A family tradition

  • By Debra Smith / Herald Writer
  • Monday, December 13, 2004 9:00pm
  • Life

On Christmas Eve, Ed Ellis will gather his children and grandchildren around him and open the family Bible to the Book of Luke.

The Everett native will recite the story of Christ’s birth, a ritual repeated in this family for dozens of years, first by Ellis’ father-in-law and now by him.

It’s a simple tradition, but one of many that provides meaning during the holiday for this longtime Everett family.

The Ellises’ traditions have held them together during the worst times and helped them celebrate the good.

Photos by Barton Glasser / The Herald

From left to right, Jess Carlson, Debby Carlson, Landyn Barton, Jewel Ellis, Madisyn Roberts and Jean Ellis listen as Ed Ellis reads from the Book of Luke, chapter 2, the story of the first Christmas. Reading the Bible story on Christmas Eve is a long-standing tradition for the family.

As a young married couple in the 1950s, Ed and Jean Ellis worked to balance the holiday between both of their families.

The two met at Everett High School as seniors and married soon after.

“Our mothers didn’t get along,” said Jean Ellis, now 66.

The two strong-willed mothers didn’t want to spend the holidays together. But the couple found a way to appease both families by shuttling between the two: Christmas Eves spent with his family and Christmas days with hers.

Although they made the best of the situation, the Ellises vowed it would be different with their own children.

“My belief is strong that when you marry it’s a shared family,” she said. “It’s not just his relatives or my relatives – it’s our family. You learn to share a family.”

Marysville psychologist Steve Clancy says that traditions and rituals bind families together.

“There’s meaning and continuity,” Clancy said. “It helps us to find who we are as a family.”

Clancy often works with couples who are in career mode, focusing on advancement.

“At some point they go, ‘Is that all there is?’ ” Clancy said. “There are no shared rituals that give meaning to their lives,” whether it’s at the holidays or at other times throughout the year.

If people don’t have any meaningful customs, Clancy advises creating them.

“We need that in our lives,” Clancy said.

Couples need to be on the same page when starting traditions, Clancy said. He suggests that couples share ideas and find something that works for them both.

“It is an important task,” he said. “It helps keep people together in the long run when the going gets tough.”

Jean Ellis knows traditions help. She came from a strong Christian home on Jordan Road, later renamed 100th Street, in the Eastmont area of Everett.

“I lived so far out in the country, the light didn’t shine,” she said.

Her childhood home was modest, and celebrating Christmas was a simple affair. After her father read the story of Christ’s birth each Christmas Eve, her parents would put up a small tree. The children would hang their long, brown stockings and in the morning hard candy and an orange would be waiting inside.

In the 1940s, Everett was a working-class town coping with World War II rations and blackouts. Jean Ellis said her Christmas experience was typical, if not better, than most of her neighbors.

“There was no money,” she remembered. “It was just a very poor time. We didn’t feel deprived; none of us were hungry or anything. But you were lucky to get one gift and that was fine.”

Christmas was a bigger production at Ed Ellis’ childhood home, although his family also made do with little. Decorations and a tree would go up several weeks before the holiday.

“Dad was bouncing around from job to job as a shingle weaver, so he might not be home from time to time,” said Ed Ellis, now 67. “Mom would take me in the bus and we would go to a tree lot and buy a tree.”

Ed Ellis remembered downtown Everett in the 1940s as a bustling row of brightly decorated department stores. The city’s lampposts were wrapped with greenery. His mother would take him to one of the dime stores to buy ornaments.

The Everett Elks Club planned an annual Christmas party for children, and Ed Ellis remembered the mesh stockings full of treats he’d receive.

“My mom would take me downtown and we would stand in line like they do for a food line nowadays, it would go clear around the block. Everyone was waiting to receive a stocking from Santa Claus.”

After the Ellises began having their own children, they incorporated new traditions.

Ed Ellis bought the family’s first stereo from Ernest Hardware and along with it, he purchased a Mitch Miller album with sheet music of Christmas carols. The big band sounds of Miller’s music today fill their grown children’s memories of the holidays.

“I remember decorating and singing,” said daughter Debby Carlson, 48. “Mom would be sitting at the table doing the Christmas cards and us three kids would be helping dad put together the tree.”

The family decorated year after year with many of the same treasured ornaments, many of which remain in Ed and Jean Ellis’ Camano Island home. Daughter Jewel Ellis, 43, remembered the delectable made-from-scratch treats her mother would bake: fudge, pumpkin pie, sugar cookies, banana bread, hot cocoa and melt-in-your-mouth baking powder biscuits.

“It’s what I’ve tried to do with my kids,” said Jewel Ellis.

Despite being a single parent, the mother of two cooks from scratch and takes her children shopping downtown to see the holiday decorations.

“Even though you’re a single parent, you can still carry on the traditions.”

Smells and sounds are as important to rituals and traditions as the people who may be involved, and many rituals are built around recipes and food.

Food traditions can connect one generation of a family such as grandchildren, to another, the grandparents they might not have known.

Clancy says that this kind of tradition brings cohesiveness to the family and can make a much greater sense of belonging.

When the Ellises’ children married and started families, the Ellises worked to be gentle, loving and accepting of the new members of the family. Debby Carlson said those values are the most important tradition her parents have passed to her.

She gained a new appreciation for her family’s traditions after beating cancer eight years ago.

“You have a tendency to take for granted the little things as you grow older, the traditions your parents pass down to you,” she said.

“I didn’t understand what traditions were or what unconditional love meant. After the things I’ve gone through, I recognize how important it is.”

Reporter Debra Smith: 425-339-3197 or dsmith@ heraldnet.com.

Herald writer Christina Harper contributed to this story.

Jean Ellis’ baking powder biscuits

2cups sifted flour

3teaspoons baking powder

2tablespoons sugar

1/2teaspoon salt

5heaping tablespoons cold Crisco shortening

cup milk

Sift the dry ingredients. Cut in shortening with fork. Add milk to make soft dough. Place on flour bread board and roll inch thick. Cut with a small-mouth glass dipped in flour. Place on ungreased baking sheet and bake in hot 450 degree oven for 12 minutes.

Optional: Add cup grated cheese to dough.

Also makes a good base for strawberry shortcake.

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