Monday, December 24, 2007

Christmas Eve traditions

It was always best if it snowed on Christmas Eve, more likely in Vermont than in Rhode Island. My grandmother and great-aunt usually arrived on that day. Granny came with Veeeee, her cook and general factotum, from Springfield, Massachusetts. Auntie Alice came from Montreal.

Sometimes went to the afternoon church service, though as we got older we stayed up for the midnight service.

In the late afternoon, we had tea with Granny and Auntie Alice. This wasn't just for Christmas Eve, but an everyday occurrence with that generation. As we got the tea ready, making sure the kettle boiled a yard high, scalding the pot, putting in one spoonful of tea for each person and one for the pot, we often heard gentle bickering from the living room, as the two sisters settled in to being around each other for one of the few times in the year.

In our family, children were not allowed to have real tea until we were thirteen, lest it stunt the growth. Before then, we had cambric tea--a tiny amount of real tea, lots of milk and lots of sugar. This was served, as was the tea for the adults, in bone china cups with saucers. These were put on a tray with a jug of milk and a sugar bowl, and carried ceremoniously to the living room. With real tea, we'd ask Gran to read our tea leaves afterwards. She did so in a voice full of mystery.

An hour or two after tea, the adults had a drink and we got ready for supper. Some years we had a special supper of fondue, either beef or cheese. Yum. Veeeee never ate with us, insisting on staying in the kitchen.

After the meal we cleared the plates. Every one of us remembers Veeee's fluty voice, "Don't stack them now, don't stack, just put them anywhere, don't stack."

When the kitchen was neat (and many dishes put away in the wrong places), we gathered in the living room. Veeeee always chose a straight-back chair near the door and the rest of us sprawled around on the sofa, the floor, in the chairs. Dad pulled out the Christmas anthology and the reading aloud began. Of course we always heard the Gospel, and most years we read the abridged version of A Christmas Carol. Every year Dad said, "We can't possibly read the whole thing. It takes hours!" (True--my friends Mary and Andy have hosted a full reading of it for many years, and it does take about four hours.)

We passed the book around and read various parts. One of my favorites was my mother reading "Dulce Domum" from The Wind in the Willows. Mary or I always read (or joined in reciting) "'Jest Fore Christmas" by Eugene Field. Tiny birdlike Auntie Alice perched on the ottoman, in later years tipping dangerously as she fell asleep--she always caught herself in time. Sometimes we read "Crisp New Bills for Mr. Teagle," by Frank Sullivan. Occasionally we tried a story we hadn't heard, such as the deadly grim "Solange the Wolf Girl."

Then it was time to hang stockings. These were Dad's wool socks, which he'd get back several weeks later, possibly with a hard candy stuck in the toe. There were seven cuphooks screwed into the mantlepiece, one for each kid's stocking. I'm the youngest so mine was at the end. We made sure there was a glass of milk and a couple of cookies for Santa Claus on the mantel as well. I always wondered if Santa Claus disliked lukewarm milk as much as I did.

Then it was time to either get ready for bed or ready for church. The last part of the tradition was insomnia on Christmas Eve, as I considered what would be in my stocking and under the tree the next day.


Sean said...

For the first time in MANY years, I am not working on Christmas Eve. I was tempted to send notes out to my sponsors and say, :use me use me: but then I thought, :nah, I am just gonna enjoy this: but I did work on the 23rd. Giggle.

Faith said...

You had to wait until you were 13 to have tea? I only had to be 12...

Nice post!



PriscillaHowe said...

You're right about the age for tea. I've had it wrong in my memory for years!

Excellent that you get Christmas Eve off! Balance, balance.

Granny Sue said...

I wonder what the maigc is with the age of twelve. That was the age in my family too. Like you, Priscilla, we had cambric tea until then. On our twelfth birhday our gift was a real china teacup. Mine was a beauty, all iridiscent and gold and flowers, with an open-scalloped edge on the saucer. Of course I broke it, as I did with most of my childhood things.

My sister Judy, on the other hand, still has hers...and her little china teaset, complete with hutch. Only the teapot minue lid remains of my blue willow set.

PriscillaHowe said...

Granny Sue,
I still have one of the china cups and saucers--but I wasn't given it until I was an adult. I also scored the blue willow tea set, but I think I also lost that lid.

I was just telling my sister the other day that you had many of the same Christmas traditions as we did, such as the orange-clove pomander, the Wise Men making the trip across the room to the creche, etc.

Deb said...

I had a cup of tea this afternoon after reading this wonderful post. My tea was strong (in honor of you), black, with milk and honey (honey being my variation from the traditional sugar). It made me think of you and Mom and Granny and Auntie Alice and Veeee, and everyone else who enjoyed tea and toast, or tea and cookies, or tea and little sandwiches, at 4 in the afternoon wherever.

When I was in college there was a Wednesday afternoon tea in a remote reading room of the library; if you knew about it, you could go get a cup of tea with milk and (!) cream, take a cookie or two, and have a pleasant conversation with whatever faculty member or classmate you might run into there. It was quite a nice tradition.

I feel sustained now. (Granny used to say that once she'd had her tea after a wearing afternoon in the car or the shops.)

Mianne said...

What a wonderful story of Christmas Eve. And now I've had a chance to enjoy tea with the Howe women.