The 12 Days of Our Hunky Christmas

After spending over 35 years as a retail manager, I have formed some rather strong opinions about the celebration of Christmas in the United States. Granted, I realize that I was party to the commercialization and the ensuing chaos that occurred with the change in everyone’s focus from “for-Christ and Family” to a “for-profit” mentality.

As I accumulated years of service in the retail industry, I began to become more and more cynical about Christmas. My chosen career path placed me in the heart of the action during the holiday season. It thrust me into a routine that was the complete opposite of what I grew up with. I think it would be considered a rare occurrence to actually experience a major cultural shift in values in a person’s lifetime. However, I believe that is what has actually occurred.

My Cousins during a visit at Christmas in 1960. L to R – Tim (T.J.) Stepetic, Joanne Carr and Lou Goldman – all Duquesne HS Grads

Whenever Mom prepared the Christmas menu, she would always prepare enough to feed an army. The large amount of food was necessary since every relative made their “rounds” during the days that followed Christmas day. When I was young, the spirit and celebration of Christmas extended well beyond December 25th. Families visited one another throughout the weeks that followed. Tradition steered the visits. The day after Christmas meant a visit to Aunt Rose and Uncle Sam, 2 days after meant Aunt Babs and Uncle Clell….and so on, up until the Epiphany on January 6th. During those evening soirees, every home set-up a beautiful holiday buffet for their guests to enjoy. Since the menu was virtually the same at every home, it came down to the either the buffet decorations or the subtle nuances of seasonings and ingredients that identified who had prepared the food. Aunt Mary’s stuffed cabbages were always larger than most and very hearty, Aunt Helen’s were perfectly formed little chunks of delight, while Aunt Jane would serve porcupine balls (the meat filling without a cabbage leaf wrapping) and kielbasa with the cabbage rolls.

This year, my wife and spent Christmas in the Philadelphia area with our two daughters, my son-in-law and my very first grandchild, Jackson! Seeing Jackson, at 5 months of age, delight with just crinkling up wrapping paper and exploring the many toys Santa brought him was worth the trip. It was a very special treat to be able to share his first Christmas with him.

Unfortunately, our trip only lasted a few days, and we made our return trip on the day after Christmas. I began thinking about one of the largest changes in the way we celebrate Christmas today versus our youth, specifically the length of the celebration. As I indicated above, when I was a boy our families continued to visit and celebrate for 12 days after Christmas. Trees kept their Christmas vigil in living rooms throughout Duquesne for the same time period. Outdoor decorations remained brightly lit as well. The spirit of giving also continued, and often the kids received presents at each and every relative they visited during the holidays. What an incredibly joyous time of year!

As we drove home yesterday after our two day visit to our daughters, it seemed that the plug was pulled on Christmas immediately. Radio stations that featured Christmas carols WAY too early reverted back to non-seasonal songs at the crack of dawn on the 26th. Christmas displays and the Holiday environment that had been created in every store, vanished overnight. Christmas merchandise was clumped together haphazardly with a 50% off sign slapped on it and bargain hungry shoppers ravaged the shelves. Store employees were dealing with people trying to return items and were demanding their money back. Arguments teemed and store managers tried their best to contain the anger and hysteria. To me, Christmas felt like one of those huge inflatable Christmas lawn ornaments that had the plug pulled. The sum total of most people’s Christmas spirit lay heaped in an unidentifiable pile of nylon in the middle of someone’s front yard.

Prior to the holidays, I did a great deal of research in the Duquesne Times. The emphasis on gift giving during the holidays was evident in issues surrounding Christmas, but for the most part it began with the issue published during the second week of December. The Duquesne City Bank’s ad announcing their Christmas Club Savings Plan for the upcoming year was usually the first evidence of the approaching holidays. From the turn of the century until the 1950’s, the Bank’s ad was always a presence in the paper.

When I think about how much has changed from my early days in retailing, I shake my head in disbelief. During the late 60’s, I worked at Gimbels in Eastland Mall. Although I worked in several departments initially, I eventually landed in the Camera Department. I recall that the Christmas shopping season and the Holiday advertising season was contained within the month of December. However, somewhere between then and now, the Christmas season was turned upside down. Stores began opening earlier and earlier each year. Opening an hour before regular store hours in December was about the extent of the “extra hours” at Eastland back in the 60’s, and that only happened one or two weeks prior to the 25th.

