Christmas Traditions—The BIG Day arrives!

Holiday traditions are as wonderfully diverse as the families who practice them. In conjunction with my new release Bear Creek Christmas, allow me to share some of mine!

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The following excerpt is taken from Bear Creek Christmas.

Levi awoke to the wind’s moans and whistles as it tore past the cabin. Given the light level in the room, Knox had let him sleep in, and he turned to look up into his mate’s stormy blue eyes.

“Good morning, love. Merry Christmas!”

Knox framed his face with both hands and kissed him.

“Merry Christmas. I got the best gift ever this year.”

At length, they got up, turned on all the colored lights, and made a fire in defiance of the still-raging storm. Levi tuned in to some holiday music, and they teamed up to prepare a breakfast featuring banana walnut pancakes. Thus fortified, the giddy lovers returned to the living room to begin their celebration. First, Levi took the filled Christmas stockings from the mantelpiece, handing one to Knox.

“What’s this?”

“Our family has always filled them with candy and small gifts, but you can’t have any until Christmas Day. Next year, you get to decide what goes in them.”

Later, Levi picked up the only gift under the tree and presented it to his mate.

“You’re a hard man to buy for, so don’t laugh!”

Knox removed the wrapping paper and opened the box to find a Christmas ornament inside. It was a dancing black bear, wearing a holiday sweater and a red bow on his head. On the bottom, he found the date and an inscription, Knox and Levi – Our First Christmas.

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As a kid, the worst part of the holiday was Christmas Eve. It must have been the only day of the year where I longed to go to bed—but only so the magic could begin when I awoke. While the waiting seemed interminable, there were things going on behind the scenes I knew nothing about until much older. Bit by bit, my parent’s enormous stash of gifts had been secretly wrapped and tagged by my older siblings, hidden away in mom and dad’s bedroom closets. They already knew Santa wasn’t real so they became honorary elves and helpers. Since I was third from the last, I only got to do this a few times and it was enormous fun being “in the know” and keeping secrets from my siblings!

I also didn’t realize that mom had been collecting candy—something Santa was supposed to provide when he showed up with the loot. Seeing the empty stockings hanging there for DAYS was another test of my childhood patience. It had to have been a considerable amount to fill eleven of them to the brim, though I never discovered mom’s hiding place.

Following midnight mass (yeah, I had to endure that too), it was a race to get into bed. We all knew that Santa would not come to our house unless we were all asleep first. I remember a couple of times when dad remained outside, tossing rocks onto the roof. Mom must have been in on it, because we were told that the noises were coming from Santa’s reindeer, and we better hurry up and get to sleep! Coupled with the phony radio and TV announcements of Santa “sightings”, we were convinced it was real.

Christmas Day didn’t officially start until eight am—at least that’s when we were allowed to get up and prepare to run downstairs. If someone had miraculously overslept, we’d go down the hall banging on bedroom doors to get everyone up. Once we had permission, the whole troop raced down the steps and into the living room to see the spectacle. Every available space under and around the tree was taken with gaily wrapped gifts of all sizes and shapes. Others leaned against the wall or were stacked up, leaving a good portion of the floor covered.

The other early excitement was being allowed to have our stockings—now filled to the brim with candy and topped with the largest oranges mom could find. Warnings were given regarding how much of it we could eat, but it didn’t prevent some horse trading between siblings. We’d dump them out to see how many of our favorites were included this year. Most of it was individually foil-wrapped—the only thing preventing wholesale gobbling before breakfast.

Next came the wait for Grandparents to arrive so we could open gifts. I swear, it took them longer ever year to show up! When the time arrived, my siblings and I would find a spot to claim on the living room floor while the adults sat on the couch and chairs where it was safer. Once the gifts were all handed out, the show was ready to begin; highly anticipated by everyone for the entertainment value if nothing else.

With movie camera in hand, my dad called out the countdown of “three, two, one—GO!” and the room erupted in a frenzy of shredded wrapping paper and shrieks of delight. Meanwhile, dad was filming the event in wide, fast sweeps of the camera that usually only captured the mayhem instead of individual moments. Across the room, multiple thanks were shouted to the gift givers—literally shouted, because there was no other way to be heard over the din.

Mom and dad loved this, having spent a lot of money to make this day special for us, year after year. Each of us got at least one big and small present from them, perhaps another from Santa, and then one more from a sibling (we picked names out of a hat once we were old enough to earn money). Unfortunately, we also received something from my grandmother and her husband. No, not socks or other practical gifts, but flea market items with dubious value. They did what they could, but what a disappointment to a kid looking for a shiny new whatever.

When all the hubbub settled down, it was our turn to be quiet and watch as mom opened her gifts. She usually had quite a few and made a point to ooh and aah over each one, no matter what it was. I honestly don’t recall my dad opening anything, though I’m sure he must have had gifts too. He was more concerned about his kids enjoying Christmas, and remained annoyingly difficult to buy for his entire life.

