I don't know how it is in your family, but when I was growing up, holiday traditions were often more important than the holiday itself.
I come from a big Southern family. My immediate unit was small – two adults, two children. But the Willis family homestead – also known as The Mecca or Willis Central – is host to all manner of family celebrations during the year.
I remember informal crab-pickin' parties on my grandparents' back porch. Someone would come by with a few bushels of steamed Chesapeake Bay crabs, and within minutes there would be 20 or 30 Willises and various others munching on crab legs, drinking soda, and scraping Old Bay Seasoning from beneath their fingernails. The holiday? It was Saturday.
Independence Day finds the Willis clan on the boat dock by my uncle's creek house, though the party is just as likely to be scheduled for the nearest Saturday as on the Fourth. We're scattered about in lawn chairs, coated in several layers of bug spray, listening to a chorus of croaking frogs while a disorganized display of pyrotechnics is set off over the water. We're a firecracker-crazy bunch, and everyone gets a turn with the incendiaries. There is a touching rite of passage as the children grow old enough to help light the fireworks, all the while pretending they're not really trying to set their cousins on fire.
At the family Christmas party, attended by about a hundred of us each year, the men convene in the den after dinner for the annual singing of "The Boar's Head." Given that this traditional carol is sung but once a year and that half of it is in Latin, few of the singers have any real familiarity with it. This tradition seems to cause delight more in the menfolk's awkwardness than in the song itself. I imagine this one tradition has prompted more than one young man to rethink marrying into the family.
Marriage merges families and family traditions. Sometimes these familial customs and rituals fit nicely together. Other times, not so much.
This brings us to Thanksgiving, which has become the focus of a new tradition within my blended nuclear family – a tradition we'll politely call the annual mashed potato complaint.
We always had mashed potatoes at Thanksgiving when I was a child. My mother – a culinary rebel – spiced things up by adding turnips to what quickly became her special recipe.
When the mashed potato tradition fell into my hands, I usually skipped the turnips but turned heads by choosing red potatoes over the traditional Idaho variety, and by leaving the skins on. My not-so-secret ingredients are minced garlic and hot sauce, to give the potatoes some kick.
But 16 years ago my parents divorced. My father remarried not long after, and the contest of competing potato traditions began.
My stepmother's holiday table is graced not with a generous bowl of mashed potatoes, but with a tasty dish of sweet potatoes baked with pineapple and marshmallows – a tradition handed down by her mother.
This caught my father by surprise the first year – after all, what's Thanksgiving without mashed potatoes? – although he kept silent in deference to his new bride. I told him that next time I would bring the mashed potatoes as my contribution to the meal.
As next year's dinner approached, I called ahead to ask how many servings of mashed potatoes I should make. To which my father responded, "No, Suzy will make them." I was assigned a dish of roasted beets and clementines instead.
Again, there were marshmallow-laden sweet potatoes – and lots of beets – but no mashed potatoes on the table. But this time, my father gently complained.
As the holiday rolled around the following year, I again offered to bring the potatoes and again, I was rebuffed. And, yes, again there were no mashed potatoes on the table.
What started in 1992 as a simple casualty of blended family traditions has now become a hallmark of the holiday. What Thanksgiving would be complete without my father proudly serving his Greek sautéed spinach and garlic dish and then looking around the table incredulously and asking, "Where are the mashed potatoes?" It's almost as much fun as carving a turkey.
It's been a few years since I've celebrated Thanksgiving at my father's house, so I've missed out on the annual mashed potato complaint. I'm a West Coaster now and haven't joined the throngs of Thanksgiving travelers taking to the skies every November. So I'm free to experiment with my own holiday traditions here in Oregon. I could even start another trend to pass along to future generations. Mashed potatoes and Old Bay seasoning, anyone?