After the appearance of “Big Box” stores such as Walmart as part of the retail landscape, things dramatically changed…. probably forever. The length of time that stores were open got longer and longer. Advertising that dealt with Christmas began appearing weeks before Halloween. Stores were trimmed for Christmas as early as November 1st. As a General Manager or District Manager in retailing, I often had to deal with the complaints of people that dealt with the early set-ups of holiday. In my heart of hearts, I had to agree with them. As if the longer store hours wasn’t bad enough, now we are invited to begin our shopping at Midnight after Thanksgiving and continue all night. Is it me, or has this become completely maddening????

By the week after Christmas, stores will be complete stripped of any reference to Christmas. Any remaining items will be segregated to some obscure corner of the store and priced at 75% to 90% off. Valentine’s Day will hit us at every turn and the stores will be screaming “Summer’s Coming!” Of course, the fact that we are still facing the entire winter season doesn’t register anywhere. Oh, for those good ol’ Duquesne days!

With all of that said, I am committed to enjoying the holidays until January 6th , even if it is just Judy and I. I intend to continue to consume mass quantities of Christmas cookies, cheese balls and kielbasa. My Christmas tree will remain standing, my outside decorations will remain lit and I vow to continue to wish people “Happy Holidays” until the 6th of January. To me it isn’t a chore to do so….. it’s a pleasure!! So, to all my friends who are reading this…. HAPPY HOLIDAYS! And in true hunky spirit… play it forward!

This entry was posted in Christmas Memories, Food and Restaurants, Stores and Businesses. Bookmark the permalink.

27 Responses to The 12 Days of Our Hunky Christmas

  1. Ronna Lubich says:

    My great grandparents ran a boardinghouse for coal miners who had immigrated from Eastern Europe, and each Christmas, my great grandmother celebrated the 12 Days of Hunky Christmas. She made the best nut strudel! I thought all the kids I grew up with celebrated Christmas in this manner, and that all of their families spoke a different language! But as it turned out, only my family and the few immigrants from the coal camp celebrated in this fashion.
    I’m grown now, and all of my great grandparents and grandparents are gone, but the memories from my special childhood live through me.

  2. Darleen Pirl Yuna says:

    Oh for the good old days when we enjoyed each other and the holidays slowly.

  3. Jack schalk says:

    Jim,
    Your retail experiences are similar to mine. I opened 3 of my own stores over a 2 year span because bigger must be better, right?
    It was great working with the public during the off seasons but come Christmas, it all fell apart.
    It just became too hectic and went against my grain for giving someone the best merchandise at a fair price. I took 9 years of this and then sold the stores and really was ecstatic about it. I was free at last.

    Tom Lane,
    We also bought our trees next to the Hill Top but sometimes the GBU had them for sale and that was our place of preference, or rather my Dads! I can remember our first aluminum tree. It was an abomination of sight and smell.

    Barry Long,
    I too visited the Isadores and later worked for them in the store or delivering grocery orders. Did you ever slip down those front steps of their home because of ice. I can still feel every thump.

    • Tom Lane says:

      Yes, I remember the GBU also. I vaguely remember you. I was Judy’s little brother. Never had an aluminum tree.

      • Jack schalk says:

        I remember Judy but unfortunately not many of the younger crowd as I was considerably older than you then (class of ’54).
        Anyhow, we both came to Indiana! I’m in South Bend and live at the edge of the Notre Dame campus.

    • Barry Long says:

      Jack: No i can’t ever remember slipping & falling down their front steps leading up from Kennedy Ave; Possibly they gave you the same thing they gave my father???

      • Jack schalk says:

        You’re a year older than I am Barry, so if they gave you goodies that’s what I would have received too.
        Did you ever give thought to the fact that the passengers that you were flying all over the world could possibly include a couple of Dukes?

