My Mom’s Christmas Tray

I have a confession to make. As a child I never understood why so many people hated fruitcake, or even why it was called “cake.” You see, my Mom’s fruitcake was more like candy. She got the recipe from a fancy restaurant somewhere, and it was pretty much pecans and candied fruit.

Every year, growing up in Tonti, our family Christmas tradition was that my parents would make the fruitcake and chocolate fudge. We had to make sure to save grocery bags (they were paper…) as the recipe specified that the fruitcake be baked on brown paper bags. My mom had a golden tray for serving the fruitcake as well as homemade fudge, and eventually, my dad’s snickerdoodles. She kept a supply of these treats in the freezer to pull out for company through the Christmas season. My mom also made wonderful Swedish tea rings.

I recently found my Mom’s golden tray again, and I can’t explain how happy I was to be reunited with it. This tray triggered lots of warm, family memories.

After Thanksgiving, my family would decorate for Christmas. My mom had decorations for the entire two-story house. I tried to hang onto ones with sentimental meaning. Unfortunately, the historical May 8th Derecho of Southern Illinois destroyed some. She used to make a oragami-style poinsettia and a geometric figure ornaments that were amazing. Some house decorations were framed greeting cards–others things people had made. We had a Holiday Closet. The guest bedroom had a big, old-fashioned closet (our home had been a boarding house in the 1800’s) where seasonal decorations and home-canned goods were stored.

Christmas Cards that our family received went into a painted wooden card holder that was the same kind my parents had bought for people as Christmas gifts the first year they were married. Believe it or not, their Anniversary was Christmas Eve. At the time, both were teaching, and that was when they could be off work. My brother and I had Christmas stockings that my Mom’s cousin made for us. Since we did not have a fireplace, and the wood burning stove would not have been a safe spot for them, they always hung on the handles of the pie safe in the dining room.

My dad took care of the outdoor decorations, and I loved to help. We would wrap red plastic ribbon around the white porch posts to resemble peppermint sticks–something I still prefer to do… The old school mutli-color large bulb stands of lights went on the porch and around the living room picture window. A plastic textured Rudolph, purchased from 4-H club fundraiser, was hung on the porch.

Eventually, we added the lighted nativity scene. My mom and I somehow managed to get this home from a trip to Olney. We hadn’t thought about it not fitting in the Granada. So, we had to take everything out of the box to squeeze the plastic figures into the car… I was able to hang onto it and use it several years. Things went downhill when Baby Jesus and Mary wouldn’t light up anymore. I was afraid people would think I was being disrespectful or protesting if only Joseph was illuminated…

Not only did we have a few lights, our family loved to visit light displays. Pretty much every year, we went to Ingraham’s display near Olney and Candy Cane Lane in West Frankfort. We often visited the light display in the Olney Park as well. When I was 7, I had Chicken Pox on Christmas. That was the year I remember visiting Our Lady of the Snows in Belleville.

Candy Cane Lane, West Frankfort

Shopping malls used to be a destination as much to see the Christmas decor as to shop. Every year, there used to be sparkly Christmas trees on the roof of the Centralia strip mall. Carbondale, Effingham, and Fairview Heights all had malls that were nicely decorated. My brother and I sometimes saw Santa Claus at a store, but we also used to go to Xenia when he came to town.

We visited lots of family at Christmastime. I think probably every Christmas Eve I can remember was at my aunt and uncle’s home in Goreville and eventually Marion. We usually visited with my Salem family on Christmas sometime after we had done the Christmas morning thing at home. I have many fond memories of these times. We ate wonderful food and often played board games or just joked around with cousins, aunts, and uncles. It may not have been on Christmas Day, but we also made the rounds to see family in Centralia, Cisne, and Kinmundy.

My kids have been fortunate to spend some Christmases playing with cousins when they were younger. Unfortunately, as people grow older and busier, we tend to lose some of that connection. I pray that you and your family are able to create and hold onto fond Christmas memories too.

A Taste of the 2018 Centralia Balloon Fest

This past weekend, my daughter, her friend, my brother, and I visited the 29th Annual Centralia Balloon Fest. Although there was still some humidity, the weather was much more comfortable than in some of the previous years.

People seemed to be enjoying the colorful balloons, bands, crafts, and food. Although we were not there early enough for the balloon races or car show, my daughter was able to capture some great video footage of the hot air balloons as they decorated Foundation Park. The glowing balloons at night were absolutely gorgeous–especially when their reflections were graced the water.

Video below by Kiersten Sullens:

Above: One of those Little Egypt pork shop sandwiches…

Above Photo Credit: Kiersten Sullens

Above–a bit of the craft fair.

Above–more of the craft fair.

Above: A hometown favorite, Country Bob’s

Below Photo Credit: Kiersten Sullens

Above Photo credit: Kiersten Sullens

Above: The Greek plate

Video below by Kiersten Sullens:

A Colorful Sky

Centralia Balloon Fest returns to Foundation Park this weekend, August 17-19, 2018. This is the 29th year for the annual event. Friday and Saturday nights will feature a balloon glow. Crafts, concessions, entertainment, and a car show also make up the event. Tethered balloon rides will be available. The event boasts over 35 hot air balloons. Additional information is available on the event’s Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/events/448467368916042/?ti=as

Strawberries and Memories

Strawberry Season is upon us in Southern Illinois, and it brings many sweet memories with it. Believe it or not strawberries were probably one of the few things that we did not grow on our family’s acre and three fourths in the country. (Gooseberries-check, rhubarb-check, asparagus-check, strawberries-uh, no?) So, we piled into the family car, Pacer or Granada, depending on the year, and went to a local u-pick farm. Often, this was a farm in the Farina, Dix, Kell, or Centralia area. The one by Farina was especially fun because we would stop at Frontier Village for a restroom break and to cool off. My brother and I looked forward to getting those those huge, old-fashioned colorful lollipops.

Once home with our berries, my parents and sometimes my grandma would prep and freeze them by the pint. As a special dessert, my mom would make some wonderful strawberry shortcake.

As unique as it may sound, our kitchen walls actually were covered in strawberry wallpaper. To top it off, a local grocery store sold Strawberry Shortcake (remember her and the dessert squad?) glasses that we would collect to use and display.

Seeing melting chocolate for fruits in grocery stores triggers memories of making chocolate covered strawberries in my dorm room at the Baptist Student Center at SIU-Carbondale. We had potable water, microwaves, and mini fridges. Life was good. My co-ed music fraternity often catered events on campus, and from what I recall, there was sometimes a need for chocolate covered strawberries… I continued making these in grad school too, when I lived in Lewis Park and had an actual kitchenette.

If you have an opportunity to get out and pick your own strawberries, especially as a family, try it at least once just to have that experience. It’s also nice for kids to be able to connect in their heads the process of food growing and making its way to the table. More importantly, family memories you create will last much longer than strawberry season.

Here are some places to contact about U-pick strawberries in Southern Illinois:

ALAHAMBRA

Reinhardt’s Berry Patch, 618-633-2888

BELLEVILLE

Eckert’s Country Store & Farm,

https://www.eckerts.com/belleville-farm

BUMCOMBE

Hallsberry Farms

https://www.facebook.com/Hallsberry-Farms-607311662746573/

CARLYLE

McConauchie Manor Farm

http://mcmanor.com/

CENTRALIA

Schwartz Farms

http://www.schwartzfruitfarm.com/m/

COBDEN

Blue Berry Hill Farm

COLLINSVILLE

W.J. Donahue Sunshine Farms

DIX

Schwartz Farms

http://www.schwartzfruitfarm.com/m/

KELL

Sager Farms

https://www.facebook.com/Sager-Farms-1338423922880064/

MILLSTADT

Eckert’s Country Store & Farm

https://www.eckerts.com/

MURPHYSBORO

McLaughlin Strawberry Farm

https://www.facebook.com/MclaughlinStrawberryFarm/

SIMS

Freelands Strawberries and Vegetables

https://www.facebook.com/FreelandsStrawberries/

ST. JACOB

Demange Farm

https://www.facebook.com/demangefamilyfarms/

Strackeljahn Farms

https://www.facebook.com/pages/Strackeljahn-Farms/126200920766900

WATERLOO

Stuckmeyers Plants & Produce

http://www.stuckmeyer-illinois.com/

WILLOW HILL

Rising Sun Family Farm

https://www.facebook.com/Rising-Sun-Family-Farm-663357053748679/