This Is What Christmas Was Like for Martha Growing Up

There were handmade gifts, hundreds of cookies, and a classic fruitcake recipe passed down by their German neighbors.

When our founder was a child, in a middle class family of eight living in Nutley, New Jersey, Christmas was the most intensely celebrated holiday. "We baked; we cooked; we decorated with boughs and artificial snow," recalled Martha in her Remembering column from the December 2001 issue of Living. "We always stayed at home, surrounded by our family, lots of relatives, many friends, and modest gifts." In the months leading up to December, the family would spend the time crafting gifts for one another: a hand-smocked pinafore for the baby, a hand-knit scarf for Father, and handmade dolls' dresses. "Frugality, although inspired by lack of funds, never left us needy," she said in 2001. "Mother and Father encouraged us to be inventive, industrious."

The Kostyra children were encouraged to join the Nutley Savings Bank Christmas Club; as a result of their savings, each of them had anywhere from $25 to $50 to spend on gifts for the rest of the family. "I deposited babysitting earnings into my account every week so that I could buy my mother and father something special," said Martha in 2001, "and I spent whatever was left on 'ingredients' to make my siblings unusual presents, using a recently acquired skill: knitting, crocheting, tatting, weaving, sewing, pottery-making." One year, she spent almost half of her savings on fine cashmere wool to make a scarf for her father. "I knitted a really beautiful, complicated pattern in taupe, and he was so happy when he wrapped it around his neck," she said in 2001. "Unhappily, the first time he wore the scarf—to a business meeting—he left it somewhere, losing it forever."

Sweets and treats were, of course, always part of the holiday. "We would bake hundreds of many kinds of cookies, and Mother would make dozens of cakes—babkas, fruitcakes, and stollen," said Martha in her Remembering column from the December 2003 issue of Living. They would be packaged in cellophane, recycled tins, and paper boxes, then wrapped in festive papers and ribbons with bits of holly and evergreen plucked from the backyard. "We all enjoyed the art of gift making and giving," she added, "and I especially loved the delivery of the gifts to all the recipients, who really seemed to enjoy receiving presents that were homemade and handcrafted."

martha stewart hanging christmas ornaments
Christopher Baker

One of her favorites—even to this day—was a fruitcake made by their neighbors, Mr. and Mrs. Maus', old German recipe. "When we originally baked those cakes, Mother and I used whatever containers we had collected during the year—old, wide coffee cans were best, just the right size," said Martha in December 2000. "Later on, I baked the same recipe in beautiful, shapely kugel molds; after I turned them out, I studded the tops with perfect candied cherries and apricots and dates, and covered them with apricot-jam glaze."

Like many families, the Kostyras chose a Christmas tree together every year. "One year, we decided to cut down the enormous blue spruce in our front yard, convinced that the top would make the best of all our trees," Martha recalled in 2001. "It was much, much too large, and it dwarfed our living room; the yard always looked barren afterward. But we laughed at our mistake."

But trimming the tree was all part of the magnificent décor meticulously placed around the home. "We had some vintage Christmas ornaments, large German glass orbs painted with beautiful flowers and sparkling with glass glitter," as Martha described in 2001. "We had real tinsel—thin shards of tinplated lead that hung heavily on the tips of our tree's branches." They also decorated with conical metal 'trees' that turned with the help of small electric motors and a glass tree topper that made any tree beneath it resemble the onion domes of Russian churches. "My favorite collectible was the crèche that Aunt Clemy had given us, rescued from one of the estates she represented at the storage warehouse where she worked," Martha recalled in 2001. "It was small as crèches go, but old and charming." Made of some sort of wood and composite material, she described it as a roofed three-sided manger with trees and populated by figures of Mary, Joseph, the Baby Jesus, the three wise men, two shepherds, as well as various barnyard animals.

"We still laugh. We remember. And we follow the traditions established by our grandparents," she added in 2001, "all the while, creating our own golden moments that our children, and their children, will recall with joy in years to come."

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