Readers share Christmas memories and traditions

From Grandma's temari ball ornaments to Christmas tree traditions to feeling closer to Christ, the holiday offers a chance to bring families together.

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December 23, 2021 - 9:36 AM

Becky Nilges with the antique toy car and ramp that was her father’s when he was a boy. Photo by Susan Lynn / Iola Register

Christmas memories come in all shapes and sizes.

One often never realizes, until afterward, how special those moments were, regardless if they were shaped from a family tradition, or even better, an unplanned surprise that doesn’t reveal its significance until later.

Register readers from near and far shared some of their favorite memories and traditions in today’s paper.

Take, for example, Iola City Councilman Carl Slaugh’s memory.

“My first Christmas away from home came in 1967 when I was 19 and had been called as a missionary to serve in Austria,” Slaugh wrote. “I had been assigned with my companion to serve in the Salzburg area and share the joy of the gospel of Jesus Christ with people in the area. We were invited to have Christmas dinner with the young Klaus Dengg family who lived in a castle, well really a fortress, the Salzburger Hohefestung, with their four little kids. Klaus was a maintenance worker in the fortress. I had only been in the area for a short while and didn’t know the family, but I thought how cool that might be.

“It turned out that living in the big fortress in the center of Salzburg was not all that glamorous. Their little one-room apartment was heated by a wood-burning stove and the only running water was in an outside hallway next to a communal toilet. I don’t remember what we ate for Christmas dinner that day, just the humble circumstances of the Dengg family and their willingness to share even in their meager financial situation.”

Slaugh also shared a second memorable Christmas, while he was in the Air Force.

“I was living with my family and stationed at Grand Forks Air Force Base, North Dakota. My military unit, the 40th Air Rescue and Recovery Squadron, supported an anti-drug operation in the Bahamas with the designation OPBAT, short for Operation Bahamas and Turks. We worked with other U.S. forces and the Bahamian police to try to stop the flow of drugs into the U.S. At that time during the late ’80s, marijuana and cocaine were being smuggled in large quantities from Columbia through Haiti and the Bahamas and then on to the Florida coast.

I volunteered to be assigned as part of the operation and had made trips in September and October to get trained in the operation. We flew UH-1N helicopters to try to intercept the shipment of drugs that came by light airplane into the Bahamas. Typically drug smugglers would have bales of marijuana or large bags of cocaine that they would drop out of small airplanes into the water where another group in the water would retrieve the bales in large boats and then move them on to the US.

“During the month of December 1986, I was assigned to be in charge of the small unit, which included pilots, pararescue specialists, flight engineers and maintenance crews. For Christmas I had planned to cook a turkey and have other food for a meal with our small contingent. 

“During the week leading up to Christmas the electric utility workers providing electricity for the city of Nassau decided they would go on strike periodically to try to get higher pay. On one day they shut off power to the city for one hour. A day later power was shut off for two hours and on Christmas Day they shut off the power from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. The ice cream in the refrigerator melted and ran onto the floor. I was unable to cook anything and, not knowing how long the power was going to be off, decided to try cooking the turkey on our grill, which did not work very well.

“At some point the U.S. Embassy, where my office was located, heard of our plight and invited our group to join them at the embassy where they had their own generator for power. We had a great time mingling with the U.S. Embassy staff. I don’t recall how it worked out for the electric utility workers in getting higher pay, but the newspaper reported that the workers had been threatened with their lives if they did not turn the power back on.

“It was another experience that made me appreciate the comforts and way of life we enjoy in the United States.

“Merry Christmas, Carl Slaugh.”

Shanna Craft holds ornaments made by her grandmother. Photo by Richard Luken / Iola Register

Shanna Craft

ONE OF Shanna Craft’s holiday traditions revolves around the art of temari balls.

Craft, the Register’s accounts receivable officer, shared several her grandmother had made through the years.

The balls consist of tightly wrapped thread, and are adorned with threaded embroidery around the surface.

Temari balls originated in Japan in the 7th Century, and were given to children for good luck.

