My father and my mother grew up in the same small town in Ohio and were high school sweethearts. They moved to Michigan after they were married, but we would return home every Christmas to Ohio. We never missed going. One year mom and dad picked me up from the clothing store in Michigan where I had to work till 5 PM Christmas Eve, and from there we made the four hour drive to Ohio. This is how we did Christmas no matter what.
We would always have Christmas Eve with one side, and then Christmas Day with the other side of the family. Christmas Eve was at my mother’s childhood home. Grandpa Frank was a hobbyist carpenter when he was not working and he added many rooms to this interesting house where my mom and her four siblings were born. The only bathroom on the main floor was a toilet and a sink and you had to turn sideways to get past the sink to the toilet.
In this large family, my brother, and I were the oldest of lots and lots of cousins so each time a new baby cousin was born it was exciting. Christmas Eve we would all fight to hold the newest baby. Everyone wanted a turn and didn’t want to give up their turn. Do all families fight over who gets to hold the baby? I don’t know but we sure did.
We would sing Christmas songs like “Silent Night” and “up on a housetop reindeer pause, here comes good old Santa Claus “. My mother and her three sisters who could barely remember the words would stand up laughing and make the motions that go with the song with their arms as best as they could. Mom’s brother was always smiling and laughing and teasing.
My step-grandmother would make oyster stew that she would serve before the big dinner. My dad loved the soup. They said I had to try it and would serve it to me every year and every year I would give it to my dad. There was not enough room at the main table so there were card tables set up. There were two to three dozen of us. Each year we had a gift exchange and then we would go to church with my mom’s family. My grandfather was a proud patriarch with pews filled with his family. He had an important role at church. I think he was called an “Elder”. The carols were beautiful that we would sing and it was joyful and peaceful.
Hopping Over to the Other Side
Arriving late Christmas Eve, we put our stockings out at the other house, ten minutes away, my Dad’s stepmother’s home. My brother and I slept in twin beds and grandma always got me out the softest blanket to use. I loved sleeping at her house. In the morning it was just five steps down to the main level and like magic, under a beautiful Christmas tree with multicolor lights, there were presents from Santa and a stocking filled with candy, with an orange and apple in the bottom. One year, my brother, somehow got some coal and put it in my stocking and I cried. Every year we would get new socks and underwear and art supplies from Santa.
Later more family arrived, but it was a smaller gathering. Maybe a dozen or less. It was Christmas Day and Grandpa Don would relax with a pipe filled with cherry tobacco. Sometimes he would play an album like Don Ho, and make fancy drinks like Egg Nogs or piña coladas or whiskey sours. He would make one for us kids with no alcohol.
We always had a feast with my dad’s side of the family, starting with hors d’oeuvres, which was actually a small platter. Grandma would pass Ritz crackers with a small slice of cheese on each one. We only had one or two each, which is funny, because now when my grandchildren come over in Tennessee, there’s so much out it’s called ‘charcuterie’. My grandson can eat a whole row of Ritz all by himself. Back in Ohio we would have a gift exchange and there were many gifts here, as there were the night before with my mom‘s family. When it was time for dinner, Grandpa would always jokingly say, “Come on you grubby hogs, it’s time to eat.” If we reached anywhere near his plate he would pretend to stab at us with his fork.
There was a ping-pong table in spooky unfinished basements at both houses where a laundry area and storage areas were also located. There were lots of people who played ping pong Christmas Eve. It was loud and raucous as we played competitive doubles. Most years it was just my brother and I playing Christmas Day at the other house.
Sometimes Awkward, This is how we did Christmas
Both of my grandmas died when I was very young, but both of my grandfathers remarried within a year. That added lots of cousins on my mom’s side who were my age and even older. Remarriage added only a few younger cousins on my dad’s side.
One of those was a boy who would sit down at my grandma’s organ and play by ear. He could play any song and did not have to have the music to read. His favorite though was improvisation which is when a musician makes up what they play, as they play. He was a super, super hyper individual, that was his personality. I can still picture him heartily laughing with his head back, his hands flying across the keys and his feet all over the petals up and down and up and down, just playing his heart out. Such a happy guy. Younger than my brother and I, he looked up to us like we were so cool. He and I had the same birthday, April fools day!
It’s not the easiest thing to blend families and traditions. It’s a little bit awkward. Sometimes you even forget somebody’s name. Still, both of my grandpas were so happy to have new wives.
In Ohio at Christmas, we played cards, and games, and ping pong. We barely watched TV. There was one, maybe two phones in each house. There were no cell phones or computers.
We played, prayed, sang, connected, and gave praise and gratitude throughout our gathering. In this small town, evidence of celebration of the birth of Jesus was bright and beautiful. Almost every home had twinkly lights, each one pretty in different ways. Certainly, there were no blowups back then but there were lots and lots of manger scenes.
I feel like God was pleased with all of this.