Some families put out a plate of cookies for Santa, just in case he’s hungry on Christmas Eve. Some faithfully attend Christmas Eve Mass or candlelight church services and exchange gifts when they get home. Some open presents on Christmas morning and never deviate from the traditional midday turkey and dressing meal.
Sometimes upholding cultural traditions requires learning how to put down roots when there’s not much ground beneath your feet. The book “Texas and Christmas: A Collection of Traditions, Memories and Folklore” (1983, Texas Christian University Press) includes a story of a family whose English, Welch, Scottish and Irish heritages shaped its holiday customs.
The story takes place decades ago, first in the Piney Woods of far East Texas, and then in the mountains of far West Texas. At both locations, in keeping with its ancestry, the family never lacked a fresh evergreen Christmas tree.
But then the father’s work brought about a move to West Texas’ sand hills. As Christmas approached, the parents and their children realized there was no adequate tree to be found. Desperation set in, and for weeks the children roamed the sand hills, searching for anything that would resemble a Christmas tree. One windy day, they watched a tumbleweed rolling down the road. They snagged it, dragged it home, and the family decorated the tumbleweed as if it were an evergreen, stacking gifts around it.
What would Christmas be without the creativity of children? During a recent conversation at the Institute of Texan Cultures in San Antonio, docent Theresa Gros Gold held up a huge, fading, yellowish sock: her father’s sock that she put out years ago on December 5, the eve of St. Nicholas Day. The bigger the sock, children in German- and Polish-heritage homes learned, the more fruits, nuts and candies they’d get from St. Nicholas.
Gold, a 72-year-old native San Antonian who traces her ancestry to Germany, fondly remembers the small stocking gifts that felt so big: apples, oranges, coloring books, a box of crayons. Gold and her parents referred to the gift giver as Santa Claus, not Christkindl or Christkindlein (the Christ child) or Weihnachtsmann (Father Christmas). “We were rather Americanized,” she says.
Children raised in German and Polish households were well-acquainted with Christmas rituals. In many homes, the cedar tree cut on Christmas Eve was erected on a table, with a bucket of sand and a bucket of water placed beneath just in case the tree’s burning candles started a fire.
Presents were opened on Christmas Eve, but children weren’t allowed to enter the room with the Christmas tree until a bell was rung. No running was allowed. All entered the room reverently and slowly.
Native San Antonian Genny Kosub Kraus, a 69-year-old ambassador for the Institute of Texan Cultures and longtime Polish folk dancer, embraced two cultures as a child: Her mother was Polish, and her father German. She recalls opening tiny windows on Advent calendars, pulling out candies tucked inside as she counted the days to Christmas. Many Christmas Eves were spent at her maternal grandparents’ home next door, where the Christmas tree and presents were closed off in the living room.
After the ringing of the bell, the opening of the door and the exchanging of gifts—Kraus still treasures the little sewing machine she got when she was about 4—the family honored the biblical Christmas Bethlehem story by looking to the eastern night sky for the first star shining. They then sat for a traditional Polish Christmas Eve dinner: wigilia, a meal with no red meat that typically included baked or fried fish, dumplings and potatoes.
Today, some rituals have vanished. Kraus doesn’t ring a Christmas Eve bell or ask her grandchildren to slowly enter the Christmas tree room. Yet she loves going to Christmas Eve Mass with the family and singing carols in German and Polish with the grandkids.
On Christmas Eve, Kraus’ family still celebrates the breaking of the Polish oplatek, a thin wafer that commemorates Christ’s birth, and Kraus still makes Polish pierogies—stuffed dumplings heavy with sour cream. “Nothing skinny about them,” she says.
Camille Wheeler is an Austin writer.