Temari balls originated in Japan in the 7th Century, and were given to children for good luck. Shanna Craft’s grandmother made them as Christmas ornaments. Photo by Richard Luken / Iola Register

The temari are wrapped so tightly that they could be used for different games and competitions, especially handball. Craft’s family simply pulls them out as ornaments each Christmas.

Craft’s grandmother, the late Margie Williams of Fort Scott, made scores of the ornamental balls through the years. Her descendants split them up after her passing, Craft said.

Is she interested in continuing her grandmother’s tradition?

“No,” Craft chuckled. “I don’t have the patience for it.”

Reader submissions follow:

Bob and Beverly Johnson

For about 40 years, before age and arthritis intervened, few things in the Johnson household signaled the Christmas season more than the sweet smell of a freshly cut cedar heavily decorated with nostalgic decorations.

Starting in 1973, not many months after son Bob found his footing as a toddler and Brenda was 4 years old, we began venturing into the countryside to cut a cedar. The farmers were amenable; ruing the fast-growing trees in their pastures.

Often the process was an adventure. Once we had to cut a second tree when the first was too large to get over a barbed wire fence. Another was laden with more ice than we thought and “rained” all over our hardwood flooring. Several were too tall for our ceiling and had to have their tops pared after being erected.

A few years ago, the experience was such an ordeal that it ended the tradition. Out in the woods, wife Beverly and I grasped each end of a tree saw while laid on our stomachs. It took, it seemed, forever to fell the tree. The process also was interrupted when we came down with hysterical spells of laughter at our ridiculous situation.

Merry Christmas.

Nickolas Kinder 

Christmas is always a balancing act for me. Like any other major holiday, we are on the road most of the day. Morning starts first thing with a trip to my mom’s where she has made homemade doughnuts since as long as I can remember. After breakfast it’s off to dad’s for lunch and a movie, usually it’s Harry Potter or a movie given as a gift that year. Then we head up to my wife’s for her mom’s side, including uncle and aunts in Tonganoxie. We enjoy the evening with her parents and uncle in Topeka.

Robyn Fawson

My favorite Christmas Day tradition began probably seven years ago.  

I found a little silver box lined with white satin. I cut out a picture of baby Jesus from a church magazine and printed out the Bible verse, John 3:16 … “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.”  

I put the baby Jesus picture in the box, and taped the Bible verse underneath the lid. 

On Christmas morning we gather together and open this first gift of Christmas, and read the verse. Then we say a family prayer, take our good morning Christmas picture, and then head downstairs to the Christmas tree for our family gifts. 

I love this tradition of quietly starting the sacred Christmas Day by remembering our Savior, Jesus Christ.

Becky Nilges

For nearly 30 years I have hosted “Cookies and Cocoa” for my sister and nieces.  Usually I hold it the weekend before Christmas, but we work with everyone’s busy holiday schedules.  It began as a simple afternoon of Christmas cookies and cake, cocoa and my presents for them. It has grown over the years to include my niece’s children. Plus the menu has changed some to include everyone’s favorite snacks. One ever-present item however is a chocolate cake, now cupcakes, with a special Hershey’s chocolate bar frosting. A favorite!

With the passing of my dad in 2012, we have added a family tradition that always took place at my parents’ Christmas gathering. After we’ve snacked and opened presents we get out my Dad’s toy car, a Christmas present he received nearly 95 years ago. It’s all metal with a ramp on which the car travels down. Once at the end of the ramp an arm picks up the car and moves it so it can travel down the ramp again. You must carefully wind it up so the arms will lift the car. This Christmas tradition is a special and cherished one for all.      

Merry Christmas to all.

Jim and Karen Gilpin

Two Christmas traditions Karen and I enjoy working on together are 1) preparing an annual photo card with a message enclosure for family and friends using an appropriate acrostic; and 2) decorating the Christmas tree with special ornaments given or collected over our 47 years of marriage.  

