Enjoying the holidays with what you have

It’s easy to get caught up in the hustle and bustle of holiday shopping and decorating. But sometimes the best keepsakes are those we don’t spend a fortune on.

Can you recall a time you simply made do with what you had on hand? Perhaps it’s a memory of a meal shared with those less fortunate, or a family heirloom hung on a new Christmas tree. Or maybe you got out your sewing machine and stitched together a personalized gift.

Here, newspaper staff members reflect on such memories of holidays gone by — from chopping down their own Christmas trees and tossing a successful party on the cheap to singing carols by candlelight.

One magical night

Helen Sue

It was one of those magical Christmas Eves when big fluffy snowflakes fall through the still air.

I was in college and walking with my boyfriend the six blocks to his childhood home. Inspired by the beauty and perfectness of the evening, we spontaneously began singing Christmas carols as we walked through the night.

This was our first holiday season as a couple, and his mother had invited me to join in their traditional Christmas Eve activities.

Approaching the brown house trimmed in fresh snow, I wondered what the night would bring. Would I feel like an outsider at an intimate family celebration?

But my future husband's mother, Helen Sue, was so welcoming and gracious, those worries quickly disappeared.

The living room was filled with scented candles, and I sat on the sofa listening to her favorite Christmas album — the Mormon Tabernacle Choir's "Joy to the World."

Glancing around the room, I noticed it was decorated with figurines and ornaments from the past, some from as far back as her childhood. It was also clear that most of the candles had been recycled from previous Christmas Eves.

After the traditional dish of oyster stew, the lights were turned off and the room came aglow with flickering candles. She led a beautiful Advent service guided by her Presbyterian church booklet, then we settled in to sing Christmas carols. Everything was as magical as the walk through the snow had been. Finally, we passed a tray of pretty cookies given to her by a friend.

To some people's eyes, the evening might have seemed a little sparse and the decorations a bit tattered, but the simplicity of everything was enchanting.

It was one of my richest holiday experiences, and yet it didn't include expensive gifts, fancy foods that took hours to prepare or holiday decorations worthy of a magazine spread.

At the time, I didn't realize that Helen Sue was seriously ill, and for her, every Christmas was itself a gift. Four years later, she was 60 when she died on the Winter Solstice, the darkest day of the year.

But we've carried on her traditions - the Advent service, playing her Tabernacle Choir album and singing carols by candlelight.

And while I never developed a taste for oyster stew, perhaps someday I will make it in her memory and serve it to the two grandsons she never met.

—Mary Lee Hagert

Videos of Christmas past

The last couple of years, linking up with my family at my father's house in Phoenix, Arizona, has been far more stressful than it should be.

I chalk it up to a clash of wills between stubborn adult children and our perhaps less stubborn adult parents.

My siblings and I are now in our 30s, and are finally beginning to figure things out. In fact, this past Thanksgiving in the desert was a rousing, stress-free success. It also helped that I gained some perspective from videos of Christmases past.

To pass some time while waiting for our ride to the Phoenix airport, my father invited my brother, wife and me to watch some home movies he had recently transferred to DVD.

My father is still an avid chronicler of family happenings, but in the heyday of VHS, he was ever present with videocamera, complete with narration and an occasional Dad joke.

We watched some classics, like the campy family skit we made with cousins from California that finished with a player piano sing-along of "Edelweiss" and the still-hilarious 1988 quiz show, "Name that Dinosaur."

We belly-laughed as we watched me getting sore at my then 3-year-old brother, Paul, for deviating from the script, and how compared to her dinosaur-nerd brothers, my sister, Lisa, needed to be nearly fed Pachycephalosaurus and Deinonychus answers.

One thing I didn't expect was footage from Christmas 1998. That summer my mother died suddenly of colon cancer. I was 16.

Our family of six had long celebrated Christmas at home, but that year, down to five, shocked and unsure of what to do, we headed to Missoula, Montana, to be with extended family.

It'd been years since I'd thought of that trip. We packed everybody — uncles, aunts, cousins, cats and cousins' cousins — into a house blocks from the University of Montana, and, with video to prove it, we all had a great time doing nothing but being together.

With Dad yucking it up from behind the camera, we caught a glimpse of Lisa as a college student surprisingly happy to be on film. As he panned a tableful of cousins, we saw Paul and me, teenagers now, wordlessly striking a jokey pose, just as we would today.

