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Saturday, November 29, 2014

Haunted Holidays

I am a firm believer that Ebenezer Scrooge wasn't the only person, whether fictional or real, whose holidays were haunted. I think that times that are full of intense emotions and memories create their own "ghosts," feelings that attach themselves to the holidays in question whether we want them to or not.

A good example for me is Thanksgiving. I love the idea of Thanksgiving, and I think that remembering and celebrating this American (and yes, I include non-USA Americans who celebrate Thanksgiving holidays as well) holiday is a wonderful thing. There are similar holidays celebrated throughout the world, and throughout history. To me, there is something both simple and profound in having a special holiday dedicated to gratitude for what we have in our lives. 

I know that over the centuries, Thanksgiving has changed from its origins of days of fasting and days of thanksgiving which were tied to the cycles of availability of food depending on whether it was just before, or right after, the harvest. Oftentimes the food harvested the previous fall would be running very low before the next harvest was due, and it was natural to celebrate the bounty of crops at harvest time. With the ready availability of food regardless of the season, modern Thanksgiving celebrations often don't have the same simple meanings they once did.

Thanksgiving dinner wasn't something I was all that aware of until I lived with Gram. I don't know if my parents celebrated this American holiday after they moved here; if they did, I have no memory of them doing so. And I have no memory of family Thanksgiving celebrations from the year or so that I lived with Alice. But Gram was the hostess of the annual Thanksgiving feast. When November rolled around, we did extra cleaning of the whole house, especially the large room in the basement which was the only place in the house with enough room for all of the family to eat together. At that time, with Gram's children, their children and one spouse, and Liz and yours truly, the group numbered seventeen.

Gram would order a huge fresh turkey from the grocery, and it was usually stuffed and in the oven by about 5:30 in the morning. One of my jobs was working on the relish trays full of cheese-stuffed celery, olives, and other vegetables. Every family brought one or more side dishes and desserts, and the meal was served buffet-style, usually at about 2:30 in the afternoon. I will freely admit that I looked forward to some of these dishes far before the holiday, because many of them were only made once a year. One of my favorites was my Aunt Jackie's fruit salad, and I loved the huge roaster full of Alice's rice, as well as the mashed potatoes and gravy, Sheryl's cranberry-orange relish, and Aunt Roberta's brownies and the bowl of amazingly thick whipped cream she always brought to put on top of pumpkin pie. As someone who has never been fond of pumpkin pie, I thought it was terribly unfair that you had to eat pumpkin pie to get whipped cream. I got bold one year and bravely put some on top of my brownie. I didn't get in any trouble for it, so I never looked back. After that, I never missed my Thanksgiving dessert slathered with whipped cream.

Over the years, the number of people grew. In my unique position as both an outsider and a sort of family member, I was able to observe all of the happenings and behaviors over the years. I remember one year when I quietly carried many of the plates upstairs to the kitchen and washed and dried them by myself because I didn't want Gram's Currier and Ives plates to be treated carelessly and broken. Before anyone knew it, I had put most of the plates away in their special spots in various cupboards.

I also remember turning the heat down low and opening the doors and windows on the main floor of the house, because the sheer numbers of people in the house made it so warm. People would come sit in the living room for quiet or to chat, and complain of the cold, shutting the doors and turning up the heat. Before long, I had to undo their handiwork because the people downstairs were getting sick from the heat. 

One of the things that I noticed in my early years was that many people would not eat or drink anything all day because they knew that they would be feasting later. Most of the time, these same people would eat and eat until they felt sick with the amount of food in their stomachs. I resolved one year in my early teens that I would always leave the table before I got in that state, and have been fairly true to my word. After all, it's not a holiday in celebration of gluttony, it's a holiday in celebration of gratitude. Over the years, there were other forms of excess that made me start to dread the holiday. There were always the same people who drank way too much and either hurt themselves on the way to their cars or homes, or broke one thing or another. And in true fashion, as the liquor flowed, the noise level rose.

As the family grew, things became more complicated. When everyone had finished packing up leftovers in Gram's dishes, we often had a lack of bowls and plates for months afterward. And the dish washing took hours. So I made suggestions to Gram to make everyone's life easier. It was me who suggested switching to eating dinner off of large, sturdy paper plates, as well as using plastic zipper bags for leftovers. And eventually the group became so large that we started renting the clubhouse of a nearby condominium complex. Instead of Gram having to cook a twenty-five pound turkey, two women from the next generation would each make a turkey for the feast.

Another thing that made me stress out about the holiday was the gossip that inevitably began during the meal (sometimes even before!) and lasted until Christmas brought new grist for the gossip mill. Since I lived with Gram, I was aware of gossip from all sides. One daughter would call and complain, and then the other would call with her litany of hateful comments. I don't ever remember Aunt Roberta calling with any gossip, and that is a credit to her. By the time Christmas rolled around, I was so weary of hearing about who sat with whom, and what they looked like in their dreadful clothes, the idiotic things they said during the dinner, how poorly they disciplined their children - the lists, and the complaining, went on and on. When Christmas rolled around, there were new things for them to be angry about, like whose house Gram went to for Christmas dinner or where she spent Christmas Eve, who wore what, said what, ate what, gave what get the picture.

After Gram died and I found myself without a family, I had an odd combination of feelings about Thanksgiving. Although there was a bit of loneliness associated with not having family with whom I could celebrate, there was also an odd sense of relief and freedom. I wouldn't have to worry about who was angry because I didn't sit with them, and I didn't have to watch over anyone or worry about anyone. There was no gossip to listen to for weeks. But there also was no Gram, no delicious dishes that I waited for all year, no people eager to catch up on what was going on in my life.

I've only recently started feeling better about Thanksgiving. There have been a few times that Trent and I have gone to a simple holiday dinner at a nearby restaurant, and there have been times when I cooked the feast myself. There have also been times when we have been invited to join large family feasts of dear friends, and it's difficult for them to understand that even though I love them, the idea of attending a large family dinner on Thanksgiving makes me cringe. The ghosts of my previous holidays return once again to torture me during the holiday season, promising to visit again the next year.

This year our friends Marie and Thayne invited us over for Thanksgiving dinner. It was just the four of us, and together we prepared a a wonderful meal full of traditional favorites, and a dish or two that we created on the spur of the moment. We watched Nathan the bloodhound win Best in Show on tv and had a lovely time. I'm hoping that over time I will be able to exorcise the stressful Spirits of Holidays past. And still remember to leave the table before I'm way too full.

I wish you all happy holidays, no matter what time of year they occur. May they be full of love, good company, and delicious foods, and very short on stress.