I grew up in the small town of Wellsburg, one of many such towns along the Ohio River in West Virginia’s Northern Panhandle. In those everyone-knows-everyone towns, familiarity created a culture that seems lost today.
Wellsburg was large enough to have identifiable neighborhoods, but small enough that you could bike from one end to the other. Ours was a small community of large immigrant families, mine being one of them. I had seven aunts and uncles and 22 cousins, all living within walking distance of our house.
As we experienced a Christmas season this year like no other, I’m saddened that the pandemic kept us from doing things we would normally do. Things that would qualify as a tradition. Gift-exchange parties with family and friends. Candlelight worship service at church, ending with everyone singing “Silent Night.” Caroling at local nursing homes. Taking grandkids shopping, topped off with a trip to Yogurt Mountain.
This year, more than any other, I find myself thinking back to those wonderful times growing up in Wellsburg and what Christmas was like in the 1950s and early 1960s. If you asked any of my cousins what the 12 Days of Christmas were, not a single one would mention the song. In their own words, they’d describe the nearly two weeks around Christmas when every night was a family reunion. Each night would be at a different aunt and uncle’s house and the food would vary, depending on the culinary specialty of that aunt.
The adults would gather in the kitchen or dining room with their highballs, the teenagers would gather in another room, and the pre-teens wherever there was space left. The noise emanating from multiple rooms was deafening, the food outstanding and the fun hard to describe. At the end of the party, there were no sad goodbyes or tearful hugs. We all knew that, tomorrow evening, we were going to (fill in the blank)’s house and she always has the best (insert the name of her specialty food).
I had three younger brothers, but one of my cousins was only 4 months younger than me and was like my fourth brother. Anthony, aka Butch, and I would always team up at those Christmas parties to see if we could sneak a few whiskey balls off the food table or steal a sip of an uncle’s highball when he wasn’t looking. We thought we were getting away with something, but I found out years later we fooled no one.
Sad to say, my parents and all my uncles have passed away, as have all but two of my aunts. A handful of cousins are gone, including Butch. But during the 12 Days of Christmas, they are all still with me in memories that have lasted more than 60 years. So this year, instead of focusing on what I can’t do, I’m fondly thinking of things I was blessed to do growing up. The nightly reunions during those 12 Days of Christmas are at the top of the list.
Now, please excuse me. I’m going to go fix a highball and see if I can find that recipe for whiskey balls.