At this time of year, as holiday traditions are being hauled out and dusted off, I feel the distance from my Canadian family with an extra pang. I miss the joyful sense of celebration, the gathering of a big, noisy group, everyone talking over each other, fielding a dozen hugs in ten minutes. Our little family is building its own traditions, and they’re good ones. But still, at this time of year, I miss my childhood home and my family in Canada.
For me, “family” includes a hundred or so people distributed across three small communes within a five-mile radius in Northwestern Ontario, but especially the residents, current and former, of the West Farm. (Generally I try to keep location and name details out of my posts to protect the privacy of my loved ones on the farm. In this case, it officially goes by a different name, so you won’t find it on a map should your curiosity prompt you to look.)
Even in our secluded community which refrained from worldly celebrations, Thanksgiving was a big deal when I was growing up. It had the benefit of being neither Halloween (the Devil’s own celebration, as I mentioned in a previous post) or Christmas (a worldly holiday of pagan roots marked with prideful indulgence). It was one of the “Big Three”: Thanksgiving, convention, and graduation. Convention was a yearly long-weekend event. The important leaders of our network of communes and churches, known hierarchically as the “Traveling Ministry” (the lesser traveling preachers and teachers) and “Father Ministry” (the ruling class who handed down decisions both religious and practical), would arrive in March. Visitors would come from all directions to attend all-day revival-style services, causing our group to double or triple in size for several days. High school graduation was nearly as exciting: families of the graduating seniors of our little school would travel to congratulate them, the formally dressed seniors would present speeches, everyone would enjoy a big celebratory meal, and the seniors would open stacks of gifts. It was as close to prom as we ever got — pretty dresses, suits and ties, and lots of excitement, balloons, and confetti, though without dancing or limousines or clandestine make out sessions.
But Thanksgiving was the big one, the special one. It was just us — no out-of-town visitors, no preaching, no speeches. Just good food, family, and after-dinner games. Sometimes we’d invite a few families from outside the commune, or some single police officers or a nurse on assignment at the nearby nursing station, without family nearby. But just as often, it would be only familiar faces.
The women would bustle around the kitchen all day, cooking up a storm. Six or so pies would materialize by dinner time: two or three apple pies, at least one each of pumpkin and pecan, maybe a blueberry pie for good measure. Someone would usually whip up a batch of butter tarts. (For the non-Canadians reading this, butter tarts are a bit like the good part of pecan pie with all those nasty big pecans taken out. This one from Canadian Living looks like a good recipe, though I haven’t tried it.) We’d start fresh rolls in the morning so they’d come out of the oven, crusty and fragrant, before the pies had to go in. One of the cooks would invariably make a sweet potato casserole topped with brown sugar or marshmallows or both; someone else would comment that it looked awfully sweet, whereupon the maker would suggest that perhaps another of the many side dishes might be a better choice for the complainer. And this was certainly a good point, because there would be more than enough side dishes. Stuffing — made with bread cubes, of course, not cornmeal. Huge steaming pots of mashed potatoes, which had been peeled and diced by the younger cooks to keep them out of trouble and spare the adults the tedium of peeling dozens of potatoes. Green beans with bacon. Occasionally roasted sweet potatoes, a concession to the objections of a few to the sweetness of the marshmallow-topped casserole. There would always be cranberry jelly… the real, clear jelly, from a can, of course. Sometimes someone would make cranberry sauce from scratch, but that never replaced the jelly.
