Readers share their less-than-traditional holiday experiences.
One year, several months before Christmas, my husband and I made plans with some friends to have Christmas dinner at a wonderful restaurant famous for its delicious food and enjoyable Christmas music. We made the reservations in advance, and we were all looking forward to a fun-filled Christmas celebration.
When we got up on Christmas morning, the windows were partly frosted over, but we could still see outside. What we saw were knee-high snow drifts in our yard and even higher snowdrifts in the lane from our house to the road. And the thermometer read 17 below zero. Suddenly our Christmas plans didn’t look very promising.
My husband and I talked and decided even though we would have to cancel our restaurant reservations, we could still have a good time and celebrate Christmas if we could just manage to get our friends to our house. Luckily, my husband had driven a big gravel truck home from work the night before, and even better, the truck was equipped with chains on the tires. So, he went to pick up our friends and bring them to our house.
Since we were planning on dining out, I didn’t have a turkey or any of the fixings, so preparing Christmas dinner from scratch was a challenge. Thank goodness we had frozen chicken and ground beef in the freezer. So, instead of a traditional Christmas dinner, we had spaghetti and meatballs with fried chicken. For dessert, I served leftover birthday cake.
It was a wonderful day, and one we’ve always remembered.
Alma - Monrovia, Indiana
There is a marvelous place in Kansas City, Missouri, called Hope Lodge, where my son, Steve, and I spent four consecutive holidays – Christmas, New Year’s, Valentine’s Day and St. Patrick’s Day.
Hope Lodge is located in the historic Quality Hill district and is a haven for cancer patients and their families. Lodging is free, as it is funded through donations to the American Cancer Society. Strangers with similar health problems soon become friends and even family. Hope Lodge is a home away from home, with access to kitchens, laundry rooms, computers, game rooms, a fitness room, and a large movie room complete with a selection of videos.
Each holiday Steve and I spent at Hope Lodge was special. The staff, as well as volunteers and civic groups, brought in a delicious smorgasbord of meals and desserts. In
addition, they made the holidays as fun and festive as possible for those of us who were unable to be home for the holidays. What a boon it was for those undergoing chemotherapy and other treatments, as well as for their families, myself included.
As the Christmas holiday neared, the staff at Hope Lodge decorated trees, brought in cookies and punch, and entertained us with parties, games and music – all in an effort to make our stay as “normal” and memorable as possible. What a caring staff.
In April – the day before Easter – Steve lost his 17-month battle to lymphoma. Our new friends, with whom we had shared recent holidays, supported our family with hugs, compassion, warm sentiments and encouragement for our son’s own Resurrection Day.
Those so-called strangers from Hope Lodge became part of our family during the holidays – and one of the toughest times of our lives.
Patti - St. Joseph, Missouri
The windshield wipers of our 1939 Mercury beat furiously as Dad peered through the darkness of the Oklahoma highway, saying he thought he saw motel lights up ahead and that we were going to have to stop for the night.
We had all of our worldly belongings packed in the trunk and the back seat of the car. After living in California for a year and a half, we were moving back to the farm in Kansas, and I was delighted.
We had planned on getting to Grandma Kroeker’s for Christmas, but the winter weather had slowed us down. It was December 24, 1942, and we were headed to Buhler, Kansas, where our whole family was waiting for us at Grandma’s house.
Now we were snowbound in a little motel in Oklahoma, and we all knew we probably wouldn’t get to Grandma’s to see everyone on Christmas Day. That was depressing because I was looking forward to seeing my cousin again.
My parents made the best of the situation for my 11⁄2-year-old sister and me. After we were settled into the motel room, Mom made her way to the little grocery store located inside the gas station, and Dad got permission from the station’s owner to patch our tires.
When Dad got back to our room, Mom had our Christmas Eve meal ready – hot cocoa and boiled ham sandwiches. Later we sang Christmas carols and listened as Dad read the Christmas Story from Luke 2. Then we opened our Christmas gifts. I was 8 years old, and I got exactly what I wanted – a heart pendant necklace and a small New Testament.
My Christmas celebration was complete, and it’s one I’ve always cherished. We didn’t make it to Grandma’s house until late Christmas night, after everyone had left, but Mom, Dad, my sister and I had spent Christmas together, and that’s all that really mattered.
