Who are these people? I found this in the vast horde of uncataloged photos I rescued from my late Aunt Mary’s house in Maine. They look like long-ago relatives of mine—there must be some shared DNA—but I have no idea. Maybe my upstate New York kin? And look at that guy’s hands!—are those farmer hands or what? What kind of a party is this? What in God’s name is that woman in the background wearing on her face?!?
Right now there’s a 4 ft high stack of boxes, plastic bins, and one old suitcase behind me where I’m sitting. That’s what’s left of the horde. You wouldn’t believe how much I found. Freaking tons of stuff: Maryland in the ’30s, WWII in the South Pacific, people I don’t know, all kinds of family shots I’d never seen because someone other than my father took the picture, etc. My aunt was quite the baker and must have invited every nonagenarian in East Vassalboro over to celebrate their birthdays. Naturally she took photos and ordered prints for everyone. (New ones, not like the above.) There were so many duplicates that I eventually just gave up and had to toss a million photos of old ladies eating pies!
There was more than just old photos. When Aunt Mary was a U.S. Army nurse in Australia during WWII, she picked up lots of lots of souvenirs, or tried to; I found an old letter apologizing for the lack of any Aussie tourist trinkets other than opals and kangaroo skins. So guess what I’m looking at right now? KANGAROO SKINS, can you believe it? Here I am at 7,000 ft in Taos, NM in 2013, five days before my birthday, with a couple of wallaby pelts as old as I am. Ack! There’s also a boomerang, I swear to God, with kookaburras, no less. See?
That’s a little one, about 14 inches across. When I was 16, I found a couple of bigger ones in my grandmother’s attic. My father and I went across the road to a high school athletic field to try them out. (Of course he knew just how to throw the damned things.) Pretty cool, though! They do “come back” if you haven’t whacked your rabbit with it, but it’s this vicious whirling instrument of death you have to duck. No doubt there are drunken Aussie daredevils or sly natives who snatch them out of the air, but don’t try this at home.
The key to unraveling this mystery is to be found in the little cylindrical do-hickey in the fancy wrapping paper which lies just above the place mat of the figure in the foreground – the one who’s kind of a JHF look-alike. This thing is a Christmas cracker, as yet unexploded. Inside each of the frilly endwrappers is a little stem. The idea is for you and your neighbor to each pull together, producing a little bang like that of a cap pistol. Then you open the wrapper, and inside are goodies, including folded up paper crowns. The crowns are what we see on the heads of these folks in the picture. It’s the aftermath of the exploding of the crackers. For some reason one of the crackers lies unexploded, and that is a mystery. I suspect the confetti-like stuff on the face of the far figure – and possibly a toy thingamagum protruding from his mouth – come from his cracker. Look at the candles on the table. Look at the signs of festivity. Something is being celebrated. It must be Christmas.
I never heard anything about stuff like this in Texas or Illinois or Tennessee or New York. It was only when I moved to Ontario and came under the beneficent rule of the Crown – and married an Englishwoman to boot – that I ever heard of Christmas crackers. However, much is shared in the culture of Eastern Canada and New England. These old relations of yours from down East look quite a bit like the folks that sit around my table on Christmas day.
My aunt wasn’t from Maine but moved there in the 1970s. I have relatives in the vicinity of Elmira, NY. A place called Horseheads, actually. I’ll gladly accept your interpretation of the hats, but I still don’t know who those people are or where the picture was taken.
Having people sitting around your table on Christmas day sounds like something in a dream. I’ve missed out on that by never living close to family members and (mainly) not having any kids. The dysfunctional nature of my own family precluded anything like that anyway. That, plus most everyone seems to have died off now!
Next time around, perhaps.
Christmas crackers are traditional in Australia. Some are very elaborate and expensive (probably have better ‘goodies’ inside). Our ‘crowns’ actually look like crowns, however, rather than cones. There’s always a slip of paper bearing a corny joke, which we take turns reading aloud.
You guys have all the fun, dammit! Christmas crackers, kangaroos, boomarangs, wide-open spaces, 55 °C in the desert, plus you’re bigger than we are—I’ll bet maybe three Americans know that.
I have the strangest half-memory of having done the Christmas cracker thing sometime, somewhere, but maybe it’s something in my genes.