Thursday, December 10, 2020

Christmas Traditions and My Great-Grandmother BY E. AYERS

 My mother's grandmother came by boat from Germany in 1865. She was eight years old and I was lucky enough to know her. Well, not really know her, but enough to know who she was. She had long hair that wrapped her head in a braid, and a very tiny waist. Took me years to figure out why she had such a tiny waist - corsets! I was very little and she was quite old. I have quirky memories of her and the stories my grandmother told me. 

Growing up, we had a walk-of the basement rooms was a big wooden chest with a rounded lid. I was told that was my great-grandmother's chest that came on the boat filled with her things. It had all sorts of little items in it and lots of bigger things. Mom used it for storage but it also contained things from my great-grandmother according to my mother. The chest was filled with lace and ribbons. I still have some of the lace and a bit of the velvet ribbon. But I don't know if that was left from my grandmother or my great-grandmother. But I have tied that ribbon on my daughters' and on one granddaughter's ponytails and pigtails when the children were dressed up. 

I wasn't allowed to open the trunk. Probably if that lid had fallen on my fingers I wouldn't have them. The chest also had a lift-out tray that sat on the top of the bottom portion. And the lid had a tray that was hinged so it would stay down when the lid was lifted or could slide out like a drawer. It was over 40 inches in length, over 24 in width, and probably 3 feet high. It had leather handles that had rotted off. Mom kept an old blanket on the chest to protect it from scratches. One day my mother emptied it and gave it to my oldest brother.  I never saw it again.

My mom had recipes in a old composition book. Then one day she decided her book was falling apart and she re-typed everything into a three-ring binder. I have that binder and it's falling apart. It's also filled with recipes that I'm not touching, such as tripe. But the old composition book existed until about 25 years ago. My sister called me and asked if I wanted it. She reminded me I have all the recipes. I said no. She tossed it. About three days later, it hit me. She had my great-grandmother's recipes for things like salve, especially drawing salve. Can't get the splinter out of your finger? It got it out. My mom didn't copy those into her book because she figured either you couldn't get the ingredients anymore or you might blow up your house making the potions. That book was long gone to the city dump! Darn-it!

But the German traditions especially around Christmas have continued. I had ornaments on my Christmas tree that had belong to my great-grandmother as a little girl. The last one I had got broken but I have others from my grandmother and from my mother's tree.  After that one broke, I sort of quit putting those old ornaments on the tree, and then I decided I might as well enjoy them because they mean something to me. My girls don't want them, one granddaughter is a minimalist and the other granddaughter probably doesn't care.

I never did a feather tree. Thought about it, but didn't have access to the feathers. But what has stayed with me are the quirky things from my childhood. My grandmother raised me for the first two years because my mom was very ill. German became my first language. Horrors!  The anticommunist movement was strong and WWII  was still in people's minds. So if you spoke German, you were suspected as being something terrible - a spy, or even an immigrant. But it was my first language. I think my great-grandmother spoke perfect English but German was spoken in the home. So my grandmother know it.  She taught me nursery rhymes and songs in German. 

I found out as a teen that my mother was furious at my grandmother for teaching me German and forbid her to ever use German around me. But when I went to kindergarten there was a little girl who joined us part of way through the year. She had just come from Germany and didn't speak a word of English. At four, (yes, I entered kindergarten as a four-year-old) I had no clue I had two languages in my head. So I never had a problem understanding her.  I couldn't figure out why everyone else didn't understand her. We became best friends that lasted until I moved away in high school. 

I love German food. Omigosh! Spätzle and Sauerbraten. So delicious! I learned to knife the dough for Spätzle quickly as a married adult, just as I learned to make Yorkshire pudding  or popovers and a crown roast. And I promise Spätzle goes with plain American beef. It's just a form of pasta and it's easy to make. Smothered in any beef gravy. it's delicious. The trick is to drop the dough onto a wet plate and then knife the pasta into the pot of  boiling water. When it floats for a moment, it should be done.

I can still sing Silent Night in German and I'm not sure why. When I was twelve I went to Germany for the first time and within a week I understood anything said to me but I couldn't answer in German. I suspect my ability to sing Silent Night comes for my childhood friend. We probably sang it together.

 Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht
Alles schläft; einsam wacht
Nur das traute hochheilige Paar.
Holder Knabe im lockigen Haar,
Schlaf in himmlischer Ruh!
Schlaf in himmlischer Ruh!

My own mom decided that Christmas was not a time she wanted to spend in the kitchen and my mom was very gourmet! So she started doing hams on Christmas Eve and that became our big meal.  Plus it was easier to gather the family on Christmas Eve than on Christmas. Christmas meant she could spend the time with family and Christmas day was basically leftovers.

I get my girls for Christmas Eve. I raised them to believe that. So for me, Christmas Eve is the best holiday. This year might be different. One daughter is a nurse and often has Covid patents. So between then and now, if she has a covid patient she won't be doing Christmas with us. She doesn't want to risk giving us something.Whether we get together will depend on things like the weather.. It'll be like Thanksgiving with social distancing, windows open, etc. Crossing my fingers for favorable winter holiday.

If my great-grandmother had gone west, she would have brought her family traditions with her, just as every other pioneer did.  We're a melting pot. The fact that we are different makes us who we are. But I believe it's not the things we pass down through the family but the traditions. I've passed the traditions from my family and my husband's family on to my children and to my grandchildren. They will change them, modify them, and adapt them to their lives. With luck, they might remember why we do them.


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