Stories which have been passed on to us

Christmas Eve, Chicago 1939
A remembrance by June Meyer

June Meyer is a retired elementary school Art Teacher who taught art at Wilmot Elementary in Deerfield, Illinois for 24 years. She has lived in Deerfield for 39 years; a northern suburb of Chicago. Today she spends her time cruising the Internet with her beloved Macintosh IIsi, surfing the Web on Netscape around the globe checking out Yahoo's What's New, reading her favorite Newsgroups rec. food cooking and rec. food recipes. Her mother was from Batchka, her father from Banat. She also has a web site with some great Hungarian recipes...Check them out!

"I was just a little girl perhaps five years old as I sat upon the sofa in the front room, next to the fragrant pine Christmas tree. It's lights were shining bright and colorful. The silver tinsel shimmered in the heat of the tree lights. Strange ornaments, heads of angels, hot air balloons with scratchy wire decorations. Funny looking Santas, bunches of fruit, all made in Germany out of the most fragile painted glass. These ornaments were very old, brought to America from Hungary, by my Grandmother in 1910. When I looked at my reflection in the round ornaments my nose became swollen and large, my tiny eyes squinting. As I held one in my hands I heard muffled sounds through the wall of someone moving on the stairway, startled, I let it fall with a tiny tinkle on the floor, shattering into many shards.

My mother was in the kitchen preparing special food for the evening meal. The fresh Hungarian sausage my mother and father had made and stuffed was going to be the meal for Christmas Eve as it was last year and would be this year as well. It was our tradition.

First we would go to the evening service at St. James, our Lutheran church. It was always a special service with the Christmas Tree glowing in the darkened sanctuary. This was a children's service. After we sang all the old Christmas carols in German and English, the children were called to the alter to receive a gift from the Pastor. It was always candy. We used to receive a wonderful box of chocolate, but in later years it became a bag of hard candy, all stuck together that no one wanted. It looked pretty but tasted awful. After church we would walk many blocks to our home through the cold dark that chilled my bones. I can still remember the pain of shivering. The cold always seemed to snake down around my neck inside of my coat and stop there.

As we approached our house we could see the Christmas tree lights flickering through the frosted glass of the lace curtained window. The lights wore tiny halos of colored light. My father often worked a holiday shift as a streetcar motorman for the extra pay. He would be home by the time we came back from church, and the house would be warm after he stoked the stove in the kitchen and dining room. Our house was old, built just after the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. There were still old gas jets jutting out from the walls.

When we opened the door we could smell the Hungarian sausage cooking. This was the only sausage we made. It was full of garlic and paprika and allspice. When it was cooked it became the rich brown color of mahogany. The sour cream and horseradish sauce served over it was as white and heavy as snow. When you ate the sausage your eyes and nose watered from the sharpness of the sauce.

Sausage for Christmas Eve dinner was always traditional in our family. For Christmas day dinner it would always be roast chicken with our family special parsley dressing, gravy, mashed potatoes, creamed peas and carrots, dilled squash that we canned ourselves, and wonderful homemade Hungarian desserts. My mother made Apple Strudels with tissue thin dough. Poppy Seed Strudel, Walnut Strudel and Raisin Strudel rolled up and baked. Many varieties of Christmas cookies, some recipes hundreds of years old, were arranged on a beautiful platter that was brought to America wrapped in a homemade goose down comforter.

A month and a half before Christmas my Mother would start baking many cookies to see us through the Holiday Season. Hungarian cookies are made from butter or lard, dried fruits, nuts of all kinds, sour cream, cream cheese, spices and lemon zest.

As a child, I remember the whole family sitting around the kitchen table, picking the nut meats out of the walnuts, hazelnuts, pecans, and almonds. We would pound the nuts open with a hammer and use the nut picks to pick out the meat. One for the bowl, one for the mouth. My Mother would yell at us to not eat so many, she needed them for the cookies. My Grandmother sat at the table with the nut mill she brought from Hungary and milled the nuts for the cookies and strudels. Other nuts were chopped for sprinkling on top of cookies. Some cookies were rolled out and cut with the old cookies cutters from Hungary, some were pressed into an ancient copper cookie mold in the shape of a bundle of wheat and gently knocked out. Other cookies were rolled in the hand and baked and then rolled in powdered sugar or sugar and milled nuts.

