After our family lost my father 22 years ago, we endured, in large part, by doing something special for one another that honors his devotion to his family: a traditional holiday gathering. For more than two decades now, kids, grandkids, great-grandkids, in-laws, aunts, uncles and cousins descend upon my mom’s house at Christmas (on even-numbered years) or Thanksgiving (on odd-numbered ones). Our mother and family matriarch, Ruth McCormick (Nani, to us) welcomes all with open arms.
These aren’t ordinary holiday parties; they’re inspired by my father’s strong feelings about family. Not only do we figure out how to sleep 26 people in a six-bedroom house, we plan activities to bring us together, from trivia games and Pictionary to unlikely teams for kitchen cleanup duty. My sister, Marva, organizes a musical program—with some playing instruments and the rest singing—that we perform for an audience of Nani’s friends and neighbors.
But everyone’s favorite tradition is Nani’s Yule Hunt. Years ago, she heard about an old European tradition of saving the yule log. Inspired, she wrapped a small burned log from the Christmas before in a black bag, tied it with a red ribbon and hid it on her 5-acre property. Then she divided us into teams and announced that the team that found it would win a prize.
This simple game has grown into a major competition. We tease each other with “It’s mine this year” and “Jake can’t play because he’s won three years in a row!” When Nani yells “Go!” we spring from the driveway and dash into the woods, haphazardly scrambling through prickly pear bushes and knee-deep snow, while Nani stands on the front porch laughing at our craziness.
It didn’t take Nani long to come up with a Thanksgiving version, too: the Hunt for the Yule Chicken. Rubber turkeys are hard to come by, so she bought a rubber chicken to wrap up and hide instead.
Sometimes it takes more than an hour to find the chicken; other times, the victory cry sounds within a few minutes. One memorable Thanksgiving, however, our Yule Chicken vanished altogether. When the search entered its second hour, we gave up and asked Nani where it was hidden. Pointing to a bush, she said, “It’s right there!” But we searched and searched, but alas, no Yule Chicken.
For the next year or so, speculation flew. Someone even guessed that a raccoon, attracted to the shiny bow, had stolen it. Then one day, purely by accident, Nani lifted a tarp and there it was, still wrapped in all its glory. That was when she remembered that she’d intended to hide it under the bush just a few feet away, but with all the holiday chaos, had simply forgotten. We all laughed so hard, and we still do to this day.
Our Yule Hunt has become our most prized tradition, and we love every single game. But perhaps our favorite round was the time nobody won, and our cherished holiday game lingered the rest of the year.