The main meal that day was in the evening. In my younger years, mom would duplicate the Thanksgiving menu, though desserts were more plentiful at Christmas if I remember correctly. We’d crowd around the main dining room table, with the younger kids seated in the overflow in the corner. Like the gift opening, it was a loud, high-intensity affair with everyone eating and engaged in overlapping conversations. In later years, the menu switched from turkey and dressing to spaghetti and meatballs with garlic bread. Yum!

The other parts of the day were filled with table games, watching sports on the TV, or nibbling on snacks or candy. As our family grew to include in-laws and babies, some of the dynamics changed a bit, but we always seemed to have a lot of fun. I miss that holiday vibe from my youth, and at times, wish I could capture it once again for just a little while. I guess I’ll have to be content with old photographs and fading memories. Whatever you and yours do on special days, make the most of them while you can.

Your turn to share. Please tell me what you and yours do for the holidays!

Christmas Traditions—Decking the Halls

Holiday traditions are as wonderfully diverse as the families who practice them. In conjunction with my new release Bear Creek Christmas, allow me to share some of mine!

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The following excerpt is taken from my new release, Bear Creek Christmas.

Levi opened the box from home and took out some strange looking do-dads and funky homemade ornaments—all bearing the marks of time and frequent handling. Knox pointed to a particularly homely configuration of popsicle sticks, glued together in the approximate shape of a star. It had been spray-painted gold and then covered with glitter, topped with a bright red loop of yarn.

Levi couldn’t quite reach the top, so Knox picked him up to hang the gold star where it belonged. He received a kiss for his trouble, and they began placing the other items from the box. Afterward came the new decorations: balls, bows, ice crystals, candy canes, sleds, and several tiny teddy bears. Lastly, Levi spread the bright red tree skirt around the stand and snapped a photo.

Knox hung the stockings on the mantle and the pinecone wreath on the front door, while Levi found places for the knick-knacks, scented candles, and the centerpiece for the dining table. The holiday hand towels went up in the bathroom and kitchen, leaving only the garland, twinkle lights, and mistletoe.

The mistletoe came last since Levi knew Knox would be distracted by the kissing part of the project. By the time they finished, Levi wouldn’t be able to move more than ten feet before passing underneath a bunch of mistletoe—exactly what Knox wanted. It took a lot of snogging to complete the job, though neither of them minded.

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My parents spent more on gifts than decorating, which we certainly appreciated as kids. Mom still made an effort to dress up the house for the season, and it all started with the tree. Dad always bought a real one and brought it home on the top of the car. No one ever went with him for this important purchase, probably so he could get in and out without delay.

My sister Lynn was their first child, born on December 17th. I’m not sure why, but mom decided that all things Christmas would begin on that day every year. Lynn even got a tree-shaped birthday cake, which she thought was so cool!

Once dad got the tree in the house and set up in a stand, he disappeared and let mom direct the decorating. She did the lights first, which for many years were the large (and hot) old-style bulbs. I still like them better than the tiny lights we use now, but they were a fire hazard and often left large sections of the tree without lights if one of the bulbs burnt out.

After that, we put up the glass ornaments; fragile and easily broken but oh so pretty.

There were other decorations, such as the ones we made in school or store-bought baubles of various kinds. The tree-topper changed over the years from gold glass to fabric angels.

Tinsel came last and it was the REAL THING, made of thin strips of aluminum foil. Mom tried to make us slow down and do it right, but we were always in a hurry to get it done. The foil easily creased and tore, and sometimes showed up as big blobs here and there.

The final touch was the red tree skirt which mom wrapped around the base and then placed the Nativity set front and center.

Afterward, we sang some carols around the finished tree and checked every day for the appearance of wrapped gifts.

The rest of the house wasn’t entirely ignored. Stockings were taped to the living room bookcase and garland wrapped around the staircase railing. Mom hung up a few sprigs of plastic mistletoe and there was always a festive wreath on the front door.

Two round glass jars filled with red silk balls and holly made an appearance too. On Christmas day, mom brought out a poinsettia tablecloth for the meal, but I don’t recall any centerpieces or other bric-a-brac.

Even the second floor got a bit of cheer with holiday coloring book pages taped to bedroom doors.

I’m sure I’ve forgotten some things, but too many years have gone by. Thanks to my parents, Christmas was always a special time and the good memories live on.

Your turn to share. Please tell me what you and yours do for the holidays!

Christmas Traditions—Sweets and Treats (holiday snacking at its finest)

Holiday traditions are as wonderfully diverse as the families who practice them. In conjunction with my new release Bear Creek Christmas, allow me to share some of mine!

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The following excerpt is taken from my new release, Bear Creek Christmas.

