A century of Christmas memories for centenarians
When they were born a century ago, Christmas meant simple joys: an orange and a candy cane tucked inside the toe of a holiday stocking, flames flickering on candles illuminating a freshly cut tree, a doll fashioned from swatches of leftover fabric.
They are sweet memories for the six people we profile today — all age 100 or older — whose lives took them on sometimes bittersweet sojourns through two world wars, 18 U.S. presidents, man's first steps on the moon, and a journey into cyberspace that baffles and amazes them.
Journey to a new life
Every Christmas as a young girl, Nella Spiardi looked forward to sweet, Sicilian blood oranges and almond torrone, a white nougat candy made from honey, whipped egg whites and nuts.
It wasn't much but the traditional Italian treats were enough to satisfy her and her siblings as they celebrated the season in their modest Florence, Italy, home.
“It was a good time,” Spiardi, 100, said wistfully.
Though life and love took her far from that home in later years, she keeps the memories of those simple Christmas pleasures.
In 1947, Nella made the 12-day voyage by boat from Genoa, Italy, to America where, at age 35, she married Juldo Spiardi, who left Florence years earlier to search for a better life.
Their first few Christmases together were tough. Nella didn't speak English, so she pointed to communicate.
They lived with Juldo's parents in Blairsville, saving money he earned as a coal miner to slowly build a home.
When their home was complete, her husband, now deceased, surprised her with the ultimate Christmas gift — a ringer washing machine. Until then, she'd spent hours kneeling over a wash basin, rolling and kneading dirty clothes.
As years passed, the times and the gifts changed. Nella, who now lives at Redstone Highlands retirement community in Greensburg, tries to keep alive the traditions from long ago in the little house in Florence.
To this day, it is important for Nella's grandchildren to serve the dishes she prepared for them growing up: pasta with walnuts and butter on Christmas Eve, and homemade ravioli and soup on Christmas Day.
Nothing else would do, she said.
— Amanda Dolasinski
Tough guy with a soft spot
At 100, Ned Wright has seen it all, done it all.
He's a tough guy. No mushy sentimental stuff for him.
As for Christmas, “it's just another day,” he said, shrugging as he checked the time on his cellphone.
One person could melt away his tough-guy exterior — his late wife Grace, the love of his life.
“She was beautiful,” he said, tearing up.
In 1936 he was a young state trooper who had just moved to the Butler barracks when he met her at a nightclub.
“People don't believe this story when I tell it, but the first time I saw her, I said, ‘That's her. I'm going to marry her.' ”
Although they spent many Christmases together in their North Hills home, one holiday stands out in his mind: the year he gave her a mink coat.
The coat was precious to her and when she died, he passed it along to the couple's daughter-in-law.
It's that coat, not the memories of growing up one of 11 children in the snowy mountains of Northumberland County, that tugs at his heart. And it's the memory of the look on his wife's face, not the skis or the sleds that he received as a child, that he carries with him each day.
In fact, today's version of Christmas kind of annoys him.
“Now they have all these gadgets,” said Wright, who lives at the Passavant retirement community in Zelienople. “It's ridiculous.”
Wright confidently predicts he'll live to age 110.
He knows the key to long life: “Stay active. I'm never still a minute.”
— Amanda Dolasinski
One special gift
One Christmas decades ago, Rose and Orlando Gravina gave their daughter Carol the most beautiful doll at girl could imagine, with a pink satin dress and a bonnet.
She cherished it but like many children, Carol lost interest in the doll.
The next Christmas, she received an equally beautiful doll, which she loved until, once again, her interest waned.
Each year, she would receive a doll that she would play with for awhile, then put aside.
Years later, as Carol reviewed old home movies that had been spliced together, she realized something odd about those dolls.
“I see the pictures of the doll. Next year, there's the doll. The year after, there's the doll,” she said. “I never realized they'd let me play with the doll, put it away and bring the (same) doll out the next year, let me play with it; take it out, there it was again. Every year that doll was in the pictures.”
When Rose, 102, and her husband, Orlando, 97, moved from their Whitehall home to the St. Barnabas senior community in Gibsonia, the doll reappeared in the couple's attic.
