Wednesday, 21 December 2016

Christmas in Philly.

Today, Robyn G. May is my guest writer and her subject is her Christmases past in Philadelphia.

Like many of us, my memories of childhood Christmases are bad as well as good and it's a subject I think I'll avoid.

But Robyn has a large and close family.......and as you can see they had some amazing Christmases in years gone by!

My Christmas

Neil has said we are both having trouble getting into the Christmas spirit this year. I’ve been watching movies and TV shows, I recently started listening to Christmas music that is helping a bit. Every year I say to myself ‘I’m going to have the kind of Christmas I dream about’ and it never happens.

The last three Christmases have been dismal. This one seems to be following that trend. I guess it wouldn’t be so bad if it weren’t my favourite time of year. I love decorating, I used to decorate the inside and outside of my house, I’d get a big tree and I tried to get at least one new ornament every year but it had to be either red or gold. I love wrapping presents and deciding what to buy people for Christmas. I love Christmas music and movies. I’d spend the whole day listening to Christmas music and the evenings watching movies, at least one every night.
But of course the most meaningful part of Christmas is spending it with your family. I have so many great memories of holidays with my family.  For us Christmas started on Christmas Eve. My Aunt Gudrun who is from Germany and my Uncle Ducky invited us for dinner when I was about 4 and they hosted dinner every year until this year. Uncle Ducky (Howard was his real name) was my grandma’s brother. At first it was just my grandparents, great-grandparents, my mom and I; but as time went on my cousins (my aunt’s and uncle’s children) started coming and it became a big affair. The thirty years of dinners were held in the 4 homes my aunt (and uncle) lived in over the years. My uncle died almost two years ago now so I’m sure it was tough for my aunt hosting on her own. This year she is going away for Christmas. Even though I’m not there it feels like the end of an era. Christmas Eve will never be the same again.
On Christmas morning my immediate family would always have breakfast together, at least while my grandparents were still alive. Most of the years my mom and I lived with them. But on two of the few when we didn’t we hosted breakfast at our home. My grandmother didn’t like that! The most memorable breakfast for me was I think 1988 where my grandfather recorded breakfast with a cassette recorder. Why would anyone do that? But he did. He did it a few times, and I still have the tapes in Philly (somewhere). We’d have the afternoon to prepare, recover or play before our next visit.
On Christmas afternoon we went to my Aunt Liz’s house. Aunt Liz was my grandpa’s sister and every Christmas she hosted a HUGE Christmas dinner. When I was young there would easily be 50 people there. Dinner was so big that there were two tables of people. People would get up when they finished eating, and more people would sit in their places and eat. My family (great-grandparents, and aunts) always welcomed ANYONE to come for dinner, and everyone knew they could cook so everyone wanted to come.

Neil thinks I’m crazy when I talk about what to cook for Christmas dinner but I grew up with a massive spread. Although my aunt hosted it she didn’t prepare all the food herself, we all brought something and even helped finish cooking once we arrived. Turkey and Ham were a given but there would probably be fried chicken as well and sometimes my cousin brought ribs. We’d have stuffing, macaroni and cheese, baked apples, corn pudding, sweet potatoes (either candied or smashed – either way with Peach Schnapps).

We’d have what we call turnips which are actually rutabagas or what you call swede, collard greens, string beans (green beans), gravy and cranberry sauce and ambrosia which my mom made and of course my aunt’s homemade rolls which I’m still trying to figure out the recipe.