  4. Barry Long says:

    Reading of all the food has made me hungry & I can smell some of the cooking with a waft of coffee in the background. My son’s family puts up as many decorations & lights at Halloween as they do for Xmas. Thanksgiving & Easter has many interior decorations as does the 4th of July? I think shopping for decorations is indicative of the retail ads for merchandising & T.V. commercials. When I was a child in the 40’s,I enjoyed visiting all the neighbors & merchants with my Dad. He was always offered a drink while I got some nut or poppy-seed roll, cookies or cake with milk. Going to the Isadore’s house on Kennedy & Friendship St; was unforgettable because they always gave me a big silver .50cent piece. Once I went to Margaret’s Store on Wilmot St; & bought a Gene Autry 6 shooter cap pistol & was given 25cents change which took me & my sister to the Plaza Show Movie & bought a penny pretzel to share on the way home. I loved visiting them. Isadore’s was always the last visit & it was easy to steer Dad downhill to our house on Grant Ave. No Happy Holidays from me. It is a” MERRY XMAS & HAPPY NEW YEAR “to you all.Always has been & always will be. In Hawaii you say Happy New Year the next time you see a friend after 1 Jan; if it’s mid Feb; or later you still say it to show you remember you haven’t seen then for so long & it was before the end of the year when you did. Jim, you do a good service. Thank you or Mahalo!

  5. Tom Lane says:

    I had forgotten all those visits to the family and friends and all the different trees they had. Remember the first of the “artificial” trees made of aluminum? Every relative had a different kind. Here is a question. Do you remember where you bought your live tree? I remember that little space beside the Hilltop Dairy that used to sell trees. Others?

  6. Joanne Graham Wazny says:

    Thanks for these memories, Jim. We were of German descent so we celebrated St Nicholas day Dec 6 by hanging socks which were filled with candy while we slept. We always kept our tree up until Jan 6 which also was my parents anniversary. Christmas was truly a 12 day celebration as we visited a different aunt and uncle each evening sharing meals and favorite Christmas goodies. The adults would always end up playing cards while the kids played with the toys Santa had brought. Soda was not found in our homes while I was growing up, but for Christmas, my parents would buy a case or two of “pop” for the kids. Christmas morning after mass at St Joe’s, we would visit my mom’s (Lithuanian) friend and have pierogi, bolbalki, and sauerkraut mushroom soup which was leftover from their Christmas Eve dinner. I married into a Polish/Czech family, so we continue that Christmas Eve tradition. We were so fortunate to be blessed with these experiences.

  7. Michael Bashista says:

    As always Jim, Thank You for sharing your memories with us. I hope that you had a very Merry Christmas and look forward to a Happy New Year.
    I remember and loved all that extended days of Christmas as we had to keep the tree and decorations up thru the Orthodox Christmas [from my mother’s side]. We, along with my daughter and a few of the neighbors also keep the tree and decorations up at least thru New Years.
    The obligatory visit to all the friends and family in the days after Christmas was another highlight of the holiday Besides all our Duquesne relatives we had to make the rounds to West Mifflin, Whitaker, Munhall, Dravosburg, Lincoln Place, Homestead, as well as White Oak and Mckeesport. The vast majority of our dining was pretty much Slovak/Hunky foods with the exception of one aunt that added Italian to our menu and one cousin who married a German girl.
    Now we get a bit more international with some Slovak and English/Scotch/Irish [my wife] foods, my daughter makes Romanian dishes for her husband, her neighbor is Polish and a very close friend is Italian. Next year, if my grandson is still dating his current girlfriend, we will add Croation to the mix. Oh and we do have in-law connections here that do real Southern foods for Christmas.
    This year we also got an extra special treat for Christmas – our newest grand daughter, born on 12/16. It was really fun watching her “big sister” [2 3/4 y.o.] taking charge and opening both her own presents and those for her new sister. Even holding them up so the baby would be sure to ‘see’ what Santa brought for her. They really do make Christmas special again!!
    I’m also sadden to see how distorted the holidays have become due to retail marketing. Labor Day barely appears and Thanksgiving sales start to appear and before Thanksgiving plans are really even made the Christmas marketing begins. It makes focusing on a single holiday very difficult. Rudeness, which used to be humorously attributed to New Yorkers, seems to have become more the norm when trying to shop at any of the holiday sales, especially on Black Friday. Don’t stand in the way of any of the bargain crazed shoppers or it may even escalate to violence. It’s sad to see how “family” holidays like Easter, Thanksgiving, and Christmas [as well as my Valentines Day birthday] have become more about retail sales than family and friends enjoying and sharing. Oh for those “old days”. Hopefully we can still try to pass on the true meaning of these holidays to our children and grand children and keep many of the traditions alive for more generations to enjoy.

