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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Feast & Family

Air Date: Week of

To help while away the dark, dreary days, Producer Bob Carty prepared this sound portrait of families gathering together to bring festivity to the holidays.


CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. And I'm probably going to weigh about 10 pounds more after all of this. Because it's that time of year, the year of good china and fine linen and polished silver, and special serving dishes and food. Lots of food. And of course lots of people. It's the time for the family feast, that yearly occasion that conjures up images of hearth and home and happiness. But not always, and never easily. Be it Christmas, Chanukah, Kwanza, or whatever, the mega-meal reflects all that is blessed, but also all that is burdensome about the holiday season. Bob Carty prepared our soundscape of feast and family.

(Music up and under)

WOMAN: I take a week off work before Christmas and all I do is cook. Cook and wash linens and starch and clean silver and wash antique plates. It's not the rest that (laughs) everybody thinks it is!

(Music up and under)

CARTY: Bring on the memories. Join in the fun. Welcome the relatives one by one. Make way for laughter, the hugs and smiles, food by the basketful, coats by the piles. Celebrate good times we spend all together. Share in the moments we'll cherish forever. Hallmark Cards, Incorporated.

(Music up and under; fade to a dog barking and a doorbell ringing.)

WOMAN: Hey, Susan, shush!

MAN: Merry Christmas!

WOMAN: Hi, how are you?


MAN: Gee, is it ever cold out there!

(More laughter)

WOMAN: It was the first Christmas that I was going to be spending with my husband's family, not my own family. And there were tears. So I cried all the way over to his family's house in the car, tried to compose myself. And we walk in. And his family is there, Merry Christmas! Hello! Come in! And his mother says, "What's the matter with you?" And I said, "Well, I'm just a little bit sad, because it's the first Christmas that I won't be with my family for dinner. But everything's fine." And his sister looks at me and says, "Well, I wasn't with my brother on Christmas Eve, so now we're even."
(A champagne cork pops)

WOMAN 2: Oh, that sounds good. (Laughs)

WOMAN 3: You know, I refuse to be a few people at Christmas. It's just not worth the effort. It's a tiny house but it doesn't matter because, like, it's filled to the rafters with drunken people and little babies, and it's a little Dylan Thomasesque, I guess.

MAN 2 (reciting): Mistletoe hung from the guest brackets in all the front parlors. There was sherry and walnuts and bottled beer and crackers by the dessert spoons. And the high-heaped fire spat, all ready for the chestnuts and the mulling pokers. And some few small aunts, not wanted in the kitchen, nor anywhere else for that matter, sat on the very edges of their chairs, poised and brittle, afraid to break, like faded cups and saucers.

WOMAN 4: Your mother's not very well? Dave has shingles.

MAN 3: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

WOMAN 5: Before I got married, I brought my husband home, my partner, to meet my family, and it was Christmas Eve. Where I'm from is Bible Belt, and my grandmother is Evangelical, and she's the matriarch of the family. And my partner's Catholic. And so it was this big question of how was this going to be received? And we all knew that grandma was going to pop the big question, which is, "Have you been saved? Have you been born again?" And so, she comes walking in. And so here she is. And grandma's starting to have conversation with Joe. First of all, she's found that he's Canadian, and that in itself is a bit touch and go, you know. So we're all waiting for the big question to be popped. And all of a sudden there's a knock on the back door. And in walks my great aunt Ruth. And here great aunt Ruth comes walking in, and what's she wearing? Well, she's 85 years old, and what she's wearing, she's wearing a miniskirt. And so we all look, and we can't believe this. And then behind her comes this man, and she turns and says, "And I want you to meet my new husband." And her new husband was 24 years old. (Laughs) And so because of that, my poor grandmother was so taken off guard that my grandmother never found out that my partner is Catholic, and she went to her grave without ever popping the question. (Laughs)

(Music up and under)

MAN 4: There can be some tension as over who does what and when. Can anybody help you with this? I'm not here to just work all day, you know, that kind of thing.
(Milling voices and cooking sounds)

WOMAN 6: Oh, nice!

WOMAN 7: I think those beans are done.

MAN 5: And the turkey is the big center of attention, I think. Because either it's ready in time, or it's not, and that's what determines when you're going to eat.

WOMAN 8: Frozen turkey, fresh turkey. The great marital debate. I grew up with fresh turkey, he grew up with frozen turkey (laughs).

MAN 6: Twenty minutes a pound?

MAN 7: Thirty minutes a pound.

WOMAN 8: Three-twenty-five?

MAN 7: (laughs) Three-fifty!

MAN 6: Dry stuffing or wet stuffing?

WOMAN 8: Stuffing or dressing? Dry stuffing, wet stuffing. Big debate. (Laughs)

WOMAN 9: I have been here 5 years. I came from Moldova, it's the former Soviet Union. I like so much especially turkey. Still I can't do that, really. I don't know, it's easy, but still I can't do that! (Laughs)

(Music up and under)

CARTY: The Internet home page of the Canadian Turkey Marketing Agency. "A Christmas turkey, all dressed and golden on the dinner table, is the perfect centerpiece for the holiday festivities. Cooking times may vary, depending on the temperature of the bird going into the oven, how many times the oven door is opened, and the size of the bird in relation to the size of the oven."

(Music up and under)

WOMAN 10: Well, when we go down to visit my mother, you walk in the door and the first thing that you're asked is, "Well, do you want something to eat?" And you say, "No, no, it's okay, I'm not hungry right now." "What would you like? Would you like chicken soup? Or would you like the gefilte fish, or the chopped liver?" "No, I don't want anything to eat right now." "Okay, well just come sit at the table. And oh look, here I have some potato pudding." There's just no getting away from it.

