Holidays hold different meanings for different people. They’re celebrated in numerous ways, or not at all, and the traditions for these holidays vary so widely.
Take Christmas for instance. Our family friends grew up getting meat products and McDonalds gift cards in their stockings and Bing Crosby’s White Christmas was always on the high-fi. My dad’s brother continues the tradition their family grew up with, of not wrapping gifts, but simply laying them out in appropriate piles for each person & there’s no formality, you just run in there and start going through your stuff.
Our family went the route of trying to copy my mothers childhood Christmases. All wrapped gifts, except for a few special items that “Santa” would leave on display. Opening one gift on Christmas Eve. Not being allowed to see anything on Christmas morning until the adults had been coffee’d up and you followed the proper protocols of a grand entry into the den. There was always one new board game for the family and everyone received at least one book.
By the time I was born there were only three grandparents. My maternal grandmother, who only lived 30 miles away, and then both of my dads parents who lived three hours away. Major holidays were a big to-do. For Thanksgiving, we’d prepare food on the Wednesday before and start watching the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade while finishing preparations and getting dressed. We’d drive to my grandmother’s house and help her set the table and finish food preparations and the watching of the parade.
In her house, cookies were always stocked in the clear glass cookie jar that sat on her kitchen pass through ledge. On normal visits it was Toll House chocolate chip cookies made from scratch. On special holidays they were frosted sugar cookies from the local bakery; cut into themed shapes for autumn or Christmas with coloured frosting and edible decorations of balls or sprinkles.
We were always well fed. The food at this house was served in the formal dining room on special china with silver candlesticks on the 1920s dining room table. There was turkey, yankee stuffing that was dry and chocked full of chunky pieces of onions and celery, tasting only of sage. My mothers parents were ancient people from Ohio. Seriously, her father was born in 1898 and her mother in 1909. Every recipe was a yankee dish and very old, passed down through the family.
A combo dish of corn and lima beans called suckatash. Cranberry sauce made from scratch. Mashed potatoes with a simple turkey gravy. Congealed salad, which along with the cranberry sauce was a dish I was tasked to prepare. I found it disgusting. Lime jello, pineapple bits, cottage cheese, mayonnaise, & pecans. There would also be an old yankee recipe for Pumpkin Pie and in later years a no bake cheesecake topped with strawberries in a glaze.
After dinner was finished and the dishes washed and put away, we would sit around and visit or watch the telly, munch on those sugar cookies and be loaded up with them to take home.
In later years, we’d decorated the Christmas tree only because she couldn’t manage to get the fake tree out of the attic by herself. We’d set it up in the formal living room at the front of the house and load it up with all the vintage ornaments from the 1950s. Glass multi-coloured ball garlands, vintage santa’s, whirly gigs, bubble lights… and even a really old white paper mache bell with the silver glitter coming off in places. It contained two of my mothers childhood teeth. I’m still not sure why they were saved… in a bell… or why they had been kept all those years or why my grandmother loved having them put on the tree. You couldn’t forget Jill’s teeth.
We’d drive home that night after saying our goodbyes and the next morning would see me in our den surrounded having a sugar cookie or two and watching cartoons on the telly. I’d procrastinate getting packed, because that’s just how I roll. But by mid-day we were on the road to my paternal grandparents house. By that night my grandmother had finished her Thanksgiving feast and it was time to eat.
Things were markedly different in this house. These were southern people, and they didn’t hail from money. There was also no helping to prepare the dishes as this grandmother didn’t tolerate any tom foolery in her kitchen. Of course there was turkey and mashed potatoes, but that’s where the similarities in foods ended. She’d made cornbread dressing and giblet gravy to go with everything. Giblet gravy is a southern staple, but it’s not my thing at all. A light coloured gravy with all the extra bits that come with the turkey and slices of boiled eggs.
The cranberry sauce was the kind that came from a can and was slid out onto a plate and sliced. The plain kind, never the kind with berries in the gel. There’d be piggy temple, which was strawberry jello, cool whip, pecans, fruit cocktail and pineapple bits. Much better than the congealed salad, even though I’m told that this was originally my paternal grandmothers recipe that made its way into the others home. Pecan pie was the dessert that was served.
My grandparents had a bar in their kitchen. My grandmothers eating place was always on a backless bar stool next to the opening into the hallway. Someone else would take the pull out kitchen stool next to that. Three bar seats with backs on the other side of the bar would be filled up. The dining room table just mere feet away; a simple oblong oak table with matching chairs would be completely occupied. Sometimes people sat in the den that my grandparents had added onto the small home.