    MERRY CHRISTMAS AND HAPPY NEW YEARS to all!

    • Jim says:

      Very well said Mike. Here’s wishing you and your entire family and extended family a very Happy New Year! (I think I hear Guy Lombardo in the background!) – Jim

  8. Harold West says:

    The times have changed. Very few people have relatives in the same town let alone state anymore. Keeping up to date with relatives by phone, e-mail, facebook or skype is just not the same as sharing a meal and spending time with them. Your posts help me remember some of the things we have lost.

  9. Jennifer Legler says:

    Yesterday, my husband and I, who live in Northern VA, visited a family friend, about 45 minutes away and shared lunch at her home with her 5 year old and her senior Dad. It was like old days- chatting, eating, drinking wine, enjoying the 5 year old’s energy. It was such a throw back to just taking a day to “visit” and when we drove her Dad home we had an improptu visit to his new aparment, chatted and toasted the holiday, again. I felt sad last eve when I realized that was the extent of the 12 days of Christmas. Sad. Sharyn: my Mom also made a great Butter Bean dish often served with pork or ham. We call it “Lituanian Butter Beans.”

  10. Irene Milasincic says:

    I enjoyed your thoughts and concur with them. I was brought up Byzantine Catholic and as a teen, I sang in the church choir. The highlight of the season was going from house to house of the parishioners and singing Christmas carols in Slovak (?) and English. We were greeted by the folks in the homes ever so warmly. Happy, Happy time! Christos rozdajetsja! Slavavite jeho! (Don’t know about the spelling any more.) Blessed Christmas to all who grew up in such wonderful towns. Mine was McKeesport!

  11. Lou A. says:

    Well said, Jim. I, too, have seen commercialism destroy this beautiful Holy-Day. I’ve been behind the cash register at Christmas for almost 40 years now, and it does make you want to scream STOP. During my tenure with REVCO,(remember them?), stores were actually told to begin ‘undecorating’ at NOON ON CHRISTMAS EVE…. My best years were when I owned my own Shoppe: No Black Friday, no Extended Hours, No pushing, shoving, long lines, etc… If I couldn’t make it the first eleven months, no amount of hard sell would appear in December; just tasteful decorations, candles in the frosted windows, free gift wrapping of a box of chocolates or a stuffed animal, carrying a child’s credit on a gift for Mom until they did a few “chores for Dad” and absolutely no ‘Happy Holidays’ as a greeting. Ahh, the good old days. MERRY CHRISTMAS EVERYONE.
    ps- today’s only the 3rd day – “three French hens”

  12. Alice Harris says:

    Nice to read this post 🙂
    I worked at Zayre in Olympia when I was in college. Your pic with the open door and customers rushing in is very reminiscent. Christmas sales started after Thanksgiving then. The crowds formed outside for Christmas sales were huge and packed to the door. They would barely move to let me in, it was that fierce to hold your spot. My Aunt worked at Gimbel’s, so I remember that well, too.

    I was born on Orthodox New Year, so our Christmas celebrations were always longer lasting than most. Our family felt really blessed to have a New Year’s baby born to them. Although not in my control as to when I was born, I have always felt blessed to give them that joy. Our live tree was picked out by the whole family in the week before Christmas and put up to enjoy on Christmas eve December 24 and not taken down until January 15. Presents were under the tree, but none opened until early Christmas morning after Santa came with the rest. Christmas day was split between two Grandma’s homes .. one in Mt. Oliver (evening) and the other in Turtle Creek (early afternoon), where all of their children and families gathered to enjoy the others company, exchange present, and enjoy Christmas dinner together.

    The week before Christmas was spent baking holiday cookies .. dipped chocolate cherry balls, buckeyes, cut sugar cookies, 7 layer, cold dough apricot and nut, russian tea cookies, pizzelle, etc. etc were all favourites. The holiday ham and all to go with it was shopped for then, too. The house was decorated with a million lights. The focus of our Christmas was always family and especially children. It was a great time for us kids we never forget.

