Christmastime Memories

Residents Recall Food, Festivities and Fun

WHEELING — For many generations, memories of area Christmas celebrations center on food, festivities and fun.

Several family traditions and holiday recollections were shared Tuesday when Dr. David Javersak of Wheeling led a Neighborhood Nostalgia Series event for Lunch With Books at the Ohio County Public Library.

Javersak encouraged attendees to recount their memories of Christmas in the Ohio Valley. To get the holiday ball rolling, he recalled traditions from his childhood in Weirton, remembered Christmases with his children and revealed current activities with grandchildren.

“I remember shopping in Wheeling when it was so crowded you could hardly walk,” a woman said. “A high school frriend was the talking Christmas tree at L.S. Good.”

Javersak said free gift wrapping was offered at Stone & Thomas department store in Weirton where his mother worked for 25 years. An audience member sympathized with employees who worked in the gift wrapping station at Stone & Thomas in Wheeling. “Those poor kids worked long hours,” she said.

Attending Christmas parades in Wheeling and in other communities was mentioned frequently by audience members. Visiting Santa Claus also figured prominently in childhood, with Wheeling residents’ opinions divided equally as to the best location of Santa’s toyland — Stone & Thomas in downtown Wheeling or Cooey-Bentz Co. in South Wheeling.

A few lucky children were visited at home by Santa’s helpers and, in some instances, the guests’ appearances had interesting consequences.

One woman said that prior to the Jolly Elf’s annual visit to her home, she invited a neighbor girl to join them to prove the North Pole resident’s existence. Upon seeing Santa, the friend believed immediately. However, the hosting child recognized the man in the bright red suit and her illusion was ruined. She recalled, “My friend said, ‘There really is a Santa.’ She believed in Santa from then on, and he blew it for me.”

A man said his best memory as a child growing up on a farm was when his father and other brothers returned from milking the cows. “They’d say Santa had watered the reindeer in the trough,” he said.

Too many Santas can spoil the mood, as one man learned when his grandmother, dressed in a Santa suit, encountered a man in St. Nick’s garb. The female Santa was so startled that she punched the other Santa in the nose.

Knowing too much could be a hazard of the holidays. Another man said, “When I was 16, I knew where the presents were kept. I knew everything coming out from under the tree. It was the worst feeling ever.”

Decorating a Christmas tree prompted debates in days of yore over how tinfoil icicles should be distributed on the branches. One man described the conundrum: “Dad and I were non-professionals. Mom was a professional. Mom put the icicles on one by one. Dad and I threw them on.”

He added, “I had an electric train. I would put icicles across the tracks to see sparks.”

One man said his mother liked snow-flocked trees, but the odor of the flocking spray reminded him of the ether administered before his tonsillectomy.

In some families, the tree didn’t arrive until Christmas Eve, which proved to be another challenge for harried parents as they tried to assemble toys and decorate the tree after the children went to bed. One woman said, “Santa brought the tree. How terrible it was for my father.”

Javersak, though, offered an explanation for this practice. “Children should be asleep. They should never hear the language of fathers when screws are missing or toys don’t go together right,” he quipped.

An audience member said her father always opened the toys secretly in advance to make sure that the batteries were included and all of the parts could be assembled.

A Wheeling man said when he and his wife took their 1-month-old son, Chris, to a Christmas play, the girl portraying the Virgin Mary commandeered their infant and placed the real-life baby in the manger. Playing Jesus at such a tender age must have made an impression on the infant because he is a minister now.

Another Wheeling resident said she and her sisters always played angels in their church’s Christmas pageant. She said, “We borrowed our grandmother’s white stockings so everything was all white.”

The Ohio Valley’s diverse ethnic heritage led to many tasty traditions for area families.

A Wheeling woman said her grandmother from Czechoslovakia didn’t bake holiday goodies, but her Polish grandmother made delicious nut rolls and poppyseed rolls. She also appreciated her late mother-in-law’s “wonderful” fruitcake laced with whiskey.

Another participant related, “Mom made Dutch cake and Christmas bread with white icing and covered with candied fruit. I would take them (the candied pieces) off as fast as she could put them on.”

Others spoke of anise-flavored cookies featuring patterns made by special rolling pins and pizzelles in a variety of flavors. Javersak said his wife, Alice, will make several hundred pizzelles. “I will help. Any ones that she burns, I’ll eat,” he joked.

Following the tradition of observing St. Nicholas’ feast day on Dec. 6, area residents said, as children, they put their shoes out to have them filled with pennies overnight. A woman said her whole family placed their stockings on the bedpost for two weeks before Christmas; every night, their mother would put a treat — an orange or sugar-coated candies with creamy centers — or a practical gift such as a toothbrush in each stocking.

Audience members recalled civic groups’ Christmas parties where every child received a paper bag full of candy. Some of the events included prizes and cartoons.

Vintage photographs from the Ohio County Public Library’s archives offer a nostalgic glimpse of Christmas celebrations and wintertime scenes in Wheeling.