MAN 7: (Laughs) We eat malis, which is corn flour with some kind of sauce. And turkey meat in the middles. And this year, my family and me, we are going back to Guatemala. My grandfather is 96 and he's waiting for me. Still, having the hope for being alive in the moment we will meet all the family together.

(Ambient laughter)

WOMAN 11: Okay, dinner's on the table! Everybody ready? Everybody hungry?
(Much assent from the others.)

WOMAN 11: We eat in the basement because that's the biggest room. We have an old kitchen table, and my father years ago went out and bought a sheet of plywood, and then my mother decorates that with linen. And usually, it always ends up that we're 20 people all in the same spot. It's craziness. It's chaos. It's loud. It's fabulous.

CHILD: The adults have a big table and we have a little table that we sit on, which is not fair. It feels like we're so small, but we're not.

(Chimes, fade to music up and under)

MAN 8: Grace became a wonderful thing for us, because my son invented our grace out of the blue. Because he didn't speak until he was just after 3, but to hear Gareth say that, after not speaking for so long, it was wonderful. Do you remember it, Gareth?

GARETH: Thank you for our food. Thank you for our friends. Thank you for our family. God bless us everyone.

MAN 9: To the first day of Christmas.

(Much assent, glasses clinking)

MAN 9: To Rifka [name?], to me.

(Many voices)

MAN 9: For Christmas dinner, we always ask people we know who may not have anyplace else to go, and I've invited 2 friends of mine from Burundi for this Christmas dinner. And I think one of the things that makes Christmas dinner always a little nervous, you always know that they're probably sad that they're not with their family or their friends at that time of year. I remember one occasion, my daughter and I joking about some little thing, and us both really laughing. And I looked across the table and our friend at the table's eyes were just filled with tears. And no one said anything. She had lost her own child.

CHILD 2: Could you pass the cranberries please?

(Clinking of plates)

WOMAN 12: This is really delicious.

(Harpsichord music up and under)

CARTY: Etiquette, by Emily Post, chapter 14: table manners. "Table manners should be practiced whether alone or at dinner with family members. Ideal posture at the table is to sit straight, but not stiffly, leaning slightly against the back of the chair. Your hands may lie in your lap, which will automatically prevent you from fussing with implements. Slouching, or slumping at the table, is most unattractive. Tipping one's chair, a most unfortunate habit, is unforgivable."

(Harpsichord music up and under)

WOMAN 13: I guess my mother's absolutely fanatical that we use, you know, the fork down and the knife, even when you're using, eating peas. So, I mean, you're not allowed to use your fork as a spoon, like in a spoon-like way, when you're eating your peas. Makes it, like difficult. I remember one meal, I don't think I said anything, because I was just frowning at the plate, trying to get the peas on the fork, you know, not spooning it, and then chewing, and then remembering to chew with my mouth closed. Usually I just give up.

CHILD 3: My dad hates when I talk with my mouth full. Don't put your elbows on the table. No throwing up again. (Laughs)

WOMAN 14: (Laughs) Well, he threw up right on his Christmas plate! I never had somebody throw up at a meal that had taken me 72 hours to prepare (laughs). My beautiful, beautiful food and the garnishes and the plates are exquisite and the china we use once a year, and I'd gotten it out and washed it all beforehand. And we have this beautiful grace, and it's a prayer and tears and oh, it's so beautiful. We all sit down in the candlelight and this child goes, "Daddy, I think I'm going to be sick." And then he throws up (laughs). But he managed to keep it all on his dinner plate. (Laughs) I was amazed. And now we're good friends, and the child hasn't thrown up since, so they get to come back.

(Music up and under)

MAN 10: You always have someone in the family who is suffering in some ways. Sometimes it's just a personality that doesn't realize its effect on other people. And so you're sitting at the table, wondering when an unexpected explosion will happen. And I think that's a grind, I think, that a lot of families face. And because it's a celebratory meal, an occasion, that can turn into a blackmail on the rest of the family. And often there's nothing you can do about it. If they were non-family members, you could walk away from it or you could, you maybe not care quite so much. The problem comes from -- from love.

MAN 11: You spend the first 15, 20 years of your life fighting it out on a very intimate level with your siblings, with your brothers and sisters. If you were to get right down to it, probably the death of a sibling would affect you in a very strong way. So, when you look at it that way, then thinking about it and valuing those family members while they're alive and having at least one occasion, if not a couple per year, where you get together and celebrate, it is a very reaffirming kind of thing to do.

MAN 2 (reciting): And after dinner, the uncles sat in front of the fire, loosened all buttons, put their large, moist hands over their watchchains. Groaned a little. And slept. The dog was sick. Auntie Dorsey had to have 3 aspirins, but Auntie Hannah, who liked port, stood in the middle of the snowbound back yard singing like a big-bosomed thrush.

(Music up and under)

WOMAN 15: After dinner is finished, the women do a great walkabout outside. As raging feminists I don't know how we inherited this tradition, but it's something my grandmother -- my great-grandmother, my grandmother, and my mother always did, which was to go outside after Christmas dinner in the dark, and walk in the snow. And I do it, too, and the women in the house leave with me, and we take the children, and we walk down to the river. And the children and everybody comes home exhausted and happy and bright- eyed. And we come home, and expect the dishes to be done. And it's really magical, really quite special.

(Music up and under; fade to door opening)

WOMAN 16: Goodbye! Thanks so much!

WOMAN 17: It was nice having you.

(Various voices; fade to music up and under)

CURWOOD: Our soundscape of feast and family was produced by Bob Carty. It's NPR's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood.



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