Family & Friends

The Wednesday Five

Icicles in Their Hair: Christmas in Embarrass, Minnesota

By Diane Dettmann


Harmony amid the chaos: A fifties Christmas in Embarrass, Minnesota

Christmas memories of steep snow banks, department-store Santas, and Dayton’s store windows in Minneapolis filled with holiday scenes remain with me half a century onward. I remember sitting with my older brother on the worn dining room rug, studying the Montgomery Ward catalogue, picking out toys we hoped Santa would leave under our scrawny, tinsel-draped Christmas tree. My mother spent her days hovering over her Mixmaster stirring up dough for Spritz cookies, powder-sugared Norwegian bowtie-shaped Fattigmanns, and Finnish tarts—her specialty.

With the bitter winter roaring outside, we often spent Christmas in our tiny, two-bedroom house with the six of us gathered around the tree. Every so many years, however, my folks packed a box of gifts wrapped in recycled holiday paper into our Plymouth Plaza and headed north to my grandparents’ farm in Embarrass, Minnesota—known as “The Cold Spot of the Nation.”

In the 1950s, when there were no three-lane freeways or roadside rests, our 250-mile trip north took forever. In the back seat, bundled up in our winter jackets and hats, my older brother and I passed the time fighting and drawing pictures on the frost-covered windows. Trying to provide a small battle buffer between us, my mother often sandwiched my 4-year old brother in the middle. Sitting in the front seat with my little sister snuggled in her lap, my mother visited with my father as he stared at the icy road beyond the windshield, often driving 20 miles per hour.

When we got to the farm, the Plymouth’s tires crunched along the snow-packed driveway as my grandparents’ faces appeared in the porch window. Shuffling through the snow, the frigid air snapping at our cheeks, we entered the cozy kitchen. The aroma of birch logs burning in the wood stove surrounded us, and Finnish curled around us, as my grandparents wrapped us in hugs. Over the next several hours, while the women peeled potatoes, boiled cranberries, and filled piecrusts with blueberries picked and canned in July, a constant stream of relatives arrived and flowed into the kitchen.

At dinnertime we ate in shifts, with the youngest children squirming on their mothers’ laps while the older cousins squeezed in wherever they could find a space. The early-evening meal disappeared quickly and was followed by the stream of bathers bundled in jackets walking through the snow to and from the sauna, with icicles occasionally dangling from their hair. After a hot sauna bath, the women and younger girls gathered at the kitchen table, where they twisted their hair into curls secured with bobby pins—a nightly ritual that formed a bond between women young and old.

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Christmas Eve in the New House: Downsized and Upsized

By Dr. Patricia Yarberry Allen

This was our first Christmas Eve dinner in our apartment in New York City, where we have spent over a year downsizing and choosing the most important parts of our past lives to integrate into this new home for this stage of life.

Last year, we took the family to the house in Florida where we assumed that we would celebrate Christmas in the future since it is larger and in a resort area. I took all the heirloom ornaments collected from my childhood and the childhoods of my children. I had the tree set up, ready to be decorated. I managed all of the not insignificant preparations for Christmas from New York. A friend found a kitchen assistant who was a former army cook to help me manage this difficult dinner for seven people. Everyone had arrived by the morning of the 23rd. By early evening on the 24th, the tree was still not decorated, while I was in full banshee state with a large whiteboard in the kitchen to remind me of the times that all the different foods had to go onto the stove or into the oven, when these foods had to be checked and re-checked.

The undecorated tree stood forlornly in the dining room. Finally I took my crisis to the General, otherwise known as The Husband. “Get those ungrateful wretches out here to decorate that tree or I will throw the standing rib roast in the pool” is what I think I said. These are not adolescents. These are four sons who are men. But they were still as sullen and disinterested in the so-called spirit of Christmas as any 15 year old who wants to steal from your purse and then take the car out for a joyride without a license. The husband had one of those talks with the tree trimming crew and soon Christmas music and happy sounds surrounded the tree. The army cook and I toiled like the kitchen veterans we were, and dinner turned out well. Immediately after dinner, those at the table walked away, leaving mess duty to the Army cook and me, while the adolescent-adult men whined about nothing to do and could they take the car to Miami for fun?

This year we made a family decision that all Christmas Eve celebrations would be in our New York City home. The son who is a new parent was undecided about attending with a four-week-old baby. They were taken off the guest list. We then invited four dear friends to join us along with two sons and one girlfriend. (The other son is living in Malibu and could not come home for Christmas.) The number of guests for the precious glass table that seats 12 under the beloved 1840s gas chandelier would comfortably accommodate the nine guests. Then the new parents decided that they would attend Christmas Eve dinner after all. Now the number was 11.

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