It’s the Christmas season! It is truly the one time of the year that is steeped in traditions and sentimentality. Trees and houses are trimmed with lights, secular and religious songs resonate in houses and churches, and many spend hours in the kitchen baking special goodies for the family or to give away as gifts. If you’re anything like me, wrapping paper manages to work its way into everything along with miles of ribbon floating on the dining table. The sights, sounds and smells of this season are the grandest of all. It’s especially important to note the One who the season is really about. I must give greatest pause and praise to the birth of Jesus, his Incarnation here on earth. This is the most significant event in human history as God sent his son to be born of a virgin, One fully God and fully man to break the barrier of sin between God and humankind. It is wonderful each year to recount the coming of Emmanuel, God with us. He who resided in Heaven willingly descended into our world. He breathed our air, felt our pain, knew our sorrows, and died for our sins. He didn’t come to frighten us, but to show us the way to life.
For as long as I can remember our family Christmas gatherings were always the same. Once you were about five years old you knew the drill. I honestly don’t remember missing a one of them up to the time I was about 30. There was nothing particularly fantastic about the traditions; they were just always the same. Each year it was the same food, the same house, the same people, and depending on your age, the same gift. It was wonderful. You just knew where you were going to be on the night before Christmas and the chaos that awaited.
We celebrated Christmas Eve with my maternal Grandparents. They lived in a small house on the south side of Atlanta. My Grandmother owned her own beauty salon and my Granddaddy was a truck driver, commonly known as a “suicide jockey” since he drove a fuel truck. Grandmother was not a regular housekeeper so there was quite a bit of clutter in their small house. At Christmas we suspect that she gathered up as much stuff as she could fit into a garbage bag and hid it until after the holiday. In fact, that housekeeping shortcut may start working for me…then if you don’t miss it after six months, throw out the bag! My Granddaddy was all about laughter. He and I had an especially close bond and we cut up quite a bit. He loved to hear me laugh. It was pure torture though if he ever decided to tickle you. There were many times they had to pull out oxygen tanks so the grandkids could catch their breath after a tickle fest.
Everyone started to arrive at the house in the late afternoon anywhere between four and six o’clock. Parking was limited to the tiny driveway or in the front yard or on the street. You entered the house from the wide front steps guarded by two white columns. Once you entered the living room you knew the bedlam had started. All across the hearth of a non-working fire place were what looked like hundreds of presents. It always looked like Santas elf’s left all the wrapped gifts around my Grandparents four foot artificial tree. Some years you didn’t even know they had a tree until all the gifts were handed out. You dropped off the presents you brought and then carefully worked your way into the dining room where the table was filled with bowls of Ruffles potato chips and French onion dip, possibly a ham and lots of other snacks. Two buffets lined the walls with pies about three feet deep, mostly gifts from patrons at the beauty shop. It took till about mid-February to finish them all off.
The most intriguing part of our holiday was the special dish that my Grandmother prepared every year. We have no idea where the recipe came from or why she prepared it in a pan as big as a football field. It was called “Tallarina” and nobody liked it. Not a one of us cared for it, so I’m not sure exactly how much eventually landed in the trash can. This gave great significance to the potato chips and French onion dip because this is what we all filled up on before dinner was served. Others provided salad and side dishes, all of it the same every year. What makes this dish particularly interesting are the ingredients and preparation.
Do remember that you must have a pan measuring about 30’ x 60’ and an oven that can accommodate it. The interior of the pan is lined with two large boxes of wide noodles. No kidding. I don’t even think you have to take them out of the box. It takes an entire day to brown the three pounds of ground beef it calls for. You will cry for a week after chopping up three large onions along with three bell peppers. These are added in at the end of the day since they only have to cook for five minutes. The remaining canned goods provide the moisture needed to soften the noodles while cooking. I am certain that my Grandmother stored a caldron somewhere the size of a swimming pool to stir it all together. We never witnessed the mixing of this concoction; we only saw the finished product. The next three ingredients provide the tomato taste necessary for an Italian dish. It included two large cans of tomatoes, you know, the size restaurants buy for feeding about 100 people. Next are two large cans of tomato paste and two large cans of tomato sauce. This alone would make enough tomato soup to feed their entire town or at least take care of a homeless shelter for days. Oh wait, there’s more….remember we’ve got to add enough liquid to get those noodles soft. Next one large can of ripe black olives with juice is added and then one large can of whole kernel corn and the liquid are stirred in. Be sure to salt, pepper and add chili pepper to taste. I don’t know how you would know what it’s supposed to taste like since there is nothing on earth to compare it to. The topper of course is a half pound of grated cheese. I thought it would have to bake for three days, but the instructions say to cook on 350 degrees for one hour. I know what you’re thinking; you’re going to run out to the store to get all the ingredients so you can make this huge combination Italian – Mexican fiasco for yourself. It’s such an easy thing to throw together if you wanted to feed the entire NFL. I have no idea how my Grandmother ever got the pan in or out of the oven. I’m certain my Granddad must have helped. Never once was it dropped. We all had to go spoon out our helping from the stove top. I believe it would have caved in the dining table. Just remember to have someone bring the green pistachio salad to go with it! Very Christmassy!
The bedlam started when we opened gifts after filling our faces with lots of pie. We tried on multiple occasions to open gifts in shifts, but it just never worked. There was so much wrapping paper we were still pulling it out of the light fixtures in July. Since the sisters and sisters in law all got the same thing, only one had to open their gift and everybody knew what was in their package. It was the same for the brothers and brothers in law and for all the girl cousins and boy cousins. The only problem was if it was a clothing item, it might not fit and there were no receipts to make a return. Grandmother simplified her shopping just like she de-cluttered her house – one bag fits all.
It was the same every year, kids running around, the house filling up with gifts and family and the tell tale smell of Tallerina baking in the oven. Of course, there were times when some of us had our differences, but as a whole, my Grandparents house was filled with laughter and love for each other. There was never any jealousy, though – since everything and everybody’s gift was always the same!
By the way, the Tallerina recipe is accurate, just in case you need to feed the Brooklyn Tabernacle Choir this season. You can even take home leftovers! May each of you be blessed and have a very Merry Christmas!