Robert Ehlert: Remembering fond Christmas traditions

Idaho StatesmanDecember 25, 2013 

Christmas arrived with a sweet ham dinner - a large, bone-in hunk basted with a brown sugar and honey glaze, caramelized pineapple and maraschino cherry bits pin-cushioned into the meat by woody cloves.

That ham held the promise of dinner and days - maybe even a full week - of carved ham sandwiches layered on homemade rye topped with Swiss and slathered with enough hot, stone-ground dark German mustard and horseradish to require a fire-extinguishing beverage. Repeat.

It was a day when we watched Dad shave, whipping up soapy froth in an old mug stirred with a horse-tail brush that rested on the commode. When finished, he splashed Old Spice playfully on those of us who watched the whiskers disappear down the drain. He wore a white shirt and, always fancying himself a cowboy, he donned a string tie.

Aunt Bernice and Uncle Louie showed first with homemade rum-laced goodies and Chex Mix concoctions in a huge soup pot and individually packed bags for each child. Aunt Margaret and Uncle Raymond arrived with money-stuffed Christmas cards hidden away somewhere in their great coats.

We knew this, we knew all of this from years past, from tradition. At Christmastime it was the way the world turned on a dime from the burning, wet snowpants on the sliding hill to the golden eternal moments of childhood.

The next few hours were lost on sweet hugs and ham and tall tales exchanged between Dad and Uncle Louie. Our minds traveled off with them on hunting expeditions to the river for ducks and to the cornfields for pheasants.

After dinner came the climax, the exact second when Uncle Louie - who looked and sounded like Eddie Albert of "Green Acres" TV fame - would wave his arms and invite us into his big old wide-body Buick which, somehow, could accommodate seven kids. His big World War II Vet/U.S. Mailman right arm was our seat restraint should it be a little slippery out there.

"Let's go see the lights, kids, so Santa Claus can come," he would say. The older kids knew that was a signal for the adults to locate and load the presents under the tree while we were off on our merry ride to the city cemetery Christmas light show. There was sound piped in, filling the outdoors with the hymns and standards of the season. A live manger scene was the YouTube of our day with re-enactments up to four times an hour.

We sang our way back in to the house, our voices and eyes exploding as we eyed the red and green-ribboned-booty wrapped beneath the tree.

One year my brother and I split a Tonka truck fire department setup. He was gifted the pump unit and me the hook 'n' ladder. Erector sets, Easy Bake Ovens, hula hoops and hunting vests competed with board games and new doll names. It was a holiday circus and we were like June bugs spinning around a Christmas tree patio light.

Those were my traditions, changed only slightly by time, by death and the inclusion of my kids, the new grandkids. My wife's rituals were similar except their finest hour came on the other side of Christmas Dinner when food comas competed with consciousness. Some years, we attended both, but it was taxing.

For a while we juggled the traditions of the inlaws, the outlaws and the scofflaws and when it was all over - though we kept it to ourselves - we whispered that all the running around made us weary.

It was a nice idea, but trying to engineer gatherings with ever-evolving branches of the Hatfields and McCoys grew more and more futile as the siblings aged and moved away to far-flung area codes and ZIP codes. We saw it unraveling and we didn't know how to stop it until one year my brother-in-law made his Declaration of Holiday Independence.

Tired of dragging his toddlers to celebrate a Christmas here and there and across state lines in 48-hours or less, he said, "Enough." He informed the family that if they wanted to see him, my wife's sister and their children, they would all be at his house. He wanted to create his own tradition.

The nerve.

Suffice it to say, this move did not go over well with some of the other traditions. There were unspoken bad feelings. But deep down we all knew he was an advance scout forging a new family-trail for he rest of us.

Finally, I said, "Good for him. Let him have his new way.

"I only hope he shaves with a mug on Christmas Morning, that he splashes Old Spice on his children, that his wife serves a sweet ham and the June bugs of joy spin around his tree forever."

Merry Christmas.

Robert Ehlert is the Statesman's editorial page editor. Contact him at 377-6437, or on Twitter @IDS_HelloIdaho.

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