  13. Claudia Repko Misage says:

    Thank you for telling everyone about celebrating the Christmas Holidays. Yes it begins on Christmas and ends with Three Kings Day. Actually that is the twelve days of Christmas. That is when all the visiting and eating and exchanging gifts went on with the aunts and uncles and cousins. AHHHHH remembering all the good times visiting them, and yes we did leave Duquesne Place for I had and still have cousins on Maryland Ave. We actually went all the way over the bridge to visit more aunts and uncles in MeKeesport. I do believe that is as far as we traveled visiting everyone.
    I would like to thank you a thousand times over and over for starting this wonderful site regarding Duquesne. You made many, many people happy including myself by doing this.
    Have a very happy and healthy New Year to you and your family and to all those that read this
    God Bless !!!! Love, Claudia XXX OOO

  14. Kat Nolder says:

    I so agree with you. I miss the real Christmas season. i also work in the retail part of the world and it seems money and profit is more pressing than the spirit of the Christmas. I will continue to visit my family thru the Christmas season, between my job and theirs it is hard to make quality family time. The memories that we share and new ones created, will be a precious gift I receive every year. Glad I grew up in the good times of life.

  15. Tom McLaughlin says:

    Jim,
    Merry Christmas and HAppyNew Year!!

    I know you are younger than I, and sometimes do not completely relate to all that you post. But from time to time you come up with something that ties us together beyond just being from Duquesne, I was in Joanne;s class and knew of Tim. Also, the pictures of the swim team connected. Finally, I knew most of the people in the Little League photos…in fact, forwarded the link to a few of them.\

    Keep up the good mork

    Tom McLaughlin

  16. Sharyn Kelley Manns says:

    You wrote(beautifully) exactly what I was thinking!! Didn’t know others in Duquesne did the same that my mom’s family(Zubers) did…they were Russian Orthadox & we moved from one house to another till Russian Christmas. My Aunt Helen’s chelegi & apricot stars were the best, Aunt Mary’s stuffed cabbage(ponnekapusta), and my Mum had to be different with a butter bean & ham casserole. What a great time we had, and what a great time & place to grow up in.

    • Diane says:

      Sharyn,
      Do you have your Aunt Helen’s recipe for chelegi? My Aunt Flo used to make them but she has passed away. Have been looking for recipe!

      • Sharyn Kelley Manns says:

        I gave up trying to make them yrs. ago, but can get it from her daughter-inlaw. Will post as soon as I do.

      • Claudia Repko Misage says:

        Hi Diane and Sharyn,
        I was reading your mail and do you mean the dough thing where you cut a slit with a knife in the middle and pull one end of the square through and make a bow and then deep fry them and then put powdered sugar on them?????? If you woud like I have two recipes one from my mom and one from my Slovak-American cook book. If interested let me know and I will gladly share. Have a good day, Claudia

      • Sharyn Kelley Manns says:

        That’s it! Please post those if you can. Thanks.

      • Claudia Repko Misage says:

        Hi,– Here is one recipe for Ceregi 7 1/2 C flour, 2 1/2 t baking powder, 1 1/2 t baking soda, 1/2 lb.butter softened, 1 C sugar, mix well together. 6 eggs, 1/4 pt sour cream, 1/2 qt. buttermilk,
        1t vanilla, beat these then add egg mixture into the flour mix. Dough will be very soft. make 4 to 6 balls and put in the frig. overnight. Next day roll and cut into squares make slit in center and pull one end through. Fry in oil until light brown, drain, and sprinkle with powdered sugar.

        The other one from the Slovak cookbook is 1/2 pt sour cream, 1 can milk, 6 beaten eggs, 1t salt,
        1/2 C sugar, 1/2t baking soda, 3t baking powder, 2t vanilla, 1/2 stick softened butter and enough flour to make soft dough. Roll out dough about 1/8 in thick, cut dough in small squares,make a cut with knife in center and draw one end of square through this to make a bow. Fry in deep oil. Drain and dust with powdered sugar.

        Now I have made the first recipe but really got tired making then into the bows so with at least half of the dough left I added chopped fresh peeled apples and made the rest into apple fritters. The family went crazy with these also. Someone told me besides the apples you could also do bananas
        fritters. Maybe I will try these next time I get in the mood. Good Luck, Claudia

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