Unlike my mother’s side which was a grandmother, an aunt, and one boy cousin, my dad’s side was quite a bit larger. My grandparents, my aunt and her son, sometimes her ex-husband. My uncle, his wife and step son and then one, two, three, four kids. Then there’s four of us.
The food was served buffet style. People talked between eating spaces and moved about. It was all very informal and well, nice. Really nice. Comforting, actually. I did enjoy visiting my maternal grandmother. I wasn’t even related to her by blood as my mother and aunt had been adopted, but I loved her as if she were blood related. She was rather fun too, it’s just that holiday times were so excruciatingly formal and a little tense. Nothing comforting about it.
At my paternal grandparents it was hodge-podgy, imperfect, loud, and absolutely lovely. We’d always stay through the weekend and come back late Sunday night to be back in time for school and so my dad could go back to work.
Christmases had the same set up. Food preparation on Christmas Eve Day and Christmas morning. Traditional, formal Christmas morning at out house. Then we’d pack up and go to my maternal grandmothers for the day. A second formal Christmas in her living room, a quite and somber Christmas dinner in the dining room, then talking or telly watching and being loaded up with Christmas sugar cookies and we’d drive back home. The next day saw me, yet again, procrastinating in the early morning hours watching cartoons on the telly, munching on Christmas cookies, only this time surrounded by new toys. Then the drive to my paternal grandparents house to spend 3 – 6 days at their house and having Christmas there. On some years however, because of dads work schedule, we wouldn’t be able to travel there until closer to New Years. I liked this because we’d have Christmas and ring in the New Year with fireworks all in one.
One year, things went differently. Well, before my maternal grandmother moved out of my moms childhood home, we’d go up there on Christmas Eve and wake up there on Christmas Day. I was five when she moved homes, so I don’t remember this as vividly, though I do remember it. But, one year we were at my paternal grandparents for Christmas Eve. I was between the ages of 4 & 6.
All the Christmases we’d ever known involved Santa coming down the fireplace. We had the one in the basement and our parents told us that was how Santa got in to leave gifts. My maternal grandmothers house had six fireplaces, so of course Santa delivered gifts this way. My paternal grandparents didn’t have a fireplace & we hadn’t brought stockings. The Sister & I were young. We were worried that Santa wouldn’t be able to visit and leave gifts. My grandfather seemed very tall to my childhood self, though he wasn’t all that extraordinarily tall. He was tanned like leather from the sun and had a deep barking voice and laugh. His hands were wide and thick. From appearances he seemed like a burly man who might not understand little girl hearts, but his grandbabies were very dear to him and he was a pretty smart man.
I remember him dashing from the living room to the back of the house. Then he came back with men’s long trouser socks; some were striped and some in a shade of seventies burnt orange. He assured us that Santa always came in through the front door at their house and he stuck those socks up onto the door that separated their living room from the hallway. It was good enough for us. Problem solved.
It wasn’t until my late twenties that I found out why we never celebrated Christmas Eve at their house again. It was an extremely fond memory for The Sister & I and we enjoyed Christmas there. Sadly, my mother enjoyed Christmases in her childhood home better and told our dad that we were upset and disappointed by the experience. But it wasn’t true. So Christmases with them were demoted to the day or week after Christmas Day because of this lie that my father believed and no one thought to check with the kids on how they’d really felt about it.
There were other random visits during the year to their home, but most of the time was spent with my maternal grandmother since she was closer. So, birthdays, Easter, and Mothers Day were celebrated with her and only her. She’d come to our home for The Sister & I’s birthdays and we’d go to her home for her birthday and for our mom’s. For their birthdays there was always a round double layer white cake from that same bakery that supplied the frosted sugar cookies. It was all prim and proper like a Victorian tea party for children.
There was a small assortment of gifts on the antique curly maple kitchen table in the breakfast area off the kitchen. The cake was always put on this aluminum cake stand that turned and played the Happy Birthday song when a pin was pulled out. Because of its age, the tune was tinny and warbly, thus sounding like the dead were trapped in there; rattling off an eerily disturbed version of what should have been a rather gay tune. Coffee was served afterwards with the cake. I felt like The Sister & I should have been wearing overly ruffled dresses in shades of pale pink or yellow, perhaps with pinafores and stockings complete with pointed birthday hats. Oh wait, pointed birthday hats were indeed donned on these occasions.
