Christmas Traditions

by Henry Swain

“The stockings were hung by the chimney with care
In hopes that Saint Nicholas soon would be there”

A kindly nobleman fell upon hard times after the death of his wife and the loss of his estate through bad investments. He moved into a peasant’s cottage with his three lovely daughters. He wondered if they could marry without suitable dowries.

One evening after doing laundry, the daughters hung their stockings from the mantle to dry. That night St Nicholas, knowing the despair of the father, stopped by the nobleman’s house. Seeing that the family had retired, he noticed through the window the daughter’s hanging stockings. He took three small bags of gold from his pouch and threw them down the chimney where they landed in the stockings. The next morning the daughters found sufficient gold in their stockings to allow them to happily marry.

It is from such legends that traditions begin, and once started, become part of our Christmas holiday rituals. The contents of my Christmas stocking were conditioned by the lean times of the Great Depression. All the children in our family were boys, so my mother used my father’s largest socks to hang from the mantle for our stocking treat.

I could always look for a small sack of candies from my Uncle Charlie’s general store. I could expect the traditional apple, and we always held the stocking upside down to watch the pennies fall on the floor then scramble to count them. My favorite stocking present was a small cast iron miniature Fordson tractor complete with cleats on the wheels.

The stocking tradition in our family changed in later years after I married and had a family of my own. The tradition in my wife’s family called for each child to have a special crazy-quilted Christmas stocking with the child’s name on it.

These stockings were made by the mother or grandmother out of colorful quilted materials made to last and be passed down to the next generation as family heirlooms. They were also quite large in comparison to my father’s socks, a change which I heartily approved.

My parents expected three boisterous boys to awaken them early on Christmas morning eager to get at the presents under the tree. Dad would get dressed to quicken the fire in the stove and light the lamps. We would rush to open all the presents before breakfast. My mother would collect what wrapping paper was salvageable and fold it for safekeeping for next Christmas.

My wife’s family was mostly girls, and their Christmas morning gift opening seemed sedate by comparison to mine. Children were allowed to discover the contents of their Christmas stocking and choose one gift from under the tree to open before breakfast.

This ritual proved to make gift opening a more orderly, though perhaps less exciting way to satisfy their anticipation and curiosity.

This process proved to be considerably less stressful to the parents, and has continued in our household. It is a good example of how marriage alters holiday traditions as each parent tries to merge their differing happy memories from their childhood.

My favorite Christmas gift came not from under the tree but from our family woodshed. A neighboring farmer came upon hard times and had to move into rental housing as a farm hand. He asked my father to use our woodshed to store some of the family’s belongings for a time.

One of the items stored was a used Elgin bicycle. I was at that age when I wanted that bicycle more than I had ever wanted anything. I knew dad could not afford it, but that didn’t keep me from wanting it. I would take a rag and wipe the dust from it every now and then to keep it shiny.

After breakfast on Christmas my father noticed that I seemed a little sad about the gifts from under the tree. He said, “Son, get thy jacket on and come with me.” He took me out to the woodshed where I found a ribbon on the bicycle seat with a tag attached which read, “To my son Henry, may thee ride happily with the wind in thy face.” I don’t know how he managed to get the bicycle from our neighbor, but it was the most special gift of my childhood. What is yours?