Sunday, November 18, 2012

Thanksgiving memories

It's that time of year again when Thanksgiving gets lost between the ghoulish, sugar fueled giddiness of Halloween and the bedecked hysteria of Christmas. I like Thanksgiving. I like Halloween and Christmas too. But I'd really like Thanksgiving to have its due. 

Growing up, we always spent Thanksgiving with my mom's side of the family. Each year was at a different house. There was a rotation for Thanksgiving and another for Christmas, based on who had enough space. Some years Grandma hosted, or Great-Aunt Elaine, or my mom, or one of my aunts.

The food was usually the same, with minor variations: turkey roasted in the oven, sage stuffing cooked in the bird, gravy. Heart-attack mashed potatoes, with a brick of cream cheese and a stick of butter. Sweet potatoes. Broccoli casserole - the kind with Velveeta and crushed Ritz crackers. Caponi Macaroni, my grandma's macaroni salad that beats store-bought hands down. A choice of Jello-like canned or Aunt Jill's homemade cranberries. Rolls. Pickles and olives, usually eaten as hors d'oevers while we waited for the turkey to be ready.

Grace would be said, giving thanks for the meal before us and for all the good things that had happened in the family that year. The uncles would pile their plates high, everything mixing together. Some of us kept our food neatly separated*. When we were all stuffed and couldn't eat a bite more, there were the pies: pumpkin, of course, and apple. Often a chocolate variety as well. We'd pile whipped cream on the pumpkin pie until it toppled over. 

Afterward, the kitchen would be cleaned, the tv turned on. If we were at Aunt Elaine's, she would play the organ. I have fond memories of sitting next to her while she played Christmas carols. At Grandma's, the kids would disperse to the basement play area tucked next to Grandpa's work bench. We knew better than to play with his tools. 

Some time in the evening, the adults would draw names for the Christmas grab bag. They would each write their name and three gift ideas under $20. The trick was to get a name that wasn't in your own household. 

On the way home, we'd tune the radio to a station playing Christmas carols. These were the first signs of the Christmas season. It wasn't a never-ending barrage from September on. But once Thanksgiving was over, all bets were off.

We would go to the Christmas tree farm and cut down our tree on the day that has come to be called Black Friday. It would go in a bucket of water in the shed until we were ready to put it up, much closer to Christmas. We'd spend the weekend decorating the house, starting with the outside lights. Christmas music would blare from the record player; hot chocolate would be drunk. This was the start of Christmas.

But not before we enjoyed our Thanksgiving. Not before we gave thanks and enjoyed a day with family.

Nowadays, we usually go to Chris's parents'. There are some different dishes and ours are the only kids there.  My parents usually join us, and Chris's grandparents, and some friends. We eat, the kids play. Sometimes the kids watch a movie while football plays in the other room. There's often ham in addition to the turkey. Sometimes Downs family specialties like creamed onions and turnips join a wild rice dish from a family friend. Dessert is usually a fantastic creation from another family friend who loves making cheesecakes and other delights. There's usually still a pumpkin pie for the traditionalists.

* Legal moves when filling a holiday plate: the turkey, mashed potatoes, and stuffing can touch. They can all be covered with gravy, depending on preference. A skilled plate fille will use the mashed potatoes and stuffing as walls around the turkey to keep the gravy from spreading. Cranberries must be segregated from everything else, especially the mac salad. Putting broccoli casserole between those two is an excellent buffer, although some broccoli may be lost to spreading cranberry juice.

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