My Family’s Christmas

awkward santa picture

I grew up on a fair-sized plot of family land out by Lake Travis. My great-grandfather had the foresight to buy up a parcel on the lake, before it was even fully dredged and long before it would be filled with rain. When I was very small, my paternal grandmother gave my parents a portion of it on which my dad built the rock house that I grew up in. A tiny, pretty house with two bedrooms, one bathroom, and eventually an exterior laundry room. My brother and I shared a bedroom for many years, first sharing a double bed and eventually graduating to bunk beds (although I still insisted on sharing a bed due to a remarkably overpowering fear of the dark and/or of being kidnapped by child murderers that continued well into my teenage years).

One of the best parts of Christmas was going out into the scrubby old woods with our dad and a chainsaw and cutting down The Perfect Christmas Tree. It was always a juniper since that’s the only conifer up in them thar hills. Sometimes we’d get one with the little blue berries on it and that was kind of special because it was already sort of decorated … by NATURE. We’d drag it back to the house, stab the base of it with one of those metal tree holders and fill the trough with water. As if the tiny bit of water could hold the dead tree in a state of suspended animation indefinitely. All we really needed it to do was last a couple of weeks.

christmas tree

Pre-Travis still life: Mama, me, grandmother, and my dad’s youngest brother who is weird beyond belief (not in a good way). I just noticed that everyone’s eyes are closed except mine. Also, this picture is of my grandmother’s house. For some reason, I could find no pictures of Christmas in our little house.

We’d decorate it with fragile glass balls, of which there were fewer each year, strings of plastic gold beads, big red bows of velveteen, and Christmas Eggs. Christmas Eggs are very special ornaments made out of egg shells. They were made (I think) by my great-grandfather’s law partner, Louise Kirk. She spent hours cutting windows into blown-out egg shells, painting them inside and out, gluing tiny pictures of birds or Santas inside them, covering the hole with cellophane, and then trimming them with beads or rick-rack. Each Christmas Egg represented 10-12 hours of human labor and love and, to us, they may as well have been Fabergé. There was an egg for my dad and each of his brothers — fitted with a locket-sized black and white photo of their boy-faces — and those were particularly interesting to me.

Christmas Eggs

Once we were older, we made our own Christmas Eggs. These are some I made in high school.

Presents would be hidden in my parents’ bedroom until Christmas Eve, when one of them would sneak them under the tree and pretend they were from Santa. I’d been disillusioned with Santa at an early age, maybe four, by an older girl at day care, but I went along with the idea for several years after that because my dad enjoyed the Santa facade. One year I went snooping in their room for presents. I found a beautiful sun dress in a bag in the closet — blue and white with a border print of sailboats — and immediately felt so terrible for ruining the surprise, I never snooped again.

We spent every Christmas Eve dinner and every Christmas morning and most Christmas nights at my grandmother’s house. Christmas Eve we’d have tamales, beans, rice, and my grandma’s “Famous” Queso Dip around her creaky dining table. Her dining table was always decorated to the max for Christmas with poinsettia-patterned dishes, red paper napkins, plastic holly leaves, and a brass candelabra with red candles that she never lit. Travis and I were allowed to open one present each that night.

Christmas morning, we’d wake up way too early and annoy the shit out of our parents until all the presents were opened and then we’d sit back, like fat little Barons of Toys and eat Cheerios on the floor while playing with our new loot. Afterwards we’d all trot down the hill to Grandmother’s for Christmas Morning, Round Two. As we got older, she left off buying wrapped presents for us; her claim to fame and what I remember most vividly was the stockings. She took great pleasure in packing the stockings hung on the mantle. There were some items that never changed, and were always included: Walker’s Shortbread cookies; 5-packs of Twinings tea bags; a mesh bag of gold chocolate coins; a handful of pecans in their shells; and a tangerine tucked in the toe. Depending on the recipient, there might also be a HotWheels car, a plastic bottle of bubbles, a deck of cards, a new barrette, or some marbles. I miss those carefully planned stockings. My memory of them completely sums up the concepts of Christmas and my grandmother.

That doesn’t really make sense.

Maybe I’ve got nostalgia-poisoning.

Christmas morning presents

Sadly, I would come to find out that not every single one of these presents was for me.

