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  • Heather McDorman

A Christmas Gathering of Girlfriends

Our college friend group’s holiday tradition spans five decades

The Girlfriends Christmas Gathering scrapbook.

We have mentioned in earlier posts that our friendship – Jodi’s and mine – is an offshoot of a group of seven women who have navigated post-college life together since 1986 (Heather, Jodi, Laurie, Liz, Sally, Karen, and Julie). And a hallmark of that group friendship is our 35+ year tradition of coming together at Christmas to eat, drink, and be merry. Now, in 2022, we’ve missed only a couple of years (thanks, pandemic) – but the tradition remains as strong as ever.

The annual gathering, which has been hosted at apartments, flats, houses, and restaurants, is something I look forward to every year. The conversation flows, the laughter is loud, the stories are on repeat and the updates of our families and careers come easy. To add to the merriment we’ve exchanged ornaments, little gifts, our favorite things (a la Oprah), and given to families, women, and veterans in need. The activities have naturally evolved from the 1980s through the 2020s.

By the Decade: The 1980s

We started the tradition in 1986. Laurie recalls that inaugural gathering: “I remember the first get together in 1986 coming together sort of on the fly. Sally and Julie were in St. Louis to catch a flight to NYC and came to the apartment Karen, Jodi, and I shared. Liz and Heather came over, too. I remember excitement (and maybe a touch of light-hearted envy) that Sal and Julie were about to experience Christmas in the Big Apple!” she said.

“I think the food was mostly chips and dip and the beverages were cheap wine and soft drinks, but I also think we had a small, decorated tree. I can’t remember if we did some sort of gift exchange. We all shared what was going on with our lives and how we’d be observing Christmas (mostly going home to celebrate with our families since we were all single and just a couple of years out of college). It was just fun to celebrate together!”

1997 group photo

1986 was our first Christmas gathering, but we captured

our first group photo in 1987 at Laurie's flat.

In 1987, we were at Laurie’s Flat on Flad (Avenue), and I was excited to bring my mom along for the event. The Sweeney Sisters (Sally and Julie) were the highlight at Jodi’s townhouse in 1988. Their song stylings of SNL’s popular duet entertained us.

(Left) Our unconventional 1988 group picture proved that Sally is just a little different! (Right) And that was affirmed when she and Julie broke out in a planned SNL Sweeney Sisters song and skit.

“Ever since we were kids, Julie and I would sing goofy songs – making them up as we go along,” Sally said. “So, it was natural that after hearing Nora Dunn and Jan Hooks as the over-the-top Sweeney Sisters singing Christmas songs on SNL we felt it must be reprised in some fashion for our gal pals.”

Our gift exchange resulted in an addition to our group – a so-ugly-it’s-cute blue velvet and sequined giraffe ornament. Meant as a joke, the blue giraffe was exchanged for years and years until, sadly, it was lost (or found an owner who actually loved it!).

Liz gets the blue giraffe ornament

Julie recalls our little mascot. “I brought it, and it was a funky little ornament that was too ugly but cute that I couldn’t pass it up. I gave it as my gift, then gave my real gift afterwards.” Liz received it (left). “She’s just like what is this?! And laughed, which is exactly the reaction I wanted!” Julie said. Sally wrapped up the decade with her first hosting gig, and I got my first taste of her delightful pumpkin dump cake!

By the Decade: The 1990s

The 1990s were marked by quite a few pregnancies and new friends joining in on the festivities! Liz hosted us in 1990 at her cool digs in Maplewood. In 1991, Jackie became a familiar face as we celebrated and exchanged ornaments at Julie’s place.

(Slideshow, 3 photos, from left) 1. 1990 group photo at Liz's apartment in Maplewood. 2. We were casual at Julie's place in 1991. 3. 1992's group picture at Sally's features kooky artwork by our hostess.

Sally hosted in her new apartment in St. Louis in 1992 and Michelle joined us. She had the idea to answer the wishes of kids in St. Louis City who wrote Santa (via the U.S. