This is Part II of a multipart series on the Nelson Holidays. Find Part I HERE.
Those words may inspire in you feelings of joy, stress, or terror, depending on how the day went in your childhood. For the Nelson household, it was a busy time. Feeding a dozen core family members, plus several grandparents, some significant others, and any friends one might invite was quite the undertaking. From the Monday before Thanksgiving, when Mom picked up the Thanksgiving Turkey from Aldi, to the day after Thanksgiving when the leftovers were combined into new dishes and the family went to the Christmas tree farm, the whole week was busy.
Generally, the work was split up between Mom and the older kids, who would proceed to “delegate” tasks to the younger kids. I personally spent many an hour peeling potatoes for the vat of mashed potatoes we would make. Cider was a staple on Thanksgiving, usually bought at the local apple farm. Later, though, we had our own apple-press, and made cider from apples picked from trees on the Nelson property. Once the food was ready, it was time to clean dishes and the house. If there was not enough time to fold and put away all the clothing before Grandpa and Grandma Storrs arrived three hours early, the clothing would be stuffed in the den.
Finally, after a long day of cooking, baking, cleaning, and preparing, it was almost time to eat. But first, the table had to have extra leaves added, be covered with Mom’s nice green tablecloth, and set with tableware. Arranging the tableware was generally the job of the youngest children, but the mid-to-older kids generally had to do a quality assurance check to make sure that the fork was on the left, the knife was on the right, and that everyone had a glass. Usually, a secondary table had to be set up in the living room to accommodate everyone. Generally, this is where the youngest kids sat, sometimes with a couple of older kids to babysit them.
The spread was immense. At least one large turkey, Mom’s famous sausage dressing, a variety of pies from both grandmas, ham, green bean casserole, sweet potato casserole, several salads, mashed potatoes and regular gravy for normal people and giblet gravy for Dad and more. One of the best dishes was the homemade Cranberry Cherry Compote. The recipe for this is included below along with a transcription. Feel free to include it in your own Thanksgiving celebration!
Juice + zest of 1 orange (or 1 cup orange juice)
¾ cup packed brown sugar (maybe ½ cup)
1 (12oz) bag of cranberries
½ cup dried cherries
½ (3”) cinnamon stick (or 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon)
¼ teaspoon allspice, ground
Boil over medium high heat, reduce and simmer, uncover for 10 minutes and let cool.
After the meal, coffee was made to help avoid food coma, and the adults migrated to the living room to talk about fun and interesting subjects like “current matters” and family matters. Meanwhile, the children were tasked with cleaning up the dishes and putting everything away. After this work was done, I would often play games like Risk or Killer Bunnies with the other siblings. Things generally wound down from there.
But that wasn’t quite the end, for it was time to choose the family Christmas tree.
It was traditional to go to a Christmas tree farm run by a family called the Easterlings, which was near St. Charles, Michigan. Eventually, the Mr. Easterling retired, and we began going to a farm called Charboneau in the same area, another family-run operation. Both farms were choose-and-cut. We always joked that Mom would spot the tree we would ultimately choose on the way in, but that we would spend half-an-hour searching fruitlessly before returning to it. In truth, I can’t think of a time this didn’t happen. After choosing the tree, we would hold hands around it and sing the Whoville song from the Grinch Who Stole Christmas or “O Christmas Tree”. Then Dad would chop it down with the help of the oldest boy. All five of us had our turn with this over the years, and it was almost like a rite of passage.
The tree stood bare of ornaments for the rest of the day, and one of the kids was designated as the caregiver. Sometimes lights were put on, but not much else .We learned the hard way not to give it tap water, since that killed the tree, making it shed brown needles everywhere. Sam still hasn’t lived that one down. I was obsessed with the model trains we would have running around the base of the tree, and was usually the one to set them up. Other decorations were set up by other members of the family, such as lights on the bushes outside (Sam’s specialty), reindeer made by Grandpa Storrs, the nativity scene arranged (by the younger ones), and more.
Then, on Saturday, as many of us as were home worked together to put all the ornaments on the tree. Each member of the family had their own personal ornaments which were labeled with our name, and no one else was to put them on without permission. Mom had some special ornaments made of wood that she and Dad got when they lived in Germany, and we had to be extra careful putting them on. The finishing touch was putting a few dozen candy canes on the tree. By the time we were finished, it was hard to see the evergreen past all the ornaments, and it was beautiful. The youngest child had the opportunity to put the angel on top of the tree, assisted by Dad or the oldest kid in the house.
And with that, the Christmas season had begun.
I hope you enjoyed Part II of the Nelson Holidays: The Road to Christmas series! Find Part I here, and come back next week to read Part III!