Doris - Hutchinson, Kansas
When I was growing up, holidays were spent together as a family at home, and my sisters and I were happy with this arrangement. In fact, had we been approached to spend a holiday away from home and our family, we would have turned down the invitation in nothing flat.
Many years later, however, I agreed to spend a Christmas holiday in Mexico. It was 1966, and my husband and I, along with our 9-year-old son, boarded a bus in Buffalo, New York, and headed 2,800 miles away from home.
We enjoyed the beautiful scenery along the way, but as Christmas Eve neared, I began feeling homesick. We arrived in Mexico City on Christmas Eve morning, and we were disappointed because nothing looked festive. That evening, though, we were met with myriad bright lights and decorations inviting us to celebrate the season in Mexico.
We ate dinner at an informal place, and while I enjoyed pork tacos and a bowl of popcorn soup, I couldn’t help thinking about my mom’s wonderful traditional Christmas Eve dinner.
Elinor - Niagara Falls, New York
My husband and I have four children, and each year for Thanksgiving, they all try to make it home with their families to celebrate and give thanks with us. One year, though, none of them were able to make it.
While talking to our friends, James and Virginia, we told them about the children not being able to come home for Thanksgiving, and said it would just be the two of us celebrating the holiday. Virginia told us that not all of their children could make it either, and that their oldest child was the only one who was going to be able to make it to their place that year.
Virginia then invited us to join them for Thanksgiving.
My husband and I accepted their gracious invitation, and Virginia warned us, saying, “Now, we never have a turkey dinner when Mary Lou comes home for Thanksgiving. We usually have ham-and-beans and cornbread because Mary Lou doesn’t care for turkey.”
I told her that was fine with us. Both my husband and I love ham-and-beans and cornbread.
We shared a delicious, though different, Thanksgiving meal with wonderful friends, and a good time was had by us all. Oh, and none of us missed the traditional turkey dinner with all the trimmings.
Frankie - Coffeyville, Kansas
My grandmother, Druzy Blankenship Lowe, wasn’t the soft, cuddly, huggy sort. Instead, she showed her love in other ways – through her cooking, for instance.
Grandmother was of puritan stock, and she didn’t believe Christmas should be celebrated with tinsel, lights and gifts bought on credit at the dry-goods store. So, her gift to her family was a Christmas table spread with her labors of the year before.
Summer peaches had been peeled, boiled with whole cloves and cinnamon sticks, then pressure cooked. Canning jars containing the bright gold halves lined a shelf in Grandmother’s earthen cellar, just waiting for the big day when our family celebrated the birth of Christ.
Persimmons, pulled after a November’s hard freeze, were pressed through a colander. Thick cream, cloves, cinnamon, allspice, eggs, flour and sugar were added, and the pudding was baked in the old wood stove. At the table, whipped cream topped its dark brown goodness.
Pecans had been poled from the trees on the Oklahoma farm, cracked and picked so some could be chopped to coat Grandmother’s roll of date candy.
Bright and early Christmas morning, Grandmother prepared the chickens, placing the pieces in cool well water until closer to dinner time, when she would dip them in egg, dust them with flour, salt and pepper, and fry them in sizzling lard until they were tender and golden brown.
Potatoes that had been dug on hot summer days and placed under the house to keep all winter, were boiled and whipped with a fork to the consistency of marshmallow, then dabbed with butter and freckled with pepper. The potatoes sat next to the green beans Grandmother had picked from her garden and canned in her pressure cooker. Beets and sweet potatoes also joined the home-grown feast.
When dinner was ready, Grandmother would call the family to the table. We’d take our seats and bow our heads while Grandmother thanked the Lord for the food and for what it was intended. Then, after the “Amen” was said, someone would add the thought in everyone’s mind – “And for the hands that prepared it.”
Ann - Norman, Oklahoma
It was 1974, and our family was living in the Philippines, where my husband was stationed with the U.S. Air Force. As any military family will tell you, expect the unexpected. A military family seldom knows where life will take them, but they know it will always be an adventure.
Thanksgiving 1974 was certainly an adventure for our family. We may not have been living on American soil, but our family of four was determined to celebrate American holidays the same as we would have had we been back home in the states.
That year, as Thanksgiving Day dawned, a typhoon was blowing across the Philippine island of Luzon. The sky was dark, and the wind howled as rain fell in sheets. The turkey was thawed and ready to go in the oven, when, suddenly, the power went out. It soon became apparent that our electrical power was not going to be restored anytime soon.
