With my mother at the helm, my family’s household was frequently the venue for large gatherings at Christmas and Thanksgiving. These events were always casual and pot-luck, but even so she nurtured a variety of strategies to make sure that these mandatory family obligations didn’t turn into mother-f**ing ordeals. Below are five of her favorite strategies that have undergone extensive beta-testing over decades and generations.
1. Dinner Seating
My mother strove to find a balance between the rigidity of a fixed seating plan and the spontaneity she craved. Her solution was two hats of paired items that she passed around before dinner with the instruction “Go Forth and Find Your Match.” The pairs varied over the years. One year there were two sequential verses of a Christmas carol and you found your dinner partner by singing in search of the next verse. Another year the hats contained a variety of separated pairs of nuts and bolts, ranging in size from teeny tiny to jumbo. Once paired up, you went through the buffet line with your partner and sat together at randomly selected seats. Although I observed some black-market trading, this system ensured that crazy Aunt Bertha with that scary hairy mole on her cheek wouldn’t get stranded.
Most everyone wanted to chip in, but given the melee of people the “how” could be an overwhelming conundrum. Including a chore on the inside of the folded place card was a simple solution. Everyone assumed the chore assigned to their seat. I am now at the helm of the next generation of Thanksgiving and have adopted this strategy for the 35-40 family and friends who gather at our house. My chores range from the pedestrian “help scrape dinner plates” to more creative efforts such as “see if Grandma needs more vodka,” or “tell Frances you like her new haircut.” One year I ran out of Thanksgiving-specific chores, but thought I might as well take advantage of my nephews at the peak of their heavy-lifting prowess. I penciled in “Please put in the storm doors,” a chore that Nick and I find particularly unpleasant. Done.
3. Christmas Stockings
My mother was always in charge of Christmas stockings, a job that became unwieldy as the family grew to include in-laws and grandchildren. Her solution was to make a sweep through a few stores and then fill the stockings at random, figuring that everyone could trade later. One year, Nick reached into his stocking to find a pair of panty house, while our 2-year-old daughter gnawed on a hockey puck. I remember my brother trading away almost the entire contents of his stocking to end up with a map of the Zodiac and several boxes of Whitman samplers. This bartering add spark, energy (and strategy) to the morning.
“White elephant” gift exchanges are a standard holiday event, but my mother wanted to spice up the typical scenario where gifts are opened one by one and participants can decide whether to keep it or exchange with someone else. Yawn. This was just too slow-moving for our family. My mother found a way to speed it up and inject competition into the mix. All the wrapped gifts – mostly silly things, recycled gifts, novelty food items, old pictures – were placed in the center, and then everyone started rolling dice. If you rolled a “7,” “11” or “doubles” you could choose one of the gifts. After all were taken, the gifts were opened and displayed to the group.
Now the action really picked up. My mother would set the timer for five minutes, and we would snatch items from someone else’s pile if we rolled a “7”, “11” or “doubles.” The most fascinating part of this exercise was that inevitably one gift became the “hot” item, madly traded back and forth as the clock ticked down. One year it was a pork-pie hat, another year, for no discernable reason, the hot item was an over-sized smoked sausage. The group psychology was particularly intriguing the year the family tussled over a bunch of tickets for the upcoming lottery. The tension rose as we all quietly succumbed to the collective delusion that that the jackpot was at stake right here in our living room. Of course I knew the tickets weren’t winners, duh, but JUST IN CASE, I sure as hell was not going to let my sister-in-law end up with them. I was not alone. Everyone focused on getting those tickets and they were traded with an unbridled frenzy. When the buzzer went off I was limp with exhaustion, my forehead beaded with sweat, but I was clutching the tickets. After watching this manic performance our young son understandably assumed that we had truly won the jackpot; he wanted to know if he could help spend the money.
My mother knew that a multi-generational event could not rely on cocktails, conversation and dinner. She kept things lively with various games, such as a search for a list of items hidden in plain sight. Of course, once hidden, you might as well leave them for the next year. In my house, the pennies glued to the eyes of the owl tchotchke have been there for years.
However, as our kids grew and I took over the reins of our family’s Christmas, I knew that I needed to make some tweaks to her formula. Our teenaged kids had outgrown the whiz-bang Christmases with games and piles of gifts. One year I discovered the entire contents of our son’s stocking – the gum, the Pez dispenser, toenail clippers, etc. – neatly stacked in his closet. I simply scooped everything up and repurposed it for the next Christmas. Nobody noticed.
All the kids really wanted was a Christmas check, and basically that fine with me as long as I could recapture the energy and entertainment of prior years. Family Jeopardy was the answer. I created various categories such as “Family Pets,” with entries such as “the name of the dog that Granny ran over.” (Answer in the form of a question: Who was Fido?) I added surprising trivia gathered from secret interviews with their friends, such as “the reason you got arrested.” (Answer in the form of a question: “What is peeing in the alley behind the bar?”) I also created entries from magazines that I had given the kids to read, telling them that it might come in handy on Christmas day. I arranged the entries according to degree of difficulty, added in daily doubles and then finally got a wad of fives, tens and twenties to peel off if they “questioned” the answers correctly. “Family pets for $10, Mom.” It worked perfectly.
As I plot and plan, tweak and twist my mother’s traditions, I realize how fortunate I am to have such a gifted mentor. With her guidance, I have made sure that mandatory family obligations remain my favorite occasions.
Fan Brown, 1927-2007
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