Sonje Zeitler, of St. Michael, was born on Christmas Eve, but her birthday has never been lost in an otherwise busy season. Instead, having a Christmas birthday has made a festive season even more special.
Sonje Zeitler is shown with only a few of her Santas by Possible Dreams. The collection started in the 1990s, and she now has approximately 60 of the Clothtique Santas that were given as gifts. It’s a labor of love when they are unwrapped each year and set around the family room. Photo by Jennie Zeitler
“I don’t think I thought of it, growing up,” she said. “My parents never even put up the Christmas tree until I went to bed.”
It’s true that Christmas was celebrated differently then. “People decorated and put trees up, but not like now,” she added.
But Sonje’s birthday gifts were always wrapped with birthday paper. She remembers that her aunt always sent a birthday present wrapped especially for her birthday, along with Christmas gifts.
Preparations for Christmas became woven together with the anticipation of her birthday. Sonje’s mother always baked traditional Norwegian holiday treats: sandbakkels, rosettes, krumkake, lefse and yulekake.
“Mom always liked to cook, and she cooked like crazy for the holidays,” Sonje said. “On Christmas Eve, she always made red cabbage, Danish meatballs and mashed potatoes.”
Once Sonje and her husband, Fraine, married and their four children came along, the family established their own Christmas traditions. One of the first new traditions was a knitted Christmas stocking for each member of the family.
“Mom had someone knit the stockings,” said Sonje. “The kids received the stockings for their first Christmas, and later, I knit stockings to match for Fraine and me.”
During Fraine’s 30-year career in the Air Force, the family added other traditions as they moved around the country and overseas.
One Christmas early on in Duluth, Fraine had to work Christmas Day, which didn’t allow time to go home. It was their first Christmas alone together.
“That’s the best Christmas we ever had,” Sonje recalls. “I remember painting my old cupboard for Beckie and trying to put a metal garage together for John.”
For a number of years, the family had an old cardboard fireplace that was set up every new place they moved. It’s a tradition that began that Christmas in Duluth when the kids were concerned that Santa wouldn’t come because there was no fireplace.
When the children were small, they learned to anticipate Christmas with an Advent wreath, learning about the spiritual preparation of the season. They were given their first Advent wreath and a devotion booklet during their first assignment in Montgomery, Ala.
“Christmas was always a big deal as the kids got older, but I don’t think I decorated that much when the kids were little,” said Sonje. “The decorating didn’t happen until later when Fraine became a commander.”
As they entertained more, the decorating also increased. “First, it was towels in the kitchen,” Sonje said. “Then I found fabric for curtains.”
In the early 1980s, she started making Christmas quilts for all the beds. She used Christmas sheets to make shower curtains and added holiday rugs and other décor. As the quarters where they lived got larger, a second Christmas tree was added. The living room tree has white lights and angel ornaments, and the tree in the family room has colored lights and mostly Santa ornaments. One set of quarters, in San Antonio, Texas, was large enough to feature three Christmas trees, including one upstairs near the bedrooms.
During an assignment to Okinawa, Sonje knit stockings for the four members of a young family who stayed with them over the holiday. As the grandchildren began arriving a few years later, each of them received a hand-knit stocking from their grandmother.
While stationed in Wichita Falls, Texas, the Zeitlers began putting out luminaries along the front sidewalk on Christmas Eve.
“It was a Texas tradition we thought was interesting,” Sonje said. “By that time, I had accumulated a lot of Christmas things. You can’t go out and buy all that stuff at once.”
In the 1990s she began collecting Santas, starting with three ceramic figures. “Then fabric Santas came out, and I like those better,” she said.
There are now four full foot lockers packed with approximately 60 Clothtique Santas by Possible Dreams, tucked in bubble wrap. It’s a labor of love when they are unwrapped each year and set around the family room.
The Christmas decorations also include more than 40 Danish Christmas plates by Bing and Grondahl.
“After dad retired and my parents went to Denmark, they visited the Bing and Grondahl factory and signed us up for the annual plates,” Sonje said. “Years later, Fraine took over. He also got me a plate for 1938, when I was born and for 1958, when we were married.”
When it’s time to decorate the living room, everything hanging on the walls is removed, and framed cross-stitched pieces done by Sonje’s mother are hung.
As the grandchildren grew up, a new Christmas breakfast tradition was started. The menu now features Danish aebelskiver. They are pancake balls that are dipped in powdered sugar or applesauce.
Holiday tables are set with Hearts and Pines china, a (now discontinued) Norwegian Christmas pattern by Porsgrund.
“Everyone knew what to give me at Christmas,” said Sonje. “There are 16 place settings! We use it from Thanksgiving through February, because it has the hearts too.”
To gather as many family members as possible to celebrate Sonje’s birthday now, they meet at a local Mexican restaurant at noon on Christmas Eve, so that she doesn’t have to cook.
Although Sonje and Fraine downsized when they moved to St. Michael in 2004, all of these precious Christmas things still come out every year to fill the house with Christmas spirit and decades of heartwarming memories.
It was only a few years ago, after her mother’s death, that Sonje discovered the telegram her father sent to his family on that Christmas Eve when she was born, announcing his joy. It now hangs proudly on the wall nestled among the other Christmas treasures.