Christmas Memories – Mary Virginia Graham Elkins

From 1990 until 1996 we put out a family newsletter called the Ruff Draft.  In December of 1990 we solicited Christmas Memories from our readers, who were mostly relatives.  On the days of the Advent Calendar series when I don’t have anything to say I’ve decided to run one of these memories.  Here is the first one from my mother’s older sister.  In the photo is my little mother Doris (1923-1982) and her sister Mary V. (1921-2009).  It was taken in their backyard on Detroit’s east side.


I can remember Poppy waiting till Xmas Eve to go and get our tree.  We (Doris and I) usually went with him…and bringing it home to decorate.  He had a stand that he made himself.  We went up to the attic to haul down boxes of decorations that had been carefully put away.  Some very old.  I can remember one little fat Santa that Mom always put in the window, he had a pipe in his mouth.  Doris and I shared a bedroom which had the door to the attic in it.  When we were at the “believe in Santa Claus stage” we thought that once we went to sleep he would tip down the attic stairs and put our toys, etc, under said tree.  I think I laid awake waiting for the old boy to show up.  Of course I never saw him ’cause I went to sleep, but the stuff was always under the tree.  Mom was always busy in the kitchen getting stuff together for Xmas dinner and the house would be full of wonderful odors.  If Xmas fell on a Sunday, we would go to church. And we used to have lots of snow.  Although we came up during the depression, we always had something to eat and something under the ole tree even if it wasn’t what we asked for.  It was a tradition that Xmas dinner was at our house and Thanksgiving dinner at Grandma Turner’s.  Daddy cooked the ole turkey and made the most delicious stuffing.  He could cook.  Mom learned from him.  She couldn’t boil water when they got married.  Dad taught her cause he had worked in restaurants as a young man.

We never had outdoor lights

"Chicago Blvd. Parsonage"

When I was growing up in the 1950’s lights were rare in my neighborhood.  I remember the first lights I saw.  My family moved into the huge house above in 1952 after a church fight in which my father, a pastor, and 300 parishioners left St. Marks Presbyterian church to organize Central Congregational Church.  During the time before a new church building was found and purchased the church met at Crossman School on Sundays while all other activities were held at the house above.  We lived on the second floor, church activities were on the first floor and in the very large recreatuion room in the basement.  My sister and I shared the bedroom marked with the red X.  On the side was a window (marked Z) that we could look out of at night and see a house in the next block outlined in multicolored lights.  We called it the gingerbread house and thought it was beautiful and unique.  I don’t remember ever riding by when the lights were on.  We lived on the westside of Detroit while one set of grandparents lived on the eastside.  Driving from one house to the other we would be coming home after dark and I remember looking at people’s lit Christmas trees through the windows, I don’t remember any outdoor lights.  In later years that changed.  I think my west side grandparents eventually had lights and some carolers out in front.  My youngest son always wanted to put lights outside our house but since we lived at the end of a dead end road in the middle of the Manistee National Forest at the time, it never happened.

Christmas Cards

Card made by me long, long ago

My family did not send out Christmas cards when I was growing up. Probably because all the relatives lived in Detroit and we saw them during the holidays. We usually had a good number of cards to display across the mantle though because my mother was a teacher and she brought home all the cards her students gave her. I did make some cards in elementary school that I found in my mother’s things. My grandparents aka Nanny and Poppy received cards from friends they kept in touch with from the days they lived in Montgomery. Often these were photograph cards. Because they kept the past years cards in a brass Chinese bowl on a table in the front room, under the table actually, I watched some stranger kids grow up from year to year.
When I grew up and moved out of Detroit I started sending and receiving cards. When we didn’t have a mantle we displayed them across the top of the bookcase that ran across one side of the living room. The years two of my daughters had paper routes we had lots of cards. For some reason I’ve saved these along with the family and friend cards. Every year when I go through them I think I should glean these but I don’t.

"Cards in Chinese Bowl."Cards in brass bowl "Ruff Draft Christmas Card"Ruff Draft Nov/Dec 1994

 For five or six years when we were homeschooling our family put out a monthly newsletter. It gave the kids a chance to use their writing skills and gave the family and friends a chance to see that they weren’t growing up illiterate. We would add a Christmas message on the back page. That is about as close to a Christmas letter as I got.

The most meaningful card I’ve saved over the years is the last one my mother-in-law, Theola Davenport Williams, sent me the Christmas before she died. It included a letter on the inside. I re-read it every holiday season. I wish we had traveled to St. Louis that season to visit but we didn’t.

"Inside Theola's card"

"Last card from Theola Williams."


Making Christmas Ornaments

When I was growing up we had the ornaments that my mother bought over the years.  I don’t remember making decorations in school.  Maybe because the elementary school I attended was mostly Jewish or maybe in the 1950’s we didn’t make decorations.  I don’t know.  We didn’t string popcorn or cranberries.  Wait!  I think i remember a construction paper chain my sister and/or I made.  It was short in length and in use.

