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Families find unusual, often comical ways to honor traditions

By GEORGETTE BRAUN | Rockford (Ill.) Register Star

Mention Christmas traditions, and visions of gingerbread cookies and candlelight church services surface for many Americans.

For these four families, the holiday wraps around uncommon multigenerational customs that define their celebrations:

A scary Santa that reappears year after year, a squeeze box player who pumps the accordion to "Silent Night," Christmas cards that are returned to their senders, dollar-store gifts that are bid for, and gifts that are showered on the oldest family member.

Pulling a gag: The disfigured Santa

When Julie Kerestes was about 6-years-old, she circled a few toys in a catalog that she wanted from Santa.

One, a $5 Barbie-sized Santa doll with a friendly, jolly look, found its way under the tree.

When Julie opened the package, though, Santa's face was slightly smashed, his jacket didn't fit and his white plastic boot had fallen off, exposing a wooden stump.

"She was so frightened of it, I hid it in the closet," said her mother, Dorothy Kerestes, 65.

A few years later, Julie encountered Santa's peg leg in the closet. She was still chilled by the grotesque figure and stayed away.

When Julie was in high school in Rockford, Ill., her mom thought it was time to play a joke on her daughter's old fears. She stuck Santa in Julie's cheerleading gym bag.

"I wasn't scared of it anymore," says Julie, who is now 37, married to Jonathan Bastian, and living in Lexington, Ky., with their children, Marissa, 7, and Cameron, 6.

"And after that element of surprise, I was like, 'Awwwww, Mom!'"

Over the years, Santa has appeared around the Christmas holiday in other unexpected places:

Julie's coat sleeve, for example.

Julie has turned the tables on her mom, too, putting Santa in Dorothy's underwear drawer.

Last year, Dorothy mailed Santa to Julie's home in a beautifully wrapped box.

"It's been almost 20 years, and I still don't know how it gets by me and I'm still surprised," Julie says.

Dorothy plans to start a new gag tradition with her daughter-in-law, Doreen Kerestes, 38, of Rockford, a senior systems consultant for a bank.

"I took these orchid Cabbage Patch slippers she had put in a garage sale and put them in a box," Dorothy says.

"I've been saving them for Christmas."

Honor thy elders

Fannie Mae Currie, 91, savors being the oldest person in her family. One big reason: She's the only one who gets Christmas presents from everybody.

Currie likes the dozens of gifts she receives, especially gowns to lounge around in at her Nashville, Tenn., home where she lives with her daughter, Martha Smith.

But she relishes the attention more, especially from her 34 grandchildren and great-grandchildren when they gather at Smith's house for the holiday.

"They come and sit in front of me when I open the presents and hug me," Currie says. "I enjoy it so much, and I love them so much."

The kids think it's fun to watch her open the gifts, says her granddaughter, Dr. LaKimerly Coates, 37, an Illinois dermatologist with three daughters, Morgan, 4, Cameron, 2, and Jordan, 1.

What's more, though, Coates says the kids are learning important lessons. "They learn to honor and respect their elders," she says.

Currie has been the oldest person in the family for about 20 years.

It's a distinction no one in the family wants to come their way, despite the gift-giving tradition. Coates' uncle, Cornealius Currie Jr., 69, is next in line. Coates says he could only be so lucky to hold the spot some day.

"I'm hoping so."

Polka Christmas anyone?

"Silent Night" definitely is a no-nonsense song, but it's hard for townsfolk in Mount Morris, Ill., to keep a straight face when the Wells family comes caroling.

That's because Donna Wells, 50, her husband, Steve, 52, and sons Bradley, 10, and Timothy, 9, sing the solemn tune on Christmas Eve while Donna plays accordion.

"They laugh because it's something you don't expect," Donna says of the reactions from friends and neighbors in the community of 3,000 people.

Donna grew up in a place and at a time when the now-maligned one-man-band instrument was popular. She played in an accordion band in the late 1950s in Milwaukee.

A substitute schoolteacher, Donna followed in her grandfather's footsteps to brighten others' lives. Girolimo Ramponi played a "squeeze box" in the 1920s for miners in the Upper Peninsula town of Stambough, Mich., while his wife, Maria, made sandwiches for them in their Italian bar.

"We sing to friends and give them homemade Christmas cookies and good cheer and share the message of the birth of Jesus Christ," Donna says.

"If my grandfather were still living, I'm sure he would join in with us."

Card that keeps on giving

For the past 35 years, Jean Davis has given her daughter a Christmas card on Valentine's Day.

Not just any Christmas card, but the same one her daughter, Jeanie Quinn, gave her the year before.

Davis, 86, isn't confused or trying to save money.

By having each card matted and framed for about $30, Davis is building on a custom that Quinn is now passing on to her daughter, Kelly Bell.

All the framed cards, mostly with religious themes, hang on a wall in the living room of Quinn's home.

"By looking at them, it's a constant reminder of the spirit of Christmas," says Quinn, 59, whose parents raised her in the Catholic faith.

The grandmother's favorite card in Quinn's house is an exception to the religious theme.

It's the one Quinn and her husband, Robert, now a retired attorney, sent out in 1975, the year Kelly was born. A year later, Kerry, now an Air Force captain, was born.

The card features a little girl in old-fashioned clothing with a huge tam-o'-shanter cap, named after one of the best-known poems of Scottish poet Robert Burns.

As the girl rings the doorbell, the message simply says, "I live here."

Kelly is now a nurse, married and living in an apartment in Milwaukee. The past five years, she's sent out Christmas cards, and Quinn has matted and framed them like her mother did for her.

For now, the cards hang in Kelly's old room at her parents' house. When she moves into a house, Quinn will give her the cards to hang in her own home.

And when Kerry Quinn starts sending cards? "We'll do the same."