Locals share Christmas traditions and memories

By Page H. Gifford, Correspondent

In the midst of the Christmas season, several locals took time to share their favorite Christmas traditions and memories. Some recalled traditions based on ancestral customs and past generations. At the core of most of these traditions was the concept of being with family.

“Every year my family would visit my grandmother. Other family members would gather there and we always read the Christmas story before having our meal,” said student Jhen Sullivan, who lit up at the thought of once again being with her family for the holidays.

The Reverend Tom Frost from Cunningham United Methodist Church said that religion has always been the essence of his Christmas holiday, even long before he became a minister.

“Even before I became a pastor, I love the energy, the worship from beginning to end,” he said. “I will go with my son to the 11 p.m. service on Christmas Eve, then go home and wrap packages, so by Christmas Day, I am exhausted.”

Kyle Wheaton, Cuppa Joe’s weekend coffee barista, likes to spend time with his family reflecting on the past year. He told about the custom practiced by a Russian friend of his: “On Christmas Day, he opens the wrapped-up foil balls hanging on the tree which contain fruit. Fruit is considered to be a great gift.”

Rebekkah Youngblood and her sister, Hannah, have always joined in a real family tradition.

“Every year we go to the Grand Illumination in Williamsburg and have been doing it for 14 years,” she said. “We do it in the rain, snow, or in 20 degree weather and always bring along with us homemade sausage balls and puppy chow.” The snack may look like puppy chow but is made with Chex cereal, chocolate, peanut butter and powdered sugar. “Christmas isn’t Christmas without doing this.”

Beth Sherk, Persimmon Tree Players president, shared some Swedish customs.

“Our family was big on the Norwegian and Swedish foods like lefse, a potato pancake type thing that is a pain to make until you learn the tricks from your mom and your Aunt Gladys,” she said. She described the complexities of making this dish. She also joked about “the Swedish meatballs, which are also a killer nightmare until you figure out how to go to IKEA and get them pre-made and frozen.” No one said it had to be homemade.

“We never made the famous lutefisk, that Garrison Keillor made famous – the fish cured in vats of lye and then rinsed and steamed into a gelatinous mass,” Sherk said. “They recommend drinking copious amounts of beer with that one. Apparently the smell is quite something.”

“When I think about how much effort my sainted mother put into all the Christmas preparations, even while working a full time job, I am humbled into submission. I mean, we’re talking every kind of cookie and fudge. I am deadly afraid to bake so many cookies and never fudge.” Since most cooks like to sample their finished products, Sherk is afraid she would weigh more at the end of the season. This is why people who bake at holiday time often give their treats away. Her solution is her husband hides them after she bakes three dozen.

“Never look too closely at anything I wrap because they’re going to have that crinkled, mashed up look,” she said. “My dad was the big wrapper in the family. He’d set up a factory with a bow making gadget on the ping pong table in the basement. His gifts were works of art.”

Sherk prefers to stick to decorating the house, using some of her parents’ ornaments and figurines, and her collection of Santa Clauses.

“For me Christmas is mostly about the lights and the music. The food is a danger zone so I tread with caution,” she said. Some of Sherk’s best memories are sledding and sitting by the fireplace eating homemade cookies and drinking hot chocolate. “I’d have a stomach ache if I did that now – too much sugar – but it worked for me then.”

Mo Perkins, from the heart of Maine, remembers the warm, wonderful smell of his mother’s Boston brown bread.

“Oranges were a treat because we didn’t always get them,” he said. “We would put on our snow shoes and tramp through the snow to get our Christmas tree but we had to leave it in the basement to thaw out before bringing it in the house.” He recalled untangling lights and his dislike for artificial snow. “That fiberglass snow – you’d throw it on the trees, it was awful.”

Marianne Hill recalled her Christmas memories.

“It was the early ’70s and my sister, Catherine, and I had outgrown our bikes. Our father took us to the Western Auto Store on the Boulevard in Colonial Heights to pick out new three speed bikes for Christmas. We picked beautiful blue StarJet Sports Tourists and Christmas morning couldn’t get here soon enough for my sister. Every day she would try to guess where the bikes were stored. ‘Are they at Mrs. Barfield’s house next door?’ ‘No,’ came the answer. ‘Are they at Mrs. Jefferson’s house?’ Again the answer was no. Every guess had the answer no. Dad had more fun that Christmas keeping her guessing. It was years later that we found out that the bikes were hidden next door at Mrs. Barfield’s house.

“One year the family went to Atlanta to have Christmas with my mom’s sister, Aunt Mildred,” Hill continued. “We didn’t have live Christmas trees at our house because of my allergies. Aunt Mildred had a live one that year. She had musical instrument ornaments that actually made noise. To this day, whenever I smell a live tree I am transported back to that Christmas at Aunt Mildred’s.”

Alden Bigelow remembers Christmas of 1952 and selling mutt puppies as “Albemarle beagles.”

“It was on Main Street in Charlottesville. With a little coaching from my father, my brother Dennis, age 8, and me, age 6, sold the beagle mix pups we called Albemarle beagles for $5 apiece when my father couldn’t give them away as mutts,” he said. “One lady bought an Albemarle beagle pup but had refused the same when Dad had offered it to her earlier as a mutt.”

Looking back, the memories, the traditions, and most of all, the storytelling, remind us of what Christmas is all about.

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