Advent Calendar: December 13,, 2009: Holiday Travel

Holiday Travel
Did you or your ancestors travel anywhere for Christmas? How did you travel and who traveled with you? Do you remember any special trips?

Until I was in college I never had to travel at Christmas because most of my family lived close by. We spent most holidays at my grandparents’ house and they lived just a few blocks away. After college, I lived in New Jersey for a year and a half and missed two Christmases at home, but one of those years my parents came to visit me. Then for the next four years I lived back at home while going to graduate school so did not have to travel to see my family. In 1995, I moved to New York but went back to Pittsburgh nearly every year to spend Christmas with my parents and extended family. Now that my parents have passed away I am content to spend Christmas at home with my husband. Sure, I miss the old times–lots of great memories–but I prefer not to have to travel at the holidays so it’s nice to just relax and enjoy the time off.

Advent Calendar: December 12,, 2009: Charitable/Volunteer Work

December 12 – Charitable/Volunteer Work
Did your family ever volunteer with a charity such as a soup kitchen, homeless or battered women’s shelter during the holidays? Or perhaps were your ancestors involved with church groups that assisted others during the holiday?

We did not specifically do any charity work during the holidays. My mother would give a donation every year to Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh and the Salvation Army. They would take up a collection at school for food items. When I was in college our sorority would do various service projects in the local community before the holiday break. I’ve also made donations to various toy and food drives in the community where I now live.

Advent Calendar: December 11 2009: Other Traditions

Other Traditions

Did your family or friends also celebrate other traditions during the holidays such as Hanukkah or Kwanzaa? Did your immigrant ancestors have holiday traditions from their native country which they retained or perhaps abandoned?

Except for the “American” traditions of Santa Claus, baking cookies, giving gifts, etc., my family did not celebrate any others. My ancestry is Slovak and Christmas is a very holy time for the Slovak people. I will defer my post on the Slovak Christmas traditions until December 24th.

Advent Calendar: December 10, 2009: Christmas Gifts

Christmas Gifts

What were your favorite gifts, both to receive and to give? Are there specific gift-giving traditions among your family or ancestors?

I pretty much liked all the gifts I received at Christmas. “Santa” was always very generous to me. Some of my favorite gifts from childhood included anything “Barbie”; my Easy-Bake Oven and Washer, dolls, and board games and an actual Santa doll (I still have him!)

When I became a young adult the gifts changed of course. I would always receive a koala bear ornament and a “daughter” ornament, a new pair of pajamas or nightgown, and then whatever was on my “list” that year.

My favorite gifts to give were “Mom and Dad” ornaments for my parents each year. I bought my mother a stereo one year so she could play her old 33 rpm albums. My father was not one to get excited over gifts–and always said wrapping paper and greeting cards were “a waste of money.” He did not like to shop for gifts. He preferred to just give my mother the money to buy what she wanted or give me money so I could buy what I wanted. My parents and I had our own tradition where we would open one gift after we returned home from midnight mass and then open the rest in the morning.

For the extended family, we usually held a Christmas grab bag at our family parties (for those age 16 an older) because there were too many of us and you just could not afford to buy a gift for everyone.

Advent Calendar: December 9, 2009: Grab Bag: The Sadder Side of Christmas

The Sadder Side of Christmas
Author’s choice. Please post from a topic that helps you remember Christmases past!

Unfortunately, not all of my memories of the Christmas season are happy ones or the kind you see advertised on television specials and commercials. Over the years, my family has experienced some sad and tragic moments that inevitably give me pause for reflection amidst the celebration.

My maternal grandmother passed away four days after Christmas in 1984. She was in the hospital during Christmas, which was very sad for all of us because she was the glue in our family–her love and generosity were immeasurable and she passed on the Slovak traditions we all still cherish so much. Although she was very ill, we all believe she held on until after Christmas because she wanted us all to be together and enjoy the day. Christmases were never the same after she passed away.

Then, my father’s sister, my Auntie Sr. Camilla, passed away in December 1986 and my father and aunt had to fly to Texas to attend her funeral. She was a Roman Catholic nun and died in the Mother House at Victoria. It was too expensive for all of us to go. Another sad Christmas.

In 1990, my cousin’s husband died on Christmas Day. He was in a car accident a couple of weeks before Christmas. This was a very difficult time for the family.

Finally, in 1992, my father suffered a stroke on Christmas Day. He was very lucky because he survived and save for minor coordination issues and loss of his peripheral vision on one side, made a full recovery. I will never forget how empty I felt, and how my mother and I took turns comforting one another in the emergency room that Christmas Day. I always think about Dad on Christmas, and, this year will be the fourth one without him. Hard to believe.