The 2021 Christmas acrostic phrase is “A Year of Recycling.” And we decorated our tree while Christmas music played in the background. We hope to celebrate Christmas together with family during the week between Christmas Day and New Year’s Eve. 

Donna and Stan Grigsby

Beginning the first Sunday of Advent I put electric candles in my windows. They stay continuously lit until Epiphany on Jan. 6. Even when we travel away for the holidays, the candles are always burning brightly in the windows. Also, no matter where we are, we try to find a church to attend for the Christmas Eve service.

Merry Christmas. 

Roger Carswell

My warmest memories of Christmas as a child were our Christmas Eve traditions. My family and our grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins would all attend the Christmas Eve service at Quenemo Federated/United Methodist Church. Following that we would drive out to Grandma and Grandpa’s farm, open gifts from them, and have snacks. Us children would either then head upstairs to play with our new toys and games, or head out to play in the barn.

With my own family, our Christmas traditions include gathering around the Christmas tree on Christmas Eve just before going to bed. With all other lights off, someone reads the Christmas story from Luke, and we sing Christmas carols. Presents don’t get put out under the tree until everyone else is in bed.  In the morning, we have our gift exchange. For our Christmas dinner, we grill steak.

Bruce Symes

In 2007, I went home to Lakin for Christmas a year before Mom died in 2008. She and Dad were serving communion at the 11 o’clock Christmas Eve church service. I had only been a Christian for a couple years and knew my parents had prayed unceasingly for me while I was flailing around and lost all of my adult years to that point. 

The significance of my parents sharing communion with me in commemoration of Christ’s sacrifice for us on the eve of his birthday was not lost on me. I remember feeling really, really taken care of that night, by my parents, as always, and also by God. It was a very special Christmas Eve that I am thankful I was able to share with them before her passing.

Glenda Aikins-Hill

My children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren will be home for Christmas this year.  Each year we choose a country or area of the United States and make our Christmas dinner from its popular foods. This year our menu is Austrian. 

After dinner we all play games for prizes that I have bought during the year and have wrapped.  

The year we had chosen Greece, I used Mickey Lynn’s recipe for the lamb, which is a fond memory. Only a few of the family had eaten lamb before and baklava is now a favorite. 

Merry Christmas. 

Lindsay Myers

My three-month-old daughter, Ava, sleeps peacefully in her crib, and I sit next to my husband staring at our living room Christmas tree. Some of my old childhood ornaments hang from the branches. We’ll have to start a collection for Ava. Just think, next year she’ll be old enough to help drape some ornaments on the lower branches. Will she love to sit and stare at the tree?

When I was in grade school, my family had a big rotating Christmas tree. I would spread a blanket in front of it and sit and watch the tree slowly spin around and around. Dad would often sit beside me, and we’d turn on Christmas music and tell stories about where each ornament came from. That one was from Mom and Dad’s first Christmas together. Great- grandma Vivian made that one for me when I was born. That train was my brother’s favorite, and wasn’t it funny how excited he got when he spotted it in the branches? That one was a gift from my sister’s adoption agency.

Sometimes I’d sit by the tree on Christmas morning before my younger brother and sister were awake. The smell of Mom’s hard red wheat cinnamon rolls stuffed with butter and raisins filled the downstairs. Sometimes Dad would light a fire in our fireplace. Sometimes we filled the fireplace with candles to watch the flames flicker throughout the day. Once everyone was awake, we would open our stockings to find a new ornament to hang on the tree, and maybe some candy, too. The living room would fill with Christmas bags and tissue paper and wrapping paper as we opened presents.

Now, my husband and I will get to help our own daughter make memories. We’ll make our own traditions and tell our own stories. We’ll discover what fills little Ava with delight. I kiss my husband and watch the lights sparkle.

Terry Broyles

Our family Christmas tradition happens on Christmas night. Several years ago my mom decided people were probably tired of turkey, ham, dressing, gravy, etc., by the time Christmas night rolled around and she proposed Mexican food with chips and cheese dip. We all loved it and have looked forward to it ever since. 

