Peoria, Tazewell, And Woodford: Here, There & Everywhere

Christmas Traditions

Mike Foster, Metamora, Illinois:

“On Dec. 24, I will awaken surprised by joy and think a thanksgiving prayer for my father Claude S. Foster, who would have been 107 years old today had he not died in 1976.

Back on Dec. 12, Jo and Martha decked the halls with Buddy Holly, listening to a souvenir of our first Christmas together in 1969, The Beach Boys Christmas Album.

Following that, we hit “SHUFFLE ALL” on the CD player and enjoyed Nutcracker Suites by Duke Ellington and The Modern Mandolin Quartet, and many other Yule discs, including ones by Dan Fogelberg, the Ray Coniff Singers, Phil Spector’s crew, Brian Setzer Orchestra, Nightnoise, Liz Story, Louis Armstrong, and Emmylou Harris.

Not even Ray Charles can redeem “The Little Drummer Boy.”

We’ve feasted our ears on these since.

The new LED lights that son-in-law Frankie recommended are brilliant, especially the blues.

“They kind of scar your retinas, don’t they?” Jo just said.

Every ornament is a memory.

I write this beneath the light of the Christmas tree, decorated with the story of our 45 years as a family: souvenirs of Zermatt, Vancouver, Canterbury, Cooperstown, New Orleans, Mesa Verde, Paris, San Francisco; the gold ear of corn; the tiny barn from 1980 when we bought this farm-house; a harp, a drum, a fiddle, a gilded quarter note; ancient fragile fish and Santa ornaments; assorted Disneys, Peanuts, Campbell Soup kids, Frodo Baggins, and herald angels.

That posh purple velvet queen Elizabeth II crown? The Tower of London.

That chubby Mexican cherub? Zihuantanejo in 2008.

That RCMP mountie? British Columbia.

That golden spray-painted wreath of elbow macaroni? Daughter Megan, during her early days at Metamora Grade School.

The cinematically correct Peter Pan, Cinderella, Frodo? Our totem film characters.

That shiny golden ear of corn, the red dairy barn, the privy illuminated within by a blazing blue light? Foster’s Farm history.

The wee viola, the tiny Fender and Rickenbacker guitars, the golden quarter-note? Our life in music.

The many Peanuts ormalumps? Martha.

The Chicago Cubs Yule wreath, glass globe, Santa with a nissing bat (that figures), Cubby teddy bear? Do you have to ask? Why? What’s it to you?

The brittle thin glass tea pots and grape clusters? Jo’s family heirlooms.

The Christmas crèche from my Peoria home, 2636 N. Prospect Rd., is up on the stereo console in the east parlor window, where the blonde Mary and the ginger-haired Joseph adore the baby savior as does a manger-displaced ox. The Nazarenes’ ass looks on, as does the Magi’s noncommittal camel. The ruddy shepherd kneels to on the northern side, all but one of his sheep long lost. Casper, Melchior and Balthazar march up bearing gifts of gold, frankincense, and bitter myrrh, all of them watched over by an angel with a broken left wing.

Outside, fat sparrows flock at the feeder like the shepherds, lambs, Magi, ox and ass around our 1952 creche.

Jo’s fifteen Dickens houses and shops and tiny characters perch atop the western wall’s tall bookcase.

Although we remember many midnight Masses, this year we three Fosters will attend St. Mary of Lourdes at 9 a.m. on Christmas morning, where lector Jo will read the lessons Isaiah 52:7-10, Psalm 98:1-6, Hebrew 1:1-6. Then we will hear the first chapter of the gospel of St. John, verses 1-16: “In principio erat verbum…”

When my parents were alive, we used to go to their home for steaks with mushrooms, twice-baked potatoes, and so on. Then on Christmas morning, we four and faithful dog Billy, who once ate all the popcorn off the strings he could reach on our tree, would drive up to Milwaukee to Jo’s folks’ house for turkey, gravy, mashed potatoes, ham, and fresh Polish sausage sloshed down with Andeker beer and maybe a wee dram of Christian Brothers brandy.

In 1973, we gave all four parents a gift envelope. Within it was a card saying “This entitles you a second grandchild next July.”

And this Christmas day, we’ll visit that child, Megan Foster Campbell, her husband Frank, and our  two grand-daughters Madeleine Grace, 8, and Emma Claire, 4, for spiral-sliced ham, potato casserole with gruyere cheese, leeks, onions, vin chaud before the meal, assorted wines with, and Jo’s mom’s cheesecake after.

On Christmas Eve here, we three, Jo, daughter Martha, and I’ll dine on lobster tails or steak or, this year, rare-ish lamb chops..

Then we three will each give one another a kiss of Christmas and go up to bed.

And abed, Jo and I will exchange “I love you”s.

Then I’ll silently repeat Dylan’s final words:

“I said a few words to the close and holy darkness. And then I slept.”

Christmas Wreaths  -1

Joanne Weslowski Foster, Metamora, Illinois:

“When I was a child, Christmas was special because our home was the center of the universe.  Our extended family had a strict ritual of revolving celebrations: Thanksgiving at my grandma Clara, Christmas at our house, New Year’s Day at my Aunt Sylvia’s, and the nebulous extra Sunday holiday around March 8 when both my dad and his mother had the same birthday at my grandma Ella’s home. Turkey was served at each of these.

The prep for our house would begin with my dad dismantling my bedroom so it could be converted into a dining room.  He built a square-shaped extension for the kitchen table that fitted over the top so that it could accommodate the extra family members. When I was very young, my mother would sleep on the couch, and I would bunk with my dad so that mama could get an early start on the turkey. When I got older, I was bumped to the couch, but that was great because the Christmas lights would be on. We always opened our presents on Christmas Eve so the day itself began with going to Mass and then eating all day.

The eating itself was done in two shifts with the men going first and the women and children next. This worked well because the men chowed down quickly and left, but the women spent more time talking and picking at the bones. The big clean up would follow and then the prep for the evening meal, highlighted by ham and kielbasa.

Because we opened gifts on Christmas Eve so that it didn’t interfere with going to morning Mass. No midnight ritual for us because my mother had to cook that meal.  When I was very young, Santa would come to the house. That’s right, the man himself and no fake beard either. I came to a sudden realization on the existence of Santa when I noticed he was wearing my Uncle Clem’s work shoes. That and my parents, Santa and his driver going into the bathroom with a bottle of brandy and some glasses. Years later, it was explained that my bachelor Uncle Clem would get professionally made up, wear a costume (except for the shoes), and visit the homes of relatives and friends to drop off presents.

As Mike has described above, once we married and moved to Illinois, our Christmas days would have us opening gifts in our own home and then madly packing to make the trip to Milwaukee and my parents’ house. It was a great day for the almost four-hour drive—no semis and everyone in a good mood. We’d arrived around 4 p.m with my parents, aunt Terri, uncle Frankie, uncle Clem, and cousins Mary and Steve already celebrating. Since we were eating later, my mother no longer had the dawn wake-up time. We’d open some presents then and eat just one overwhelming meal. Then we’d spend the week in Milwaukee visiting more family and friends. It was wonderful.”

Timothy Gura, Pittsboro, North Carolina:

“Part of finding where one belongs entails knowing where one doesn’t  belong—and that awareness grew more certain for me during my high school and college years.  My parents and one sibling lived in Peoria, so Christmas meant I was there, too.  These were not hard-candy Christmases, by any means, and resourceful people make the best of most challenges—but it was clearer and clearer to me that I must spend as much time as possible elsewhere.

Christmas Eve always provided one respite: midnight mass at the Cathedral.  I started going with my parents early in high school—when you don’t go anywhere with your parents—but as soon as I got wheels, I went alone or with friends.

Part of the appeal was that it started late—although the Mass didn’t begin until 11 pm, you had to be seated by 10:30, or you would stand for the night.  Part of the appeal was being able to wear something that may have been opened earlier that night.  Part of the appeal was the spectacle of the Cathedral appareled in high Christmas mode.

But mostly it was the music!  The choir shamed our parish choir; a brass quartet amplified the organ; the music was rich and strange.

The Rev. Patrick Collins was a showman at heart, and besides using the “Hallelujah Chorus” as the traditional recessional, he would combine the familiar (Jimmy Maloof singing “O Holy Night”) with the baroque or high romantic: I discovered Buxtehude one year and rediscovered Handel on several other years.

All these components quickly dispelled the typically mundane, pedestrian sermon. If you listened closely to the choir and the Couri sisters (who had real voices) sailing easily above the others, you could be certain for a few hours that you were far, far from Peoria, Illinois and maybe could find a real dwelling place at the intersection of music and light and color and poetry.”

Tom Burson, Rochester Minnesota:

“In 1954 on Garfield, the Burson Brigade ([his mother] Dixie’s term) got into the 1947 maroon Dodge coupe and drove off to midnight Mass.

All seven of us fit in that one small car and for a few years that was our “Christmas tradition.”

We came home, ate Canadian bacon and eggs, and opened our presents.

Today we started a new tradition at [Rochester’s] Evangel Church. We lit candles to curse the darkness very much like the Christophers. The longest day service had beautiful harp music, a few Christmas hymns, and much light.

From a child of the light.”

Tom Connor, San Carlos, California:

“I don’t know if they are classified as ‘traditions’ but several things are special to my family at this time of year:

Gathering as a family, with as many relatives as possible, is something that we try to do every year.  In the past, this often meant a 400-mile drive to the home of my wife Helen’s parents. This eight-hour sojourn has, at times, been on Christmas Eve evening, and at least once on Christmas Day, as we waited to see if a sick child would be well enough to travel.

We were always rewarded with a feast and leftovers that would last for days. Helen’s mom was an extraordinary cook, preparing many Filipino dishes as well as traditional American fare.  Besides Lumpia, Adobo and Pancit, there would be roasted chicken, roast beef, baked ham, crab in coconut milk, and large succulent shrimp along with several side dishes.

Sometimes a roast suckling pig would be the centerpiece. Helen’s parents were at the center of a large Filipino community, and the guests at these feasts included not only relatives but also numerous friends from the area. Many brought desserts. Nobody left hungry, and everyone usually left with a food package from the table.

Nothing complements a great feast like music and singing. My family includes many talented musicians. We all love to sing, and the Christmas feast is always followed by many impromptu performances by young and old alike around the grand piano.

Around this time of year, my wife creates what has become an annual newsletter. As it became easier with Adobe software to achieve the results she wanted, these turned into photo essays, sometimes running to several pages. Our kids’ friends whose images often appear in said newsletter, sometimes ask, “Is there going to be another Christmas newsletter this year?”  We now have a collection of 15 years or more of these family newsletters.

And the Tree!

The results are always different and somehow always similar. What makes it special for me are the homemade ornaments, those precious objects created by our children: The jar lid with a kindergarten picture and glitter. The styrofoam bell covered with sequins and initials. The large wad of folded paper shaped lovingly into a pear by tiny hands.  These are irreplaceable as the 100-year-old glass-blown ornament that has been in the family forever (we don’t really have one, but you might).  When we bring these treasures out of storage each year, I’m reminded of a few lines from “Little Tree” by e.e. cummings.

‘look the spangles / that sleep all the year in a dark box /dreaming of being taken out and allowed to shine, / the balls the chains red and gold the fluffy threads, / put up your little arms / and i’ll give them all to you to hold.’

Merry Christmas”


Laura Schmidt, the Marion E. Wade Center, Wheaton, Illinois:

“Christmas is a time where I think about God’s gift of us through the person of Jesus: the greatest ‘True Myth’ of them all. I enjoy spending Christmas with my family, eating lots of wonderful food, and resting. This year will see the addition of a golden retriever puppy who has already brought great joy to our family.”

Christine Wallbom, Pekin, Illinois:

“We maneuver through the month of December. Between nine-week tests and final exams, we mail off the Christmas cards, put up the tree, and thank baby Jesus for Amazon Prime. Feast with the family enjoying Reed’s cooking, gift exchanges and wild snorts of laughter. Abandoning dishes and crumpled wrapping paper, we feel so grateful for the love of family.”

Diana Cannon Hovey, Morton, Illinois:

“My grandfather, R.I. Fry, generated a bit of excitement in the air the Christmas eve I was four years old.  Loud noises on Christmas Eve and grandpa’s prodding sent us racing to the backdoor of my grandparents’ old two-story home in Grayville, Illinois. Grandpa said that my cousin Ramona and I should be on the lookout in the sky over the rooftop for Santa Claus. We couldn’t find him or his sleigh anywhere.

When we returned to the living room, large and small presents were all around the Christmas Tree and the multi-colored lights seemed brighter.  Ramona and I were in awe!  I received a doll that was as tall as I was.  We sang “O Come, All Ye Faithful” and “Silent Night”.  My sister wasn’t born yet.

Years later, when I was ten and she was five, we would get the same gifts on Christmas eve, including our banana-seated lavender Sting Ray bicycles. Then we went to church for Christmas Eve service to celebrate “the reason for the season”, Jesus. Dad loved for us to have some prime rib on Christmas Day to add Christmas cheer to the egg nog. Brandon [Hovey] and Grant tell us stories of Christmases long ago. We pull out some pictures of Jennifer, Chris and the whole family.

Dale and I love adding the new tradition of joining Brandon’s wife’s family for a wonderful meal at their home and a midnight Christmas eve service where all of our favorite carols are sung.  Once again we raise our voices in praise for the glorious gift of Christmas, our Savior, Jesus the Christ, King of Kings and Lord of Lords. How much sweeter to celebrate with the close proximity of family and friends.”

Christmas Wreaths  -1

Christopher Hovey, Peoria, Illinois:

” Growing up, Christmas was split between my mother’s household in East Peoria and my father’s house. Christmas eve was usually a production of last-minute gift wrapping accompanied by Air Supply’s Christmas album, of which my mother was very fond, Anne Murray and the Carpenters. I also have warm memories of Mannheim Steamroller playing in the background as we finished the gift wrapping in front of a warm fireplace festooned with our hanging stockings. Kimmy, our Siamese cat, was usually guarding the Christmas tree and hiding from me, lest I pull on her tail like I often did as a toddler. My sister, Jennifer, and I were usually in bed by 9 p.m. We were eager to wake for Santa at the first crack of dawn in the morning.

