Christmas in my family has always been a festival of fantastic gifts. Even though we weren’t wealthy (or anywhere close to it, by any measure), there were always lots of presents, ranging from practical gifts of clothing from family members, and toys, music, books and sporting equipment from the famous, fabricated giant -- Santa Claus.
When I was young, my family celebrated Christmas Eve together with varying combinations of great-aunts (who we called "Aunt") and my Mom's cousins and friends. The gatherings felt very glamorous, with the ladies in nice dresses, the men in ties and jackets, and we kids in new Christmas outfits from my grandmother, Mummu.
The family party rotated between the homes of my grandmother and her sisters, but my favorites were the years it was at Mummu’s apartment. When it was her turn to host, I got to help her cook, bake, and carefully set out the good china serving pieces, trimmed in platinum and used only on Thanksgiving, Christmas Eve, and Christmas. There was the excitement of last minute hustle and bustle and Christmas music blaring from the radio.
At Mummu’s parties, the traditional Christmas Eve menu included finger sandwiches featuring egg salad, ham salad, and tuna salad, each delicately sprinkled with paprika for color. There were relish trays of sweet baby gherkins, black olives, and green olives, with tiny plastic cocktail pitchforks for serving. Just before the guests were due to arrive, keilbasa in an intoxicating sauce of brown sugar, vinegar and ketchup was set to bake in her Roper Deluxe gas stove and heater. (I loved standing beside the stove in the winter, enjoying the hot air blasting out the vents on the side.) Finnish coffee bread from a local bakery was surrounded by dozens of home baked cookies, some so fresh they were still warm from the oven.
Our Christmas Eve parties always featured a grab bag gift swap between the adults featuring gifts both mundane (socks) and spectacular (alcohol and cigarettes). There were practical gifts of hats, scarves, socks and underwear from the adults to my brother, sister, me, and any others of our generation. Sometimes the gifts from the great-aunts were a bit off target, like the year Aunt Mary gave me a pair of navy blue stockings. The kind that require a garter belt. I was ten. I thanked her politely and saved those stockings in the original packaging for years, but never came into the hardware required to actually use them.
For decades, in addition to the new outfits we were wearing at the party, my grandmother gave us each new pajamas to open on Christmas Eve, and every few years there was also a new bathrobe. I loved waking up on Christmas morning in my new nightgown or pajamas. It felt special. It was almost as glamorous as the party the night before. One year in high school, I was crushed when my new pajamas, styled like long johns in blue flannel with a red and white snowflake pattern that made me think of ski lodges and reindeer, were too small. Mummu usually bought all the pajamas at the after-Christmas sales and held them until the following Christmas, so there was no opportunity to exchange them. I never even told her those didn’t fit. Like the navy stockings from Aunt Mary, I kept the pajamas for several years.
|Christmas pajamas, many years ago.|
Mummu died in 2005, and although the party begun with her generation continues, our tradition has changed. We attend Christmas Eve church service before the party now. During our party in 2013, as I was quizzing my nieces about what they would wear to bed and for unwrapping their gifts on Christmas morning, I learned that my nieces, born in 1999, 2002, and 2004, never had the family traditional gift of new pajamas on Christmas Eve. Maybe we need to resurrect the Christmas pajamas. Of course, there is the risk my nieces may not find it fun at all. Or at least not as much fun as the keilbasa and cookie traditions. I, however, would love some new Christmas pajamas (hint, hint).