The other tradition is our family “talent show” following the meal. Each adult, grandchild and guest performs their talent, be it singing, tap dancing, magic tricks, poems, juggling, rhythmic knee-slapping or picking up small items with their toes. We have so much fun and tons of laughs. Memories made with family are the best! 

Merry Christmas and blessings to all. 

Donna Houser

Traditions are things you automatically do, and don’t realize it for years. Yesterday as I was making two batches of cinnamon roll dough, I thought I’m so glad my mother started making cinnamon rolls when I was a little girl. I don’t remember the Depression, but I do remember she would save flour and finally have enough to make cinnamon rolls. I’m from the World War II generation when we gave whatever was needed for the war effort, and flour was one of the numerous things that were rationed.  

But, we never put icing on because that required butter and other things that were in short supply.  I was always learning how to cook because my mother loved teaching me. Believe me, I made some bad mistakes while I was learning, but my father always praised what a good job I had done. That love of my folks taught me to cook, and I’ve been doing it every year.  Everyone loves cinnamon rolls when I give them out around Christmas.  I can’t tell you how many batches I’ve made this year, but I ended up giving 180 away. Cinnamon rolls and pies, and noodles, I make for all holidays, which is also part of our tradition. In fact, I’ve already made the noodles, and have to make a pie crust and more cinnamon rolls before Christmas.

I’m sure all of you have different traditions if you think about it.

Stacey Crusinbery

One of my favorite Christmas memories is when my mom’s family got together on Christmas Eve at my grandmother’s house in Hutchinson. I had so much fun with all of my cousins. We would playfully argue over who was Gran’s favorite, play some pretty rough football games, and go caroling around to my grandmother’s neighbors.  Most of us still manage to gather together for a Christmas dinner over the holidays, though we’re too old for those football games. Getting together always brings back fond memories of those we have lost over the years.

Our traditions include baking sugar cookies with my daughter, watching “It’s A Wonderful Life” each Christmas Eve, planning and preparing food with my mom, and beating my brother at whatever games we play each year.  

Something new I’m grateful for this year is that my sister and her family will be joining us at my parents’ house for the first time. Learning I have an older sister last year was quite a shock, but getting to know her, and her family, this past year has been a wonderful experience! 

Nich Lohman

A Christmas tradition in my family involves cooking.  My immediate family lives all over the country and we only get together at Christmas. Since people fly in from the coasts or spend an entire day driving, they all stay at my house (for better or worse) for about five days. Everybody  spends the year researching elaborate and unique recipes. When we’re all together, everyone picks a lunch and a dinner and makes two meals with the recipes they have discovered.  I’ve found some great and unique recipes from my family this way, including Portland Yumm Bowls, Shakshuka, Beef Wellington with Yorkshire Pudding, and Shredded Vietnamese Salad.

Jean Anderson

There is one tradition – begun in my earliest childhood – that I have enjoyed every year of my life. It began with Mother pinning together a pair of Daddy’s big work socks for each of us girls (my brother didn’t come along until later.) and hanging them over the back of a chair, with our names pinned to them. On Christmas morning there would be one or two small gifts, an apple, an orange, an assortment of hard candies and nuts – and down in the toe – pennies!  

Daddy would save his pennies all year and divide them up to put in our stockings. We would put the pennies in our baking powder can banks. Well, the penny tradition went by the wayside somewhere along the line, the hard candy became candy bars, and the two old stockings became various versions of the Christmas stockings we see in the stores today. But filling my children’s stockings with fruit, candy, nuts, little gifts, after everyone else was in bed on Christmas night became my tradition, even when it’s just my hubby, Steve, and me. 

Steve and I also love Christmas lights, which remind us of the Light of the World, living in us and in all who live in the Lord, whose birth we celebrate every Christmas.

Damaris Kunkler

This Christmas I will be moving into my new home. But, I am very excited about that. I look at this place as our home to have the next phase of life in. Grandbabies! Although my children are adults, none of us are specifically ready for that part to come any time soon. But, I will be ready when the time comes. And we will start traditions then. They will call me Mimi. 