In discovering a few non-traditional reasons for being thankful, we were better able to accept our plight. We learned that a negative can be turned into a positive just by how you manage the situation. Despite the fact that we had no electricity, we were snug and warm indoors, and we were together. So, we played board games, munched on snacks and goodies, and made memories by candlelight.
That stormy Thanksgiving Day more than a quarter of a century ago was surely less than traditional. However, it showed our children that challenges, when met without complaint, can become positives and may just create a well of out-of-the-ordinary memories that can last a lifetime.
Kathy - Schertz, Texas
When I was in school back in the 1960s, we didn’t have a hot lunch program. Cold sandwiches, fruit, cookies or chips, and a carton of milk were brought from home and eaten at our desks, unless you lived in town and walked home for a hot lunch.
During the cold Minnesota winters we longed for a hot meal to warm our chilled bones. The only nice thing about the sandwiches was that we knew they were made with love by our mothers.
One day, someone in the high school came up with the idea of having a hot dog sale. It was decided that the seniors would cook and serve the hot dogs for 20 cents each, and students could add a can of soda for a dime and/or a bag of potato chips for a nickel. The money raised went into the senior class treasury fund.
In March 1967, a hot dog sale was planned for St. Patrick’s Day. Everyone was looking forward to it.
On March 16, it began to snow heavily, and the snow piled up throughout the day. The wind picked up overnight, and by the following morning, there were deep snow drifts everywhere. The temperature was below zero, and we ended up with a good old-fashioned blizzard. School was canceled, and with it the hot dog sale.
My brothers, sisters and I missed out on the hot dog sale, but we still celebrated the holiday by wearing green – and we even tied a green ribbon around our dog’s neck. We got to enjoy Mom’s “hot lunch program,” as well as a tasty green Jello salad, and, best of all, no school for the day.
More cold lunches were interspersed with an occasional hot dog sale over the next several years, until our school finally got a hot lunch program in 1972.
We were all happy to trade our cold sandwiches for sloppy Joes, casseroles, pizza, chicken patties and other hot meals.
Helen - Belle Plaine, Minnesota
When I was a child growing up on the farm, our holidays were all spent in a traditional fashion, except Independence Day. The Fourth of July was usually spent in the field as we harvested the crops. And, unfortunately but understandably, firecrackers were forbidden in the hot Kansas wind and near the ripe, golden wheat fields.
We always celebrated with a special meal, though. I would help Mother take sandwiches, pie and fruit punch to the field at noon on regular days, but for the Fourth of July, she went all out. Her special menu always included fried chicken, mashed potatoes and gravy, green beans, buttered corn on the cob, fresh tomato slices, hot rolls, apple pie and lemonade.
One Independence Day, though, it rained so much that we were unable to get into the fields, and our dad surprised us kids. He went to town and brought home the first firecrackers I’d ever seen. I could hardly wait until evening when our guests – family, hired hands and neighbors – would arrive and gather around the backyard to watch the fireworks display.
As any 8-year-old would do, I totally forgot to put my pet rooster away. My rooster was the type that always picked up whatever anyone dropped on the ground. So, as the first lit firecracker was thrown out, there he was, in all his white-feathered splendor, racing toward it. Everyone sat in silent suspense as it became apparent what was happening.
The firecracker exploded just as my rooster was about to pick it up. He flew up into the air, feathers flying, then landed on the ground with a thump. For a few seconds he sat stunned and ruffled. Then he rose to his feet, a little unsteadily at first, and made a beeline for the henhouse. After hiding out for several days, he cautiously made his way out into the barnyard again, although not with all the impulsive curiosity he once had.
That Fourth of July when our family celebrated in traditional holiday fashion was untraditional for us – and unforgettable.
Mary Ann - Salina, Kansas
When my siblings and I were growing up, times were hard. Christmas was a special time for our family, but with five children to raise during the depression and war years, there were very few gifts under our tree.
One year, Daddy handed us children a five-dollar bill so we could each spend a dollar to buy something for Christmas from the little country grocery store a quarter-mile from our house. We walked to the store, and the store owner helped us fill a small box.
Another year, we children found a letter from Santa. It was 1937, and I was 4 years old.
