All living things respond to the warmth of love. ~ Unknown
I remember well those Christmases when our family would visit my grandparents (Momme and Dodde) on my mother's side of the family. In the following vignette, I am combining several typical years when we visited Mem's relatives.
When we arrived at my Momme and Dodde's on Christmas morning, I noticed two surreys (two-seated buggies) parked in the yard and through the windows I saw several red heads and knew that many of the relatives had arrived ahead of us. I had close to ninety first cousins on that side of the family. More than half of them had bright red hair.
Momme’s house had a bright and sunny feel to it. Walking into her spotless kitchen was the closest I came to getting a warm embrace in the community. The Amish don’t hug, kiss, or show affection. Shaking hands is the only form of acceptable physical contact in public, except for rocking, holding, and taking care of babies. All the same, Momme’s kitchen gave one the feeling of, “Come one, come all.” Momme’s living room was as spotless as her kitchen. A clock ticked rhythmically on the shelf above the bureau as we went through to the bedroom to put away our coats, shawls, and bonnets. The house smelled of roast turkey and potatoes and squash. My younger girl cousins were playing with their dolls. I had cousins who were babies, some who were grown, and every age in between.
Everyone wore their Sunday best. I was wearing my white head covering, clean, freshly starched, and pleated, that I wore only for special occasions, and it felt crisp and clean, like the bright day with the sun streaming through Momme’s sparkling windows. Momme and two aunts were peeling potatoes. Mem rolled up her sleeves to help. My cousins Nancy and Susie came in and we headed off to Aunt Ada’s side of the house before our mothers could pull us into the kitchen to do dishes. I knew they would find us soon enough. Sure enough, halfway through the forenoon, as we came within wafting distance of the smells drifting out of the kitchen Aunt Sarah saw us and said, “You girls get over here and do these dishes and set the table!” The furniture in the living room had been moved over to Aunt Ada’s side of the house to make room for two tables. We set the table, squeezing in as many places as we could. My cousins and I discussed the unfairness of the men eating first, even though the women did the cooking and the dishes. I heard Uncle John talking in the other room and then loud laughter. I smelled the men’s pipe smoke and wished I could smell the food by itself.
When the table was ready, we brought in steaming plates of food. There were hills of mashed potatoes with melted brown butter running down the sides, Momme’s rich gravy, big platters of roast turkey, dressing, squash, peas, home-canned corn relish, sweet pickles, applesauce, and fresh slices of Mem’s white bread with elderberry jelly. With our mouths watering, we watched the men and boys come in and take their seats. We womenfolk stood in a circle around the table while everyone bowed their heads in silent prayer. Then we filled water glasses and brought more food as they emptied the plates.
We watched the men pat their over-filled stomachs, stretch, and leave the table to go back to Aunt Ada’s living room before we cleared the table, did the dishes, and set the table again. Finally, we brought on the remaining food and sat down to eat. We had just passed all the food and were getting our first tastes of the sumptuous food, when my uncles sauntered into the room. “Are you still eating?” they teased as they stood over my aunts’ shoulders with their full bellies. I wondered how my aunts could just blush and try so meekly to defend themselves, when I had visions of throwing my fork at them. One of my aunts said, “Next time we’ll eat first and let you wait on us.” That brought laughs and guffaws from the men. Finally, they walked back into Aunt Ada’s living room. I felt relieved that now we could eat in peace. And eat we did. After we had seconds, we brought on the desserts. There was graham cracker pudding, hickory nut cake, and apple, cherry, blueberry, and pumpkin pies.
By the time we left the table, we could barely move. But the dishes had to be done one last time. The aunts and Mem decided the girls should do them. We knew protesting wasn’t going to help, so we all chipped in. They proceeded to put the living room back together so they could finally get a chance to sit and visit for the first time that day. But this was only after they brought out their homemade goodies. There was always a friendly competition about who could make the most delicious cookies or candies –– there were turtles, chocolate covered cherries, popcorn balls, cracker jacks, rice crispy treats, coconut bars, thumb print cookies, and two kinds of fudge –– maple and chocolate. We girls helped ourselves to these treats as we took turns washing, drying, and putting away the dishes.
As the clock struck three, we were hanging up our dishtowels and thinking about playing games. I don’t remember what games the girls wanted to play, but the uncles wanted to play “Swat,” a circle game in which a person stood in the middle with a rolled up newspaper. Someone called out a name and the person in the middle tried to hit the named person before he or she called out someone else’s name. We knew that most of the men didn’t know their own strength. Even though the game was supposed to be fun, their swats hurt. The rolled up newspaper used as their weapon became tattered and torn. Yet they talked us into it once again.
The game had gotten out of hand by the time the first van drove into the driveway. As the vans arrived, the mad scramble for coats, bonnets, and shawls began. On the way home, I was sad that the day was over. I reminded myself that we would go to Datt’s family get-together on “Old Christmas” (a holiday the Amish celebrate on January 7), but somehow it was just not as much fun as Mem’s side of the family.
My husband and I celebrate Christmas differently now. Our family is clearly not as big, for one thing. This year it will be just the four of us… David, our two grown sons, and myself. I love decorating a tree, so that has been a tradition we started as soon we were married. David and I love to sit in our living room with only the Christmas lights on and reminisce. I think of a Christmas tree as a celebration of light in the darkest time of the year.
This year I added a tradition that I hope will sustain us through many years – I made more than 60 gift bags out of cotton material. I use the bag instead of wrapping paper, and tie it off with a silk ribbon. I then give the bag as part of the gift. My hope is that it will save paper, and I, for one, love the idea of not having to throw away all that paper after Christmas.
I wish everyone a Christmas filled with peace, love, warmth, and good cheer.
Our living room tonight