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Holidays can cost less but mean more: Ask Kitty

A reader asks Kitty: “What is the best way to scale back and still have a nice Christmas?” The answer is as true today as when Kitty was a little girl: Give from the heart.
/ Source: TODAY

One of the advantages of getting to age 85 (there are some, honest) is that there’s no longer as much to be embarrassed about. So I am not ashamed to say that I was touched — moved to tears, in fact — by many of the responses to my first column. There were questions and tips about staying afloat in challenging times (I’ll get to some of both in a moment), but there were also an amazing number of readers who e-mailed just to thank me for evoking memories of days gone by, and to share some of their own.

Helene G. of Collegeville, Pa., for example, recalled her mother telling her of raising chickens behind a row house in South Philly, plucking and cooking them after her father killed them. Don Meals of Burlington, Vt., remembered holiday meals in eastern Pennsylvania that included potatoes, onions and dried corn along with turkey and pies, but “not a trace of green to be seen,” because “you ate was available as locally in season” — an idea that has come back in the “locavore” movement, he points out. Kendra Capps of Gilbertsville, Ky., whose mother passed away over the summer, spoke fondly of her mom’s scratch turkey dressing and “light as air” rolls made with lard. And many other people wrote in just to offer generous words and encouragement. To all of you I can only say “thanks,” and add that I am truly humbled to have come into your homes for a moment.

Don’t name the turkey
But not everyone pines for the days of fresh poultry. Kathy Knebels of La Mesa, Calif., for one, is troubled by the killing of turkeys at this time of year. On that tender topic, Christine in Collinsville, Ill., remembered something her grandmother told her about growing up in Slovakia — how she learned never to name the animals that were likely to turn up on the dinner table!

Moving on to some questions, I’ll start with an easy one from Pat Ryan in Culpeper, Va., who asked where I arrived among my family’s 10 children. Smack in the middle, Pat: No. 5.

Another reader mentioned family photos circa 1929 and wondered why so many of them seem to show relatives posed around cars, as I and two of my brothers were in the picture in my previous column. That one’s easy, too: It’s probably because cars were still quite a novelty back then, at least where I grew up. There was never any traffic in the street, so we played games like Red Rover there without fear. And in the winter, the streets were perfect places for sledding, tobogganing, makeshift skiing on barrel staves or just skidding along in cardboard boxes.

Speaking of childhood winters, LaDonna Matney-Dowie in Waterbury, Conn., and Tina Creech in Columbus, Ga., both asked what Christmas was like when I was young. “In a time when children are used to getting so much, what is the best way to scale back and still have a nice Christmas?” Tina adds.

Giving from the heart
I was taught the answer to that question as a child, and it still holds as true as ever: Give from the heart. For example, homemade cookies or fudge (we were always making fudge when I was a girl) on an old but pretty plate can be at least as meaningful as something bought in a store. We also sent fudge to servicemen overseas when the war came — something that can be appreciated just as much today.

And homemade gifts don’t have to be edible. Back then, everyone learned to knit; I remember quilts, throws and beautifully made baby gifts. But you don’t have to be an expert to create something meaningful. Even an amateur can put a cheerful hem around a tablecloth, or make a holiday place mat out of inexpensive fabric. A plain scarf is just as warm as a fancy one — and the fact that it’s made by hand will warm your recipient’s heart as well as their neck.

My father was particularly deft at making holiday crafts out of whatever materials were at hand. In September he would start assembling a model village on a wooden platform: houses made from cigar boxes, streets from linoleum, a lake from a piece of mirror, windows of cellophane, cornices of yellow cornbread. He attached Christmas lights to the bottom of the platform and poked them up into the buildings to illuminate them. Grass, trees and other accessories came from crafts shops (many of the same things can be found online today); I think the most expensive part was the glue!

On the day after Christmas, it was an annual tradition for friends and neighbors to visit and see the tree and holiday decorations. For refreshments, they would be served my father’s homemade elderberry wine and my mother’s homemade fruitcake.

Fun and gamesWhich brings me to a question from Indiana Hurley (whose name I love) in West Covina, Calif., who says that most of her family members get together only once or twice a year. She asks if I have any suggestions for fun, inexpensive entertainment ideas “for a large group of adults during the holidays.”

Why not ask everyone to bring a game, Indiana? Sometimes the golden oldies are best: Charades gets everyone involved, but there’s also Categories, where people have to think of instances of a particular category (Wikipedia has the rules here), as well as board games like Scrabble and Trivial Pursuit.

The bottom line is, you don’t have to have a lot to have a merry Christmas. I cannot convey this simple fact half so eloquently as reader Elizabeth Vincent of Orange, Calif., a single mother who recently explained to her two children “how we will have much simpler holidays” since she was laid off from her job.

“The best memories,” she writes, “are made at home.”

Amen, Elizabeth — and happy holidays!

Kitty Schindler, who grew up one of 10 children of a Pennsylvania coal miner during the Depression, shares her perspectives on staying afloat during challenging times with readers. If you have a question for Kitty or a tip of your own to share, send her an e-mail! To Ask Kitty, click here.