The scenes touring the house from nearly two decades ago featured my family, younger and together, even my father's mother, who, not that long after, would succumb to Alzheimer's disease. Save Grandma, though, everyone in the camera shots is still here, still getting by.

It was wonderful to watch but afterward, still waiting to head to the airport and taking a walk with my wife, I became tremendously sad. It'll be more and more difficult to ever get that group of people together I realized, like that, again.

But once the sadness passed I found some clarity. Next Christmas will be in Phoenix, or somewhere else, and I'll joyously and without stress, again, travel to join my family, wherever they might be.

—Mike Munzenrider

A Christmas tree filled with memories

Whenever I see a glittery, well-coordinated Christmas tree, I'm tempted to shop the post-holiday sales to give our tree a makeover.

But the truth is, I'm far too attached to our eclectically decorated tree to actually follow through on that impulse.

November 2014, my husband Derek and I unpacked our Christmas tree in our new home in Roseville, eager to establish our own holiday rituals as a newly married couple.

Having lost my father to pancreatic cancer earlier that month, the holiday season had snuck up on us. Thankfully, we were able to collect ornaments from our youth that our parents had stored away for safekeeping.

Little did I realize, these old ornaments would serve a purpose much greater than filling the branches of our tree. Not only did they bring back fond memories of my own childhood, but each of my husband's offered a mini revelation into his upbringing as well.

Growing up, my brother and I both received two new ornaments of personal significance each year — one from our mom and a Hallmark one from our grandparents. Turns out, Derek's parents had a similar tradition.

His early years are marked by train cars and cartoon characters like Scooby Doo. There's also the red fire hydrant being decorated with wreaths by two mice — no doubt a nod to his fascination with his father's role as a volunteer firefighter.

As a teenager, his interests shifted to sports and other activities like camping and music. A basketball jersey and football hang next to a Mickey Mouse conductor, his souvenir from a high school band trip to Disney World. Nearby, a couple S'more snowmen serve as reminder of his years working to become an Eagle Scout.

Looking at my ornaments, the Rudolph stuffed animal I couldn't sleep without as a baby is well represented, along with all of the critters I loved during my "I’m going to be a veterinarian phase" like mice, penguins, Huskies and birds. I, too, have basketball ornaments representing years of father-daughter bonding.

Last year, my mom bought us two new ornaments: a red fox and a mustache. The fox signifies the real red fox that frequently visited our backyard last winter — a sign from my father, I believed. And the mustache speaks to my husband's aspirations.

As far as I'm concerned, our personal collections are complete.

We'll continue reusing our keepsake decorations until there's need to make room for a new "baby's first Christmas" ornament.

— Erin Hinrichs

Christmas cereal goes to soup, and everything turns out OK

Everyone knows cereal is special. It transcends place and time and can be applied to breakfast, lunch and dinner. It's a meal at the table and a snack on the couch, or the other way around.

But as a kid it was more than that. It was the food that symbolized Christmas morning. (I've only realized recently how convenient that must have been for my parents.)

I grew up in East Asia and breakfast cereals were hard to come by, especially American breakfast cereals. To this day, I'm not sure whether my parents hid cereal boxes somewhere in the house for months at a time, or if my New Jersey grandparents shipped them overseas each holiday season.

Either way, there would always be at least two or three colorful boxes of cereal on the breakfast table every Christmas morning.

For my wife, who grew up in Green Bay, there was a whole separate set of traditions. In fact, her family celebrated with a special supper and gifts on Christmas Eve. My family did the meal, but we were more patient for the presents and waited for the morning.

After we'd been married for a few years, she and I began to form our own traditions, undoubtedly taking inspiration from our respective families.

But then we decided to travel for a year, and we happened to be in Japan for Christmas 2012. And what's a tradition-loving couple to do when cooped up in a little house outside Osaka for Christmas, with a host family that doesn't really celebrate the holiday?

There were no cookies, no gift-giving, no holiday music, no lights, no coziness, no family.

Growing up, my mom maintained the difficult task of making Christmas morning magical after my dad passed away when I was 14, but she wasn't around to help either.   

Every physical thing that triggered our senses year after year to the magic of the season — Guaraldi's A Charlie Brown Christmas, eggnog, a decorated tree — was nowhere to be found.

We had the cold weather. We had the snow. But still, there was no cereal.

Normally, sitting around and doing nothing all day is a pleasure for us on Christmas, but not this time.

It may sound silly, but we began to pity ourselves, and we felt a little lonely.

Then our hosts asked us if we'd like to visit the homeless in Kamagasaki.