Then after that we’d have dessert which was just as big. Pound cake, sweet potato pie (my Aunt Sister’s specialty), cheesecake, pumpkin pie, caramel cake or coconut cake and ice cream along with anything else someone may have brought. We ate for hours! Then we’d sit and talk or play and then open presents and eat some more. And if there was enough food left we’d come back the next day.
It seemed like when I was young we stayed till close to midnight. Over the years the numbers dwindled. Family members died including in 2005 Aunt Liz. For a few years we took turns hosting Christmas dinner but in 2010 I decided to take charge. Unlike all the years my aunt hosted dinner I cooked everything myself. I didn’t want anyone to help, partly because I knew everyone was struggling financially and partly because I love to cook. But the spread wasn't as big. My mom would help, she made a roast beef one year and a ham another. One year I served a roast pork loin as well, but turkey was always on offer. I spent about 5 years perfecting a moist turkey and delicious gravy that I loved unlike the gravy my family made that had giblets in it (yuck!). But we still had the staples; stuffing, macaroni and cheese, sweet potatoes, greens and even brussel sprouts. The last year I made a Banoffee pie.
For years when I was young my grandmother had her side of the family over for dinner one evening during Christmas week. When we were young there loads of kids; one of my grandmother’s brothers had 6 kids and they all had kids of their own. Our house would be full of kids. Then we all got older and my grandmother didn’t feel up to having it so we stopped. But the last Christmas I was in Philly (2012) I wanted to have them all over so they could see the house again. My great-grandparents bought the house in the 1940s and my grandmother and her brothers spent their teenage years in the house. When my grandmother died I took on the house and redecorated. Although I painted and got new living room furniture the dining room furniture was still my great-grandparents’ along with some of the fixtures. There was nothing like having the Arnolds who all grew up in the house over to see it in a new light. It even seemed to help my Uncle Ducky who at the time was suffering from Alzheimer’s, he was like his old self that night.
Also during the week between Christmas and New Year’s Eve my grandmother would have her girlfriend’s over for dinner. When I was young my grandmother’s crew was close. Her friend Ms. Theresa was always around, she would bring her mother, Mrs. Mom as we called her. They were both so nice. Ms. Theresa died when I was 10, but I’ll never forget her. There was also Ms. Juanita and Uncle Leon – I have no idea why it was Uncle Leon but not Aunt Juanita. Ms. Juanita was my grandmother’s best friend and their children grew up together, then Ms. Juanita had a daughter later in life that was only a few years older than I was, so we were close growing up too. Uncle Leon died in the late 1990’s and Ms. Juanita in 2003. By the late 1990’s my grandmother wasn’t really up to having company anymore. But during the 1990’s every year there were weeks of preparations; she had the carpets professionally cleaned, we’d wash the woodwork, dusting and polishing. Candy and nuts all over the house for entertaining.
Don’t get me wrong, some of those Christmases weren’t so great. Two years my mom and I moved during the few days leading up to Christmas. One year someone took our Christmas shopping from me while I was waiting for my mom in a department store. One year (actually two I think) we had a real tree with glass ornaments and every day the tree fell over, so by the end of Christmas there were no ornaments left. Several Christmases we lost family members in the weeks before Christmas. My grandfather died a month after Christmas, he spent his last Christmas in the hospital so we did as well. And after that Christmas my grandmother, mother and uncle never really got into Christmas again.

It’s been hard getting into the Christmas spirit this year and I’ve been trying to figure out why, but it just dawned on me. Christmas has changed so much through my life. I know it changes for everyone. As you get older it isn’t so fun anymore, but normally people have kids and then the cycle begins again. For me Christmas was a jolly time shared with a huge family. Now the family has dwindled down to just a few people. Life has changed for those of us left now. I live over here and can’t go back to visit even though I’d really like to. And I don’t have a family of my own to pass the traditions on to or create new ones with. My mother has also moved away from Philadelphia so I don’t have much family left in Philly, not nearly as much as I had growing up. The family that is still there is more distant than they used to be; some have their own families but none of them keep in touch very much. But I long for those warm and fun Christmases with my grandparents and aunts and uncles. Those were the days! I guess it will never be the same again.
Merry Christmas!!

This last dose of Chemo has been a struggle and January is not something I'm looking forward to this year but Robyn and I are going to do our best to make this a Christmas to remember.

Neil Harris
(a don't stop till you drop production)
Contact me:

No comments:

Post a Comment