My Aunt Anna May (note: My Aunt Anna May, at age 99, is still with us,) and a bunch of cousins lived near Cairo (rhymes with Aero. Kayro is a syrup. K-Eye-ro, another incorrect pronunciation is a city in Egypt,) Illinois. Mom’s other two siblings, Aunt Clara and Uncle Bill, lived near Chicago along with their batch of kids and cousins. We lived betwixt them with a local batch of cousins and therefore often hosted the gathering of the Clan at the holidays.
In the late 1950s, most of the cakes and pies were hand-made including pie crust. Betty Crocker was expensive and not to be trusted according to Mom and Grandma. A week or so before the guests arrived, Mom and Grandma started making pie dough. They would make it in small batches, enough for a couple of pies and then store it on the porch. The porch was unheated and was used as a large refrigerator during the colder months.
Mom and Grandma collected pie fillings most of the year. When cherries were in season, they canned cherries. When blackberries and raspberries were in season, they canned the berries—along with making a large batch of berry jelly and jam. When apples were in season, they canned and dried apples. When the holidays arrived, they were ready.
About the only things they didn’t can was pumpkins. Mom and Grandma purposely planted late to harvest late. I don’t remember a year that we didn’t have pumpkins or sweet-potatoes for pie filling.
The count-down started with the pie dough. When the dough was ready, Mom began baking pies. When a pie was finished, it’d go out to the porch covered with a cloth. The division of labor was that Mom would make pies, Grandma would make cakes.
Grandma liked sheet cakes. I rarely saw a round, frosted cake unless it was someone’s birthday. Grandma’s cakes were 12″ by 24″. Icing was usually Cream Cheese or Chocolate. Sometimes, when Grandma make a German Chocolate cake, she’d make a brown-sugar/coconut/hickory nut icing. The baking was done right up until it was time stick the turkeys, hams or geese in the oven.
The last item Grandma would make was a apple-cinnamon coffee-cake that was an inherited recipe from her mother. It was common-place that when everyone arrived, we’d have a dozen pies and another dozen cakes ready. That was our contribution. The guests brought stuff as well.
The holiday gathering wasn’t just a single day, it was several. Thanksgiving, for instance, lasted through Sunday. A Christmas gathering lasted through New Years. We weren’t the only relatives in the central part of the state, but we were the gathering place. Come bedtime, the visitors left with some of the local cousins and would gather again the next day at another home and the visiting continued.
It was not unusual for us to have twenty or thirty folks at the house at one time. Our barn was heated for the livestock, so the men and boys—and some girls, gathered there. Dad would turn a blind eye to the cigarettes, cigars and bottles—as long as no one started a fire. Grandma’s jugs of Applejack appeared as well.
The women would gather in one of our side bedrooms where Grandma’s quilt frame was set up. They would sit, talk, quilt and plan future family affairs. A number of weddings were planned in those sessions. Sometimes before the bridegroom was aware of his upcoming fate.
Come Christmas Eve, the women, along with a number of kids, put up the tree and decorations. At 11PM, those who wished went off to midnight services. There were a number of preachers in the Clan and those who didn’t want to drive to a service and were also still awake attended a Clan service in the barn. That was the only building able to house everyone at the same time.
On Christmas, the Clan dispersed to their more immediate relatives. Mom, Dad, Grandma, my Aunts and Uncles, my sister Mary Ellen, her husband Dick and their two kids arrived. Sometimes my Aunt Emily and Cousins Richard and Dorothy (Dad’s niece and nephew) from Dad’s side would come down from Mt. Vernon, IL for Christmas.
More often than not, Dad, Dick, my Uncles and I would go goose or duck hunting early on Christmas morning. The Muddy River was only a few miles away and if we arrived right at dawn, we were likely to find some Canadian Geese or Mallards sitting out of the wind on the river. We rarely spent more than three hours hunting before we’d return home, wet, cold and tired ready for breakfast.
We would have a large breakfast around 9AM and afterwards while Mom and Grandma started on dinner, we’d open presents next to the tree. I remember once that Mom hide a pair of snow tires for Dad’s pickup behind the couch. I really have a hard time believing Dad wasn’t aware of them.
Over the years, the Clan has dispersed. Most moving to locations where jobs were available. The elders have passed on and with them the traditions. Cousins have lost touch and few live on the old homesteads.
It was a different time, another era. Some families still maintain the old traditions. They are the fortunate ones.