It’s not your typical holiday celebration.
When the Brannen family gets together for “Thanksmas,” as many as 70 people have been known to show up on Bonita (Brannen) Landrum’s front porch in Bradley County.
Landrum said the fewest people to show up since the family tradition began has been 38.
The family celebrates a combined Thanksgiving and Christmas as a tradition that started when Bonnie and Louis Brannen’s five children were spread across Texas and Tennessee.
Fred, Lowell and Will, along with sisters Bonita and Donice, have made the drive as schedules allowed to the chosen meeting place since 1997.
Youngest daughter Donice chose the combined name for this unique holiday.
Bonnie Brannen said the tradition started because the distance between parents and the siblings made it impossible for the Brannen children to visit their parents and their spouses’ parents on the same day.
Extended family and friends gather around tables for a Thanksgiving feast before a jam session highlighting the extended Brannen families’ many musicians.
“They gather around the piano and play their guitars and banjos and fiddles, or whatever instrument they have,” Landrum said.
Thanksgiving and Christmas devotions on the day give the clan time to reflect on the reason for these celebrations.
“We’re not short on preachers,” Landrum said.
“The boys are all preachers,” Brannen said.
She chose Thanksgiving because for her the focus was more on family togetherness, while Christmas could be a more personal celebration for those with young children.
“So she just said, ‘Why don’t we celebrate Thanksgiving together and you can celebrate Christmas however you want to?” Landrum said. “Then we decided if we were going to celebrate Thanksgiving and not celebrate Christmas together then we needed to celebrate Christmas together with Thanksgiving.”
Gift giving has also been simplified. Landrum said they started out drawing names, but inevitably someone who had been given a name could not make it that year. Now, each person simply brings a gift and the family plays the classic “pick a number, get a gift or choose to steal a gift” game.
In 1997, the family tried the combined holiday for the first time. Thanksgiving was celebrated at the Landrum house, which was in Niota at the time. Then, the family packed up and drove to Donice’s house in Athens for Christmas that evening.
A few years later the family further streamlined the holiday to be held at the Landrum’s home.
“Somehow I just wound up being the host for the whole thing for the past 13 years,” Landrum said.
In that time, the Brannen family has started several traditions within the celebration. Landrum’s peanut butter fudge and Bonnie Brannen’s icebox fruitcake always take center stage among the Christmas desserts.
Bonnie Brannen always recites "Annie and Willie's Prayer," a poem she learned as a child. The family sings an original song by Steve Brannen, Lowell Brannen’s son, called “I love my family.”
“He is in the Air Force [Academy] band in Colorado,” Bonnie Brannen said.
A performance of the song has found its way to YouTube as “Stephen Lowell Brannen sings ‘I Love My Family.’”
While the thought of having more than 50 people coming to their house would be overwhelming for many, Landrum said she enjoys it.
“It is so wonderful to me to be with family. For years, I felt like I was isolated in Louisiana all by myself,” Landrum said. “I just feel blessed that they come here.”
The stress is spread out with each person bringing something. Landrum said she focuses on decorating and on the complex dessert.
“It's something I have truly grown to love,” said Ruthie Crockett, Fred Brannen’s daughter. “Thanksmas is such a wonderful time — the gift giving without holiday pressures, the fantastic food and my wonderful Brannen family. Our family has been through thick and thin together — we're very blessed with each other — and truly know how to love. “
Despite the large numbers, Landrum said there is always so much food that family members take leftovers home.
For the first time this year the five siblings live in the same town.
“It’s the first time in our lives. We’ve always been in different states,” Landrum said.
“The reason for a lot of it was the preacher part,” Brannen said. “My oldest son was a missionary, so he was in South America and Africa for years. … We’ve just been scattered and it’s been such a blessing to have everybody close.”
Oldest son Fred moved to Cleveland in 1998 when he was appointed as the Church of God World Mission’s general overseer for Africa. Later, Lowell moved to Cleveland to pastor at Grace Assembly of God.
After Louis died in 1999, Bonnie moved to North Cleveland Towers. Her two daughters were not far behind in making the move. Brother Will was still living in Texas, but making the trip to Cleveland with his family for the annual holiday when he could. This year he is retired and has moved to Cleveland.