I was surprised to see you living in such a big house. ... I’m sorry I couldn’t fill your stockings, but ... every time I started to put candy in, they would fall to the floor. ... I left your candy ... in a dish under the tree.
I didn’t have two electric trains, so I left one for Junior and John to share. I’m sure they will not fight ... and won’t let anyone bang up those pretty cars or bend the track. ...
Mary Ellen and Wanda Rose are good little girls and want to help keep the house cleaned up ... so these cleaning things belong to both of you. And, Mary Ellen, I know you wanted to wear your short-sleeve dress to school, so I got you a nice red sweater. Never eat at the table with it unless you put your apron on over it.
Alice Joy ... I had a box of dollies ... and have left it for you, and now I know you will mind Mother and Daddy, and never frown up your pretty face.
Well, I must be on my way. ... Be very good boys and girls ... Merry Christmas until another year.
We eventually found out that Mother had written the letter. What an unusual gift that letter was, and you can tell by her words that gifts were few and were to be treasured.
Wanda - San Luis Obsipo, California
I grew up in rural Illinois during the 1940s and ’50s. Due to the frequent inclement weather, I often spent the holidays flat on my back with a thermometer stuck in my mouth. I was plagued with childhood illnesses.
However, on Thanksgiving Day the year I was 11, I wasn’t sick at all. Early that morning, our doorbell rang. I didn’t know it then, but our family couldn’t afford a turkey for dinner, so a friend of my parents brought us one.
He carried a gunny sack into the house, and Dad ushered him into the kitchen. The man swooped the heavy bag onto the counter, then Dad plopped the contents – a freshly killed turkey – onto the newspapers Mom had placed on the counter.
As soon as I saw the axe heading for the turkey’s neck, I bounded out of the kitchen as fast as my legs could carry me, and I didn’t return until dinner time. That Thanksgiving Day, instead of the traditional meal, I feasted on Mom’s homegrown vegetables. In fact, on that unforgettable holiday, I became a vegetarian – for an entire year.
Sheron - Hemet, California
One year, my husband and I were headed to Asheville, Tennessee, to spend the Thanksgiving holiday with our daughter. However, the weather got bad as we neared Knoxville, so we called some friends who owned a condo there.
Our friends were at their son’s place, but they insisted we stay at their condo and told us where to find a key. We were grateful to have a place to stay – and even more so when the storm continued to rage for two days.
So, instead of a traditional Thanksgiving meal, we feasted on chicken cordon bleu.
Anne - Sylvania, Ohio
It is our family’s tradition to rotate the hosting of holiday feasts to prevent undue burden on any one family member. One year, however, my husband, David, suggested we do something different for the Thanksgiving holiday. He suggested we have a progressive dinner.
We brought the idea to the family, and David explained how a progressive dinner works. In short, we would all go to different houses for different courses of the meal. The concept seemed to have merit, and everyone agreed to give it a try. The plan was to have appetizers at David’s sister’s house, the main course at our home, and dessert at his brother’s place.
Well, to paraphrase a line from the poem “To a Mouse,” by Robert Burns, “The best laid plans of mice and men often go awry.” A couple of unforeseen difficulties arose, the worst of which was an early winter storm that resulted in a glaze of ice on the roads. The other problem had to do with logistics. How in the world were my husband and I going to be able to pack up the children, drive across town for appetizers, arrive back home at the same time everyone else was showing up, and be ready to serve the main course in a relatively short period of time?
Well, as the old proverb says, “All’s well that ends well.”
Dinner took a little time to get on the table, and not everything was orchestrated perfectly, but since we’d all had something to eat at our first stop, no one really seemed to mind waiting on dinner. Then, after dinner, we all headed over to David’s brother’s house for dessert.
It was a long evening, especially for the children. Although we enjoyed the novelty of the progressive dinner, the next year we returned to our familiar and traditional way of celebrating Thanksgiving.
Angela - St. Joseph, Missouri
I was only 7 years old in 1933, but I knew times were hard. Momma told me not to expect a visit from Santa Claus that year because, like us, he didn’t have any money either. Even without a visit from Santa, I was excited for Christmas. We were going to have Christmas dinner at Great Grandma’s house – a rustic Texas farmhouse built in the 1870s – and it was always fun to go to her house.