Merry Christmas.

Martha DeGrado

We kick off Christmas starting the day after Thanksgiving when we pull out all of our Christmas decorations and the entire day is spent reminiscing over each decoration pulled out of storage. During our decoration extravaganza after much debate our annual Christmas movie theme is decided upon and we each pick a quote from the movie to have made into our Christmas pajama t-shirts.

On Christmas Eve Vince takes all the kids to Kansas City for a day of adventure and last-minute shopping, giving me the opportunity to prepare for the holiday. Once the kids have worn Vince out they return home to find Santa has made an early delivery. 

We open presents and enjoy Christmas treats. We then slide into our Christmas movie-themed pajamas and head to bed. On Christmas morning we head to my mom’s for  brunch. The rest of the day we stay in our pajamas watching a marathon of Christmas movies.

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year! 

Alzina Kress

Our Christmas Day tradition actually starts on Thanksgiving because we decided we didn’t want two big meals so close together. So for Christmas dinner, we have a buffet of snack foods. I always do little smokies in barbecue sauce or wrapped in crescent rolls. Someone will bring deviled eggs, dips, chips, cheeses, desserts and vegetable trays.  

We have a lot of fun and a sense of closeness when we all set about helping each other finish tasks, including last-minute Christmas wrapping. When it comes to opening gifts, we try to start with the younger ones as you know can be impatient. 

John’s family had blind box Christmas tradition. It’s where you wrap a gift — new or old, but not broken — and people draw numbers. If you don’t like your gift you can exchange it for someone else’s. I remember one year someone gave camouflage slippers and everyone fought for those. 

Merry Christmas everyone!

Daniel Kays

Every year the Kays family buys a live tree to decorate on Dec. 16 in hopes of keeping it fresh and alive till Epiphany. Moving to Kansas three years ago made it a challenge to get a nice tree by mid-December. By then, pickings were slim. Finally learning our lesson, this season we purchased a beautiful tall and full tree just after Thanksgiving and kept it un-decorated until Dec. 16, as a compromise to our tradition. 

Once we get to the targeted date, the next big tradition is making sure Daddy is not a part of any discussions on how the tree is lit. It’s better that way. Mommy and the boys take care of ensuring the lights are beautifully distributed throughout the branches. The last tree-decorating tradition is looking back through the last three years of Christmas pictures to see which boy’s turn it is to put the topper on the tree. It’s all about the boys. The best tradition of all.

Mary Kay Heard typed Bible verses from the Book of Luke telling the story of Christ’s birth. Weathered from time, the verses are read by members of her family.

Mary Kay Heard

For many, many years now, our family has shared St. Luke’s chapter 2, verse 1-15 on Christmas Day. I have divided the verses up into individual parts and we go around the table with each person reading their part. When we get to the end the “littlest” person at the table says, “HAPPY BIRTHDAY, BABY JESUS!” This year it will be 5-year-old Jayde Flory with the favorite part.   

I think some love this tradition, though probably some groan, but we do it anyway. I know, for sure, the littlest person loves it the most. Over the years, the verses are rather marked up.

Merry Christmas.

Patti Boyd

Twenty-five years ago I splurged on a gorgeously illustrated version of Clement C. Moore’s poem “The Night Before Christmas.” That year I read it aloud to my huge pregnant belly. I have read it aloud curled up with my family on Christmas Eve every year since, with a few notable exceptions. Nine-year-old Clara memorized it for extra credit in Mrs. King’s 4th grade class, so that year she did her own charming interpretation. As a high school senior, Emily translated it into Spanish as I read it. (She took a few amusing liberties with phrases like “sugar plums” and “bowl full of jelly”.) In 2020, I read it over Zoom as Em was stuck in California due to COVID restrictions.  

