Christmas Celebrations


Christmas Celebrations

One hundred twenty-five years ago New York City was a melting pot of hurrying people, many of whom had traveled there from distant parts of the world. Slipping back in time to visit the homes of some of these immigrants on Christmas Eve, we see that it was an especially busy, happy time.

First we visit the Hausmanns, a German family. Their Christmas tree fills the house with a pungent, piney fragrance. Apples and spicy cookies hang from the tree’s spiked branches, along with a few treasured glass balls and many small ornaments that Papa has whittled out of wood—stars, bells, birds, and even a beautiful Kris Kringle.

Willie Hausmann’s stomach growls hungrily as the combined smells of roast goose, apple stollen, and molasses cookies tickle his nose. Tonight he must be on his best behavior so that Kris Kringle will leave him a gift. Willie has been wishing for a knife of his own so that he can help Papa carve ornaments for next year’s Christmas tree.

In the Italian neighborhood, Sophia Petroni is sniffing the aroma of a very different meal. Fish is the main dish of this dinner. In the main room Sophia has helped set up the family’s beloved presepio (manger scene), which is the center of the Petronis’ Christmas celebration.

Sophia looks forward to the drawing of small gifts from the Urn of Fate after Christmas Eve supper, but the real gift-giving of the season will come on Epiphany Eve, January 5. On that night La Befana, the good witch, still searches for the Christ Child in Bethlehem, flying through the skies on her broom and dropping gifts down chimneys for children to find.

On the other side of town, in a fine, large home live the van Littens, a family that has preserved Christmas traditions from Holland for generations. Dirk is wistfully remembering the fun when Sinterklaas (Saint Nicholas) came to their house on December 5.

Dirk had put his shoes on the hearth and filled them with sugar and hay for Sinterklaas’s white horse. The next morning the sugar and hay were gone, and in their places were a fine set of paints and new skates for Dirk.

Dirk sighs. The saintly old bishop in his red robe is gone, along with the gay parties and nonsense of Saint Nicholas’s Eve. Christmas Day is for going to church and eating a great dinner. Dirk wishes that Sinterklaas would come again instead.

Nearby, at the home of a Polish family named Slovik, Miklaus, or Mike, as his friends call him, helps to scatter clean straw to remind the family of the manger where Christ was born. Straw is everywhere—on the floor, under the white cloth on the table, even in the children’s beds!

Mike keeps peering out the window anxiously, for only when the first star appears may the family sit down to eat their Christmas Eve feast. His mouth waters as he thinks of the twelve-course dinner to come—one course for each Apostle.

After supper the Wise Men will bring gifts, which are sent to them by the stars. At midnight the Sloviks will attend church.

“The star! The star!” Mike shouts at last. As he sits down at the family table, he glances at the extra place that is always set for the Christ Child. Could His spirit really be here this holy night? he wonders.

As we leave the Sloviks and visit the Halversson family, who have recently arrived from Sweden, dusk is gathering. Helga helps to light a candle in each window, an important ceremony in her family. The traditional Swedish Christmas season lasts for a whole month, and Helga and her mother have been busy making cookies, breads, candles, and straw ornaments.

As she helps herself to the different dishes of the smorgasbord, Helga thinks about their farm in Sweden. All the animals there were given extra food on Christmas Eve, and a bowl of rice pudding was always left in the loft for Jultomten, the mischievous elf who guards one’s home. After Jultomten ate his pudding, he would leave gifts for Helga and her family. Tonight Helga will leave Jultomten’s pudding on the table.

In the small room of the Murphys, who immigrated from Ireland, a bright wreath of holly with its shining leaves and red berries makes the walls look cheery. Colleen and her sister, Mary, help set the table, even though they have just finished their dinner. They place a loaf of bread and a pitcher of milk on the clean table, along with a large candle.

The girls’ grandmother smiles at them. “Since you have been blessed with the name Mary, you may light the candle, my dear,” she says. There is a deep hush as Mary solemnly lights the candle.

Colleen, who feels a bit left out for a moment, runs to the door to make sure that it is unlatched. The Christ Child, or any lonely wanderer, might see the Murphys’ lighted candle and know that He/he is welcome in their home for food and friendship.

[illustrations] Illustrated by Shauna Mooney