Growing up, we didn’t have family nearby. We were typically about 900 miles from our closest family. My uncle, and eventually my aunt, and then my cousins, would join us every year for Thanksgiving. Every year. But aside from them, we didn’t have family we knew very well.
So we created traditions from scratch. On our birthdays, dinner was whatever we wanted. Didn’t matter what. We’ve had a dinner of Mac & Cheese with Bear Claw Donuts. We’ve enjoyed the surprisingly well-paired egg rolls and beef chili. Recently we had Chicken Parmesan and a box of Taco Bell tacos. I think I remember my sister having Cream of Chicken Soup and buttered bread once. It must have been her Gulag Birthday theme.
Thanksgiving is the Opening Ceremony for our Tour de force. We can mangle eleven straight months, but the Holiday Season is OUR season. No matter where we were for Thanksgiving, when everyone had arrived we’d eat well, laugh lots, and play games. Multiple turkeys are made, cranberries don’t come in a can, and there’s plenty of gravy if some idiot doesn’t pour the potato water down the drain.
And then we took it to the next level. My father passed away shortly before the holidays, his favorite time of year. And change was in order. My mom told us she’d rented a house at a resort in northern Minnesota for three days, and that we were going to celebrate Thanksgiving up there, away from the things that reminded us he was gone. It was brilliant. The house has 11 or 12 bedrooms and is a giant Prohibition Era maze. More than enough room for the 20-25 of us that go. For three days, we eat well, laugh lots, and play games. We go into the nearby town and shop for Christmas, go to the candy store, and eat pizza at Rafferty’s. We also go to the on-site bar and grill dressed alike in some fashion. Squad goals, yo. We’ve discovered that there are people who go to that bar on that day just to see what we look like that year. The funniest was all 25 or so of us showing up in onesies. And oddly, that was not nearly as awkward as all of us showing up wearing only denim. That felt weirder. Go figure.
At Thanksgiving, we draw names for whose Christmas stocking we fill, and the middle generation draws names for gifts. On Christmas Eve we get together for dinner and the opening of the gifts and stockings. Dinner is kind of always the same. Two soups are made, one is always French Onion. A sandwich bar is created, with everyone being given an assignment. One does meat, another cheese, another bread, another the other stuff, and someone the snacks. No one works. No dishes are done. We sit around the tree, opening gifts one at a time so each of us can see and hear everything. It takes forever. It’s wonderful.
And on Christmas Day we’re quieter. We’re in our own homes, or celebrating with the other sides of our families. We have small Christmas Dinners. It’s peaceful.
We own the holidays.
But last year was tough. There has been hurt, real and perceived. There has been misunderstanding and anger. Confusion and resentment has occasionally made the things that always made us great much harder, or impossible. And where we’ve been rubbed raw, other things that once were small were felt more acutely.
So what do we do now? We keep it together, willing it to be so. Not because we have to but because we choose to. Because we’re a family that chose to create these little institutions out of a desire to spend time together, and that fact hasn’t changed.
So I’ll see you all next week. I pick chicken wings.