It all started the night I arrived in my hometown of Marengo, Illinois. The house was warm and cozy, a fire burned in the fireplace, and I dragged my ridiculous amount of luggage into the house. In my defense, most of it was Christmas presents and knitting material for the few projects I hadn’t completed yet. It was December 23rd. Two of my best friends came over that night to sit by the tree and drink hot chocolate, catching each other up on the events in our lives and laughing together like the old days. We exchanged gifts with each other and two of my hand-knit pieces were given to their new owners: a scarf/shawlette for Missy and a cowl for Caitlyn. After that relaxing evening spent with friends, the days leading up to the holiday were filled with activity. Amid the hustle and bustle of getting the house ready for guests and baking batch upon batch of Christmas cookies, my hands were hardly ever still; in any free moment I had I was knitting. I’ll admit that I had thoughts of serious doubt as to whether I would finish what I needed to. And then the panic would catch up to me and I started to scold myself for taking on more than I could handle. But I calmed down quickly enough and moved my needles a little bit faster.
On Christmas Eve, my immediate family in Marengo sat down together and opened our presents with the Christmas tree shining and the fireplace blazing in the background. When it was time for them to open my hand-knit items I became more excited than if I was opening a gift for myself. A hat for my brother-in-law (knit in Winona State colors since he is an alum as well), a cowl for my sister (something she can wear to keep warm or to accessorize), a nice warm wool cowl for my mom, and a pair of socks (my first handmade socks) for my stepdad. I was so proud of all my pieces, but I couldn’t stop smiling when Mook (strange name, I know, but it’s a childhood nickname that has stuck) opened his present and saw his socks. Since I started working at Yarnology almost two years ago, Mook has been teasing me and asking me why I haven’t knit him any socks. Well, he got his wish. Knit two-at-a-time from the toe up, they’re soft and beautiful in shades of green and brown with some red thrown in. I really enjoyed making them and showed them off as much as I could to my friends at Yarnology. But when they learned that they were not intended for me they gave me a look like I was crazy. “You mean you’re giving these AWAY?” Yes, and I couldn’t be happier about it. :-)
Christmas morning started early and saw my family once again in the kitchen preparing for the crowd of people that would be coming to the house midday. Mook’s family, the Kundes make up about half of Marengo and it was our turn to host the annual Christmas lunch. Mook is from a family of nine kids who all have kids; he’s one of the youngest, so most of his nieces and nephews have children as well. To be brief, somewhere between forty and fifty people came over to celebrate, eat, open presents, and play games. Though it was a job to keep everything going smoothly, it was beyond worth it to have cousins, aunts, and uncles wherever you look enjoying the day and being together. The party lasted until evening and drew to a close with coffee, cookies, and a few of Mook’s siblings sitting around telling stories about their childhood in rural Marengo. We fell into bed a few hours later, exhausted but happy with the success of the day.
