Like many people I know, I grew up poor. Getting random gifts was a rarity. Except for Christmas. Mom was a single parent raising three daughters (I’m the oldest) and acquiring a college education to get us off welfare. But my mother and grandmother made Christmas magical for us.
My grandmother (we called her Mim) was the matriarch of the family. She was tiny, wiry and she only smoked in the bathroom with the window open. Rarely did anyone actually see her doing the deed. Funny the things one remembers about a person. Most of the men were divorced out of my family and so Mim ruled. At Christmas we were expected to go to her tiny farm in Ohio to celebrate. Mim and Mom would work tirelessly to sew up new clothes for us (rarely did we have ready-made) and I often remember receiving new hand-sewn bathrobes and jammies.
If Mom didn’t have the money to provide Christmas for us, she would borrow some from the bank and make sure we had lots of packages to open. It was a grand day! We loved going to Mim’s house at any time but Christmas was tradition. She would cook up everything we loved and we all sat around a crowded dinner table laden with good ole’ hillbilly cookin’ (she was from West Virginia) and try to outtalk each other. My two aunts (Mom’s younger sisters) and cousins would often join us so, it was a rowdy bunch.
I can still picture Mim’s Christmas tree in a corner of that tiny living room. It always had bunches of wrapped gifts underneath to tantalize us and on Christmas morning…after Santa had visited the night before…we would have a few unwrapped Santa gifts and a full stocking to rummage through.
I tried to perpetuate that tradition. Then I met Dan and fell in love. I was appalled that his family never put up a Christmas tree or lights or had a grand celebration. I grew up believing Christmas was a time to show love to others by giving gifts and the lights, music, excitement of Christmas made it all just glorious. I wasn’t taught the real meaning of the holiday till I met Dan and his Conservative Mennonite family. But the solemnity of the way Christmas was observed in Dan’s family was just something I couldn’t understand. Couldn’t there be a way to incorporate a Grand Celebration with the true message of Christ’s birth? Did it have to be either/or?
I set out on a mission to change his family’s observance of the holiday and soon after we were married, Dan and I helped them decorate a spindly tree and put up some lights. Each year, there was more joy in the loosening up of the strict observance that Dan had grown up in. By the time we had children, I wanted them to have the excitement of Christmas I had had as a child. That meant stories of Santa and elves and reindeer mixed with Biblical history. Dan wasn’t sold on that idea. Wouldn’t that confuse the children and risk them believing Jesus is make-believe like Santa?
I do not equate Santa with Christ. My children and grandchildren don’t either. But I do think that having Santa in the mix helps increase the capacity for believing in miracles and spreading joy, good cheer and generosity on a level children can relate. One belief doesn’t have to cancel out the other.
Did you have fond Christmas memories that made the season magical for you? I’d love to hear.
Judy Herrig says
I love your explanation, Joanne! Thank you for sharing.
One of my earliest memories was my mama making hard ribbon candy. It was peppermint flavor in white ribbons and streaks of color. My favorite was the blue streaks.
In kindergarten my mom let us borrow my class our aluminum Christmas tree with the color wheel. My class made ornaments for the tree and everyone made my mom a Christmas thank you card.
Christmas blessings to you and your family!!
Joanne Miller says
My aunt had a silver Christmas tree with that rotating color wheel, Judy. I remember it well. Great memories! Thanks for commenting. Miss you. Hope you are enjoying being back in MN.
You did an amazing job of making Christmas magical for us! I have an amazing book called “The (Wonderful) Truth About Santa” that explains about the story of St. Nick and his love for giving to others…and it does a great job of opening up the door to share how being added to the “secret Santa” world is a wonderful thing. I plan on reading through it with the girls when they ask. So far, they have questioned some, and I’ve said “do you enjoy the magic of what you believe now?” And they say yes, so I ask “do you really want to ask more questions, or do you want to play with what you know now?” and they’ve chosen to play with their idea of Santa. 🙂
Some of my most favorite memories is baking all the Christmas goodies, the unwrapped bonus gifts the morning of, the fact that you wrapped EVERYTHING, and the joy YOU had in giving that was so infectious we were all bursting with excitement not only in the receiving but the true joy of giving as well. Thank you for spreading the love of generosity like you have! Love you!
Sohma Rae Hathaway says
Thanks for sharing this beautiful story, Joanne.
One year when my 4 children were very young and my husband was jobless, we made Christmas gifts for each other and the children. I made big pillows in the shape of animals and found an old child-sized rocking chair at the thrift store and refinished it. We spent hours cutting up wood and painting the pieces for a set of homemade dominoes. There was a great sense of accomplishment and love that we felt but my all-time favorite memory came from that same year on Christmas Eve.
