The Christmas celebrations that my parents and grandparents knew were nothing like the commercialized spree of shopping and gift giving we know today. The holiday was centered around the celebration of the birth of Christ. Christmas was (and still is) a holy day of obligation—a day when attending Mass was required. Families bundled into their carriages or wagons with bricks that had been heated in the oven to keep their feet warm during the trip to church. Some families with only a wagon filled it with straw for warmth if the weather was bitterly cold. Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve was a special celebration that was looked forward to eagerly. The church was lighted with candles and decorated with greenery or evergreen trees. The crèche used at Assumption prior to the 1945 fire was a large impressive set, the tallest figurines about two feet tall. When it was purchased I do not know; possibly when the 1922 church was built. It was tradition that the crèche was set up before Christmas, but without the Christ child in the manger. At midnight Mass on Christmas Eve a child or children carried the Baby Jesus up to the crèche and placed him in the manger.
Grandma Trausch never had a crèche at home and as far as I know neither did Grandma Kline when my mother was young.
When my parents were children they received few Christmas gifts, and often not individual gifts but toys to be shared. In 1992 my Uncle Ed Trausch reminisced about his childhood Christmas gifts: “We got mostly clothes. We got tinker toys once, that was real enjoyable. We got a sand mill once. You filled the hopper with sand and it ran down a slant and then ran back and dumped it. We enjoyed that. We played checkers a lot. The first years I remember Santa Claus brought the tree and the toys. Dad went out and cut it. We went to midnight Mass on Christmas Eve, then Christmas dinner someone always came over.”
In 1979 Great Aunt Lizzie Kaiser Pittz reminisced “I remember one Christmas Dad [Nicholas Kaiser] got each one of the boys [grandsons] a pocket knife, Oh, your Dad [Bert Trausch] thought that was great. Grandma and Grandpa always got all the grandkids Christmas presents. Kate always had a Christmas tree in the dining room in the corner and it reached almost to the ceiling. They had candles on it. Kate would go to 5 o’clock Mass and Matt would put the tree up. The next morning toys was under it.”
The Trausch grandparents (Thomas and Anna) did not give Christmas gifts to their grandchildren, probably because they had a lot of them.
In 1984 my Mother and I talked about her childhood Christmases. “The folks used to buy a wooden bucket of mixed Christmas candy, about ten pounds. Too bad we don’t have a few of those wooden buckets now. We used them to gather eggs in and things like that. My folks were always big on candy and nuts. We always got a lot of them. Mom made divinity. That was a treat. Sometimes we made taffy, but that wasn’t at Christmas. That was generally after Christmas.
I asked if Grandma Leona Kline ever cooked anything French for Christmas? “Not that I can remember. The one thing I remember was we always went to my Grandma Kline’s for Christmas and they had celery. That was about the only time of year we saw it. Aunt Kate thought celery was a big treat. Grandma generally had two or three roast chickens and bread dressing. Once I remember they had a turkey that Aunt Sill raised. They made good dressing. They made it in a pan separate from the meat. They took the juice from the birds and dipped it over the dressing while it was baking. Boy it was good, real flavorful. The chickens they roasted were hens and they are always more flavorful. They usually had pie.”
Grandma Kline [Bertha] actually didn’t do the cooking when I can remember, it was Aunt Kate and Aunt Sill. [Aunt Kate and Aunt Cecilia were old maids who lived on the farm with their widowed mother.] Grandma would help get the ingredients ready; if they had apple pie, she would peel the apples. Aunt Sill always made the pies and Aunt Kate always made cake. When Aunt Kate made cake, she always took Grandma the shortening and sugar and she whipped that up real good, then she put the eggs in and she whipped that up good. Grandma peeled the vegetables. She did that in her big rocking chair.
Did you ever spend Christmas with your Grandpa Bassett? “No. Well, it was too far to go into Hastings when the folks were first married, and then they just got the tradition started of going to Grandma Kline’s. Mom always had her family out for New Years if the weather was good. The folks generally took Mom’s folks some meat and eggs, something like that. They used to laugh. Grandma [Maud] Bassett always gave them a bath towel set. Grandma Kline gave them different things. One year Grandma Kline got them an ice cream freezer, a big kettle, something like that. I still have the sheet and pillow from the little doll bed I got when I was little one year from Grandma Kline. I still have those little sauce dishes that you got the big dish for. My big dish broke when hot pudding got poured in it. And I still have a little silver button hook, finger nail file and finger nail cleaner that Grandma Kline gave me for Christmas one time.
