Several years ago, we stopped celebrating Christmas at Grandpa and Grandma’s farmhouse because they moved “to town” where they could have more help. The memories thirty Christmases before that are etched deeply in my memories. (OK, to be honest, I probably don’t actually remember the first two.)
When we drove through their tiny town and followed the curving highway out the other side, we would look across the empty fields to see the white barn. As kids, we always tried to be the first to shout, “I see the barn!” We would drive down the long gravel drive to park near the end of the sidewalk that led to the back door. As we unloaded food and gifts to carry them up the sidewalk, Grandpa would come out the door wearing his puffy warm vest over his work overalls and greet us with a loud “Merry Christmas!” and hugs at the top of the stairs. Sometimes we arrived and stayed several days before Christmas and some years we went only for the day, but the greeting was always the same.
Grandma would be busy in the kitchen, exclaiming over how nice everyone looked and how tall we were getting and how nice it was to see us. There was usually some food or part of food preparation she was doing that she doubted would be any good. (I don’t remember the food ever being anything but delicious.)
We would all pitch in with preparing food, setting the table, arranging gifts under the tree. The rest of the family would trickle in and join in the laughing and teasing as we worked. The football fans would pause to watch the football game that was on in the living room. Some of us would get hungry and start in on the relish tray (a.k.a. vegetable tray) and the half of us who like black olives would collectively eat a whole can of them before dinner was ready.
Sometimes Grandma would put Mom or my sister or me in charge of peeling potatoes and we would always fill the pan almost to the top because mashed potatoes are one of the best parts and you can’t have too many. Grandpa would pull out a worn recipe card and make his oyster casserole, which had to bake for the last forty-five minutes before we sat down to eat. Grandma would make the dressing and assign someone to stand at the stove to stir the gravy with strict instructions to tell her as soon as it started to bubble.
When dinner was almost ready, we would fill the glasses and put the food on the table as it was done. We would all sit at two tables pushed together, separated by generations. We originally called them “the adults’ end” and “the kids’ end” of the table, but renamed the latter to “the fun end” when the youngest cousin was twenty-five.
After we finished eating, we would clear the table and put away the food and get out the desserts, even though everyone was still full. As we put away the food, Grandma and Mom and Aunt Jan would engage in “Leftover Negotiations,” which went something like this:
“Won’t your family eat the candied sweet potatoes?”
“No, the kids don’t care for them.”
“They like the mashed potatoes, don’t they? We’ll send mashed potatoes with you. What about ham?” and so on.
I would start the coffee maker because I took over making the coffee shortly after I started drinking it. We love Grandma and she is an amazing cook, but none of us really enjoy the way she makes coffee. I would make a hearty pot of coffee and fill half of Grandma’s mug with hot water before filling it with coffee. The other coffee drinkers would have full-strength coffee and everyone seemed pleased.
After the desserts and coffee, we would make our way to the family room where the Christmas tree was. When we were kids, Grandma always wanted some kind of “Christmas program” where we played a Christmas song on the piano or recited some verse or poem. Next, Grandpa would cradle his well-worn Bible in his hands and read the Christmas story from Luke 2.
After the story, we would start handing out and opening our gifts. There would not be any particular order, but each gift giver would give their own gift to a recipient and watch them open it. Occasionally, Grandma and Grandpa would ask someone nearer the tree to give one of their gifts to the recipient. As the present-opening wound down, someone would usually wad up a piece of wrapping paper and throw it at someone else, starting a brief wrapping paper battle. By the time we cleaned up the wrapping paper, it would be early evening and some of us would actually be hungry again. We would have snacks and Grandpa and Grandma would make punch with sherbet and soda. By that time, some of us would have to leave and the others would go soon after. As we left, there would be hugs and planning to make plans for our annual “winter birthdays” gathering.
What are your favorite Christmas memories or traditions?
Our 2011 family Christmas photo. We’ve added five people since then.