Pounds of dried Apricots and dried Prunes were cooked on the stove with water and sugar to make the Lekvar for Kipfils and cookies.

The cookie most beloved and treasured was the Linzerteig (dough from Linz, Austria). It meant that we children would be helping to cut the cookies out and decorating them. The old cookie cutters were large and small. Hand made and soldered more than 150 years ago, the cutters were black with many years of use, and stamped "Saxony".

Hearts, Diamonds, Spades, Clubs, Crescent Moons, Stars, Suns. No Frosty the Snowman, or Rudolph, no Christmas trees, no Angels. Just the celestial bodies and the suits of cards. After the cookies were cut from the dough, we would coat the top of the raw cookie with some egg white that was beaten with a few drops of water, and then sprinkle some decorations on it. Colored sugars, mixtures of chopped nuts and sugar, half of a candied cherry or a dab of Lekvar.

Baking would go on for weeks. The washing of the Cookie pans were my job. It was a never ending job. The wet dish towels hung over the oven to dry. Pans going into the oven and pans coming out of the oven. Cookies burn very quickly if they are not watched. You can always tell by smell when the cookies are done.

At least 20 different cookies and three kinds of Strudels, Walnut, Poppy Seed and Raisin would be made. Trays of Kipfels with assorted fillings, Prune, Apricot, nut, and cheese would be made before the baking was finally done. All of the family cooking pots, roasters, and cookie tins were filled with cookies. We had a stairway leading up to an unheated attic. Every step held two pots, or roasters. The cookies would keep fresh till they were made into gift platters for our neighbors, and friends.

Grandma Sehne, Tante Betty and cousin Bill, Great Tante Miller, and my family always spent Christmas Eve together. As a child I could never quite figure out why Santa would first bring presents for me to Tante Betty, and then come to my house and leave presents for my cousin Bill. And he had not left any gifts for me yet!

While we were eating, Santa came and left quietly. His gifts would just appear. They were just there! How exciting and filled with promise those brightly wrapped gifts were. A little child's ironing board and iron. When the iron was plugged in it gave off a strange smell I was never comfortable with as I washed and ironed my dolls clothes. The best gift I ever remember receiving was that Christmas. A heavy long box, many hands helping me to tear off the wrapping and open the box.

There before me was the most beautiful doll. Nothing like this doll had ever been seen or touched before. The body and arms and legs of the doll were made of life-like soft padded latex rubber. The whole doll felt like a real baby. It was the latest in doll manufacturing. Not the usual doll of paper mache and plaster that melted in the rain. This doll could be washed, she could cry and her real eyelashes eyes opened and closed. She had beautiful curly hair like I knew I would never have even after an hour of sitting under a heavy contraption with long snake like electric cords attached to my hair. Here was a doll to hold and love, to feel softly nestled in my arms. After Christmas Day the precious doll was put back in her box and stored on top of my parents closet shelf, to save it for a time when I was a little older and would take care of it better. I cried, but like most children I soon forgot about the doll. Out of sight, out of mind. For a while.

One day, many months after that strange Christmas day, a box was discovered on the top shelf of my parents closet. That dark closet, where the sun never shines, but the heat is stifling, finally yielded its treasure. The forgotten box was brought down and opened. We recoiled in horror with cries of disbelief. There in the box what had once been beautiful was now corrupt and decayed. The lifelike flesh had rotted in the heat of the closet, the latex was in a state of entropy. What was soft was now gummy and split with the cotton padding oozing out. The little fingers were cracking and falling off. Her head was incorruptible. It was made of mache and glue. No harm. Her violet eyes still opened and closed. She still emitted her plaintive cry. Her hair still curly. We all bore the scars of that unfortunate occurrence. What was found was lost again in anguish.

The doll was sent off to a doll hospital. When she finally was released to my care, she was a different person. Gone was the real skin softness, and in it place was a body of grey cloth stuffed with cotton, her new arms and legs and head attached to stumps of grey body with twists of wire. She stilled cried that plaintiff cry and it mingled with my cry as I saw what they did to her. I held her close to me. We were a sober pair. I treated her with love and care.

My doll still survives today sixty years later. Like me she is old, without much hair, one eye is permanently crossed, her fingers and toes are broken and chipped, she does not cry anymore. But she is a survivor and I love her. We are a pair. "


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