two bedroom duplex until I was a junior in high school and she certainly would have heard!! We would open the sliding door into the living room and in that short span of a time it had been transformed into what seemed to us like Santa’s workshop: packages everywhere, with at least one or more items that had to be assembled ready to go, platters of homemade goodies and goodies sent from Europe with Christmas Carols playing in the background. To us it was a miracle!! And now looking back it was even more of a miracle than we realized, that our mom could have done all of that in such a short time! My sister and I tried to duplicate all of that with our kids and pass those traditions along. And with two of us playing Santa and usually not having a whole kitchen to clean, we were barely able to get it done! And then there is the question of where was all that stored before that night in that little place?!?
Our parents wrapped every pair of socks separately and we loved every gift (no electronics then). After all, we had spent months leafing through the Sears Christmas Wishbook Catalog hoping and making out our lists and letters to Santa. By the time we were through unwrapping and sampling the goodies it seemed like there was barely enough time to put on our new outfits, that were part of our gifts, and head to mid-night mass where we met up with family friends whose kids were all wearing their newly unwrapped Christmas outfits as well.
Both our parents grew up poor in a one parent home between World War 1 and World War II and although their parents did their best, their childhoods were tough and their Christmases and holidays were scant with gifts so they went out of their way to make ours extra special.
My mother grew up living in a small apartment with just her mother, until she remarried, above the town movie theatre where our mom fell asleep listening to the soundtrack seep up through the floorboards. She had a doll with a porcelain face and a real hair wig. Each year the doll would get a new head for Christmas because every year our mother would take the doll downstairs to play with other kids from the neighborhood and invariably she would allow someone to hold the doll after endless prompting, and the next thing she knew someone would drop and break her, after which the doll (one of her main gifts) was put away until next Christmas.
By the time we got home from church it was always very late so after another look at our stash we all went to bed and everybody could get up as early or as late as they wanted to play with and organize their gifts. Then by noon or so we’d head off to Oma and Opa’s (Grandma and Grandpa’s) each year, until they moved up North, for Christmas dinner with our cousins and family. After that our mom would fix a Christmas goose at home each year since we had turkey for Thanksgiving.
Now that my kids and nieces and nephews are grown and my Christmas experience is made up of generations of tradition and varied experiences intertwined, I realize that those growing up years and then the ‘early years’ with my own children and nieces and nephews, who are all about the same age, were the best and are the years that come to mind first when Christmas and Christmas Eve are mentioned. I am grateful for the love my parents put into those holidays and other special events and occasions, and although I tried my best to pass on those special traditions and create new ones along side them, I can only say, “Thanks, Mom and Dad, I wish I could have done as well…”
By Marion Groetzmeier Algier from her book in progress (Working title: The Groeztmeiers) – Originally Posted at Ask Marion in 2010.
That was then… And this is now:
The Digital Story of the Nativity – Video: The Digital Story of the Nativity and Video: The History of Christmas Tree Lights on the Internet
Plus NORAD Tracks Santa on Christmas Eve
For more than 50 years, NORAD and its predecessor, the Continental Air Defense Command (CONAD) have tracked Santa’s flight.
The tradition began in 1955 after a Colorado Springs-based Sears Roebuck & Co. advertisement for children to call Santa misprinted the telephone number. Instead of reaching Santa, the phone number put kids through to the CONAD Commander-in-Chief’s operations “hotline.” The Director of Operations at the time, Colonel Harry Shoup, had his staff check the radar for indications of Santa making his way south from the North Pole. Children who called were given updates on his location, and a tradition was born. LINK: NORAD tracks Santa on Facebook
In 1958, the governments of Canada and the United States created a bi-national air defense command for North America called the North American Aerospace Defense Command, also known as NORAD, which then took on the tradition of tracking Santa.
Since that time, NORAD men, women, family and friends have selflessly volunteered their time to personally respond to phone calls and emails from children all around the world. In addition, we now track Santa using the internet. Millions of people who want to know Santa’s whereabouts now visit the NORAD Tracks Santa website.
Finally, media from all over the world rely on NORAD as a trusted source to provide updates on Santa’s journey.
Merry Christmas! : Celebrating America’s Greatest Holiday
A great book on Losing Our Religion by atheist S. E. Cupp, who says she is he perfect person for this book because she has no dog in the hunt, takes on the all too often avoided question and discussion of religion in America…
Also check out: