For the past week or so our Sievers Facebook friends have seen a series of posts featuring the childhood rememberances of Christmas from Walter Schutz. Walter was born in 1900 and grew up in Milwaukee on Holton Street, about three blocks from the Milwaukee River. He had a remarkable memory, going back to his very early years. Sharing excerpts (and the illustrations of Marguerite Jewell) from his book, It Was Fun Being Young, is one way of weaving a thread of traditions from the early 1900’s through today. Through December we’ll be sharing more of Walter’s Christmas and New Year’s memories on our Facebook page.
He writes, “It was only a week or two before the 25th that children and their parents thought about and generally planned for the festivities. On a Saturday, parents would take their youngsters downtown to Gimbels, the Boston Store, or Chapmans, the elite place to shop. Schusters had a store only six blocks away, so I would get there more than once. All of these would have animated window displays and a lot of glitter. This limited exposure to the ‘goodies’ made a deep impression and no youngster would ever forget it. There were only a few places where Christmas trees could be purchased. In our neighborhood, it was Ellenbecker’s grocery store. The tree would appear Christmas Eve in all its glory, with white flickering candles, giving the front room a feeling of mystery and excitement. This was before non-drip candles so a big white sheet was spread out and pinned to the carpet. During the week when the candles were burning, someone was always present to watch the tree.”
“The ornaments for the tree were quite simple. Included were a number of wood turnings my father had made years ago of white holly, ebony, walnut and red cedar. They were in the shape of acorns, apples and pears; each turned on a lathe, some of which were gilded. I was told that at my parents’ first Christmas, my father fashioned one in the form of a walnut and in it he hid a diamond ring as a present to my mother. The tree stood in a square low frame stand made to look like a picket fence with corner posts. There was a small Santa Claus about 10″ high who stood below the tree right next to the trunk. His garment was soiled with dripping candle wax, a sort of badge attesting to his loyal and constant service to our family.”
“We also had cherry wax ornaments. They were made of two red or yellow balls with wire to be draped over a branch. It was considered great fun to try and pass them off to someone as original sugar treats. No one ever was fooled by this trick, but it was great fun pretending. The tree had garlands of pink popcorn or small, round colored sugar balls in white, green and pink. After Christmas was over, these garlands of colored candy balls were fun to eat. We would cut strings of them, ten to fifteen inches long, and pass the string through our teeth to peel off the candies. It was nice to take along a string or two and eat the candy on the way back to school after lunch.”
“About two weeks in advance, my mother began the cookie and cake baking ceremonies. She baked Pfeffernusse which had a distinctive clove and cinnamon flavor. She put the dough in a big brown bowl, covered it with a towel, and set it on top of the black walnut bookcase in the dining room. She also baked Lebkuchen, a very complicated recipe with a sugar-ice frosting and Springerle. All of these were delicious but were never touched until the 25th of December. Most of them became quite hard as the weeks passed and I remember placing a Pfeffernusse on my spoon and soaking it in my cup of coffee. In all of this and other Christmas baking, I remember one word: Hirschhorn Saltze, which must’ve been a seasoning.” (Looking for this, I came upon hirschhornsalz, or baker’s ammonia, used in German baking to make cookies extra-crisp.)
“Perhaps the highlight of the Christmas baking activity was the stollen my mother baked. It seemed to be a two-day process guarded by strict procedures. The stollen were made of yeast dough which would rise when placed close to the hot air of the furnace ducts. At a given time they would be slipped into the oven and almost at once the whole house would be filled with the aroma of cardamom and other spices and Christmas had arrived. In later years my wife Sophie was taught the ritual.”
Courtesy of Chris Spisla, we are sharing a German Christmas Stollen recipe with you. (The photo above show the result of my efforts.)
Café Selmarie’s Christmas Stollen Preparation time: 30 minutes; Soaking time: 12 hours or more; Rising time: 2-3 hours; Baking time: 40 minutes; Yield: 1 loaf, 16 slices
1 c. dark raisins
1/4 cup dark rum
1 1/2 Tablespoons active dry yeast (not quick-rising)
1/3 cup granulated sugar
1/2 cup whole milk, heated to lukewarm (105 to 115 degrees)
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
Grated rind (yellow part only) of 1/2 lemon
1/4 teaspoon each: almond extract, ground cardamom, grated nutmeg
1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, thoroughly softened
1/2 cup each: mixed chopped candied fruit, chopped almonds
1/4 cup finely diced citron
1/4 cup (1/2 stick) unsalted butter, melted
1 Tablespoon granulated sugar
1 1/2 Tablespoons confectioners’ sugar
- At least 12 hours before, mix raisins and rum in small bowl, cover and let stand at room temperature.
- Stir yeast and 2 teaspoons of the sugar into warm milk in bowl; let stand till foamy, 5 minutes. Mix flour, remaining sugar, salt, lemon rind, extract and spices in large bowl. Add yeast mixture, stirring to form a crumbly mass. With wooden spoon, stir in softened butter, forming soft dough. Turn out onto a floured surface; knead until smooth, about 5 minutes. Dough also can be made in a food processor.
- Put dough into large bowl, cover and rise in a warm spot until doubled in bulk, 2 to 3 hours.
- Heat oven to 325 degrees. Punch down down to remove air. Combine raisins, candied fruit, almonds, citron. Knead into dough.
- With rolling pin, roll dough to an oval, about 8- by 10-inches. To form the traditional stollen shape, make an indentation down the length of the dough, placing it slightly off center. Fold one long side over, so it overlaps by about two-thirds. Transfer to a greased baking sheet. Bake until golden, about 40 minutes.
- Carefully transfer stollen to wire rack. While warm, brush melted butter over and sprinkle with granulated sugar. When cool, sift confectioners’ sugar over top.
A couple of hints from Chris: “Use slivered almonds and soak them overnight in milk. This is an Oma trick that softens the almonds. Use the leftover milk to proof the yeast. I use chopped Door County dried cherries and dried apricots in place of the mixed chopped candied fruit.” And as to Pfeffernusse and Lebkuchen, “Lebkuchen – there are 2 schools on that, the soft kind and the hard kind. I have made the hard kind before. I like the soft kind better so I go out and buy my Lebkuchen this time of year. If you are lucky enough to live near an Aldi’s or World Market, they have really good Lebkuchen from Germany. The good stuff.” The same comments were shared about Pfeffernusse. The stollen recipe was printed in the Chicago Tribune about 25 years ago.
Walter wrote about his gifts as a young boy. “There was always a moderate exchange of gifts. For me, usually, I received some toy my father had made. One was a darling two-wheeled Irish cart with shafts to fit a play horse I had received the previous Christmas. The horse itself was about fourteen inches high so you can get the dimension of what the wagon was like. The horse was covered with actual horse hide in black and white. There was also an ornate railroad station to go along with a wind-up train, also received the previous year. “Santa was really my father”, Walter wrote. “He made an all-wood locomotive at least 20 inches long with spoke wheels, piston rods and other minute details. The entire engine was hollow and it was fun when he blew smoke from his pipe into the cabin to see it come out of the smokestack. Also, he made a farmer’s sleigh with separate front and rear runners. It could be taken apart, like a puzzle. It was about 18-20 inches long.”
“Other presents included clothing. I do not remember what my brother and sister received: I suppose I was too wrapped up in my own joyous world. A family joke that lasted for years was the gift my father always received, a clip-on tie. There were no shirts with collars at the time. Shirts had a collar band with a button in front and back which held the collar in place. When we were all dressed up for the Christmas meal, my father never wore a tie because he was certain there would be one for him under the Christmas tree. It never failed! The family bought all of its men’s clothing from Bert Bagley’s store on Third St. near North Ave. A week or so before Christmas, my brother went into the store and the clerk told him my sister had been in a few days before to buy him a tie. My brother discovered what the design was and bought an exact duplicate. On Christmas Eve, just before we were to get our gifts, my brother came to the table wearing the exact same tie that he was about to receive from my sister. It was funny to everyone except my sister and personally, I do not think it was a very nice thing to do.”
We’ll stop here for now. If you aren’t on Facebook, we’re certainly willing to continue the series here, too, just let us know and we’ll share more of Walter’s childhood remembrances very soon.Share Sievers with Friends...