Knox produced matching holiday aprons from one of the bags, and they got busy. Levi turned on the radio for background music, and they started churning out pan after pan of lightly browned pine trees, stars, bells, and other familiar shapes. The cabin soon filled with the sweet butter and sugar aroma of fresh-baked cookies. Per Knox, any broken or defective ones were immediately eaten as a part of “quality control”.

The delight on Levi’s face was obvious as he relived happy memories of doing this with his family, and they began decorating the cookies with frosting, colored sugar, sprinkles, and nonpareils. They decided to give away the best ones and keep all the boo-boos to eat—though if Knox kept chowing them down like popcorn, there wouldn’t be any left at all. But, it didn’t matter because they were having fun and making memories of their own.

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Aside from store-bought candy, our holiday included cookies and other treats. My mother went all-out for Christmas, providing us with a steady supply of snacks that only showed up in December.

As mentioned in the above quote, sugar cookies were one of the things we got to help make and decorate. The mouthwatering aroma was distinct and provoked memories of warmth, family, and good times. Mom would roll out the dough and bring out a set of well-used aluminum cookie cutters in basic shapes: bells, balls, stars, and pine trees. After they cooled, we slathered on colored powdered-sugar frosting—concerned more about taste than presentation.

Other yummy seasonals appeared, including fudge with walnuts, divinity, snowballs, thumbprint cookies, meringue cookies, glass candy, peanut brittle, and popcorn balls. Despite the long list, I’ve probably forgotten some things. Another classic for us was an extra-large box of Russel Stover candies that included a “map” of what each variety was by its location in the box. The chocolate/caramel turtles always disappeared first, and nobody liked the ones with coconut.

The box I remember was a LOT bigger than this!

Two things come to mind as I reminisce. First, how did my mother find the time to make all this stuff for a household of thirteen? Second, I’m horrified by the amount of white flour, sugar, corn syrup, and margarine we consumed every year. I set aside those unhealthy eating habits long ago, but the dangers weren’t known or discussed back then. Still, the memories are worth savoring, and I lived to tell the tale.

Your turn to share. Please tell me what you and yours do for the holidays!

Christmas Traditions—Stockings (where they go and what to put in them)

Holiday traditions are as wonderfully diverse as the families who practice them. In conjunction with my new release Bear Creek Christmas, allow me to share some of mine!

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Taken from chapter 20 of Bear Creek Christmas

“At length, Knox and Levi got up, turned on all the colored lights, and made a fire in defiance of the still-raging storm. Levi tuned in to some holiday music, and they teamed up to prepare a breakfast featuring banana walnut pancakes. Thus fortified, the giddy lovers returned to the living room to begin their celebration. First, Levi took the filled Christmas stockings from the mantelpiece, handing one to Knox.

“What’s this?”

“Our family has always filled them with candy and small gifts, but you can’t have any until Christmas Day. Next year, you get to decide what goes in them.”

They poured them out on the sofa cushion and began comparing and trading. Knox exchanged some of his licorice for chocolate, while Levi traded a keychain for emoji stickers. The rest went back inside the stockings, which were re-hung on the mantle.”

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I came from a large family, and each of us had our own Christmas stocking emblazoned with our name. (There was less pilfering this way if you were dumb enough to leave it laying around!) They got ratty and soiled through the years but no one seemed to care. If I recall correctly, they were store-bought and made of green or red felt. After we all grew up and moved away from home, my mother began creating beautiful hand-quilted stockings for her grandchildren.

While tradition says you’re suppose to hang them on the mantle (providing the North Pole invader easy access), our home didn’t have a fireplace when I was young. This created two very serious questions in my young mind: how did Santa get inside the house without a chimney, and where were we supposed to hang the stockings? My mother told me in all seriousness that Santa simply used the back door to get in, and no, he did not need a key. She also said he knew exactly where to find our stockings—taped to the shelves of a built-in bookcase in the living room where the tree was set up.

We always hung the stockings on the same day we decorated the tree—December 17th, which was my oldest sister’s birthday. There they remained, empty, until late on Christmas eve when mom filled them with candy of all kinds, along with the largest oranges she could find. Evidently, this was one her own traditions, having grown up during the depression when fruit was a little easier to afford than gifts.

Our stockings were the first things we grabbed after being allowed to go downstairs on Christmas morning; mom’s warning not to eat it all ringing in our ears. I don’t recall much in the way of toys or non-edible things—it was all fuel for the coming sugar rush. My favorite was the round balls of chocolate, about the size of marbles and wrapped in bright colored foil. I never did like the traditional hard candies like ribbons, though peppermint candy canes were a welcome treat. We often traded with our siblings, looking for a better deal or just more chocolate.

Your turn to share! Do you hang stockings? Where? If you fill them, what goes inside?