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| A Trio of Personal Holidays

The Snowball Effect

When Everybody's Favorite Dish Is On the Christmas Menu

November 11, 2001|MARTIN BOOE

Frances E. Harris starts cooking three days before Christmas. With a few variations from year to year, Harris' annual Christmas Day open house menu runs something like this: roast turkey with corn bread dressing, ham, pork roast, oyster dressing, collard greens, candied apples, fried yams, macaroni and cheese, carrot-raisin salad, ambrosia, deviled eggs, cranberry sauce, sauteed shrimp, carrot cake, peach cobbler, pound cake, chocolate chip cookies and "no less than eight sweet potato pies." And tamales. Oh, and last year the lineup expanded to include smoked turkey.

Harris, whose family has lived in the Pasadena-Altadena area for four generations, is continuing a tradition begun by her grandmother, Frances Johnson, more than 50 years ago. "It was larger than life, and when I was a little girl, I was totally in awe of it," says Harris, who took over the open house 25 years ago after her mother, Sarah I. Bereal, passed away. "It's more food than anybody can eat, but the tradition is that everybody gets to put in a request for their favorite thing."

Of course, the festivities aren't limited to Christmas Day. A week or so earlier, up goes a tree no less than 10 feet high, which is ceremoniously festooned by family members with ornaments dating back to Johnson's time. The Altadena house is lavishly decorated, including the bedrooms. On Christmas Eve, the family attends church services, then returns to the house for hot chocolate, cinnamon cider and coffee. Husband Jerry lights a fire and gifts are exchanged. Then there's singing around the piano, and a team effort begins on a 1,000-piece jigsaw puzzle (the goal being to finish the puzzle by the end of Christmas Day).

Between family and friends, about 50 visitors stop by during the open house (the holiday table is spread from 1 to about 6 p.m., with guests often staying late into the evening). "Everybody knows the door is open," says Harris. Among the guests are most of Harris' nine brothers and sisters with their children and grandchildren, who start arriving around noon. She puts final touches on the meal, which means making the cobbler. Here she has help: Each year, some of the girls in attendance join the grown-ups in the kitchen to learn the art of cookery, so that they will be able to carry on the tradition.

It's a strictly observed rule that all labor cease at 1 p.m., when the eating begins. "The patriarch of the family, my 86-year-old father, gives the blessing," says Harris. "I have one large dining room table, and the older ones sit there, and then it spills into the kitchen and then into the den. Everybody doesn't show up at the same time, so that makes it good. After dinner, everybody's reminiscing and talking and saying what they received. It's just good family fun."

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