With the holidays upon us, it seems like an appropriate time to make good on my repeated promises to fill in some of the blanks on family traditions. I will start with Thanksgiving with the Connellys, my mother’s side. My mother was the fifth of seventeen children, and when the whole family gets together we have quite a roster of colorful characters.
When you’re serving 40+ people on Thanksgiving, you have to plan ahead a little more than the average family. The kitchen table, large enough to serve all of my aunts and uncles at a time, could not get the job done on turkey day. We tried many different serving alignments throughout the years. Notably, we served in the toy room and in the Front Rooms. It took several tables, and we became very familiar with the concept of the “kids’ table,” some of us even well past childhood!
Of course, it would be nearly impossible for one person to make all the food for everybody. Just like our big St. Patrick’s Day celebrations (stories coming soon), everyone was expected to bring something. This way, we would end up with the huge spread necessary to feed the entire crowd! Turkey, gravy and stuffing of course, mashed potatoes, peas, carrots (sometimes glazed), creamed cauliflower, candied yams, creamed pearl onions, sautéed onions, biscuits, cranberry molds, cranberry sauce, cranberry orange bread, turnips, beets, corn and more would be crowding each other off of the tables. It would generally be impossible to eat everything that would get served, but believe me, I tried.
Throughout the day, we would snack on nuts. Granddad would always get huge quantities of various nuts (almonds, walnuts, chestnuts, Brazil nuts, pecans, etc) and set them out in bowls throughout the house with nutcrackers. I always went for the walnuts.
Uncle Sean was typically the decorator-in-chief for Thanksgiving, putting together themed cornucopias for all the Front Rooms. There would be various fall accoutrements like harvest wreaths or stringsof leaves accenting every room. Cornstalks would always frame the front door.
Family members would be decorated for Thanksgiving too. My family was always fans of dressing up, and Thanksgiving dinner was treated as a formal occasion. Suits and ties, long dresses, nice shoes (freshly polished) and big hats for the ladies were the rule. As a youngster I remember more than once being in trouble because I spilled gravy and cranberry sauce on my nicest clothes.
Despite having a large number of avid sports fanatics in the family, watching football on Thanksgiving was never a big part of our day. I can only surmise this was due to the Giants and Jets, our chosen teams, not typically playing on Turkey Day.
After dinner, we had a tradition that I’ve never heard of anyone else doing. We had “the mystery walk.” I am not sure how this custom evolved or why it was a Thanksgiving thing instead of Halloween, but it sure is a fun idea. Uncle Paul was usually the ringleader of the walk. Basically, a mystery walker would be picked at random. Methods varied from volunteers, to picking out of a hat, to drawing straws and more. The mystery walker then usually became part of the group that was staying behind to clean up, and everyone else would go for a walk. It was invariably dark by this time, and the group of walkers would sometimes have difficulty telling each other apart. Sometimes the mystery walker would go with the group and slip away at an opportune moment.
Once away, the mystery walker then became the mystery stalker. Running ahead of or behind the group, the walker would find places to hide and scare everyone else. Rustling bushes might – or might not! – have the walker in them trying to get your attention. The walker’s goals were not only terror though – the “mystery” part was key. You had to maintain your anonymity! The best walks ended with accusations against several people, like some sort of crazed Clue game. Sometimes extras would fade out of the group too, and add to the general confusion. As you’ll see when I get to Halloween stories, we like scares and scaring.
We don’t all get together to this extent every year any more. Typically my mother will host a few of my cousins, maybe an aunt or uncle, every year. Every five years or so we all get together for a larger gathering. These traditions are some of my most cherished memories, and I would love to be able to share them with my children. They will likely never understand the wonderful insanity of “the family.”