Birthday for The Sister & I were thankfully different. All our family friends that lived in town were invited. When we were younger this included at least four families with several children. Sometimes school friends were invited. We’d get birthday cakes typical of the 1980s; Wilton cake shapes of characters, or sheet cakes with cake toppers and decorations ranging from Cinderella to Fraggle Rock and Strawberry Shortcake. Everyone flitted between the outdoor areas of the breezeway and decks and into the kitchen and den. Party hats were worn, buzzers were blown, there’d be balloons. On my birthday we’d always play my favourite version of Pin The Tail on the Donkey, which was Put The Cookie In Cookie Monsters Mouth. Sometimes my maternal grandmother would be there for the celebratory parties, other times she’d show up a little early so that it could just be a family affair. She enjoyed watching people open gifts more than anything.
For Easter we’d happily go through the baskets left outside our bedroom doors, seeing what the Easter Bunny had brought us. Then we’d go to church in the morning as a family; The Sister & I in new Easter Dresses, but not before we had to pose for a million pictures to document our new frocks. Then we’d travel up to my grandmother’s house and hunt for eggs that she’d hidden in the yard. We’d have a ham dinner with her and then come back home.
Except on the rare occasions that we were at my grandparents for New Years, that along with The 4th of July and Halloween were always celebrated at home. New Years Eve and Independence Day we’d invited our closest family friends over; just the one family that contained six people, the husband and wife, three sons and a daughter who was my age. We’d enjoy snack food (sometimes a BBQ in the summer) and shoot off fireworks together. They were memorable times because the boys and our brother would shoot bottle rockets towards the neighbour’s house simply because they knew the wife would come out in her robe and shout obscenities at them before calling the cops. The cops would show up and tell her that because we lived in the county we weren’t doing anything wrong. She would fume and end up calling the cops several more times in that one night.
For Halloween my mom would host great parties. The house would be completely spooked out for the event and my mom would slip into her go to costume which was the spooky, gnarly witch, complete with lime green make-up and warty nose that she’d affixed with spirit gum. She’d invited all the family friends in the area. The kids would bob for apples out of a large metal bucket on the breezeway and the adults would be drinking inside the house. Everyone was dressed in costumes. The best costume won a prize.
Things have changed a lot since those days. People have passed away or moved out of our lives by either moving states or getting married and starting families of their own. I also no longer have any grandparents, unless you count my pen pal and her new husband who sort of act like The Sister & I are their grandkids. That might sound weird, but it’s actually really nice. So most holidays in this house have fizzled out or changed dramatically.
New Years Eve and Independence Day are no longer spent with those family friends, and rarely do we even muster the strength to go and buy fireworks, much less shoot them off. Plus, the couple that lived across the street moved away a long time ago so there is not harassed woman to yell obscenities at us or to call the cops on us.
Thanksgivings and Christmases are more somber affairs than the ones of my childhood. After my grandfather died in my early teens we stopped going to visit during for Thanksgiving less and less until it stopped altogether. And when my maternal grandmother died we didn’t really know how to do that holiday without all the pomp and circumstance. We had to learn how to celebrate alone.
Concerning Christmas, we still decorate our home and get into the spirit, but was the day actually draws closer we find it hard to celebrate that holiday with abandon as we lost our brother on the day after Christmas, our maternal grandmother in early January, so that the last Christmas was sour. Also our paternal grandmother three days after Christmas. It might be different if none of them had played huge roles in Christmases past. But they did. It only helps to reiterate what we have lost with their passing. Their voices, their laughs, their smells, their essences; all the important things.
This is another holiday that we have learned how to spend alone for the most part. These holidays were like bike riding. You learn and it’s great. It’s something you could do with your eyes closed because you’ve done it a million times. But then one day you wake up and you realize you were riding a bike with training wheels, but now those have been taken away, as well as the handles. You don’t really know how to ride this new bike and stumble through the old motions, unsure of what you are doing, trying to figure out new ways to make this work.
Easter no longer sees The Sister & I in any Easter best, nor is there really any leaving of the house at all. We tried giving gifts with the vintage Easter baskets, but then it was too much trouble to get them out of the attic. So now, without any sort of presentation we’ll wake up to do our morning bathroom routine and find a bag of candy near our sinks. Dad will make a ham dinner, but Easter doesn’t really hold any meaning for me anymore and if we didn’t celebrate, I don’t think I’d mind all that much.