And that's what we did. We went to visit hundreds of people who never got to eat cereal, let alone have the warmth of a home. We all ate homemade soup together, and though we were from different worlds, we all had at least this in common: cold noses, red cheeks and warm soup in our bellies on Christmas Day.

—Jesse Poole

Finding beauty in simplicity

At one of the lowest points in my life, my son surprised me with a simple, unadorned Christmas gift, and it started a tradition I’ve come to treasure.

It began the year I flipped over the handlebars of my bicycle and fractured my pelvis. I spent almost three weeks between the hospital and rehab, and then moved into a townhouse, furnished with nice hand-me-downs from the previous owner.

As Christmas approached, my bruises had healed and I was learning to walk again after months in a wheelchair and walker. But the fracture prevented me from driving and much of my time was spent resting on the sofa.

Realizing I was at a low point, my son chopped down a 10-foot tree at the family farm in Wisconsin, delivered it to my house, set it up and looped strings of sparkling white lights around it.  

Then he reached to the top and attached the dried, decorated starfish that I had purchased while Christmas shopping with my sister years ago in southern California. The tree was lovely and cheering. But it was my son’s consideration that really made my day.

The tree delivery became an annual event that I look forward to. For the next few years, I just put strings of white lights on my tree, with my son adding lights where I couldn’t reach, and placing the starfish ornament at the very top.

Then to my joy and his, my son had children. In a few years, the little girls made paper decorations for my tree and I added a few decorations I had picked up on my travels.

Last year, I decided I needed to be a bit more elaborate and bought a big container of colorful balls. My granddaughters, then ages 3 and 5, and I put them on the tree together. It was so delightful.

Many friends and relatives have more elaborate tree decorations, but I like the simplicity of mine.

I can see the magnificent tree from almost any room in my house; it looks festive and cheerful and reminds me of my son and granddaughters.

—Pamela O’Meara

Watching the ball drop on the TV

For me, like for many, “the holidays” are a time above all to relax. Don’t much care for presents, Christmas ham, Paul McCartney’s song “Wonderful Christmastime,” Cyber Friday/Monday, holiday marketing campaigns or peppermint macchiato lattes.

Just give me a few bits of chocolate and a solid chunk of time away from working and I’m set. I could even do away with the term “the holidays.” I prefer to call it “the visiting season.”

Perhaps that’s because there’s a lot of visiting that I do in December. I hang with my parents and siblings. My soon-to-be lawyer brother comes home for a month; my aunts come by; I go to Wisconsin to see my only living grandmother, and I go sledding with my friends.

I also like to host an occasional party. In 2014, I chose to host a little New Year’s Eve shindig after having a rather mediocre time the year before — taking a bath, drinking some sparkling water, sitting in my room listening to jazz music and falling asleep around 12:15 a.m.

Couldn’t have that again — this year there was to be a party. A party for those who had planned on doing nothing, so they’d find themselves pleasantly surprised to have something to do.

As such, I did little planning, inviting only about 12 people. But I did plan one thing: we were going to watch the ball drop on the TV.

The night of the party came, and all was great. I drank some champagne, which my friend Aaron opened with a Lord of the Rings sword my brother had gotten as an 11-year-old and abandoned in a closet at our parents’ house. We played with a 1970s “delivery coaster” which, when you set your drink on it, would promptly roll forward until it reached the edge of a surface, at which point it would stop abruptly, getting a rile from guests who worried their drink would careen off the table. We played Jenga. We sang horrendous karaoke.

We carried on, chatting and eating a variety of cheap snacks, as well as a few higher-brow cheeses. An assortment of guests rolled in, including a few complete strangers, a long-lost high school friend of my brother’s, and some of my sister’s friends, who were a little confused by the dusty, gutted kitchen they had to walk through on their way into the house.

Soon, it was nearing midnight, and so my buddy Joe, the house’s proprietor, and I gathered the guests up to prepare to watch the ball drop on the TV.

“Go out into the yard,” we instructed them. There, they would find a flat-screen TV positioned on the ground.

After consulting a watch, we instructed the guests to count down when prompted.

“10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5...” we all yelled. At around four, Joe cut a rope that was holding up a bowling ball on the roof. Once cut, the ball rolled down a ramp on the roof, which we’d constructed from some leftover 2-by-4s. It fell about 15 feet, landing plumb on the center of the non-functioning TV, smashing the screen right as the clock struck midnight.

Before our guests had time to react, we whipped out some silly string and blasted them all.

