Family traditions are, well, traditional. Especially during the holidays, when traditions come thick and fast. Do something once, and do it well, and everyone will want it done again. And after a couple of times, it becomes a tradition. Only sometimes it doesn’t.
This is about one of those times. And my Aunt Hazel. Let me explain.
Aunt Hazel was the oldest of five children born to my Grandma Minnie. For a few years, she lived happily as the only child. Then the others came along and spoiled her fun. She never got over it.
According to her brother, my daddy, for the rest of her life she lived in the “objective case.” Loud and large, she filled a room with her voice, her bulk and her opinions, which she offered as revealed truth.
Unlike other families that gather on special occasions to enjoy each other’s company, my daddy and his siblings gathered to argue, fuss, fight and go home mad. At the center of this, stirring up trouble, was Aunt Hazel.
Mad at her mother for bringing more children into the world, Aunt Hazel set about to lord over her brothers and sisters, offer unsolicited advice and harp upon what she considered to be their transgressions.
Her siblings gave as good as they got. In retaliation, they sought out Aunt Hazel’s vulnerabilities, her weaknesses, and exploited them to their advantage.
They picked on her. She picked back.
The “picking” reached its high (or maybe low) point at Christmas, when everyone gathered at the family home in the suburbs of Slapout, Alabama, to celebrate the birth of the Prince of Peace with a first-class family fracas. Joy to the world, indeed.
Now, among Aunt Hazel’s treasures was a shelf of cookbooks. She made it clear to the others that each Christmas she expected them to add to her collection. Which was fine until the year that my father told the group assembled that there was no reason to keep adding cookbooks to the shelf because Hazel never cooked anything.
Still, it was sorta true. She never cooked for her brothers and sisters. Living just down the road from her mother, Aunt Hazel happily let Grandma Minnie prepare the Christmas feast.
Seeing that he had irked her with his cooking remark, Daddy kept picking. Others joined in. Until finally, full of eggnog and indignation, Aunt Hazel announced that next Christmas they would meet at her house and instead of the dried-out turkey that was our usual Christmas fare, she would roast a suckling pig.
That shut them up. Briefly. However, once the magnitude of her promise sunk in, Daddy and the others began picking it apart.
Where, the siblings asked, would their sister find a suckling pig in the dead of winter, in the heart of Elmore County, Alabama? If she did, how would she manage to cook it?
To make matters worse, her brothers and sisters began proposing alternatives to which the family might turn when Christmas came and the table was pigless — a possibility in which some seemed to delight.
Past angry and into outraged, Hazel told them to mind their own business, which in that family was impossible, so they didn’t.
In the months that followed, her siblings goaded her about Christmas and cooking and even the apple for the pig’s mouth, which Daddy said no respectable swine would be without.
Aunt Hazel, determined to disappoint the doubters, forged ahead. Telling no one, she drove down to Montgomery and found a butcher who could get her a suckling pig.
Finding she did not have a pan large enough in which to bake it, she slipped into her mother’s pantry, commandeered one, and took it home when no one was looking. Declaring her house off-limits to all, she worked in secret and solitude.
At last it was Christmas.
With the family gathered around the groaning board, Aunt Hazel brought in the roasting pan, set it in the center of table and dramatically lifted the lid to reveal her success, right down to the apple in its mouth. Then she set to carving it up.
I don’t recall much about the meat. Was it tender and tasty? Or dry and tough? It didn’t matter. It was the presentation that counted, and on that, the dinner was a roaring success. At least for the cook.
Aunt Hazel glowed and gloated and told the doubters which part of her anatomy they could kiss.
It was our first, and last, suckling pig. Hazel had her victory. No one wanted her to enjoy another. The next year we went back to Grandma Minnie’s house for dried-out turkey. And the annual family fight.
That tradition survived.
Harvey H. (“Hardy”) Jackson is Professor Emeritus of History at Jacksonville State University and a former columnist at The Anniston Star. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.