I believe it was the winter of 1943 or l944 when I was six or seven that a particularly fierce blizzard hit my family as we drove from Fort Wayne, Indiana to Chicago.
My father, mother, sister and I were bundled up in our 1936 Pontiac and were on our way to the family traditional Christmas Eve dinner that was to be held in my great uncle’s warehouse. Uncle Joe Triner was a liquor distributor and the State of Illinois Boxing and Wrestling Commissioner. He was also the oldest male member of the clan and, hence, the ranking patriarch of several families – Czech on my maternal grandmother’s side and German on her husband’s side.
We gathered in the huge room with tables set up to accommodate some sixty or seventy family members from the newest born on up to Uncle Joe. Aunts, uncles, parents, grandparents, nieces, nephews, et al. and all sitting around one long table, like the table at the Hearst Castle. At a certain hour, the children under five were hustled off to a separate room to meet with Santa Claus, play games and sing carols accompanied by an accordion player. Then the toasting began. But I get ahead of my story. Back to the blizzard.
Halfway to Chicago, the snow began coming down with a force I had never seen. My dad, however, was determined to make the dinner on time so he forged ahead even though the car was sliding to and fro on the icy road. To keep us from worrying, he sang carols, recited poems, such as “The Shooting of Dan McGrew,” and told his usual assortment of tasteless and silly jokes. My sister, then 11, remembers a traffic delay caused by three pairs of motorcyclists who crashed into a truck and were killed. She saw the bodies and had nightmares for a long time.
Nevertheless, we finally arrived in downtown Chicago, and the festivities began. When the toasting started, it proceeded from the youngest to the oldest. The very young usually mumbled “Merry Christmas” or the like, and the wine – for the adults – was flowing freely. By the time we got to the older folks from “the old country,” the toasts – many in the Czech language – were increasingly sentimental, and delivered in quaking voices accompanied by tears and occasional sobs.
I remember asking, “Who is Thomas Masaryk?” I was told he was the first president of Czechoslovakia – our George Washington. Others toasted FDR – most of the assembled were Democrats – and someone raised his glass to Joe Louis. My Uncle Bill proposed a toast to “the man whose birthday we are celebrating tomorrow” and several people looked around the table to see who he was talking about when, embarrassedly, they realized the tie-in to Christ. Then everyone laughed.
By the time the toasting got to Uncle Joe, many of the adults were comfortably in their cups, and his final toast was to family, friends, love, giving to others, and to peace. This was followed by “here, here” and “jivio, jivio” – the Czech equivalent of “salud,” or “to your health” or “amen.”
Remembering back to those days of bringing three, or even four, generations together, I believe we were celebrating something more than just a holiday season or a religious observance. We were reminding each other of what my Uncle Joe’s final toast was proclaiming. That in the final analysis, what is valuable about life is family, friends, love, giving to others, and the peace that enables these values to flourish.
As the young people in our extended family got older, went off to college and the workaday world, became immersed in “other things,” and as the older generation died out, the younger members of the family let the Christmas Eve multi-family gathering end. It was not only the end of an era, it was, I believe, a deprivation in the education of rising generations.
My sister Mimi and I have discussed this often and, consequently, we make sure that our families and extended families get together every Christmas Eve; we even, to the occasional choruses of “Oh, no, not again,” insist on the toasting around the table. I like to think that Uncle Joe and all the others are there in spirit.