Upon waking, Jennifer and I would race to the living room and sometimes catch a glimpse of a bright cardinal outside the window in the tall hedge blanked with snow. She would start passing out the presents to the chairs around the living room where my mother, grandmother, aunt, uncle and I would be sitting. Together, we would go to each of our family members to get them out of bed for they were not as enthusiastic to wake as my sister and I that early in the morning.
Next, my mother would turn on the old Bunn automatic drip coffee maker and to my merriment, Christmas morning gift opening was officially off to a start. One of my fondest Christmas gift memories was that of a Wilesco D455 miniature steam engine. It is still the most magical, memorable Christmas gift that I recall. I remember pouring water into the small boiler for the first time and lighting the small dry fuel pellets. After several minutes, a quick spin of the flywheel and the small engine purred to life. After I mastered the operation of the engine, it would run as smoothly as an old Singer sewing machine. This same German-made model is available today and may be seen at the following link:

While my family opened the gifts, my mother or grandmother would place a sausage and egg casserole into the oven to bake. By the time we were finished unwrapping the gifts, it was ready to be eaten. Never has there been a more holy trinity than sausage, egg and cheese baked together for a Christmas brunch. Much to my delight, the sausage in the recipe would later change to bacon. The more intensely flavored bacon takes up less space, which leaves more room for egg, bread crumbs and cheese. Sometimes, my mother would let me have a mimosa—after which, I felt like a king.

Later on in the day, after much conversation, music, fun and frivolity, the festivities would continue into the night in the form of a large Christmas dinner of either roast beef or turkey. Sometimes my sister and I would go to our father’s house to celebrate afterward, or we celebrated Christmas Eve or the day after Christmas with him and the fun would start all over again.”

Jon Davis, Lusby, Maryland:

“Once upon a time we had Christmas traditions: Christmas eve eating basil pesto, opening presents from family; Christmas day having candy for breakfast from the stocking and seeing how Santa did.

Now we have 16 people in the house those two days. So we have a new tradition: chaos. Everyone talking with everyone and doing what they consider appropriate for Christmas. Ain’t it wonderful?”

Jan Long, Wauwatosa Wisconsin:

“Growing up, in my family, the Christmas festivities absolutely could not start until we played the Ray Conniff Singers album, ‘We Wish You a Merry Christmas.” Once we plopped that record on mom’s Magnavox stereo, we would deck the halls.

We traditionally opened our gifts on Christmas Eve and in fact my family still does so. This began due to my dad’s odd work schedule back then. Christmas Day was reserved for visiting our relatives. By the way, my mom’s Magnavox still works. And Ray Conniff sounds as good as ever.”

Avis Moffatt, Edmonton, Alberta, Canada

“It was a tradition for everyone in our house to hang up their stocking on Christmas Eve so Santa could fill it with goodies. However, times were so tough leading into the Depression that my dad decided Santa would not be able to leave anything for him.  Nevertheless we urged him to hang his stocking too.
Four expectant children were tucked into their beds.

Early on Christmas morning, we woke up, ran to our stockings, excited to reveal small toys, oranges and a few Christmas candies in each one.

But when dad reached into his, to our horror, he withdrew a lump of coal!

I can still feel the disappointment for him.

I don’t think he realized how this little joke would affect me and how I would recall it at this time every year.

Rest in peace, dear dad”

Peggy Schneider, Ottawa, Illinois:

“As a youngster, my Christmas would always begin a week or two before the Big Day with a plastic figure about 18 inches high and nearly as old as I was. Dressed in a red suit with white trim, red pointed hat tipped with a white pom-pom, and holding a candy cane (not-especially appetizing-looking but well meant in the spirit), his face wrinkled in a jolly smile. This lighted figurine of Santa signaled a magical time was coming.

We didn’t decorate outdoors in those days before the big Festival of Lights push in East Peoria, and the lighted tree and this Santa glowing from two windows in our house welcomed the season. I glance as I write this to the shelf where he has taken a place of honor in my own display that now has grown to include dozens of similar lights of sleighs, snowmen, carolers, shepherds, angels and other Santas, and I feel my parents close and know that they are looking down on me as this little Santa is. When I plug him in, he still glows, still smiles, still makes me feel warm and loved inside, and reminds me of a little house in the woods where I began. You never forget your first, whether it’s love, home, or a Christmas decoration.”


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This entry was posted on December 24, 2014 by in Mike Foster, Reflections and tagged , , , , .
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