By Ginna Parsons/NEMS Daily Journal
Fifty years ago, the Whitten family began a tradition that will celebrate the half-century mark on Monday: Christmas Eve lunch.
The annual gathering began in Amory in 1962, but four years later, the whole family moved to Belden and with them went the celebration.
“My mother started this dinner in her home,” said Patty Young, 60. “I have a younger sister who was born that year in May. Two weeks later, my older sisters had babies three days apart. So we had three little babies. My daddy died that October and with all these children, we started Christmas Eve lunch at Mama’s home.”
The family actually gathers twice a year: They also celebrate Thanksgiving Day lunch together.
“The Christmas Eve dinner was always prepared by my mother – turkey and dressing, banana pudding served hot, corn, peas, slaw and we always had a coconut cake or sweet potato pies,” she said.
At first, the dinner was just for the immediate family and there were usually about a dozen around the dinner table.
“But as everybody got married and children got married and grandchildren got married, everybody started bringing a dish, especially as my mother got older,” she said.
Patty’s mother, Polly Whitten, died Dec. 1, 2008.
“That was the last year we had the dinner at her house,” she said.
“All of the family wanted to have it there that year one last time,” added Young’s daughter, Julie Lackey.
The next year, the dinner was moved to the home of Jamie Young, Patty’s youngest daughter.
“We have a lot more outdoor space here and decks and a lot more yard where the kids can play,” Jamie said.
The menu for the meal is the same every year. At Thanksgiving, they had 54 and they’re expecting a few more next week.
“Everybody brings the same thing every for Christmas,” Patty said. “So if you bring something new, in addition to your regular dishes, you better be prepared to make it every year.”
Patty always makes the turkey with giblet gravy and the cole slaw; her niece Bobbie Weaver provides the banana pudding, baked cabbage, creamed potatoes and red velvet cake; Jamie adds the dressing, greens and green beans; and Julie makes deviled eggs, baked beans and a vegetable casserole.
Patty’s son, Joe, alternates bringing the Christmas ham with another relative.
“We have tons of food,” Jamie said. “You’re looking at, like, 60 people bringing dishes.”
As the grandchildren of Polly Whitten got older – they all called her MomPolly – they were more inclined to want to spend the whole day at their grandma’s house.
“But there wasn’t much for them to do,” Patty said. “For a while, they played Rook and then someone decided to pitch washers. First, we dug holes in the ground and pitched washers into them, but then Joe found the cups we use now.”
The two hard plastic cups are set 12 feet apart and tied together with rope, and different team members take turns pitching a round washer from one end to the other, hoping to hit the cup. The first team to reach 25 points wins that round.
“This is a serious deal,” Jamie said. “We do brackets with double-elimination. At Thanksgiving, we had 16 teams and it probably took us three-and-a-half hours.”
The tournament begins just after lunch, usually around 1:30, Julie said.
“Everybody is on the same team every year,” she said. “Ages 16 and up play washers. The little ones have their own games.”
Patty said she figures the family meals and games will continue as long as the family is able to gather.
“The Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners that my mother prepared were always such a joyous time for her because she had all her children, grandchildren and great- and great-great-grandchildren together,” Patty said. “She always made it so special and we all love each other so much we want to continue this as long as we possibly can.”
And those who marry into the family know the tradition is part of the package.
“When my husband and I got married,” Julie said, “I told him, ‘I don’t know where you’re going to be on Christmas Eve, but I’m gonna be at MomPolly’s.’”