And that was that, a New Year’s to remember. All done with a bowling ball borrowed from a friend, some rope we found in the basement, a TV left by the curbside, and some spare 2-by-4s pulled out of a gutted kitchen.

— Patrick Larkin

Butter, butter and more butter

(submitted photo)
Cousins Hannah, left; Maggie, center, and Emma form the sandbakkles by pressing balls of dough into metal molds before baking.

For me, Christmas has always been more about traditions than gifts and decorations. One thing I especially look forward to every year is the first Sunday of December. This day will forever be known as Cookie Day in my mind.

The long-standing tradition was started who knows how many years ago. Cookie baking is a girl-only thing. I guarantee if we left cookie baking to the boys in my family, whatever they made would not be edible.

On Cookie Day, we always make three out of the five or six cookies that are in our repertoire. They are only made during Christmas season and are of Swedish/Scandinavian origin, so the names are a little odd. Most of them are made with butter, and more butter, and flour with a little sugar, eggs and almond extract thrown in.

My cousins Maggie and Emma and I are in charge of sandbakkles. The stiff, buttery dough gets pressed into different shaped metal molds and baked, and every year we manage to burn our fingers. You would think that after 10 years we would figure out to let the molds cool a little bit more before we pop the cookies out. Nope, haven’t figured that part out yet.

Some of my best memories of Grandma are when she taught us how to make sandbakkles. She would always say the cookies were too thick or too thin. If the dough were too thick or thin, she’d explain the cookies wouldn’t bake right. Only problem was her cookies were almost always thicker or thinner than ours. But it was Grandma, so we couldn’t correct her because she “knew best.”

Auntie Dawn is in charge of the krumkake, which is a super thin cookie that is rolled into a cone. Some people stuff the cookies, but that’s a no-go in our family. The cookie has to be rolled with the cone mold right when it comes off the griddle or it will just be a super flat waffle cookie. We leave this job to the men. We figure they can burn their hands on these delicacies instead of us.

The final cookie we make on Cookie Day are bridges. They are basically flour and butter as well. This year, the bridges were made by two of my uncles’ girlfriends. My mother played the role of supervisor. The cookies are called bridges because they are put on a mold that bakes them into an arch shape; hence the name: bridges. These cookies get “accidentally” broken the most ... and eaten immediately.

Throughout all of this, the kitchen is full of laughing, bad singing and even worse dancing. At the end of the day, the cookie-baking utensils are packed away for another year.

—Hannah Burlingame

Making do with what you’ve got

With Christmas 1991 just around the corner, I found myself with more time than money, even though I worked a full-time job and a part-time job.  

I always considered myself just one step above poverty level back then. So, with 10 young nieces and nephews, ages 3 to 15, I decided to use my special learned skill - sewing — to create gifts for the children.

There was no way could I compete with their parents, who showered them with lovely, expensive, sought-after pop-culture gifts. These kids always had loads of presents piled under their Christmas trees.  "Anything I give them will be opened and thrown in a corner," I thought.

I wanted to give them a gift they would remember.

The popular fashion of the time was Zubaz, a loose-fitting pants made from a zebra-striped fabric. As my niece Careen says of Zubaz, "They were the equivalent to the now popular, comfortable, sweat pants."

As the holiday approached, I purchased yards of material at a discount fabric store, and called my sisters to get the children's waist sizes and inseam lengths.  

Using pants patterns altered to fit the kids, I started sewing. One day I sewed three pair of pants.  

I used a black zebra print, and a red zebra print, and finished each pair of pants with an elastic waistband to correspond to their measurements.

Nephew Christopher now reflecting back to his gift says he liked his homemade Zubaz.  "They were the latest trend back then, and were the hip and coolest thing to wear."

His brother Brad says, "I remember Zubaz very well. They were very expensive to buy in the store." He recalls wearing his Christmas pants "several times a week."

The children all wore their homemade Zubaz until they outgrew them. Unfortunately, none of the photos still exist of the kids standing by descending order of height, all wearing their Zubaz.

Nephew Lucas searched through photo albums looking for any pictures of him wearing his Zubaz. While he and several relatives paged through albums, he says, "We all had a good laugh at some of the things I used to wear. That simple request for a picture can bring a family together."

In the 21st century, Zubaz can still be purchased at the mall during the Christmas season. The ones I sewed and gave for gifts are now long gone, made into rags or handed down to charity.

But the memory of sewing and giving the handmade pants to the little ones still remains.
— Vonny Rohloff


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