There were several memorable things about which I debated writing for today’s post: the many wonderful traditions my immediate family shares over the holidays and the many wonderful traditions gone awry (like the time we went to our favorite Christmas tree farm to cut down a tree and our young children selected the perfect tree and we hauled it back to the barn to pay and while we waited the farmer’s dog lifted his leg and peed all over it. Our kids were so upset that we weren’t going to keep it that they hurled themselves on the ground and cried relentlessly until we gave up and agreed to have the farmer douse the thing with buckets of water to salvage it).
But because today is Christmas Day, I decided to reach way back into my memory to recall how my family spent Christmases when I was a child:
Without fail each year the six of us loaded into the station wagon on Christmas morning immediately after the presents had been ravaged, headed across snowy mountain passes the 100 or so frigid miles (one brother passed gas the entire way thus we’d have to put the windows down to air the car out continually) to my grandparent’s home. Theirs was a drafty, slumping, Civil War-era house that still boasted lead windows, a warped staircase (with a to-die for banister we kids always slid down), a saggy back porch, a dank root cellar, and a solitary bathroom (shared by nearly 40 inhabitants that day) whose sink had old fashioned handles you had to twist on for hot or cold and the water only remained running while holding the handle in the “on” position. You can imagine how hard it was to wash your hands with warm water—either scalding hot or ice cold were the options.
The kitchen was the place to be, and my grandmother, a fabulous cook, always had pies in the oven and a turkey and ham cooling on the old-fashioned farm-style table that took up most of the room. My very large extensive family was usually gathered in there—it was close to the keg out back, and the bar was set up on that counter too, so the bourbon was close at hand. Plus everyone could pick at the food surfacing from the oven and stovetops (Grandma usually had spaghetti sauce simmering for the following day, and my Uncle Len had a pot of goulash slow-cooking as well). My grandmother always had a stash of popcorn balls for the grandkids which we hoarded along with candy canes from the tree.
We kids (there were over 20 grandkids at varying times) built forts in the living room, banged out wobbly songs on the piano, and played dress-up with our 5 aunts’ many gorgeous tulle and beaded prom dresses from the 50’s. We’d saved up Wrigley’s and Juicy Fruit gum wrappers all year for this visit, so we could assemble those zig-zaggy chains with gum wrappers just like the long strands of them we’d find in our aunts’ old bedrooms, but they never came out quite the same. We helped ourselves to my Grandma’s jewels (all junk), make-up, perfume (Jean Nate), and talcum powder (the kind with the fluffy powder puff), snuck extra sodas and Christmas cookies when the grown-ups weren’t looking, opened a continual rush of gifts as more relatives arrived on the scene throughout the day, and ended the evening with a very large game of poker—even the kids got involved.
So many people stayed at my grandparent’s house that those who traveled the farthest were graced with the few beds. Since we came from relatively nearby, we were always relegated to shivering in sleeping bags on the cold floor. My father invariably slept on my grandfather’s recliner and my mother on the couch. The next day dawned too soon, as all the young children were up and ready to go before the sun rose. I think some of those parents regretted that early hour, what with the consumption of Jack Daniels and Wild Turkey the previous night.
The party continued on for another day and then we returned home, tired, spent, and feeling a little blue that Christmas was so very far away.
My grandmother, who I cherished, outlasted my grandfather by several years, passing away shortly before Christmas about ten years ago, thus ending a tradition that expanded exponentially as my siblings, cousins and I married and added to our own families over the years—we’d long outgrown the available space, for sure. I suppose this is how the baton is passed on to each generation to pick up with their own traditions and allow them to blossom and grow over the years. Which makes me thankful for our own many wonderful holiday memories, including, and perhaps especially, when things don’t end up quite as planned.
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