Grandma and Grandpa Bassett didn’t give us kids each one anything. They just gave the folks generally a bath towel set.”
Were the presents wrapped? “Yes. Years ago the stores wrapped everything with tan paper and string. At Christmas time they got big rolls of Christmas paper. The folks saved that. And Mom used brown sacks to wrap presents with. Everything was wrapped in the stores until probably in the ‘40s. Then they started using sacks for wrapping.
In the grocery store most things came in crates or boxes. I know when we were first married I would go to town and buy a 25 pound box of prunes. They cost about $2. I canned some and the rest we just ate. Flour came in 50 pound sacks.”
Did you have a Christmas tree when you were little? “We always had a Christmas tree. It was always a branch off an evergreen, ever a tree. Mom went to Grandma Kline’s and asked them if she could have a branch for a Christmas tree. We didn’t put it up very early. Our house was small. Mom generally put the tree in the churn and set it beside the cupboard in the kitchen and we strung up some popcorn and cranberries and paper stuff and put that on. We didn’t have any bought decorations.”
Did your Grandma Kline have a Christmas Tree? “They never had a big tree. She had a little tree, I think it was paper, that she put on the table. It was about two feet tall. A little artificial tree, the branches folded straight up. On the end of each branch she put a little candle holder and a little candle. She lay some cotton along the top of each branch, and they put some tinsel icicles on. Then Christmas night at supper she lit the candles on the tree. They always hung a red paper bell on their shades, and in the door between the kitchen and living room they hung some red paper roping and some tinsel, and a red paper bell. They never had a Nativity set.”
Did your Grandma and Grandpa Bassett have a Christmas tree? “Yes. They also had one of those little artificial trees that the branches folded up. It was about three feet tall. And she had it on a little stand in her front window. They lived in Hastings and had electricity. They had lights on the tree. They didn’t have a Nativity set either.
At Giltner church we had a crib set. They took one tree branch and hung it over the top of the set and put a little cotton and tinsel on that. That was a big deal for us kids.”
Did you have midnight Mass on Christmas Eve? “Not for a good many years. They started having midnight Mass when I was a teenager. We went in the morning on Christmas day. Giltner was a mission of Harvard and until the Priest got a car we didn’t have midnight Mass.”
In 1982 I asked my Grandmother, Leona Bassett Kline, about her childhood Christmas presents. Did you have toys when you were a girl? “No. I got an orange one Christmas; that’s all I got.” Was that because your Dad [Jule Bassett] didn’t have any money? “Ya. My mother died [Leona was only four years old when her mother died in October 1897] and he had to hire ladies to keep the house and to keep us kids. It just broke him. He only had a quarter [160 acres of land] and farmed all by hand. He just couldn’t make enough money. But we had a better living than I had in the thirties by far. I don’t remember how old I was when I got my first doll, pretty old. We’d take pie plant [rhubarb] leaves and pin ‘em on our heads [for a bonnet]. Kids them days never had toys. We didn’t know what they were.”
Unfortunately, I didn’t ask my Grandmother Trausch about her childhood Christmas traditions. Grandma Trausch was born in 1883, so she was growing up during the hard years of the 1890s depression. All farmers were very poor at that time. Mary Pigeon, Grandma Kline’s cousin, also told me that one Christmas all she got in her stocking was an orange. She sucked on it and made it last all day.
My French ancestors did not celebrated Christmas like the Germans did. For the French, Christmas was a religious holiday. They celebrated New Years Day with a special meal and exchanged gifts then. The families often got together on New Years and there was music and dancing, as well as French food and drinks.
Great Aunt Lizzie Kaiser Pittz reminisced about the Luxembourg custom of Saint Nicholas Day which is December 6th. “We had a special good meal and then in the evening Saint Nicholas would come to the door and roll in walnuts and candy. He never brought toys. We never got to see him, it was dark. He would knock on the door, then the folks went to the door and stood aside and he rolled in the candy and nuts. We kids would run and pick them up. I don’t know who played Saint Nick, probably Uncle Charley Theisen or some neighbor. All the Luxembourgers celebrated Saint Nicholas Day: Nick Konen’s and Nick Mousel’s had big parties. We never had a party, just the family. We had Christmas too.
During my parents and grandparents childhoods children’s wants were simpler. Communications were limited to the mail, seeing friends and relatives at church, and the neighborhood school. The weekly newspaper did contain advertisements from local merchants, and most families received the “Monkey Wards,” Sears or National Belles Hess catalogues. However, the first Sears “Wish Book” Christmas Catalog didn’t make its debut until 1933 when my parents were young adults.