It’s the Time They Will Remember

Hacking the Holidays People


Eleanor Kirkham died in the fall of 2003 at the age of 109. Until the end, she had an insatiable zest for life. Her secret? There were many. One of them was an unquenchable love for her family and an undying curiosity about people. I was privileged to call her my great-grandmother and privileged to introduce two of my children to their great-great-grandmother.

To this day, Nonnie, as we called her, defines Christmas for me. Remembering her, and the influence she had on my life, is an essential component of the season. Here’s the funny thing: I don’t remember a single gift she ever gave me.

What I remember is her simple faith, her love, and the time she spent with me as a child. Family traditions were an integral part of Nonnie’s year. These were particularly strong during the holidays. Although she left her homestead farm in Brillion, Wisconsin in her teens, she remained, for the rest of her life, tied to the natural rhythms of its calendar. Each year she anticipated the first snow like a schoolchild hoping for a day off. For years, planting and harvesting potatoes was a ritual she enjoyed with some of her great-grandchildren. She remained an avid gardener into her mid 90′s.

When she died, the family was shocked to realize how she had individualized her love for traditions, celebrating each family member with specific rituals. For me, a trip to my great-grandmother’s always meant buttermilk and a conversation in which she simply listened to the life of an insecure teenage boy and tried to absorb the world through my eyes. For others, it meant summer sausage or milk toast. Among her grandchildren, one was taught to golf, another to bowl. All of it accompanied by a listening ear and the gift of time.

Christmas brought with it a specific set of traditions. “Hanging the bells” was done either on Thanksgiving or shortly thereafter. My great-grandmother owned a small collection of Christmas music boxes decorated as bells and ornaments. Each ornament was designed to be hung in a doorway and then one could either pull a string or wind the ornament and a Christmas carol would play. Hanging these ornaments and decorating with fir boughs was an important tradition that required the participation of grandchildren and later great-grandchildren. In this way, decorating her home became part of the time she gave.

In my home, her Christmas ball, which I inherited, sits in a particular place of honor on our piano. This particular ball is said to have survived the great Chicago fire. It is an apocryphal story I will pass on to my children.

Christmas Eve at Nonnie’s will be something I remember to my grave. As a small child, the tradition laden Christmas feast she prepared was always a thing of wonder. From the first bite of Horst Mager’s fondue recipe and the accompanying glass of eggnog to the ham and pickled herring — everything we ate was ritualized. (Speaking of that — Aunt Carolyn and Aunt Nancy, you did remember to purchase pickled herring for Saturday, right? It wouldn’t be Christmas without it!) Even the candle was special. It was a drip candle which about every five minutes would drip a different color of wax. That candle was burned only once a year on the food table during Christmas dinner at Nonnie’s home. Christmas eve dinner and the effort she put into it was the pinnacle of the season for my great-grandmother. It also was a yearly reminder of her love for all of us and the faith which drove that love.

Oh, I remember anticipating the gifts on Christmas Eve, but I remember few of the items I was given. Gifts are definitely part of the holiday for kids, but in the end it is the time we give them they will remember. Just a thought for us geek parents as we head into the holiday weekend. Have a great holiday, everyone!



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