After stockings, we’d make tea from our little packets and have a fake-fancy tea party and eat cookies and chocolate and tangerines for the next two hours. Sometimes we’d go to church on Christmas, especially when I was young. Christmas and Easter were the only times of the year, really, that we made a valiant effort. I liked church enough. I liked the singing and the communion. The rest of it was so so boring. I liked the after church snacks — cheese and crackers and juice — and it was fun to see other kids besides my brother, who was my only playmate at home.

After church, we’d go back to Grandmother’s for supper. Christmas supper was almost always the same, and made by my grandmother, which was quite extraordinary to those familiar with my grandmother Hornsby. She did not relish cooking and for the most part, was not the most excellent at it, either. The menu was the same she’d made while she was married and the same one my dad grew up eating.I found it written down on an index card tucked into her recipe box for remembrance.

The menu was thus:

christmas menu

She told me once of her strong dislike for cornbread dressing, that she only made it on Thanksgiving because my grandfather liked it, and that she herself had come up with the Christmas alternative of Wild Rice Dressing. Man, that stuff was good. Wild rice, brown rice, beef Rice-a-Roni, cream of mushroom soup, and water chestnuts. I’ll have to make it sometime and take a picture for you. This roast pork tenderloin is a close facsimile of her pork roast, though she always served hers with Major Grey’s Chutney from the jar. Dill carrots — boiled carrots with butter and dill — are literally to this day my favorite way to eat carrots. Rolls were most likely store-bought brown’n’serve but if you wanted, you could make these Parker House rolls. And the grape ice: it’s grape ice cream, people. Believe.

And there you have it, folks. About 8000 more words than I’d intended to write about my Christmas as a kid. What was yours like?





  1. Rachael Macry on December 11, 2013 at 1:51 pm

    Hh, beautiful post. Beautiful memories.. thanks for sharing. Leaves me full of smiles. 🙂

    • Rachael Macry on December 11, 2013 at 1:52 pm

      Sorry, it should be, Ah.

    • Hilah on December 11, 2013 at 7:45 pm

      That makes me glad to hear, Rachael. It was fun writing and thinking about that time, too. 🙂

  2. Melissa "Melicious" Joulwan on December 11, 2013 at 1:53 pm

    Oh, Hilah! I love this post so much! Brilliant.

    Our Christmas officially started on Christmas Eve. And as everyone will soon know, my Italian-Lebanese family ate an Italian feast on Xmas Eve: antipasto salad, dough balls, linguine with clam sauce, fried smelt, lupini beans, and cookies. So many cookies: chocolate chip, potato chip, Russian teacakes, snickerdoodles, candy cane cookies, decorated cutouts, my dad’s awesome fruitcake…

    We were always allowed to open one gift on Christmas Eve, and it was always a new ornament for the tree. We’d put a little label with the date on the bottom… my favorite was a kind of ugly leaded glass gingerbread man that I got when I was two years old.

    My brother and I always slept in the same bed on Xmas Eve, and just as we were falling asleep, I’d tell him to look out the window to see Rudolph’s nose. On Christmas morning, we always woke up early early early… and would peek down the stairs to see the presents under the tree.

    We’d open presents and eat cookies and potato chips (my thing… not sure how that started)… then we’d usually have quiche for breakfast (my mom’s thing).

    Christmas day didn’t have any firm traditions beyond eating a lot. Sometimes we’d have all the relatives over for a late afternoon buffet… sometimes we’d go to a movie… usually there was a nap involved… often there’d be a prime rib roast… and all the snacky foods we only ate once a year: cheese ball, shrimp spread, COOKIES COOKIES COOKIES.

    • Hilah on December 11, 2013 at 7:46 pm

      Mel, I can’t WAIT to make your mom’s recipes and write about them! I love the ornament gift on Christmas eve tradition. How nice!
      And now I want potato chip crust quiche…

  3. cardamonbraid on December 11, 2013 at 3:20 pm

    Wish I could say I remember a lot of the traditional types of family memories, but alas when I was very small my mother had an epiphany about the commercialism of christmas. With my father being a minister I got a perripheral view from all the families around us etc. But the one thing about christmas that I still remember and love was when we would get our Mormor/grandmother off on a tangent talking about what it was like having Christmas in Sweden and the journey and fun they would have hunting for and bringing home the tree. There was one year too where we went to a smorgasborg at a church members home and I got to wear the candles in my hair and lead the procession as St. Lucia….

