Author Laura Ingalls Wilder is often credited with remarking that "our hearts grow tender with childhood memories and love of kindred, and we are better throughout the year for having, in spirit, become a child again at Christmas-time."
Christmas can be a particularly special time for children, and they often make memories that they carry with them throughout the rest of their lives. Several current and former residents of Elk County recently shared with The Daily Press some of their fondest Christmas memories from their childhood.
St. Marys resident Donna Florio agreed that Christmas was always a special time when she was growing up.
"Everything about it was exciting," Florio said.
In particular, Florio recalled shopping in downtown St. Marys at stores such as Murphy's and Kanter's.
"I loved going to Kanter's and getting a surprise package that cost 50 cents. You never knew what was in them, but it was fun to get them," Florio said.
One of the most significant items individuals purchased during the holiday season was a real Christmas tree.
St. Marys resident Donna Wehler noted that while she was growing up, her family would always go to Zwack's grove to find the perfect Christmas tree.
"We would go up and down the hill and finally we'd find the perfect tree," Wehler said. "I think they had some type of saw there and you would go down and get the saw and then you'd cut your own tree and drag it up."
Johnsonburg native Kathy Reuscher recalled that her family initially had a real tree for Christmas each year.
"Where I grew up, we had a very long, narrow living room and my mom always wanted a skinny tree," Reuscher said. "Every year when we would go get the tree and it would come home, it was never skinny enough for my mom. We used to fight about the tree all the time until one year my dad got so mad he went to Sears and Roebuck Company and bought an artificial tree. It looked just like it was a black, shredded plastic bag. It was horrible, but no matter what tree was ever brought into our home, my mother made it the most special and beautiful Christmas tree - even the one that looked like the plastic bag."
Florio's family always had a real tree as well. She reminisced that they would pick it out about a week before Christmas, but then it would sit in their carport for a few days before being brought into their house.
"Then my dad brought it in the parlor and we decorated it with glass ornaments that I still use to this day on my tree. I love using the same ornaments because it brings back such good memories," Florio said. "We always put garland and the tinfoil icicles on too with a star on top. I remember a few times my aunts Martha and Jeanette put whipped Ivory soap flakes on their tree too. They tinted it blue sometimes. I try to have my grandkids decorate my tree now. I love to sit and look at it and it brings back a lot of good times."
Wehler also had fond memories of decorating her home with her siblings. In particular, she recalled the good times they had stringing garland throughout their living room.
"I don't remember what color it (the garland) was, but we had lots of it. In our living room, we would go from corner to corner with the garland. We had a hallway, and I believe we went back the hallway with it and we were thumbtacking it up on the ceiling. My mom or dad had to be involved in this, I think," Wehler said. "Then we had this beautiful gold ball that we would hang down (in the center of the living room) and it had an elf that would hang down from that. I think the ball was made out of Styrofoam. That seems like it was a fixture for Christmas for quite a while," Wehler said.
One of Reuscher's most memorable Christmas decorations was only placed on her family's tree on Christmas day. She noted that her two sisters were considerably older than she was and she was instead closer in age to her nieces and nephews.
"My dad used to always 'catch' Santa Claus every year so that he made sure that his grandchildren had presents under the tree. He used to use a little buckshot. He would 'get' Santa and it would always seem like every year Santa left a piece of his outfit on our roof and it used to be filled with all these little buckshot holes. My dad never hurt Santa though," Reuscher said.
This piece of cloth would always be placed on her family's Christmas tree, and it would invariably upset her nieces, Donna and Leah, when they would come to the house on Christmas day. The tradition continued through the years, and after Reuscher's father died 13 years ago, her niece Donna made ornaments similar to the one from their childhood as a tribute. That ornament still hangs on Reuscher's tree to this day.
"She (Donna) took a really cute little piece of red material with white on it and put it together and put a little sign on there to say this is in memory of grandpa. I still have that today, although I really wish I had the original piece of cloth," Reuscher said.
Reuscher added that she also has continued with her mother's tradition of making sure her table is decorated for the holidays.
"My sister, Patty, always says that my mom was Martha Stewart before Martha Stewart was even born," Reuscher said. "She had that table decorated to the hilt. Everything was done to perfection. She always used the good china and put all these cute little things on the table. She used to make gumdrop trees and do things with candy canes. Every year there was always something different."
While some Christmas traditions have continued over the years, others are left only in people's memories. Tammi Cotter, who grew up in New Castle but now resides in the area, recalled that her family would always travel to her aunt Annie's home to celebrate the Feast of the Seven Fishes every Christmas Eve.
"This is a southern Italian tradition of feasting on seven different seafood dishes," Cotter explained. "Our dinners were always the same and consisted of fried smelts, squid soup, calamari, shrimp cocktail, stuffed white fish, linguine with tuna sauce and baccala followed by a variety of Italian cookies for dessert. As a child, I did not appreciate many of these 'exotic' offerings, but I did enjoy the chaos of all of my large Italian family cramming into my aunt's house and the anticipation of what was in store for that night and the next morning."
She added that her family would always enjoy looking at Christmas light displays on the ride home.
"Our dad would tell us that he just saw Santa in the nighttime sky and we would swear we heard his jingle bells and saw Rudolph's red nose streaking by," Cotter said. "The last thing we would always do before going to bed was put milk and cookies out for Santa, which were always gone the next morning except for crumbs and the crumpled napkin."
While these traditions provided fond memories for Cotter, she noted that she was unable to carry over any to her own family, except for leaving milk and cookies for Santa.
"We have established our own traditions which are just as meaningful, though," Cotter said. "As a child, I felt Christmas was magical, and I want my children to have the same memories to carry forward with them."
St. Marys resident Carla Wehler said she also started a new tradition with her family, in addition to carrying over some from her youth.
"Christmas is always such a fun holiday that I started a tradition of doing the 'Twelve Days of Christmas' for my kids TJ and Erica. I leave them a little special gift each of the 12 days," Wehler said.
Going to see Santa Claus was also an annual tradition for many area youth, and Wehler recalled that her parents would always take her and her siblings to see him at the Union Hall. However, she also noted that she had one other run-in with Santa Claus during her youth as well.
"I snuck out one Christmas Eve, and I'm sure I caught sight of him leaving the house," Wehler said.
Pick up a copy of the Saturday, Dec. 24, 2011 edition of The Ridgway Record for more.