This year we will be together again and I will read it. The pages smell like they did in 1996. The paintings of quilts, reindeer harnesses and Santa’s dimples still delight me. And every year those same old words tell me something new about the magic of time, Christmas and a good story.

Robin Schallie

The Schallie-Lust family has many Christmas traditions. We select and purchase our  tree on Black Friday and decorate that weekend. I also have a collection of snow globes, glass figures and winter wonderland animals that are arranged on the buffet. 

I either purchase or receive a new item to be added each year.  My husband and daughter spend Christmas Eve day together shopping and then gathering on the Lust family side on Christmas Eve for dinner and exchanging gifts. 

Christmas Day is spent at home with my husband Steve and daughter Morgan opening up our gifts to each other with the fireplace going in the morning. The day does however have to include the marathon watching of “A Christmas Story.”

Alana Cloutier

Fruitcake! My mom’s side of the family are all from the UK, so fruitcake is always a centerpiece of the dessert course. 

My mom and I usually make it together around Halloween and then one of us spends the next few weeks slowly adding quite a bit of bourbon to it. You know it’s done when it won’t take any more. 

It usually gets decorated with royal icing and a theme that reflects the year. They have occasionally veered into the political! 

As a kid I usually just ate the icing off my slice, but now that I am older I have become a fruitcake fan. It’s definitely the best fruitcake you’ll ever have, but it’s still kind of a hazing ritual for guests who we’re expecting pecan pie for dessert.

Richard Zahn

I will be spending Christmas with daughters Mollie and Hillary and friends in Los  Angeles. 

After a traditional Christmas Day dinner using their mother’s vintage family recipes, they will enjoy a walk along Santa Monica beach to  enjoy palm trees and sea breezes.

Nancy McEndree

I remember going out in the pasture to choose and cut a cedar for our Christmas tree.

Mom would cut a few more branches to decorate the house. The cedar made the whole house smell so good. We put the tree in a bucket of sand so we could water it and keep the tree from drying out too much.

As young children we were allowed to open stockings as soon as we woke up, we didn’t have to wait for adults to awake. My brother, Chet, was always the first up. I could hear him oohing and ahhing. I could never stay in that warm bed after that, I HAD to join him. Some really good memories remain of sharing those cold Christmas mornings just with Chet. 

We had a cooked breakfast, fed the horses and cows, then headed to grandparents after a family gift exchange.

Grandma Hazel McEndree made homemade bread and butter. She was an excellent cook. Grandpa would milk the cow and start the separator before we arrived. Grandma Mac wrapped her gifts in white tissue paper. They went with us to LaHarpe to Grandma Jessie Jackson’s house.

Mom made cheesy broccoli and a rich chocolate cake.

At Grandma Jackson’s we had a ham, Swedish rye bread, mac and cheese, lots of veggies from gardens, pies, cakes, cookies and candy — all made from scratch. Oh, so good!

My mom came from a family of seven so there were lots of cousins around who brought so much fun and excitement.

Grandma Jackson taught me how to make the Swedish rye bread when I was in my 20s. I can still hear her voice telling me it needs more flour.

Aunt Lila Ludlum made the mac and cheese using cheddar and Velveeta. It’s the only mac and cheese I eat.

Grandma Mac, mom, myself and brothers would make candies a week before Christmas. We made divinity, taffy and toffee. We buttered our hands and pulled the taffy over and over until Grandma said it was done. Sometimes our hands got burned from the hot taffy. My favorite was the toffee. Grandma would pour the hot toffee into a pan and then swirl a large candy bar on top until it melted. Crushed almonds were the topping. Waiting for it to cool was a test of our patience.

Everyone also bragged about mom’s fudge.

When my children were young, we cut our own tree, made popcorn strings and other decorations. They, too, were allowed to open their stockings first thing.

Now, I’m Grandma Mac, with everyone coming to my house. 

I make three kinds of bread, the old way using crock bowls, kneading by hand, and letting it raise just right.

Some of mom’s ornaments adorn my tree.

The smells and food of Christmas carry on our family traditions, along with playing cards.

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