Friday, December 23, 2011

Remembered Joy: Christmas Eve

Continuing Mrs. Micawber's Advent series (and oh, please read her post for this week! It's so wonderful), I'm remembering Christmas Eves when I was growing up.

Christmas Eves were spent with extended family, having dinner and waiting for Santa's tiny, winged assistant to come check on us. The gathering included my mom's only sibling - her brother - and his wife and kids (who were almost exactly the same age as we were), my maternal grandparents, and some of my mom's aunts, uncles, and cousins. It was a very happy and congenial group of people.

One year my mom made hostess skirts for us three girls and for herself to wear to the Christmas Eve party. We each had a different plaid in beautiful soft wool and felt very chic.

Each year the celebration site swapped between our house and my uncle and aunt's. The Christmas Eve party started in the late afternoon, and the main course for dinner each year was a spaghetti casserole with a cream cheese and sour cream filling. One of my mom's cousins always brought a relish tray of celery sticks, green olives stuffed with pimentos, canned black olives, carrot sticks, little sweet pickles. There was a green salad (with iceberg lettuce) with salad dressing made from Good Seasons seasoning mix, and warm rolls with butter.

Dessert was an assortment of Christmas cookies and candy: pecan puffs, fudge, spritz cookies, decorated sugar cookies. Some of the cookies were ones we kids had helped make before Christmas Eve, and that was part of the excitement of the season: helping to roll the pecan puffs in powdered sugar when they came out of the oven; unwrapping squares of bitter chocolate and sticks of butter to add to the heavy saucepan to make the fudge; trying to operate the cookie press to make the spritz cookies; cutting out and decorating the sugar cookies before they went into the oven with cinnamon red hots, green and red colored sugar, multicolored sprinkles, and silver nonpareils.

Also for dessert on Christmas Eve were nuts in the shell: a big wooden bowl, shaped like half a pecan shell, was filled with pecans, walnuts, almonds, and filberts. We sat around the table after dinner, feasting on cookies and cracking open pecans, the kids asking for help from an adult when they couldn't manage one of the nutcrackers.

And then, after dinner, a very magical part of the evening: Uncle Mistletoe! Uncle Mistletoe was Santa's assistant, maybe 8 or 10 inches tall, with a Dickensian outfit. He flew around on his little wings on Christmas Eve, knocking on the windows of children's homes and peering in with his cheery face to see if the children were being good.

Photo courtesy of my older brother;
Uncle Mistletoe spends his days off with him.

As soon as dinner was over, we started listening for Uncle Mistletoe's knock on the windows to let us know he had arrived. We stood by this window, then that one, looking out into the darkened yard, trying to spot him. There were always a few false alarms: "Did you hear that? I think he's at the other window!" And we ran to that window. But no, he wasn't there. And then: knocking on the window! And back we ran to the first window, this time to see Uncle Mistletoe with his smile, his top hat, his wings, and his little mittened hands, peeking in from the side of the window. And then he was gone, and we waited, listening, for another knock. "He's over there!" We rushed to another window, and there he was! Waving his little hands at us, shaking and nodding his head, and always, always, smiling. Back and forth he flew outside our house, from one window to another and then another and back again. Until finally...he was gone. He had other children to visit, so he had to leave us.

Turns out Uncle Mistletoe needed help on those Christmas Eves from my dad or my uncle, who helped him fly from window to window outside the house in the pitch dark. The year that my uncle lost his footing, fell into one of the window wells, and bloodied his head went completely unnoticed by all us kids.

After that excitement my mom's cousin played Christmas carols on the piano, and we gathered around and sang, some voices on key, some voices harmonizing, and some voices wandering all over the place, looking for the right note.

When the older cousins got to high school age and got bored waiting around for the evening to end, they would organize the younger kids and put on a skit. One year it was The Night Before Christmas. Painfully bad. But it passed the time.

Soon after that, the party broke up, the guests went home, and we got ready for bed, because everyone knows that Santa won't come unless you are asleep! My mom organized the milk and cookies for Santa, which we left on the coffee table in the living room, near the tree and the fireplace, so there would be no chance of Santa missing them. We hung our stockings by the fireplace on little cup hooks my dad had screwed into the mantle. And then, upstairs to bed. We each made sure that our slippers were in our closets, because slippers were the clue Santa used to let us know which unwrapped gift was ours: while we slept, he took one slipper of each child and placed it next to that child's gift under the tree. He also filled our stockings and moved all the gifts that had been wrapped and hidden by our parents (and as we got older, by us, too) to the living room and spread them around the Christmas tree.

It was always hard to go to sleep that night - I shared a room with my older sister, and I remember whispering with her in the dark, speculating about Santa, and if we would hear the sleigh bells or the reindeer when they landed on the roof. The excitement of that magical feeling, knowing that Santa was coming (but not until we were asleep!), and that we would have a wonderful Christmas Day when we woke up.

We were, and are still, a very lucky and blessed family. Loving parents, a comfortable home, a safe community to live in, enough to eat. It was a wonderful childhood. Santa was just icing on the cake of our lives.

This recollection is dedicated with gratitude and love to my parents and my siblings, who helped remind me of some things I'd forgotten.


  1. Thank you for a lovely (and funny) reminiscence of your own Christmas Past.

    I had to laugh when I read about the spaghetti casserole, the iceberg lettuce, and the Good Seasons dressing mix. Those were the pre-foodie days for sure.

    Uncle Mistletoe is a new one on me - was he your family's own particular tradition or is he more widely known? How fun that he flitted from window to window, and how typical of children not to notice a wounded uncle amidst all the excitement.

    How wonderful to have family carol-singing! That's something we've lost nowadays. And I love the slipper tradition too.

    Thanks again for sharing this with us.

    P.S. As I write I'm listening to the King's College Choir, and typing in the intervals of baking. We are blessed indeed.

  2. Uncle Mistletoe was a creation of the Marshall Field Company in the post-war years. He was joined a few years later by his wife Aunt Holly and had a children's TV show and assorted other stuff: his likeness in mugs, ornaments, and other memorabilia, all of which was available right up until the Marshall Field name was abandoned by Macy's after the buyou). We were blissfully unaware of all that and only knew him from his visits on Christmas Eve, outside the window. I think his visiting our house must have been something my dad came up with after his mother gave the family a puppet version of Uncle Mistletoe when we were little. It's a tradition my older brother and many of my cousins carried on for their kids.

    I'll be thinking of you tomorrow morning when you are listening live to L&C! (I'm assuming what you're listening to this morning is a recording, yes?)

  3. Hey Gin-pin,
    Great remembrances of our Christmas eves. You captured them well!


Thank you!