Axel and Betty Christmas Traditions

 

By Doug Boilesen, December 2015

 

Axel and Betty (aka Dad and Mom) loved the Christmastime season. They were Methodists and Christmas Eve at church was always central to their schedule.

What I'm documenting here, however, are the other family holiday activities that were repeated annually at Christmastime which I am calling Axel and Betty Christmas Traditions.

These traditions clearly have some limits as to reader interest. Nevertheless, I hope from a cultural perspective that some value is found by non-family members learning what one family did at Christmastime for over sixty years.

The following examples of Christmas cards, cookies and food, tree decorating, Christmas punch, music and other holiday season activities are what I remember about my family as a member of Axel and Betty's family in Lincoln, Nebraska from 1946 to 2013.

 

Traditions

Some of Axel and Betty's Christmastime activities are surely rooted in their parents' practices, Chris and Elizabeth Boilesen and Manley and Anna Barr.

Whatever their source, if some of these are continued by their descendents perhaps documenting these details will add a little understanding and enjoyment to their own process of making memories and traditions. Perhaps these recollections will also trigger others to remember their own histories and family traditions.

 

Christmas Cards

The most tangible reminder of our parent's Christmastime traditions is their Christmas cards.

 

1959

 

My parents loved receiving cards and Mom found different ways to display those cards.

Dinner at Lyncrest December 1955 in living room with Christmas cards on display (Grandma Barr, Mom, Bev in arms, Doug, Gary, Edna and Ray)

 

They also loved sending their annual Boilesen family card to friends and relatives.

For decades it was a photograph that was the centerpiece of their Christmas card.

This practice of incorporating a family photograph into the Christmas greeting card began in 1946, the first year Axel and Betty were married, and continued until Betty passed in 2000 and Axel in 2013.

 

1955

 

Axel and Betty's photocard was a photograph inserted into a Season's Greetings card made for a photograph (see above) or more commonly a photograph printed on a card with a selected printed message for that card.

The Christmas photocard was Axel and Betty's standard Christmas messaging until 1976 when they then started creating an 8 1/2 x 11 Christmas card with multiple pictures and text. This new card was made by arranging and photocopying multiple pictures onto one card and then folding and sending it in a legal size envelope.

Over the years only a few of the photographs used for the Christmas card were done "professionally." Most were taken by Dad, or a friend or by using a tripod and timer on the camera that would give you 10 seconds to get into position before it flashed so that all of us could be in the picture. These were the days of film and flashbulbs so you couldn't see right away if the picture just taken was going to be 'the one" to be used for the Christmas card.

 

A family portrait taken on December 1, 1965 at the Photograph Studio of Miller & Paine, Inc., Lincoln NE for the 1965 Christmas card

 

Choosing a photograph, then selecting card stock with a pre-printed greeting, giving the order to Walgreens or a photo store to make 100 or so cards, working their way through their address book (which for 65 years was their manual process as they never used any electronic address book), then starting the process of signing and writing messages, addressing each envelope and finally stamping and mailing those cards -- this was their annual ritual that never missed a year.

I can remember the writing and addressing of the envelopes as an event in itself. Mom preferred Dad to address the cards because she said his hand-writing was better. That was true, if by hand-writing she meant his printing of letters was better than her cursive. Dad was a Civil Engineer who had hand-drafted design specifications and drawings for decades so he probably did most of the addressing work because his printed letters were clear.

The card, from our home to yours, showed in a variety of ways that we were doing well and that our family was growing and changing. Printed messages on the cards over the years said that we wished you "Season's Greetings, a Joyous Christmas, Best Holiday Wishes, A Blessed Christmas, Happy Holidays, Peace on Earth, Christmas Greetings, Merry Christmas, Holiday Joy, and a Happy New Year." Cards could also include personalized messages on the back of the card, usually written by Mom even if her cursive was not that legible.

Cards after 1976 usually had more detailed preprinted text to go with the photographs or quotes like this one from Emerson on their 1976 card that expresses the uniqueness of moments and our wish to you for a "Christmas filled with beautiful moments".

 

Giving a card to everyone on their Christmas list was clearly important, especially sending cards to those who didn't live in Lincoln. And having a picture of the family on the card naturally was a great way to update everyone on what the family now looked like.