So, it’s difficult to be 100% joyful at Christmas, and experiencing the losses somehow keeps me tempered when it comes to the whole celebration aspect, but it also makes me appreciate my family so much more and truly remember what the season is really supposed to be about and not focus too much on the gifts, the parties, the trees, etc.

Advent Calendar: December 8, 2009: Christmas Cookies

I’m a few days behind on my posts…but wanted to get them all in.

Christmas Cookies

Did your family or ancestors make Christmas Cookies? How did you help? Did you have a favorite cookie?

[This post is excerpted from a previous blog post from December 2006]

One of my favorite traditions is baking Christmas cut-out cookies, using a recipe that my dad’s sister Betty (Auntie B as I called her) used and passed down to us. Ever since I was a young girl I have looked forward to this tradition every year. I have many fond memories of baking these cookies, especially with my “Auntie” – my father’s other sister (Sr. Camilla) when she came home to Pittsburgh from Texas during the holidays. Here are a few photos of one of our baking sessions during Christmas 1972. I still have the same cookie cutter too! Great memories!

I included this recipe in the GeneaBloggers Holiday Cookbook 2009, and it is also available in my book, Baba’s Kitchen: Slovak & Rusyn Family Recipes & Traditions. You can also link to it at my December 20, 2006 post.

Advent Calendar: December 7, 2009: Holiday Parties

Holiday Parties
Did your family throw a holiday party each year? Do you remember attending any holiday parties?

Our family still has holiday parties. In the “good ol’ days” my parents and I would join my aunts, uncles and cousins to spend Christmas Day at my Grandma Figlar’s house–and it was quite a gathering. Lots of food, laughter, conversation, and the occasional scuffle or two. But it was all about FAMILY. I sure miss those days!

Each year in Pittsburgh the family still has a gathering, usually a day or two after Christmas. Because we are scattered now and everyone has their own work schedules and other obligations, not everyone can make the party every year. But an effort is made to still come together for some good food, laughs, and a Christmas grab bag.

Advent Calendar: December 6, 2009: Santa Claus

Santa Claus

Did you ever send a letter to Santa? Did you ever visit Santa and “make a list?” Do you still believe in Santa Claus?

I always wrote letters to Santa Claus. I took great care in composing what I would say.  I also would visit Santa with my “list”.  My mother would take me to see Santa at one of the local department stores, or at the Slovak Civic Federation in Duquesne.

I don’t ever recall being scared or crying when I sat on Santa’s lap, and I never had any trouble communicating what I wanted for Christmas. And, as I recall, Santa was always pretty good to me.  

Of course I still believe in Santa Claus!! (wink, wink).


Advent Calendar: December 5, 2009: Outdoor Decorations

Outdoor Decorations

Did people in your neighborhood decorate with lights? Did some people really go “all out” when decorating? Any stories involving your ancestors and decorations?

I don’t recall seeing too many elaborately decorated houses in my neigbhorhood. There were one or two on the street I lived on and a few on some of the adjacent streets. As for our house, my mother always preferred simplicity. She would put a single (electric) candle in each of the two windows in our living room, and one in the upstairs bedroom facing the street. As I recall, she always had a wreath on the door–perhaps in the early years it was a live wreath, but for as long as I remember it would be a lovely artificial wreath beautifully decorated by my Aunt Helen.

From what I recall, my grandparents did not decorate their homes on the outside either.

Advent Calendar: December 4, 2009: Christmas Cards

Christmas Cards

Did your family send cards? Did your family display the ones they received? Do you still send Christmas cards? Do you have any cards from your ancestors?

I have a confession to make. I don’t particularly like sending Christmas cards. Now, this may sound a bit strange coming from someone who makes a living as a writer, but I really do not look forward to this particular aspect of the holiday season. I don’t have the time to personalize each card, so it becomes more of an obligatory activity than one I can enjoy. Last year I mostly sent e-greetings. It saved me time, money for postage, and saved some trees by cutting down on the paper. I also don’t feel offended if I don’t receive cards. I have so many file boxes of old Christmas/holiday cards and I am running out of storage space, but the genealogist (or pack-rat?) in me just can’t bring myself to tossing them out. I suppose I could scan them first, but I don’t have much free time to do that right now.

It’s interesting because, come to think of it, my mother never really liked to send cards either. Guess that was passed down.

I haven’t yet decided what I will do this year. So, if you don’t receive a card from me, please don’t take it personally.

In the meantime, I’ll use this post to wish all of my family and friends a safe, healthy and happy holiday season and all the best for 2010!