When it first began as a spur-of-the-moment gathering for New Year’s Day, nobody ever imagined that 25 years later a party on the first day of the year would be an event not to miss for four local families.
That year, Carter and Dena Wilkerson had been very busy with their 3-month-old, Katie, so by the time the holidays were winding down and 1988 was about to arrive they were looking for a casual way to observe the start of a new year.
“Carter woke up that morning wanting to cook, and who do you invite last minute but your next-door neighbors?” Dena recalls. “It kind of happened by accident, really.”
So they called their Wentworth Avenue neighbors, close friends Tracey and Kirk Hazelwood, to come over, and Carter set about making the “lucky foods” including black-eyed peas, greens and pork.
That day of watching movies and football games, eating, reminiscing and relaxing set the tone and the tradition for the next 24 years.
But that doesn’t mean some things didn’t change.
Take that original group of five, for example.
Over time, two other families joined the party, first Mike and Johnda Hazelwood and their children, and then Ron and Debbie Faupel and their children.
Eventually, the New Year’s family gathering grew to 19, with each new arrival adding energy to the day, said Katie Wilkerson in a story she wrote last year about the significance of the event in her life.
“No matter what, we spend the whole day of January 1st together, some years lasting until 10-11 p.m. Conversations have gone from new parent stories to talking about college and sororities,” she wrote. “It’s my favorite day of the year.”
Dena said they had never really made it a point to celebrate New Year’s Day in any particular way until that year.
“But now this is our tradition, this is our thing, and it really hasn’t changed that much,” she said, even though Katie has said mentioned that they could “class it up a bit” when it comes to the food.
Her dad, however, will hear nothing of that and will continue to prepare Polish sausage, sauerkraut and black-eyes peas.
“He likes tradition,” Dena said. “And he likes to cook and entertain.”
Even though others in the group offered to host, the party still went on at their house the year the Wilkersons were in the middle of a huge remodeling project on the home they now reside in on North Main Street.
They set up card tables in the kitchen that had been gutted and Carter cooked food on a stove in the garage.
“It’s a very relaxed day,” she said, noting that their guests come early in their comfiest clothes. “It is something we all look forward to every year. What better way to start the New year than with great friends.”
Dena said the member of the “original five” who now lives in Washington, D.C., (Katie) planned her time home for Christmas this year so she wouldn’t miss the 25th-annual New Year’s gathering, even though she “had to do some finagling.”
And the Faupels’ daughter, Katie, is due back at Indiana University on New Year’s night, but has planned her packing and departure so she won’t be left out of the family day festivities.
“No one has never not come, not even with all the children and all the different things that could prevent someone from coming. It’s just really important to them,” Dena said, noting that it’s even more significant because the four families are at different stages in their lives. “My kids think it’s the coolest thing. It may be a silly tradition but you don’t really realize what it means to them and the value it has.”
She said Katie has a strong ownership in the day and takes pride in the fact that she’s the only kid that’s been there for the gathering all 25 years.”
“It says that tradition is important,” Dena added, “no matter what it is.”