The Holly and the Ivy: Stories and Lessons from the Christmases of our Elders

When I started brainstorming for a Christmas blog, one of the ideas that came to me would be to talk to our loved ones and elders. We are all descendants of immigrants, and within our office we have parents from Italy and grandparents from Russia, Ireland and Nova Scotia. Learning about the diverse traditions of our loved ones seemed really interesting to me.

Knowing that our grandparents were all children of the depression, in addition to the ever-changing nature of how we celebrate Christmas, I knew the stories would paint pictures of Christmases drastically different than the ones me or my parents have known. I also knew that some of them would be tinged with quite some sadness.

After collecting these stories, I thought about scrapping this blog as some of the stories were hard to hear, and I only imagine, even harder to tell. I decided to publish it however, as the glimpse that these stories give into the childhood of some of our elders seemed too significant not to share.

We think of Christmas as a tree decorated with ornaments and lights. The bright and excited eyes of children as they look at a seemingly endless pile of presents spilling out from underneath the tree. A day surrounded by love, warmth and family. Perhaps we only know some of these joys because of the price our grandparents paid for them. Not materially, but paid with determination, hard work and perseverance to give their children the things that they couldn’t have in their own childhood.

So, I share these stories, because maybe we shouldn’t take the contemporary Christmas that we know and love today for granted. Perhaps by learning more about the lives of our elders and loved ones we can all have a little more gratitude for the life that our elders built for us.


Anne, 101 years old, child of Russian immigrants (Modern Day Belarus)

Together with her sister and parents, Anne grew up active in the Russian Orthodox Church. Growing up in the early 20th century, Christmas was very much only a religious holiday for her. There was no presence of decorations and no gift-giving. She observed Christmas on January 7th, in accordance with the calendar of the Orthodox Church. Christmas Day for her meant going to church with her family and enjoying the traditional Russian meal her mother would make.


Francis, 89, child of Irish immigrants

Frank grew up in Boston, the 3rd youngest of 8 children- he was only the 3rd of his 8 siblings to be born in the US. His Christmases were profoundly affected by the death of his father when Frank was only 2. Together with his mother and siblings they did the best they could at Christmas. His mother would decorate by lighting candles in the windows. Every year a charitable organization would deliver 1 gift to the family. Frank and his siblings would delight in the gift and all take turns playing with it. To this day he can still hear the laughter of his siblings as they shared the gift and the smoothness of the dice in his hand from the board game they received one year. Christmas was simple, but surrounded by his family and full of love.


Barbara, 89, child of French speaking immigrants from Nova Scotia

Barbara grew up north of Boston. Together with her father and younger sisters, she was fortunate enough to grow up right next to her grandparents, who showered her with warmth and love and were quick to wipe away her tears when the French teacher at school made fun of her accent when she spoke French (being French Canadian, it was the language she had spoken since birth.)  Around Christmas, Barbara and her siblings would decorate the small tree that her father would bring home. On Christmas day, Barbara and her sisters would receive 1 gift each. Her grandmother would make a roast dinner and the family would sit down together to eat.


Rosa, grew up in Sicily, Italy

Rosa grew up in Italy. Christmas for her began on December 13th, when her family would put the Nativity set up. They would put tangerines around it to serve as gifts for Jesus. Christmas eve started when Rosa and her family would have the 7 fishes, the traditional Italian meal eaten on that day. They would then go to midnight mass. After mass, a statue of baby Jesus was paraded around the streets by the Priest and others in the community. Christmas meant family around the table, a large meal filled with many courses and a Panettone cake for dessert. There were no gifts, but the day was filled with family, laughter and food. Christmas extended all way too little Christmas on January 6th when la Befana would visit.


4 people, 4 very different experiences of Christmas. None of them filled with piles of presents or Santa Claus, but all filled family, love and warmth. Christmas isn’t static, it changes as we change. The individuals who shared their Christmas stories with me went on to survive the depression, live through the second world war and created a life for their children that changed how we experience many aspects of our lives, not just Christmas.

So Merry Christmas, and thank you to the elders who helped build the life that we know and are able to enjoy today.


*All stories shared with the permission of the individual and/or their family.

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