It is but one memory that Rose holds of more than a century of Christmases that began in her hometown of Rural Valley, Indiana County, and continued through the days when she styled hair from her home while Orlando ran their McKeesport card shop.
“Those were the days,” she said with a smile.
These days her children, five grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren gather for holidays. It is with them that Rose's most earnest Christmas wish rests.
All she wants for Christmas, she said, is more Christmases together.
— Stacey Federoff
Always something special
At 101, Viola Ketterer's memories of dancing candle flames adorning her family's Christmas tree are as vivid as they were decades ago.
Glass balls and paper rings completed the tree, but the candles couldn't be lit all the time because of the fire hazard, she said.
Ketterer, originally from Pittsburgh's North Side, remembers the excitement of switching to electric Christmas lights.
“Isn't that wonderful, they can be lit all the time?” she said.
Depression-era Christmases were “tough,” she said, but something always made the holiday special.
While she slept on Christmas Eve, her mother and father would set up the family's Christmas tree.
And she'll never forget the best present she ever found under that tree, a doll that she can envision after all these years.
The doll, she said, wore a nice dress and “little shoes and little socks.”
“At that time, we were only allowed one present at Christmas — not like today,” she said.
In her Christmas stocking, she'd find a book, crayons, a coloring book, a candy cane and an orange.
“They always put an orange in,” said Ketterer, who had two daughters with her late husband, Alfred.
Looking back, Ketterer, who now lives at a Concordia Ministries facility in Center, Butler County, said she never expected to live such a long life.
She thinks it must have something to with her personal mantra: “Don't smoke. Don't drink. Be happy.”
— Rossilynne Skena
Long day's journey
In the early 1900s, Arlene Teets' family would board a train, then a streetcar, and finally a horse and buggy to make the agonizingly slow Christmas Day journey from their Baden home to her grandparents' Uniontown farm.
Today, the trip would take about 90 minutes by car.
Back then, it lasted hours, she said.
Yet the trip was always worth it, to see her family and receive the modest gifts that came with Christmas.
On Christmas Day, “the big thing was to run for your stocking right away,” she said.
“In the stocking would be an orange. That would be the first thing. Then there'd be some candy, then there'd be a little gift of some sort,” she said.
She considered the orange a special treat.
“We never had them — only at Christmastime,” said Teets, a retired registered nurse and former owner of Teets Hardware in Baden, who married her husband, Reed, in 1937 and had a son and a daughter. “ ... We didn't get oranges before Christmastime. Apples, pears, yes, but an orange was a special delight.”
A simple doll, given to her by her grandmother, ranks among Teets' favorite gifts.
Teets, who now lives at Concordia Lutheran Ministries in Jefferson, Butler County, can't explain why she has lived so long.
“I don't have any trick,” she said. “I just lived a good, clean life.”
— Rossilynne Skena
A self-described farm girl who grew up near Plumville, Indiana County, Elinore “Larue” Casedy, 100, remembers the leanest of years when the family had no money for Christmas presents.
No one thought much about it, she said, because “in the Depression years, nobody had any money.”
Those years made the Christmases when “Santie Claus” would bring her “a baby doll that looked like a real one” or a box of candy even more special.
“It wasn't much but we were happy,” said Casedy, who now lives in Greensburg at Redstone Highlands retirement community.
That “making do with what we have” attitude served her well while growing up on her family's farm, where she “did everything” — from feeding pigs, chickens, cows and horses to churning butter and making root beer.
As a teenager, she taught herself to play the piano by writing note names on the piano keys and in hymn books.
At 19, she married Laurie Casedy and moved to Smicksburg, where they had two boys and a girl before moving to West Vandergrift, and then to Vandergrift in 1949. They were married for 59 years when Laurie died in 1990.
While she took care of the children, Laurie earned a living working on highways and playing the violin at dances.
Like Casedy's taste in Christmas presents, her taste in music was simple, straightforward, no-nonsense.
The square dances were her favorite, she said with a smile.
— Kari Andren