The Christmas season began with the Christmas program at church. I remember being terrified of being up front when I was young. I remember learning a few songs in Swedish from the older men in our congregation (Julen ar inne). After the program we always received a brown paper lunch bag filled with peanuts, an apple and either M&Ms or a Hershey's bar.
My family almost always gathered with my dad's side of the family on Christmas Eve. Always at my grandparents' house. There were certain things we almost always had: my grandma's Swedish rye bread, dup i grytan ("dip in the pot": basically the juice from the meat used to dip the bread in--it's not a major Swedish tradition at all, but it was something I looked forward to having), lutefisk, homemade potato bologna, roast beef, an assortment of salads, spritz cookies and a bowl of nuts. My grandfather always read the Christmas story (Luke's version) to us all before we opened presents. My grandmother always had a bag of presents in her bedroom she'd remember after everything was opened. After it was all opened, my grandfather would pass out an envelope to each of us (usually starting with the youngest) which contained a crisp bill from the bank (the amount increased over the years). On year my younger brother and cousin closest in age received Dukes of Hazard underoos which they modeled for everyone. Visits from my California aunts and uncles were always special. Occasionally one of my great uncles would dress up as Santa and pay us a visit. I remember once when I was quite young thinking I saw Rudolph's red nose as we were driving home (I suppose it could have been an airplane in retrospect).
My home church rotated between a 5pm Christmas Eve Service, an 11pm candlelight service on Christmas Eve and a 7am Julotta (Swedish traditional Christmas service) on Christmas morning. All the family would go (usually before or after the Christmas celebration with my dad's family. All the extended relatives on my dad's side would be at the church service (it was a small church in a small town and a lot of my grandfather's siblings lived in the area). The service always ended with the lights being turned down and each of us lighting a candle, passing the light down the pew row as we sang Silent Night.
On Christmas Day we would usually drive down to Des Moines (about a three hour drive) for Christmas with my mother's family at my grandmother's house. When I was young, no gas stations were open on Christmas Day, so my father had to make sure the car had a full tank before then. Since gas stations weren't open, there weren't bathrooms available on the drive either. That problem was more easily solved for us boys. My grandmother insisted presents were opened one at a time so that she could see what each person received. She always had envelopes for us as well--hers were placed on the boughs of the tree. My grandmother had a good hill behind her house. We always looked forward to sledding if there was enough snow.
My dad often left out a bale of hay on Christmas Eve for Santa's reindeer. He always gave the livestock plenty of extra feed that night, too. I remember our stockings containing such things as Fisher Price Little People (we called them Kiddles for some reason), Mr. Bubble and peanuts. We children were always the first awake and we rushed downstairs to see the newly arrived presents from Santa.