I tried to hold onto Halloween as long as I could, but I feel rather defeated now. I dressed up every single year. Tried trick or treating, until by age fifteen no one would give me candy. I would host Halloween parties in my twenties, but when we closed our Coffee House and so many people had moved away there was no point in throwing them anymore. Kids don’t trick or treat at our house, so there’s no reason to buy candy to give out or dress up to answer the door. The solution was still to plan a costume and just go out on Halloween day or night; whether it was to the movies, to get coffee or even just run errands. However, I received too many comments about why I’d even be dressed up, like people had never heard about Halloween before. Last year I didn’t plan a costume. I didn’t dress up and I didn’t go out. Halloween has sadly lost all of its fun and appeal.
Valentines Day, however, was a rather different holiday. My parents would go out that evening on a date, but The Sister & I enjoyed it because there were gifts involved. We’d wake up that morning with a Valentine card along with a little trinket and some sort of candy. Much like Epiphany, there wasn’t much of a big to-do, but there was something to look forward to. The making of Valentines in school and then the exchange of them in school was also fun to us. That portion stopped being fun for me when the kids in my class loudly exclaimed how they didn’t want to give me a Valentine’s, but were forced to anyways. In high school, I took the holiday back to a happier time by buying those packets of Valentines with pop culture kids icons on them; a thing denied to me in my childhood. I’d pass these out to my friends and it seemed to go over well, plus I enjoyed choosing the best one’s and giving them out.
The Sister & I still live with our parents, so this tradition is still ongoing. We still receive a Valentine’s card and a small something on this day. We’re not over the moon waiting for dawn to arrive to see what we got, but it’s nice to know that the exchange will happen. I think it’s still relatively fun because it’s a holiday shared with others, as opposed to Easter. I’ve never had a significant other on Valentine’s Day, so it doesn’t really compute into a holiday for couples to me. I have memories of family, school mates, and friends.
It also holds significance because it was my paternal grandfathers birthday, so we always remember him on this day. It’s a bit bittersweet, but it doesn’t bother me to remember the dead when their birthday rolls around. It’s the death day, or when their death coincided with a major holiday, that it’s more sad. He would have been ninety-five today, however he’s not been around for the last twenty-three, which seems more surreal that we lost him so long ago as opposed to that his age would be so great today had he lived this long.
To cheer myself up over the realization that I missed so much time with him, I only have to think about my maternal grandmother and the fact that she would be one hundred and seven years old this year. It makes me halt and think about how absurd that number is, and how thankful I am that she is no longer around. It’s not that I don’t miss her, but her quality of life was nill by the end. It would have been cruel of life to have her endure such a terrible existence for these past eleven years just so she’d still be in our lives or would be seeing her one hundred and seventh birthday.
It helps me realize that even though I miss her and always will, everything has a time to end, and even if she were alive, by this time she wouldn’t be the woman I’d known as my grandmother. It’s OK that she’s gone. It helps me reassess that the past is the past, and holding on and remember is wonderful, but that one shouldn’t hold on so tightly that they can not move forward. It helps me not miss my grandfather so much. It doesn’t matter if I didn’t get to spend as much time with him as others. I had thirteen years with him and a head full of memories that are all mine.
It’s funny to think that the absurdity of my grandmothers age in 2016 helps ease me over so many changes that have occurred in my life. It helps me to love that the people who are now gone were born, by remembering them on their birthday’s; that they were alive and helped shape my life in a multitude of ways. It helps in calming my anxious spirit when my mind suddenly is slapped with the realization that a particular holiday is dampened or will never be the same again. It helps me to stop and breathe; to remember how things used to be in a pleasant and non depressing review of memories; to have the fortitude to wrap those Christmas gifts or make that Jello dish that I detest, but am an unwilling expert on.
It makes me smile to think that a woman I was not related to in the slightest can help reign everything in. She helps me to stop the unnecessary tornado swirl of emotions and helps me contemplate on all that I have; all that I am grateful for; all that I’ve known, lost, and still keep dear within the beating confines of my heart.
And it’s funny to me that today is Valentines Day, the birth of my paternal grandfather. Today I was thinking about him as well as thinking about this holiday in general. Which led me to write a blog post about holidays, only to end up at the absurdity of a number and a woman I wasn’t related to… and now I feel comforted and loved. It’s weird and round-about, but damn it if that isn’t was this holiday is all about. Love and comfort.
How about that…