Axel and Betty's Christmas cards and their annual process of sharing a picture of their family via the US Postal Service was certainly not unique. For decades, countless cards have been sent by millions of other families with simliar holiday "Season's Greetings." Of course, using the mail service to communicate and the penny-postcards of a previous generation had been part of everyday life for sometime. I can remember hearing stories about my Grandma Barr and her sister Tay, who actually lived on farms only a few sections apart, sending multiple postcards to each other each week before they had telephones. I saw one of their penny postcards years ago that said simply "I did the wash today. How about going fishing on Wednesday?"

That changed in the 21st century and sending Christmas cards in the mail became a tradition in decline. Facebook, e-mail and other electronic "greetings" resulted in fewer and fewer people sending cards through the mail.

So technology has had an impact on sending Christmas cards.

But in 1946 sending Christmas cards was a common practice. Axel and Betty's Christmas card tradition began with this photocard of 1946 (the first Christmas after their marriage). Sitting in front of the fireplace at their Lake Street basement apartment which they rented while going to school, this is a picture for their descendents that will always be worth more than a thousand words.

 

1946 Christmas Card

Click Here to view more Axel and Betty Christmas Cards from 1946 to 1999

 

 

Christmas Punch

An expectation for Christmas Eve at our family home for over 50 years was the Christmas punch made using a simple combination of lime sherbet and 7-Up. (1)

There was some mystery as to the proportions and how it was to be stirred. But it was always presented in a grand style and ladled into cups from the Fostoria punch bowl that was part of the Fostoria wedding dishes that Axel and Betty received in 1946.

Fostoria punch bowl and ladle on Axel and Betty's dining table

 

 

The Christmas Tree

Mom loved to decorate the Christmas tree each year and a fresh-cut spruce or fir which always found its place in the same corner of their living room. She liked as many colored lights as possible and in the 1950's we had some bubble lights that seemed special (perhaps because I remember bubble lights on my grandparent's small tree when I was a little boy).

I also remember my grandparents had tinsel on their trees and Betty used tinsel alot in the 1950's. She may have inhereited a few ornaments from her parents but most of her tree decorations developed over the years one ornament at a time. I'm sure she knew the history of every ornament on the tree.

"H" Street December 1951

 

Lyncrest December 1955

 

In the 1980's and 90's Mom and I were both fascinated by some Hallmark motion ornaments that had clear domes that would display various moving characters and scenes: Kringle's Toy Shop, The Village Express(with a train traveling around a village (1), or a sleigh going around a turn-of-the century house. They were all a bit noisy but Mom and I thought they added magic to the tree and we had alot of fun each year at the after Christmas sales when Hallmark would sell these ornaments for at least 60% off.

Of course as a child the Christmas tree was most closely associated with the place where Christmas presents were located. So in the days leading up to Christmas there was the typical shaking of presents under the tree to try and figure out what was in each wrapped gift that had your name on it.

My siblings and I were fortunate to grow up in a time and an environment where we never worried about not having a Christmas tree or not having presents under the tree or for that matter not having to worry about anything of real consequence.

 

 

Christmas Cookies

We had many 'sweet-tooths' in the family and we each had our favorite cookie but we also always had plenty of other cookies to choose from.

Spritz pressed cookies were my favorite (green tree shaped or red poisettas pressed from our MIRRO Cooky Press). Sharon's favorites were buttery sugar cookies. Bev and Ron loved spritz cookies. Bev also liked Mexican Wedding cookies which Mom also enjoyed. Dad looked forward to haystacks. James liked the frosting covered sugar cookies the best. But they were all good.

 

When I was quite young we would make sugar cookies and use a cookie cutter shaped like Santa that we would then decorate quite elaborately. What part of that Santa you would eat first varied in the family.

Sugar cookies were also made with cut-out stars and christmas trees.

Looking through the mostly hand-written recipes on the 3 x 5 index cards that Mom used for all of her important recipes there are a surprising number of memories that arise.

Seeing Mom's handwriting has its own emotions.

And remembering the smells and tastes that go with each of those recipes are sensations that still linger.

Ramona Stromberg's Spritz cookie recipe copied by Betty for her Recipe box. For additional Christmas Recipes click here

 

But until I was recently looking at these recipe cards I had forgotten how many of these recipes came from friends, so that the sugar cookie recipe that I remember so well wasn't simply a sugar cookie recipe, it was Violet Edgington's sugar cookie recipe. The sour cream sugar cookie was Mrs. Taylor's; Ramona Stromberg's was the spritz cookie recipe and Jean Milford's was the Mexican Wedding Cookies.