Cooking took all morning and afternoon, but for us younger girls, there might be time to enjoy the day off school. We’d race out of the kitchen, grateful for the reprieve from peeling endless piles of potatoes, and pull on heavy snow pants and coats, thick mittens, warm hats. Sleds jostled behind us from the sheds of houses as kids made a beeline for the big hill. We’d swoop down on sleds or on slick snow-pants-covered bottoms, some daredevils trying to ride the sled down standing up, others swearing that going belly-down made the ride faster. The sleds rushed down with solo riders or crammed with as many bodies as could fit, with arguments erupting at the bottom over whose job it was to pull the sled back up. Noses would turn pink, eyelashes frosted over, fingers and toes froze as the afternoon darkened to a blue twilight. Finally, we’d trudge inside, trooping into the kitchen to see if anyone had made hot chocolate. If there was enough stovetop space and anyone had had some spare time, there might be a big pot of made-from-scratch hot cocoa waiting on the range. Maybe one of the ladies had made banana or zucchini bread to snack on, or maybe we grabbed a leftover muffin from breakfast, while one of the moms poured mugs of hot cocoa for all of us. There might even be marshmallows bobbing in the mugs.
Dark came early in a Northwestern Ontario October, so it wouldn’t be dinner time yet, but people would be wandering into the main building early anyway, setting up board games on empty tables and pulling out musical instruments. A Crokinole game would occupy the place of honor at one of the round tables — it didn’t take long for eight people to claim places around the board while others gathered to watch, and a game as competitive as any at our peaceful commune would commence to the tune of guitar strings tuning up next to the piano. (Crokinole, by the way, is another Canadian tradition. It’s usually played with two or four people, but the board can accommodate up to eight.) A few more cerebral types would gravitate to the Scrabble board, while a game of UNO broke out in a corner.
Meanwhile, kids busily put out stacks of plates and baskets of silverware on the big island counter in the kitchen, filled water pitchers, and carried drinking glasses to the tables. Iced tea, which had been sequestered away in a back refrigerator lest teenage boys down it all before dinner, was brought out into the open and distributed to tables in pitchers, because even in the winter no celebration was complete without iced tea. An aunt bore the giant turkey triumphantly from the oven while the mouthwatering aroma swept the rooms. Rolls were tumbled into baskets while girls scooped potatoes out of the big pot into glass bowls, and two women attacked the turkey, carving it into neat slices. Finally, the food was all arranged on the counter, buffet style, and we flocked to our places at the table for a blessing before we dug in.
When we were stuffed with as much food as we could manage, a guitar would softly strum, the piano would echo the notes, and we’d sing songs together: our after-dinner daily tradition. Songs about giving thanks, about love, many of them written by people sitting there in the room.
Cleanup wasn’t too much of a chore; at the tables, dishes were stacked at top speed and quickly scraped and carried into the kitchen. Dads wiped tables and grabbed brooms to sweep the floor of the big dining room, while the kids manned the dish tubs and dried clean dishes. Moms and aunts swiftly wrapped food for the refrigerators. Then, cleanup complete, it was back to the board games and cozy visiting.
My dad would bring out a few new jokes, his sober joke-telling face carefully prepared in advance, always hopeful that the punch line would take the listener by surprise. His brothers would gently jeer — “I heard that one three months ago!” — while they competed with their own stories, others chiming in. Occasionally, a few people would present a skit: nothing serious, just a sketch designed to draw laughter, usually involving costumes we’d thrown together from our collection of old or silly clothes, wigs, and odd accessories. A piano player might wander over to the instrument and run her fingers over the keys, and teenagers would migrate to the piano corner like iron filings to a magnet. Somebody would add a guitar, then another, maybe a mandolin or banjo or hand-made fiddle or classical violin, and we’d sing one song after another while others visited or tried to best each other at the Crokinole board.
Thanksgiving was a day for family time. It wasn’t anything exciting, I suppose. No family feuds, no drunken quarrels. No Black Friday — in Canada, Thanksgiving is on a Monday in October, too far from Christmas to be dragged into the holiday shopping chaos. Besides, we didn’t celebrate Christmas (although we did love finding good deals). It was pretty simple: good food, music we made ourselves, family. And this time of year, I find myself thinking more than usually of my family.
So, to my American friends and family, let me wish you a wholehearted Happy Thanksgiving; and to my Canadian family, thank you for giving me these warm memories of simple traditions. I love you. Happy Thursday.