My family was very divided.
Not over religion, politics, money, or any of that — we’re a pretty diverse and accepting bunch in those matters. The divide was about holiday celebrations.
The food on both my mother’s and father’s side was delicious. My maternal grandmother’s family immigrated here from Germany, where they owned a confectionery and bakery, and my grandfather’s family came from England and Scotland with all their holiday fare. My dad’s grandparents’ roots were German and English and they brought their own traditions.
Thanksgiving was the opening day of the holiday season. Some old recipes handed down through both families are never to be messed with: Dressing made from white bread, torn into pieces Tuesday night before T-Day and set out in heaps to get stale (no packaged croutons, no cornbread), sausage, apples, celery, onions, sage, homemade giblet broth. Grandma’s pie crust. Oysters. Cranberry-orange relish. Fluffy mashed russet potatoes, not whipped into paste with a mixer, no added cream cheese.
On mom’s side, Christmas baking was a production line starting the week after Thanksgiving, a sweet shop’s worth of cookies, pastries, and candies. My mother, maternal grandmother, and aunts all worked full- or part-time outside the home, and my paternal grandmother had farm chores, so all Christmas prep happened with an efficiency that would’ve impressed Frederick Winslow Taylor. On my father’s side, similar treats were turned out, only on a much smaller scale. For them, it was church on Christmas Eve, then back to the farm for dinner and family time.
My dad’s family was never big on shopping trips. If they couldn’t grow it, make it, trade for it, get it in town or from mail-order, it wasn’t happening. On my mom’s side, entertaining and shopping were Olympic-quality spectaculars that peaked at Christmas, often combined with other seasonal festivities. Packed into my winter get-up, plunked into the back seat of the car, off like Rerun I went, to wherever the grownups were taking us. From destination shopping at high-end department stores and malls in several states, visiting Santa, delighting at displays, excursions to see different light shows and decorations, we did it all. We saw live performances of The Nutcracker Ballet and other concerts, watched holiday classic movies and TV shows, decorated everything. There was always music in both families. It was time to bring out the best linens, china, and polish the silver.
Every year, the grownups on both sides asked me what I wanted for Christmas.
I tried my best to reciprocate. Each December, I emptied my piggybank and went on my own personal shopping spree in downtown Blissfield to select perfect, personalized gifts. I always mangled the gift-wrapping, and I’ve sometimes wondered what those elders thought of those sorry little bundles of Evening in Paris, Old Spice aftershave, or for my letter-writing grandmother, postage stamps and stationery. Each year, they all acted as if those were the best gifts ever.
Later on, I took on those happy celebrations. But the truth is I’ve never liked to shop for anything, especially at Christmas-time, and I really dislike being part of a shopping herd. I’d rather eat ground glass. Now I choose to celebrate much the same as my father’s side of the family, simply and quietly. It’s wonderful.
I stayed close to those elders. I know how they looked forward for months to seeing the youngers, how they waited to share those recipes and traditions, their stories and memories. One by one, they disappeared from our family gatherings. If your precious loved ones are still with you, make time for them. Go to them, listen, make it about them. No excuses — costs too much, no time, too far, too busy, too boring, not a priority, vacation plans. Do it soon. I think you’ll be glad you did. Much more important, so will they.
I hope you hear the bells this Christmas Day, and always.
— Pam Taylor is a retired Lenawee County teacher and an environmental activist. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.