It's also ironic that I remember both of my grandmother's sugar cookies but I don't have a recipe for either one. Perhaps that is because I think they baked alot of things without using recipes.

Even how a recipe got into a recipe box could have its own path.

Recipes could come from visiting someone's house and enjoying the cookie and asking for the recipe.

Recipe parties were also an opportunity to bring your favorite recipe and exchange them while you had a cup of coffee and caught up on neighborhood news.

My parent's were friends with the Stromberg's for decades yet the Spritz cookie recipe that was in mom's recipe box noted that it came via Leota Sondregger, a neighbor and the mother of a friend of mine, and not from Ramona directly. Giving a plate of cookies to friends and neighbors was also a common Christmas gift and a plate received could also result in a follow-up request for a recipe.

Baking cookies with the associated smells and then enjoying a warm cookie right out of the oven is a strong memory for me and clearly comfort food. Although cookies have what now might be labeled the villain sugar ingredient I think there is some truth to what Barbara Jordan said about cookies and a better world:

Think what a better world it would be if we all, the whole world, had cookies and milk about three o'clock every afternoon and then lay down on our blankets for a nap.

I'm certain Santa, the most famous proponent of cookies and milk, would agree.

 

 

When to Open Presents

I was always interested in comparing the practice friends would follow versus our own tradition for present opening, namely "When do we get to open our Christmas presents"?

Our basic house rule on this topic was that you could choose one gift on Christmas Eve and then the rest would be opened in the morning after Santa visited.

"In the morning" is a key phrase and should have been a legally defined term since we were up before the Sun on most Christmas mornings.

So what do you do in at that time of morning when not a creature is stirring? I believe that the rule in our house was that we could look in our stocking and open whatever Santa had brought as soon as we were up but other presents had to wait until the whole family was present.

A pre-step before opening any Santa gift was to first look at the milk and cookies that had been left for Santa. This was of course at some point more ritual than dependency about Santa actually having come. Nevertheless it was always good to observe that at least a bite had been taken out of a cookie and perhaps a swallow of milk.With that step completed it was then time to open Santa's presents.

 

 

Christmas Music - Firestone Records

The Firestone store was just across the street from where Dad worked in Lincoln at the Rudge & Guenzel Building, 12th & "N".

After we bought our new Magnovox stereophonic sound console at Montgomery Wards in 1962 Dad would annually purchase the Firestone Christmas Carol Album at that downtown Firestone store. These albums were 33 1/3 rpm stereo recordings and they were in competition with the annual Christmas album offered by Goodyear, their chief rival in tires.

We were apparently a "Firestone" house, at least for the Christmas Carol album, and I'm sure our Magnovox played those albums many times during the Christmas season.

 

 

Bev and Doug listening to Firestone Christmas Carols, 1962. (Magnavox stereo and selection of 45 rpms on the shelf)

 

 

Part of the full page Firestone advertisement in the Lincoln Sunday Journal and Star, November 24, 1963

(Note: This newspaper got saved because it was part of the Journal's Sport Red section which was headlined in red capital letters, NEXT NU STOP... MIAMI followed by details of the Big Red's victory over Oklahoma 29-20 to earn a berth in the Orange Bowl).

 

A family picture in front of the Stereo, 1962. The Christmas tree artwork made by my Aunt Fay on the wall was decorated with some of her old jewelry.

 

 

Christmas Chocolates - Russell Stover

A Holiday wrapped box of Russell Stover "Assorted Chocolates" was always a treat at Christmas.

From 1942 until the plant closed in 1959 Russell Stover was making hand-dipped chocolates in Lincoln, Nebraska. I can remember Dad bringing home a box of chocolates and wondering when it would be opened. I loved the caramels, and the orange and vanilla creams.

We may have had chocolates before Christmas but I know after our Christmas Eve supper a chocolate was always offered.

Which one to select was my first question, but I'm not sure if choosing only one was a rule. I do know that before I became confident about what was inside the chocolate that I selected (based on the picture and 'map' provided inside the box), there were occasions when what I selected was not what I expected and do-overs were allowed.

Russell Stover chocolates took on additional family significance after Bev's first summer job which was selling Russell Stover chocolates at a Gateway Mall store.

 

 

 

Christmas Eve Supper

A light supper before going to church always included Dad's homemade oyster soup.

Fresh oysters from IGA on 27th Street or from wherever the freshest oysters could be found that year were only purchased at Christmas.

