Autumn is the time in our family’s year when our thoughts turn towards the coming winter and all the festivities and visitors we will have – the time when the family does more that is “out of the ordinary” than at any other time of year.
Every August we meet with my In-Laws to pick chokecherries, peaches, grapes and apples on the roadsides and in friends’ yards. Then we make applesauce and pie fillings, chokecherry and grape juice and jelly, and peach pie fillings. Whatever we preserve by canning, we use throughout the coming year and send as Christmas gifts to faraway relatives.
Every September I vow to have one more stocking finished for the kids, although I do not always finish in time. I have been making these felt-applique Christmas stockings since my first child was born 14 years ago. I have 5 finished, and am working on number 6. For years now I have wondered if I will ever catch up and have one for each of my 10 children, but, since I am about to turn 44, I think I might catch up one day. Nature being what it is, and God having made me the way He chose, I will eventually leave the child-bearing years.
Every October we get together with my In-Laws to make our traditional Christmas tamales. We work all day to make as many as we can, put them in bags by the dozen, and eat some with refried beans, Spanish rice, and other goodies for dinner. Then we take our bags home and put them in the freezer to be enjoyed on Christmas Eve and throughout the coming year.
During November, my children and their local cousins spend time with my Mother-In-Law (their “Nana”), making Christmas cookies, especially her traditional biscochitos (Mexican Christmas cookies), which will be available for snacking starting on December 24 until they are gone!
Advent here starts with St. Andrew’s day, November 30. This is our wedding anniversary, and before we were even married, Ian and I vowed to name our first son Andrew after this Apostle and martyr. We set up our Nativity set, which was a gift from my family to us on our wedding day. We only put Mary and Joseph in it, with maybe a few sheep and shepherds close-by. Our Three Kings figures are set up somewhere else in the house, and they travel to the manger throughout Advent and Christmas, to arrive on Epiphany.
We also set up our Advent wreath on the dining table, with its rose and violet candles. A friend of mine makes beautiful ones made of pure beeswax, so I always use hers if I order them in time.
Next comes St. Nicholas day, December 6. The night before, the children place their Christmas stockings on the dining room table. In the morning there are always mandarins, nuts in their shells, and spice cookies with an image of St. Nicholas himself on them! Sometimes he brings socks or other small but needed items. This day is also our first son’s birthday – I bet you can guess his name: Andrew Nicholas!
Then St. Lucy’s day comes and we make every effort to bring home-made goodies to my In-Laws. Our eldest daughter, Lucy, of course, dresses in white and serves us all by candlelight. Usually I have made something with honey (a honey cake made with strong coffee has been a favorite), but this year the girls want to make some authentic Swedish St. Lucy Cats.
After St. Lucy, Advent really starts going fast. We make gingerbread cookies in the shape of nativity figures, and some years we even have time to “paint” them with food-coloring-and-egg-yolk “watercolors.” Depending on how early we get a tree, it might hold pink and purple Advent lights as well as Jesse Tree ornaments.
If we wait until the end of Advent, it gets white and/or colored lights (depending on which strands work when I plug them in), and we have a tree-decorating day usually Gaudete Sunday or the last Sunday of Advent. We have ornaments from Ian’s childhood, and I have added an ornament of some significance to the children almost every year of their lives. For example, when the older girls were doing Irish Dance, I gave them each a shamrock ornament. The year we all climbed Pikes Peak, I gave each child a key chain with the mountain depicted on it. They will each have a box of their own ornaments to take with them when they eventually set up their own homes. We turn on the Christmas tree lights every night during Christmas for our Night Prayers, and if we have any activities in the living room in the evenings.
Each year sometime during Advent, when all of my husband’s siblings can gather, we have a Family Talent Show. Everyone works on some sort of presentation, from singing to Irish Dance, from a short skit to poetry recitation or instrumental music.
On Christmas Eve, we all gather at my In-Laws’ house and eat our traditional Mexican dinner (remember the tamales we made in October?)! Each family brings something for the meal: some of their tamales, refried beans, calabasitas (squash sauteed with chiles, corn, spices, and topped with cheese), Mexican or Spanish rice, Ensalada de Noche Buena (a traditional Mexican salad for Christmas Eve) and home-made biscochitos for dessert.
After dinner, the patriarch of the family reads “A Visit from St. Nicholas” to the children. During the recitation of the poem, St. Nicholas lands on the roof with his reindeer (we have heard footsteps and bells up there), and sometimes we even see St. Nick himself running by a window outside. The saint fills everyone’s stockings while we listen to the story, and afterwards we all open them up and enjoy the goodies (oranges, nuts, candy canes, chocolates, and the kids get a little toy or useful item like a hair brush or pocketknife). Sometimes the adults get useful things, too, like gift cards to the grocery store or a nearby restaurant. If we have extended family with us for the day, we will exchange gifts with them on this night. Sometime during the evening, the Baby Jesus mysteriously appears in the Nativity scene between Mary & Joseph. Sometimes Angels appear also!
Some years we have gone to (and even sung in the choir for) Midnight Mass, but with young ones still very young, we have mostly gone to the Christmas Morning Sung Mass at our parish. We take homemade breads and cookies to distribute to our priests and friends there, and bring home goodies from them as well.
After Mass, we have a wonderful brunch at home. Last year we made a sausage-and-egg casserole and French toast, which we served with coffee, orange juice and milk. The Advent wreath that has graced our table gets moved to the door and becomes a Christmas wreath. The candles get put away until next year it they still have plenty of wax on them.
That evening we have all the family over for a turkey dinner. Typically, we have a home-made egg nog contest between my husband and his brother Mike. Ian makes his child-friendly so all of our kids can have some. Mike puts in a lot of rum (and other spirits), so he usually wins, even though the kids all vote for Daddy’s. I serve a turkey and everyone brings a side dish or dessert. Uncle James always brings the drinks (because when I send out an email asking everyone to sign up for a dish, he waits until the end so there is only one thing no one signed up for), and a can of cranberry jelly( because he likes to slice it very thin, even though no one eats it). If we have gifts from friends and relatives who are not with us, we will open them on this day so that thank you notes can be sent promptly.
Christmas at our house comes to a close on Epiphany. During the night, the Three Kings have come, and left a family gift on the dining table (a game we can all play or a movie we can all watch together). Then we have everyone over again (usually at our house, but sometimes at my In-Laws’) for a Kings Cake or some traditional Epiphany treat from a European country. (I am thinking of making a French Galette des Rois this time) If we have not opened all of our presents either on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day, we save the ones from each other for this special day.
Shortly after Epiphany we take down the tree and Christmas wreath. If we have friends with goats, they get these delicacies as a Christmas treat. The decorations get put away little by little, until the only significant relics of Christmas consist of the way we treat each other and those around us.