On that cold, gray December day, Great Grandma held the door wide open while we piled out of our black Model A Ford after a long ride from town. She kissed us a cheery hello, leaning down to hug me in her long, dark skirt and long-sleeved shirtwaist, with her high, black leather, buttoned shoes peeking out from underneath her skirt. Her blue eyes smiled brightly from beneath a crown of long, black hair piled up high in a knot on top of her head and anchored with thick, gold hairpins.
Inside the house, the fireplace crackled with cedar logs as aunts, uncles and cousins arrived. Finally, we gathered in the big kitchen and sat around a long table that extended the full width of the room.
Great Grandma had butchered one of her fat turkey gobblers, and it lay before us on a platter, steaming and golden-brown, stuffed with rich cornbread dressing. Fruit jars of canned string beans, peas and pickled beets accompanied the bird, as did cucumber pickles, watermelon pickles and homemade biscuits. For dessert, we had blackberry pie, pecan pie, apple cobbler, and three-layer cakes with chocolate frosting. Milk gravy, homemade butter and sorghum molasses also graced the table.
At the head of the table, Great Grandma thanked God for our blessings and for being able to raise all the food needed for the year. Then she talked about other times of struggles and lean years, and said that trust and faith in God had always brought better times. After grace was said, my plate was filled to overflowing.
The conversation turned to spring planting, the problems of living without money, and thoughts of defending our country in times of war. I heard it said that somebody named Hitler, way over in Germany, was going to cause an awful bad war, and someone else mentioned how the Democrats in Washington were trying to help poor folks like us.
I remember thinking that I sure hoped they’d hurry up and help. I didn’t mind one Christmas without a visit from Santa, but I didn’t know if I could stand it if he didn’t make it next year.
Such were the days, and those were the times. Things improved, and Santa came to visit again.
Evelyn - Temecula, California
“Mom, how soon do we eat?” I asked, excited about our holiday feast.
“Yeah, Mom, when do we eat?” echoed my younger brother, Jerry.
My mother said the turkey wasn’t done, so I persisted, asking how much longer until it was done.
“Well, let’s see,” Mom said, stepping toward the oven. “Boys, come here.”
We did, and she flipped on the oven light and told us to look in at the turkey. I knelt down, cupped my hands at my temples, and peered through the glass in the oven door, as Jerry did the same.
“Do you see that little white plastic thingy?” she asked. “Well, when that thing pops up, the turkey is done.”
“How does it know?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” she said. “It just does.”
My brother and I looked at each other and shrugged.
“Why don’t you go play, and come back later to check on the turkey,” Mom said.
We scampered out of the kitchen and into the family room. We didn’t even noticing Dad getting up from the dining room table and striding into the kitchen.
About 15 minutes later, Mom yelled, “John! Jerry!”
“Yeah, Mom?” we replied.
“It’s time to check the turkey again.”
Tearing into the kitchen, we saw Dad leaning against the refrigerator, watching, as Mom flipped on the oven light again and said, “Check the little plastic thingy.”
Again, we looked through the glass at the turkey, then our mouths flew open.
“Mom, didn’t you see the little white plastic thingy?” I asked.
“You shrunk the turkey!” Jerry said.
Our parents immediately started laughing. Then Mom grabbed an oven mitt, opened the oven door, and reached in and pulled out a Cornish game hen. Still laughing, Dad took the turkey from a kitchen cabinet and returned it to the oven.
Some three hours later, we feasted on turkey, mashed potatoes, stuffing, fresh vegetables – and a Cornish game hen.
John - Hilton Head, South Carolina
We were in Great Britain for a wedding in 2006 and stayed a few extra days to celebrate a friend’s birthday, which was on our American Thanksgiving Day.
For her birthday, she wanted a traditional Thanksgiving dinner, so she and I went to get the groceries. No fresh turkeys or cranberries could be found, so, instead, we got a pre-cooked frozen turkey and a can of cranberry sauce. We substituted a box of top-of-the-stove dressing instead of the real thing, as well.
We added vegetables and potatoes, and for dessert, my friend chose a traditional British Christmas pudding. In no time, our nontraditional “traditional” Thanksgiving dinner was complete.
That evening, more friends joined us for a memorable birthday-Thanksgiving-Christmas dinner. It was the first holiday we’d been together in our 40-year trans-Atlantic friendship.
Donna - St. Joseph, Missouri
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