Yum Yums (2) (sloppy joes) or homemade chili were usually options for those who didn't want to eat oyster soup.

A Russell Stover's chocolate and homemade Christmas cookies were offered for desert but it wasn't until after we got back from church that the cookie platter was in full display. It was also then that the cookies were eaten with our traditional Christmas lime punch.

Cookie plate 1956

 

In a Christmas Eve story and tribute to his parents written for his 2008 Christmas card, Axel gives us details of what he remembers being served on Christmas Eve when he was growing up:

"My Mom always prepared oyster stew, rye bread, cheese, crackers and celery sticks along with pie for dessert."

 

Just before bed a plate with usually two cookies and a glass of milk was set out for Santa's visit. We were reminded that we didn't put too many cookies out because Santa had so many houses to visit. Naturally, when we got up in the morning at least one bite had been taken out of a cookie and a little milk had been drunk which confirmed his visit and the fact that Santa was indeed appreciative but probably getting a bit full.

 

 

 

Santa Claus

Mom had a small collection of Santa Claus figures that she displayed during Christmas and kept in a China cabinet the rest of the year. She wasn't really a collector but she did have an assortment of Santas. The most noteable thing about how she displayed the figures in the cabinet during the year was how they were organized.

There was one shelf set aside for the naughty Santas who smoked and had a pipe in their hand or mouth (and also perhaps had a questionable drink or bottle in their hand).

The grandchildren would always comment about Grandma putting the bad Santas on their own shelf. I'm sure there were other anti-smoking discussions with Mom and the kids and grandkids but I think the naughty Santas on their own shelf were her best message.

The Naughty Santas

 

 

 

The Address Book - Tempus Fugit

Sending out Christmas cards for most of the 20th century had a dependency on the address book. Its information needed to be accurate and Christmas was a great time to review and update that book.

Years later, looking through our parent's address book you were observing a tangible piece of history that documents how life changes at the most basic level. Hand-written in ink or pencil, names and addresses have been erased or more often crossed off and replaced due to a family move, death, divorce, births and marriages.

In the address book you can see how the first change is relatively easy and crossed-out information can be strategically replaced close to the original entry. But as each entry has its own history and as it can change multiple times then space starts becoming an issue and updated entries start looking a little messy.

It's also is interesting how long distance phone numbers started becoming more common entries in the address book as phone service and technology changed.

I can remember in the 1950's a long distance call in our house was limited to true emergencies and each minute on the phone was carefully monitored. I can also remember "collect calls" coming in and a decision sometimes was required if the call should be accepted or if we'd say "no" and then call the number back (which was cheaper than a collect call).

Tempus Fugit is probably a better name for an address book because in the end an address book, like our parent's book, is a time capsule of who were the close friends and relatives of a family and how those relationships were literally documented and changed in the Address Book over time.

 

 

 

 

Summary - Tis the Season

Looking back we had many family Christmastime activities that took place each year. Some had roots from Axel and Betty's parents. Some were initiated by Axel and Betty. Some are now documented, and others were simply part of the moment.

I'm sure my memories are themselves a recipe made of nostalgia and ingredients of this and that (also knowing that memories change through the years).

But the smell of sugar cookies and homemade bread and cinnamon rolls coming out of the wood burning cookstove that my Grandpa and Grandma Barr had in their kitchen and the flannel sheets that I would sleep on when we visited them in the winter and the fresh fir trees that we would decorate and the music of Handel's Messiah that we would hear at the annual concert in the Coliseum building on the University of Nebraska campus for me are all still vivid and sensual memories of the Holiday Season.

I was fortunate to be part of the Axel and Betty Christmastime traditions.

As the years pass it's interesting what one remembers and values and wants to document.

As Barbara Kingsolver, author of Animal Dreams wrote: "It's surprising how much memory is built around things unnoticed at the time."

For me, these are traditions that I apparently noticed enough to remember them now.

 

 

 

 

Bev and Doug at Christmas 1959 listening to records in front of the radio/phonograph built by Dad. Bev is holding a 45 rpm. Christmas decorations are on top of the phonograph - the little white country church that plugged in and lit up; the wax candles of evergreens and reindeer and the large turquoise ornament style candle, all of which were never lit but were displayed for many years.

On the back of this photograph was written by Mom "Ready for bed listening to records."

Clearly, Friends of the Phonograph in the making.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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