The Dinger side always made a carbon copy of Thanksgiving dinner for Christmas, only they swap turkey for ham. I only vaguely remember this meal as I ate it in my grandparents’ home. The grandkids would grab paper plates from their desired place—at one card table or the other—and shuffle past the tall, dark, antique piano to the tiny breakfast table heaped with the ham Papa smoked starting at four in the morning and carved with his noisy electric knife, hot butter-dressed rolls, a billowy bowl of mashed potatoes, gravy made with meat drippings and the unpredictably perfect amount of slurry, my Aunt Karen’s cranberry salad—a frightful red jello mold full of obstacles like celery, nuts, and cranberries—which I have seen every year at both Thanksgiving and Christmas and only this year tried (and liked).
On the far side of the table is a towering buffet crowded with bills and stamps and the honey jar and pies and tins of Christmas cookies. Ever since the principal Christmas cookie baker, JuJu, my great grandmother, died, each of her grandchildren take turns making them, shipping them from their homes in Minneapolis or Connecticut in opaque Tupperware or tins with wrinkled-soft wax paper. There are the signature “JuJu’s Christmas Cookies” which are small rounds of buttery and full of pecans and candied fruit, red and green. There are also what we call “Mexican Wedding Cookies” which are made more exclusively by my Aunt Suzanne in Connecticut—balls of short cookie dough with nuts inside and rolled in powdered sugar.
The Stutts side of the family, my momma’s, still has mashed potatoes at their feast but the comparisons end here. There are Brussels sprouts and store-bought rolls and the meat, Cornish hens roasted in the oven under cheesecloth with herbs and garlic and basted throughout the process, were served by my grandfather when I was younger and are now divvied up by my uncle.
Each one of us gets our own hen to carve and eat and I feel like I’m the man of my own table for a moment, carving the bird as I’ve seen it done by my daddy and my granddaddies. I take out the wishbone and yank it apart with my brother or cousin sitting beside me. Before all this we sit down to the china—with sea gulls painted onto the blue plates that hearken back to our Norwegian heritage—and the silver and there are bottles of sparkling cider for the small glasses and pitchers of water for the big ones and crystal dishes of jam with jam spoons and a gravy boat with a gravy ladle. Here we don’t eat until my grandmother lifts her fork.
We used to travel to Dallas for both Thanksgiving and Christmas. Nowadays, my parents have decided to stay home in December and the first couple years we pulled from the traditional menus on both sides of the family—eating the Cornish hens my uncle sends us yearly in the mail from a Texas smokehouse and sweet potatoes and Brussels sprouts and other dishes. Later, after a trip to Switzerland, my momma created our own Christmas dinner tradition: fondue. The word “fondue” is French for “melted” and is traditionally cheese, though now it is as much or more often associated with chocolate. We do it all at the Dinger home, cheese fondue made with a combination of Emmenthaler and Gruyere and dry white wine and, depending on who is making it, the traditional pinch of nutmeg. Chocolate fondue for us is Nutella heated in one of momma’s fondue pots she has collected over the years. There is also a pot with hot oil where diners cook meat at the table. We hover in the dining room, pulling strings of cheese from the bread across the table and lifting morsels of chocolate-clad banana to our mouths on the little spears.
What traditions will you dust off or create this Christmas at the table? I learned from my family that those traditions are important. They give us a sense of belonging and knowing, and it feels good to join with millions to eat mashed potatoes on Christmas or Thanksgiving. But I learned from my momma that someone’s gotta start those things.