Alright, so that’s two Christmases down, three to go. On the evening of the 26th, Mook and I drove the half hour to Crystal Lake where one of my uncles on my mom’s side lives. It was time for the Driver family Christmas, a large group, but not even close to the amount of people from the day before. Jill and Nathan met us there, but my mom had to stay home. She started fevering early in the day and wasn’t up for going. We later found out that she had the flu. Not really what you want to get over the Christmas holiday. We did what we could to make her feel better and took on the responsibilities of food and presents that had to be transported for the party. It was a fun time even though we were missing my mom and my cousin Sarah. My sister and I are extremely close to our cousins, having grown up with them living only ten minutes away. I have no younger siblings, but they make up for that and I love them like they were my little sisters and brothers. When we get together there’s always good food, good drinks (we tried something called a Jack Frost Margarita and it was delicious!), and plenty of noise. After the presents were opened and thank-you’s were said, most of us migrated to the basement where we had some rousing games of Catch Phrase. By the second game we usually end up shouting out answers, jumping up and down, and screaming when the buzzer goes off. Whether or not it’s traditional, we’re definitely not afraid to have fun. :-)
I had a few days between my Illinois Christmases and the one I would have up in Sparta Wisconsin with my dad and stepmom and that side of the family. On Saturday morning, the 29th of December, I hurried north to my waiting family to celebrate a belated yet joyful Christmas. My dad and stepmom, Erynn live in a large brick house built shortly after the Civil War. As I drove up the street it greeted me with electric candles burning brightly in the windows, the sun glinting off of icicles, and cheery looking pine branches adorning the pillars on the front porch. This house radiates tradition and it dresses up quite nicely for the Christmas season. After dropping off some luggage, hugging my parents, and having a much needed cup of coffee after my drive, I headed to my Oma’s house where my aunt, uncle, and cousins were staying. Like on my mom’s side of the family, I am very close with my cousins Lisa and Erik; so close, in fact that I call Lisa’s two children my niece and nephew and they, in turn call my sister and I Tante Jill and Jenn (the German title for aunt). As I walked through my grandmother’s front door I was hit with memories of childhood and of past Christmases gathered in my Oma and Opa’s old house in Illinois. Many of the old decorations were up, the miniature Christmas village in the living room, the Santas cross-stitched and sew together by my Oma, the scenes from old Christmas cards painstakingly cut out and glued to pieces of wood by my Opa years ago. And many pairs of eyes looked up as I walked in, voices calling out hello. But my gaze fell on the empty red arm chair, my Opa’s arm chair and I took a deep breath remembering that he would not be with us to celebrate this year. This was our first Christmas without him and though the busy nature of our holiday together distracted us, I believe we all had our moments of missing him and again feeling the loss that his death brought to our family. It hit me again a few months ago when I was making my list of what Christmas presents to make and give away this year. I felt like I was missing someone and suddenly realized it was my Opa. I’ve come to terms with his passing, but that doesn’t make missing him any easier.When our dinner of ham, red cabbage, mashed potatoes, and green bean casserole was over, we gathered around Oma’s living room to open presents. I was lucky enough to get some amazing gifts, most of them book themed, but there were also some really creative homemade gifts and a donation in my name to the Great River Shakespeare Festival, one of my absolute favorite organizations. I love all of my presents, but I was most excited to watch as one by one my family members opened their knitted gifts from me. A pair of mittens for my Oma and Tante Margie, a hat for Onkle Joe, music themed mittens and fingerless mitts for Erik and Lisa, a scarf for Lisa’s husband Adam, a hand-knit dress for my niece Lena, and some knitted animals for my nephew Carl. Though I really try to be modest, I do love when my family exclaims over their gifts; it makes everything worth it just knowing that they appreciate the hard work and the thought that went into them. Lisa right away put Lena in her dress, though it’s a little big and will fit her much better next fall, and Carl grabbed his dog and cow (part of a farm set that I will be adding to on other holidays), cuddling them and giving them names. These things are what I remember when, in the months to come I will start making next year’s gifts, and even though I swore to myself they would be less challenging, less personalized, less complicated they probably won't be. I love the feeling of giving someone something special. Something that has meaning.
Last night I concluded my Christmas giving with two pairs of slippers for my dad and Erynn. The five of us, my sister and Nate included, gathered together in our library of a living room and exchanged presents once again. This year almost all of the gifts to each other were handmade (with the exception of a few books and a new set of flannel sheets for me that I’m way too excited about :D), and it gave the holiday a wholesome, homey feel. We sipped tea, talked and laughed until the whining of our dog Dervla convinced us to join her in the kitchen. It was a lovely way to end the holidays and to remind me that Christmas isn’t just a day, it is a frame of mind. It exists whenever we are together with family and friends, remembering those who have gone before us, and sharing our love and appreciation for the birth of Christ. To quote Muppet’s Christmas Carol, “It’s true, wherever we find love it feels like Christmas”.