Yesteryear’s Christmas–All in the Family

Warning: This post contains content not suitable for kiddos. It’s rated G, but it’s not (red) SUITable, if you get my drift…

In college, Louise had a holiday job wrapping gifts at a department store.


If I’m a Christmas princess, my mother, Louise Protzmann Krainer, is the Christmas queen. (You’re about to see that I come by my Christmas-love honestly.) Both German and Czechoslovakian, Mom’s family in Milwaukee had it all — great pastry-makers, cooks, traditions galore. And there was an order to things.

Here’s what Mom’s old-fashioned Christmas looked like–in her words. I like how she starts with “Christmas was not allowed to begin until Christmas Eve.” I can hear her mother saying that, as I’ll bet her mother before her said the same…

Laura: You talk about how, when you were a child, people didn’t used to rush into Christmas as much as they do now.

Louise: Growing up, Christmas was not allowed to start until Christmas Eve. Oh, certain things did happen.  I remember huddling right next to the radio at five o’clock–it was already dark by then–for several weeks before Christmas to listen to Billie the Brownie. 



Another pre-Christmas event was going downtown with my Aunt Barbara to visit Santa. This was back when downtown was really downtown. The department stores, with huge windows all along the street, were owned locally and went all out with creative and beautiful Christmas displays in their windows. They also decorated the inside of the store much more elaborately and beautifully than the decorations seen today.  And then there was visiting Santa–a special treat–until I was four.

Santa disappeared from my imagination when our neighbors explained that he was fiction. I played with their daughter and went to church with them sometimes. I don’t remember what denomination they were, but probably one that disapproves of Santa, the Easter Bunny, etc. My brother is fourteen years older than me, and my mother had to hold him back from going to the neighbors and giving them a tirade they wouldn’t forget.

Mom wasn’t magic. She did have to prep before Christmas by putting up the tree and a couple decorations, but the lights on the tree couldn’t be lit until Christmas Eve.  And, although the cookies were baked, they were not to be eaten until that magic night (well, I think she might have let me sneak one or two as each batch came out of the oven).

Laura: What was Christmas Eve like?

Louise: Christmas Eve was magical.  We dressed up, lit the tree, and ate a light, delicious dinner of cold shrimp, which I loved, and oyster stew, which I didn’t love. And, then the gifts. They weren’t a big production back then–just one or two gifts. There was no expectation of more, so that was absolutely perfect.

Then we would go to the home of one of my mother’s sisters. Talk about traditions being carried on. My aunts would have gone together to buy one special gift for me and it was always beautifully wrapped. For some reason, unknown to me, my mother’s parents had separated from the Catholic Church. As a result, none of their children went to church or was religious. Yet, a huge dinner was served by whichever aunt was hosting at midnight, just as if they were coming back from midnight mass and had fasted before Communion. And, it truly was a feast. Two or three kinds of meat and side dishes galore, plus of course wonderful homemade pastries, including strudel, for dessert.

Christmas Day was quiet. We usually had Mr. and Mrs. Zwaska, friends of my parents, over for Christmas dinner.  I remember goose being a favorite. And, of course, it was only the second day to gorge on Christmas cookies.


Laura: Was Christmas over on December 26, or did things keep going?

Louise: After Christmas and until New Year’s, we went on a round of trips to visit my aunts (I had many of them) to see their trees and their presents. That was a big deal. And, although I don’t remember them serving a meal, they were always serving us something to eat. As a child, this was very much a part of Christmas, and I loved it.

Another tradition was driving around to see the houses decorated for Christmas. I still did this as a teenager, but then with my friends.

Laura: Did you try to carry over some of these childhood traditions to your own family?

Louise: Times change, and I got married. Your dad being an only child, his parents always came to our house for Christmas.  Their tradition was opening presents on Christmas morning. Well, I conceded to the majority, but my vision was a bunch of sleepy, pajama-clad people gathering without makeup and with bad breath, with daylight obscuring the lights on the tree, and don’t bother with candles. I guess I was a good sport and put on a good show.  By the time you children arrived on the scene, I had accepted the new tradition.

The Christmas after we married, since we couldn’t open presents on Christmas Eve, and sausage was becoming our Christmas Eve dinner–delicious, easy, but not at all elegant–and it made our breath smell even worse opening presents Christmas morning–I decided we needed something special to do on Christmas Eve. Trimming the tree is such fun, I decided that would be our Christmas Eve party. We had no bought ornaments, so I made gingerbread shapes, which Dad and I decorated, and these were ready to hang, sort of.  We did have to thread them carefully, trying not to break them, to hang on the tree. And then there were the cranberry and popcorn strings. It was a BIG project. By the wee hours of the morning, the vow was made never again to trim a tree on Christmas Eve.

We did the same type of decorations for several years, but before Christmas Eve. The gingerbread shapes were imaginative, not just gingerbread men and stars and such. Our horses became race horses and our gingerbread men became football players, policemen, clowns. At some point, we even began to save them from year to year, although we always added to them.

With the arrival of children, the homemade ornaments and then the strings of popcorn and cranberries slowly disappeared. However, our tree is still live and very traditional. As I put up the ornaments, so many have meanings associated with either the giver, the event, or the time.

And then there is the “cookie tray.” This tradition has stuck. My mom made so many kinds of cookies. Then my aunts made more. And they exchanged. I remember one year when my sister was in Japan with the WACs (Women’s Army Corp).  My mom and aunts sent dozens and dozens of cookies, and this was a time when shipping overseas was pretty rare. I still make a fair amount of cookies for my family, and your family adds to the collection. And my heart still warms when I look at the assembled cookies, which tradition now says the twins arrange.

So much has changed. I go with the flow. Our tree went up the first week of December. My decorations are much more elaborate than my mom’s, probably too much so, since my most dreaded day of the year is when I take down all those decorations and pack them away. This year I am not unpacking every box and putting out everything-had to do much self-talk to make this happen, or rather not happen.

(note from Laura: Wait, what? What aren’t you unpacking? Not the reindeer. Oh, please unpack those. And you’ve got to unpack the tiny wooden nativity. And the German Christmas pyramid thing-y!)


I try to make new traditions: a scavenger hunt for Maggie and Emma. Every year I think it will be the last since they are so grown-up, but then it happens again. Although we don’t open presents on Christmas Eve, I do try to make it a lovely time for our family. And it is the first time the cookie tray appears.

Christmas and traditions are so very meaningful. But, sometimes things interfere and Christmas isn’t perfect, like one Thanksgiving when, because of Grandpa’s illness, Thanksgiving dinner came from the bakery. It happens. But the reason for celebrating Christmas is constant, and, no matter what, we can celebrate the joyous birth of Jesus.




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