We dressed up the kids. My oldest was an angel (which matched her character), my 5 year old, (with his loving heart and sense of adventure) was the Shepherd, my 3 1/2 year old was a precious little Joseph and my 2 1/2 year old was the cutest little Mary you ever did see. We read from the scriptures and acted out the story of Jesus’s birth. It was precious to hear their little voices say things like, “We been twavelin awl day.”
Oh, my mama heart! That memory is forever etched with gratitude in a favorite place of my heart.
Thank you for sharing such a lovely vision I enjoyed reading your memories. I have very few memories of Christmas celebrations. Actually only 3 stand out. Before alcohol tore my family apart I remember one dinner at my Maternal Grandparents they lived in a tiny house in Palmyra NY to this day I cannot imagine how my Mother’s 6 brothers & sisters all fit in that little house it would have been pushing 1100 sq feet. I loved it!
My second memory is after the tree was decorated we got to lay under it and fall asleep to the lights twinkling above us. I remember the stocking full of candy (something we rarely got) fruit and nuts and a few gifts. Two gifts that stood out was my Chatty Cathy doll and a little piano that had maybe 10 keys on it.
My parents separated by the time I was 10 and my Mother and 6 yr old sister & I moved from a farm to a city apartment, quite an adjustment. I went from my parents having knock down fights to my Mother drowning her sadness day after day. I grew up quickly and took care of my little sister entirely from feeding, bathing and getting her ready for school.
It was Christmas evening and my Mom was passed out and as my little sister slept I sat on the couch and cried that she would wake with nothing from Santa. It was then a voice from across the room called me by name. He was not the traditional looking Santa but an older version slim with a gray beard I remember I had no fear and somehow knew something special was happening. I knew whoever this was had not come through the door as it automatically locked and had to be physically unlocked. I was normally a fearful child. I was not at all afraid. He called me over to him and sat me down on his lap and held me to his chest as I wept. I can remember an overwhelming sense of peace and comfort. All I remember him saying is ” Darlene I know this is hard but it will all turn out alright”. He then sent me to bed and told me my little sister would have gifts. I slept that night without worry for the first time in months. The next morning my Mother woke me and asked who had brought gifts I told her I think it must have been Santa or an angel’s. She admonished me for opening the door. I swore to her I didn’t open the door he just appeared in the livingroom. Of course she went around checking the 2 doors and said the landlord must have come in using the pass key. I insisted it was not him I knew what he looked like. I explained over and over to her what happened.
I have always believed it was an angel or Jesus who offered a little girl comfort that Christmas eve.
Tanya Hargrove says
I love your story love and determination!. Thanks for sharing your inspirational way to have a Christmas celebration as a joyful one for all. Now, as a adult, my Christmases so are so meaningful by celebrating Jesus’s birthday, listening to all types of Christmas music along with Christmas decorations everywhere and jolly-cheer with family and friends. It is truly my fave of the year!
Dallas Demmitt says
Joanne, thanks for sharing some of your memories of your early Christmas celebrations. (Like Dan, I too was raised on a farm in Ohio.) What came to mind was when I was 5 or 6 years old, I was given a gift I’ve never forgotten. When I came downstairs Christmas morning, my Dad had in his arms a small lamb with a big red bow around it’s neck. In hindsight, the event reminds me now of how God loves us all today. We have the freedom to celebrate the birth of Jesus and have the benefits of His sacrifice for us. Merry Christmas to all.
My mother came from a Swedish background and every Christmas Eve she would prepare a smorgasbord of delectable Swedish food such as potataskor (potato sausage), kjutbuller (meatballs), cardamom bread, limpa bread, and peparkakor (ginger cookies). She decorated the home with delightful Swedish items including the toomptegubin- a little elf and
the Swedish horse.
We would open gifts on Christmas Eve after dinner and go to bed expectantly waiting for the early wake up call to get dressed at 4:30 in the morning. We were on our way to Julatta- the 6 o’clock Christmas Day service- all in Swedish. We loved shivering in the cold night as we went to church,and watching the sunrise shine through the beautiful stained glass windows. How she managed to get all 5 of us children ready on time is still a miracle to me. So many wonderful memories.
Jean clark says
The memories attached to the farm and our grandparents will be the best of our childhood Joanne. That tiny living room overfilled with gifts and the smell of homemade biscuits and turkey and moms candied sweet potatoes— nothing could be better. Funny how rich we really were!
For some reason I’ve never mixed up Santa with Jesus. Santa is so much fun! Jesus is way above and beyond him. I always think Santa knows the real STAR of the show. When that’s understood, all else is just magical and wonderful and full of Christmas cheer! Loved hearing about your Christmas memories. Fun having them. Fun making them now.