By Toni W. Riley
Joby and Trina Brown grew up in Illinois and have strong Midwest Irish and German roots. When Joby’s job as a Disciple of Christ minister brought them to Hopkinsville, they brought along Christmas traditions from their respective families.
They wanted to blend their traditions, which represent their faith, family values and heritages, while still making new and meaningful experiences for their children, Ethan, 9, and Caitlyn, 6.
One of the first traditions the Browns established honors Trina’s Catholic faith as well as Joby’s Protestant. The couple wanted their children to understand the meaning of the season so they brought out the advent wreath.
Each of the four Sundays prior to Christmas, the children light a candle of the wreath after dinner, and Ethan reads advent literature that is given to the families of First Christian Church, where the Browns are members.
Trina’s mother also sends an advent calendar, and the children open a slot on the calendar each day to find candy inside. The calendar helps the children remember the significance of Christmas.
Growing up, Trina’s family always attended midnight Mass, but the Browns attend a Christmas Eve service at 5 p.m. at First Christian Church. Similar to Trina’s family, they come home and each child is allowed to open one present — Caitlin always likes to open what her brother gives her.
Putting up the tree is another important part of the family’s Christmas traditions. Both Trina and Joby have ornaments from their childhood and purchase new ornaments whenever they go on vacations, so each ornament helps the family remember vacations and childhood memories.
Trina has particularly special ornaments from her father, who would celebrate his Irish heritage by giving each of his daughters a Belleek pottery ornament that was handmade in County Fermanagh in Northern Ireland.
Another special ornament is the pickle. Neither Joby nor Trina grew up with the pickle tradition, but it fit right in with the new traditions they wanted to establish with their children.
On Christmas morning, the children stay in their rooms until the pickle ornament is hidden in the tree. The child that finds it gets to open the first gift. Trina’s mother remembered finding the pickle as a child and gave her grandkids their first pickle ornament.
Living in the Midwest, Joby said he always wished for snow as a kid. His family would always go to his grandmother’s to meet up with his aunts, uncles and cousins. There would be a rib roast and usually a rack of lamb along with a side dish from each family, including sweet potatoes — baked not candied — rutabagas, noodles and mashed potatoes.
“The noodles and mashed potatoes were served separate, but you always put them together,” Joby laughed.
He leaned back in his chair as he reminisced about the sweets that filled his home during the holidays.
“Sweets weren’t regular in our home, except during the holidays, but from Thanksgiving to New Years, oh my, the house was full of sweets,” he beamed.
There’s one dessert he said has been particularly tough to replicate — his mother’s fudge. It goes back several generations to his great-great-great-great grandmother and his mother could make it blindfolded.
When his mother died in 1993, his sister spent two years looking for the elusive recipe. When she did find the original recipe, it showed only the ingredients — cocoa powder, peanut butter, milk and sugar — but no measurements or steps.
Joby tries to make it every year, and each year he gets a little closer but just doesn’t have it quite right.
They found a recipe in the Fannie Farmer Cookbook that is pretty close but still not the family recipe.
Trina’s holiday memories are similar but include lots of cookies. She remembers making sugar cookies through a press. Her mom is known for her M&M bars. While maybe not the same heritage as Joby’s fudge, the M&M bars were a hit.
Her mom made them when Trina was in middle school, and they became a family favorite. They have an oatmeal crust with a layer of M&Ms, sweetened condensed milk and then more crust. Trina now makes them as gifts for her children’s teachers.
Joby and Trina both hope that their children make some traditions of their own as they get older yet continue to own the meaning and heritage that their family has now.
“Of course if I never master the fudge recipe, that task will be handed to them,” Joby laughed.
By Toni W. Riley