As a child, I lived in a small town in southern Minnesota with all of my relatives within a twenty-minute drive. The pattern for family get togethers was set early. Christmas Eve, we went to Grandma Jensen's house. (An aside--ever notice that the house always belongs to the grandma? Grandpa Jensen lived there too, paid for the house as a blacksmith, mowed the lawn, and fixed all that needed fixing. But we always went "to Grandma's.")
The big feature at Grandma Jensen's was the food. Grandpa was a Danish immigrant by way of Argentina and Grandma was the daughter of Norwegian immigrants, so everything started with butter. The rolls and breads were out of this world. Grandma whipped egg whites by hand in a copper bowl for her wonderful angel food cakes. At Christmas there were always rosettes and krumkake--a delicate cone-shaped cookie made from butter, cream, flour and sugar: how could it be bad?
There were lots of Jensen cousins and in my early years, an aunt and uncle still in their teens who delighted in giving us all grief through incessant teasing. And every year before we went, my mother would say to my dad, "Now Bill, please don't bring up politics or religion."
Christmas Day we spent at Grandma Musser's (known to the grandchildren as Grandma Betty.) Our grandfather, Pa Ben, was allowed to live there too. Grandma Betty was a Christmas freak. They lived in a huge old six-bedroom house on a double lot with a half-circle drive in front. An enormous evergreen, taller than the house, stood in front, decorated with strings of full sized colored bulbs running down from the top of the tree. An old sleigh sat under the tree, in which we made many imaginary journeys.
Grandma Betty's indoor tree was a fresh balsam fir that touched the ceiling. She often made ornaments for it and when those were all carefully hung and the tinsel placed, she laid narrow strips of cotton along the branches to look like snow. These were cut from those rolls of cotton that came in a blue box at the pharmacy. A few years ago, when the cotton I had always put on our tree became too mangy to reuse, I discovered that rolls of cotton like that are no longer available.
I don't think Betty was a great cook--certainly not like Grandma Jensen. She did, however, make a great plum pudding. Pa Ben owned a large independent poultry business and had grown up in meat-packing so the entrees at dinner were always interesting. Once, when I was very young, there was a pig with an apple in its mouth. I thought later that I had dreamed that up so I asked my mother. She said yes, that was true but that I was so little, she couldn't believe I remembered it. Tell me what toddler is going to forget that on the table?
Most of the day was bedlam. My dad had two brothers, and between the three families, there would eventually be 20 children. I was the third oldest, so as a kid there weren't quite so many yet but mostly boys. My cousin Georgiann and I were the only granddaughters for several years and much better behaved than the boys. Cuter, too.
Betty and Pa Ben had a part-time housekeeper and cook, a wonderful woman named Lizzie Beckman. who would have been memorable just for putting up with all of us but was also locally famous for her chocolate cake and sugar cookies. Because of Lizzie, sugar cookies in our family were never thick and doughy but very thin and crisp. They were never decorated with frosting but only red and green sugar. I am grateful that I have both of those recipes.
Gifts were unique at Betty's. My dad and his brothers maintained a competition to outdo each other in giving obnoxious presents to the nieces and nephews. Dad always thought he was never topped after giving my cousin Harry a set of toy bagpipes. But the gifts from our grandparents were the piece de resistance. One year we all got cowboy outfits--hats, shirts, boots, holsters and cap guns. The boys got jeans and George and I got fringed skirts. Another year the boys all got toy tool sets and George and I got real marionettes. We were engrossed the entire day learning how to work them and planning a classy dramatic event. That evening the adults were in the kitchen having coffee and birthday cake (it was my dad's birthday) when George and I walked our puppets into the room and told them that after discussion, we decided this had been a quieter Christmas than usual. They looked at us, incredulous. They had just seized all of the tool sets after one of the boys was caught trying to saw on the baby grand. Oh, for the good old days.