    • Hilah on December 11, 2013 at 7:51 pm

      That sounds nice! I think everyone who has had a grandmother with lots of stories to tell is so fortunate. 🙂
      Can you fill me in on the importance of St Lucia to Swedes? We’re making saffron buns for the Christmas series and I’m curious why they are called “Lucia’s cats”.

      • cardamonbraid on December 11, 2013 at 9:49 pm

        Wish I knew the real answer other then lussekatter was a name that evolved not the original name, as a kid I thought it was because the snail coil with the raisins made it look like eyes. What I found interesting is that really St. Lucia is an italian thing not originally rooted in our culture. I came to the USA as an infant and the times I went back to visit were summers where I worked on my Uncles farms and really didn’t see much other then what was local.

        I have one funny story, One time my Uncle Aunt and Cousin came to visit me in the states. They came with one suitcase and were here 6 weeks. My aunt would mimic BOBO bear and say that she was cold but not much more. My Uncle went missing when we went to Solvang and I found him in a store working behind the counter.

        One day I tried to trick them into the pool so I could gather up the clothes to wash them, only to get them upset with me. On the way home from Solvang my Aunt took off her shoes……you can fill in the rest. My cousin finally said to me “American’s put too much emphaise on the removal of natural body odor.” At that point I rolled down the window and was so thankful when I got out of the car………did I say it was a 4 hour trip in a VW beetle..

  4. Bill on December 11, 2013 at 3:23 pm

    This post should put anyone who reads it deeply into the “Spirit of Christmas” as well as all the winter holidays. Thanks for letting us peek into your life. So touching, One of those stories that make “happy tears”

    • Hilah on December 11, 2013 at 7:51 pm

      Thank you, Bill. It was my pleasure to write and share with y’all. Merry Christmas!

  5. Nicoleincos on December 11, 2013 at 3:35 pm

    I loved this Hilah. I have been missing my Grandmother so much; It’s the time of year.

    I love seeing you as a child. What a cutie! You look so much like your Mom, too!

    • Hilah on December 11, 2013 at 7:54 pm

      Oh boy, I know what you mean, Nicole. This will be our first Christmas without my grandmother, and her birthday is tomorrow. She would have been 85.
      I hope you have lots of nice family time this Christmas. Big ol’ hugs to you!

  6. Christine on December 11, 2013 at 3:46 pm

    OK. That baby Hilah is soooooooo precious! Look at that face sitting on Santa’s lap! 🙂

    • Hilah on December 11, 2013 at 7:54 pm

      Aw, thanks, Christine!

  7. Dana DeWitt on December 11, 2013 at 4:33 pm

    Awesome article, thanks for sharing. I love the idea of the Christmas eggs, too bad that most people don’t put that much effort in anything anymore.

    • Hilah on December 11, 2013 at 7:54 pm

      I should maybe do a tutorial on how to make them, Dana. It was a really nice family project.

  8. Cal on December 11, 2013 at 7:33 pm

    Santa always came to our house Christmas Eve because we would get up early Christmas morning to drive to my grandmothers about two hours away in Oklahoma. After dinner we would go for a drive to see the Christmas lights. After we got in the car Dad would realize that he needed to use the bathroom. And when we got home Santa would have come. As each of us got old enough to figure things out, we had a lot of fun trying to get Dad to “go” before we got in the car. His excuses were always outrageously clever.

    • Hilah on December 11, 2013 at 7:55 pm

      Hahaha! That’s a great memory, Cal! Thanks for sharing. 🙂

  9. Sridevi on December 15, 2013 at 4:15 am

    Iam from india it’s great hilah iam your addicted fan

    • Hilah on December 15, 2013 at 1:26 pm

      Thank you, Sridevi!

  10. margie on December 22, 2013 at 9:10 pm

    thank you hilah and all the replies. just beautiful.

    • Hilah on December 23, 2013 at 11:48 am

      Merry Christmas, Margie!

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.