"Painting Christmas Decorations"
Daughter and granddaughters hard at work

In 2008 my sister and I decided to get our children and grandchildren together and decorate ornaments for the Christmas tree.  I ordered clear plastic bulbs and craft paint and brushes.  My sister offered her house.  On the appointed day we gathered for pizza, eggnog and decorating.  The table in the dining room was covered, another table was set up, t-shirts and aprons went on over clothes and the fun began.  Everybody, including interested adults, painted several ornaments.  They popped open and the insides were painted then the ornament was popped back together.  You can see in the photo that they were bright, clear, colorful.  Unfortunately what you don’t see is that the paint never dried.  It puddled on the bottom of the ornament and if there were multiple colors, which there often were, the puddle turned a muddy brownish/gray.  We hung them on the trees anyway and packed them away hoping they’d look better the next year.  They didn’t, although I think they were dry.  I wonder what the grandchildren remember about it.  I’ll have to check this year.

The finished ornaments before they melted.

We ate more turkey

"Christmas Turkey"

This is the Dec. 2 entry for the GeneaBlogger Advent Calandar.
Did your family or ancestors serve traditional dishes for the holidays? Was there one dish that was unusual?

For Christmas we ate the same thing we ate for Thanksgiving.   When I was younger we always went to my mother’s parents for dinner. My mother’s sister and her three daughters would also be there, usually they rode with us.  My mother’s parents were from Alabama and we had  a pretty traditional southern meal of turkey with corn bread dressing with side dishes.  My grandfather taught my grandmother to cook when they married and he always cooked the turkey himself in an old gas stove in the basement.  It was one of those with the long legs.  With the turkey, we had candied sweet potatoes (no marshmellows!), rice, turnip or collard greens, corn pubbing and green beans.  My grandmother made her salad, which was great but I would never make.  She cut up lettuce and onions very tiny and added lots of mayonaise.  There was a relish plate with carrot and celery sticks, olives and tomatoes and always fresh, hot biscuits.

They ate an early dinner and when we left there we would go to my paternal grandparents and have desert.  There would be sweet potato or pumpkin pie and mince meat pie and fruitcake.  The pies were homemade.  The fruitcake was store bought.  These were served with store bought eggnog and lots of political discussion.  My other cousins would be there and we had another bunch of gifts to open.

For several years we ate dinner at home and we had the same things except no greens and no Nanny’s salad or biscuits.   We also had macaroni and cheese and brown and serve rolls.  My mother was a teacher and we did not have lots of Christmas baking.  Perhaps a pie or two. I almost forgot the box of chocolate cherries and the large box of Sanders Miniature Chocolates.  Wish I had a box coming this Christmas!  Above is a shot of me, my mother and my sister posing with the remains of a turkey. Probably taken around 1966.  I remember one traumatic Christmas when the oven was broken and my mother had to cook the turkey in a stand alone oven.  Somehow a wire in the top touched the turkey while it was baking and left a greenish mark.  My mother said we might all be poisoned and threw the whole turkey out!  We “borrowed” some turkey from my grandmother and dinner went on but no leftover turkey for snacks.

The Christmas Tree Was Always Real

"My mother and I decorate the Xmas tree"
Watching my mother decorate the Christmas tree.
"Kris, Pearl and Doris"
Me, my sister and my mother. Job done.
"The Christmas tree."
The presents on the table go to the relatives.
"Christmas tree on Fairfield"
1968 – My last Christmas tree living at home.

Our tree was always real.  My sister, my mother and I would go to a tree lot to pick it about a week before Christmas.  This was Detroit and in my memory it is cold and there is snow on the ground.  We picked short needled trees of medium height and (of course) well shaped.  We used a mix of glass balls my mother had collected over the years.  When we were old enough, I can’t remember when that was, we helped decorate the tree – after my mother put on the beads, the tinsel and the multicolored lights.  We had the big lights but they were pointy.  My grandparents had round lights.  The icicles went on last and there was no tossing.  It was put on a few pieces at a time up and down all the branches.  I remember one year that my mother did not want to trim the tree and was pretty unpleasant about my sister and me doing it and doing it NOW, but usually it was a pleasant evening, either Christmas eve or close to it.  My mother usually had on the CBC, the Canadian station and by that time they would be playing Christmas music. The tree was always beautiful.

My maternal grandparents, Nanny and Poppy, waited until Christmas eve to buy the tree and set it up.  The tree was always scrawny and thin but that was how their tree was supposed to be.  Their ornaments were very old.  I wonder what happened to them.  What I remember are some little Santas that went on the tree and a jolly Father Christmas looking Santa that stood in the window with his removable pipe.  My paternal grandparents had a bigger house and a big, full, long needled tree that was in the corner of the living room next to the stairs.  My uncles Louis and Hugh plus my aunt Barbara and cousin Ernie lived there in addition to my grandparents so there were always a lot of presents under the tree.

The black and white photographs are all from the same Christmas.  I think it was about 1962.  I was still in high school, about 15.  My sister was two years younger.  Unfortunately these were all taken with a polaroid and they show it.  The colored photo is from 1968. We had moved into the flat we shared with my grandparents.  They were downstairs and we were upstairs.   I had just graduated from Wayne State University and was about to head out into the world to seek my fortune. But that’s another story.