CRANBERRY TWP — Christmas often causes people to reflect on special times they had during past Christmases. Some memories revolve around gifts, family events or even holiday food. Visitors at a brunch Nov. 16 at the Cranberry Township Senior Center recalled some of their childhood Christmas memories. Clifford Sawyer of Cranberry recalled Christmases in the 1920s and 1930s, when he would sneak downstairs on Christmas Eve and witness his parents placing brightly wrapped gifts under the tree. Sawyer said while it removed some of the mystery of the holiday, it still was an exciting time. Sawyer received exclusively useful gifts such as socks and clothing, but he recalled one year getting a toy train with a small, circular track. After retrieving the traditional apple and orange from his stocking, his family would sit down to a stuffed chicken dinner with all the trimmings. Friends and relatives then would begin arriving at the Sawyer home to celebrate the season. Bob Haefner of Cranberry grew up on his grandfather's farm in Wexford, which was a sparsely populated rural community at that time. Because his father supported a wife and eight children on a salary of $9 a week from working at the family farm, the Haefners did not celebrate Christmas. “We were too poor,” Haefner said. He said he remembers feeling envious of other children who gathered with their families around a Christmas tree, but he understood that his parents could not afford to buy presents or even a turkey dinner. To illustrate the poverty that Haefner endured, he talked about a recollection of his mother altering colored feed sacks from his grandfather's feed store into short pants for her sons to wear. “Mine said 'full of pep' right across the back,” Haefner said. “Boy did the other kids make fun of me for that.”
Katherine Calabrace grew up in Latrobe in a family of Yugoslavian background. Her family always visited her grandmother on Christmas Eve, where the nearby firefighters dressed up as Santa Claus and distributed small gifts to her and her excited peers.
Her Italian grandmother always had an assortment of fresh ethnic goodies available in her aromatic house.
The family went back home to celebrate Christmas Day, where she would find an apple, orange and dime in her stocking.
Because Yugoslavians did not trade gifts on Christmas, her mother gave $10 to the little children and $20 to older children.
“That was a lot of money back then,” Calabrace said. “I also remember my father saying Christmas isn't for giving, it's for being with family.”
In addition to a chicken dinner, her mother prepared traditional Yugoslavian treats such as nut, poppy seed and cheese rolls.
Anna Plut of Cranberry also recalls being desperately poor as a child and never expecting a Christmas tree, a gift exchange, stockings hung on the mantle, or a special dinner.
Her Croatian family did attend midnight Mass, and one of her brothers was required to go next door to the elderly neighbor's house and wish the woman a Merry Christmas.
But Plut does not lament her childhood because she understood that her immigrant parents were simply unable to afford the items needed for a Christmas celebration.
“It taught me to be thrifty,” Plut said. “My friends go to these casinos, and I say 'I would rather put a sweater on my back than put my money in a slot.'”
Jack Goddard of New Sewickley, Beaver County, also grew up on a farm and watched his parents struggle with money.
He said his father would do work for a neighbor, who would give him an old, rusty wagon or other toy, which he would fix up and paint for Goddard's Christmas gift.
Goddard recalled one Christmas when he found a special gift under the tree: a little white kitten sitting on a pillow.
“I think I called it Fluffy; I can't remember,” Goddard said.
The family Christmas tree was adorned in homemade ornaments, and Goddard recalled using actual socks as stockings.
“I would look for Dad's biggest sock,” he said. “My little brother was spoiled rotten, and he would get one of Mom's nylons.”
His sock would normally contain an apple, orange and hard tack candy. Gifts under the tree would include board games, coloring books, a yo-yo, or a set of marbles.
After opening presents, he and his siblings would go outside for a bobsled ride.
Carol Fornadel of New Sewickley said her steelworker father took her and her sister to the Christmas party at the union hall in Ambridge each year.
At home on Christmas morning, Fornadel would unwrap a handful of small gifts that could include a coloring book or a school-related item.
In her stocking she would find candy and small toys such as a set of jacks, pencils or crayons.
Fornadel smiled as she recalled opening a porcelain doll from her mother each year. But she and her sister were not allowed to play with the dolls, which were quickly stored under her mother's bed in their boxes.
The sisters were occasionally permitted to lay the dolls on their mother's bed and gaze at them, but they could not touch them.
“Those were her dolls she never had as a child,” Fornadel said with an understanding smile.
Christmas Eve was an exciting family and culinary affair for Fornadel, who recalled going to her grandmother's house each year. She remembers reveling in the gathering of her extended family and the happy environment it produced.
Once around the table, the family followed the Eastern European tradition of tasting each of seven fish dishes.
“We had to eat a little of each dish, including pickled herring,” Fornadel said. “There was also prune soup.”
She said everyone received one gift at Grandma's, with the adult women getting a new scarf or hanky and the men getting socks or handkerchiefs.
Fordadel also recalled a winter wonderland outside every year.
“Now you hope for snow on Christmas,” she said. “There was always snow back then.”