Thanksgiving Traditions: False Alarms and Broken Teeth

PHOTO: Mike Achhammers fire department rang false alarms to get men out of the house on Thanksgiving day.Mike Achhammer
Mike Achhammer's fire department rang false alarms to get men out of the house on Thanksgiving day.

Ah, Thanksgiving. A time of sharing, family harmony and gratitude.

Not always.

Mike Achhammer, a 48-year-old firefighter from Wintersville, Ohio, couldn't get out of the house fast enough after dinner.

"They would drop the tones about 6:30 p.m. for 'All fire and EMS personnel to report to the station,'" he remembered. "We would act like we were responding when we left our homes, but it was really a 'Get away from the relatives party.'"

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Achhammer first joined the fire department at age 18, in 1984, after his family had a house fire.

Many of the "guys" down at the station who had started the tradition had relatives who were a "pain the butt," he said.

But the ritual quickly ended when old-timers moved on and the chief married his assistant chief.

But for some time, his departure from the food-laden table, was an open secret.

"When the tones dropped, Mom would laugh," he said. "I will say we did have some fun times at these [get-away-from-the-relatives] parties."

Wendy Rod, a retired chiropractor from Savannah, Ga., remembers Thanksgivings in New Jersey. "My mom and aunt had to make extra trays of Pepperidge Farms dinner rolls because my three older male cousins would scarf them all," she said. "There were always fights. It was funny. We still joke about it to this day."

"My brother, the youngest, would cry because they would trick him and steal them off his plate," said Rod, 50. "My mom and aunt would smack hands and yell. One year they made a tray each for each cousin, and they still fought over them."

While some are hunkering down watching the traditional Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade on television, others are creating new traditions.

Kate Higgins, a 55-year-old high school teacher from Branford, Conn., is reveling in The Band concert from Thanksgiving 1976, "The Last Waltz."

"It's not a family tradition -- just a me thing," she said.

Lisa Palmer, 63, is watching the "Godfather" with her family in Glastonbury, Conn. But she remembers a more reverent Thanksgiving growing up in Massachusetts.

"Every year after carving and serving, my dad would say grace before everybody 'dug' in," she said. "Although I'd like to say this was an everyday thing, it wasn't. We waited for special occasions like the holidays.

"Come to find out years later when my folks sold the house and moved the dining set, Dad had posted a crib sheet with the words to his prayers taped to the underside of the table. I used to wonder why he always dropped his napkin at the start of the meal."

Laura Ransom, 61 and a retired project manager for a health care company in California, remembers the required sauerkraut at Thanksgiving dinner because her paternal grandmother was German.

"She always made sauerkraut and sausage as a side dish, to go with the turkey," said Ransom. "So Dad expected my mom to make it. One year, she forgot. So at the last minute, Dad realized the tangy sour note was missing and boomed, 'Where's the sauerkraut?'"

Her mother scrambled around making "a big show of suddenly remembering and rooting through the cabinet and roasting it up with some sausage, and imitating his booming last-minute question that had startled her, and we would roundly tease him about it," she said.

After her father's death, the sauerkraut cans sat unopened in the cupboard, according to Ransom. "So we will often say to each other, in our best booming imitations of his lovable but crotchety voice: 'Where's the sauerkraut?' and pull a can out and put it on the table in his honor."

Debbie Donaldson, a 61-year-old salesperson from Sebastapol, Calif., is celebrating without family this year. But as a child, her New England grandmother cooked up dimes to put in the stuffing for the children to eagerly find.

Relatives tell tales of chipped teeth and dental bills.

In her husband's big Italian family, the siblings would be fighting not for money, but for the "pope's nose" -- the tender part of the turkey's rump.

His 55-year-old sister-in-law, Helen Donaldson, a fellow Roman Catholic who lives in Colorado, laughed that her husband "never knew what the pope's nose was until he met me. Our family always laughed about that and I don't remember anybody wanting to eat all that fat."

Called "the parson's nose" by Protestants, the coveted prize was celebrated in Longfellow's novel "Hyperion" in 1839.

But this year Donaldson said she and husband Marc Kusich have a different plan: "After shopping are martinis."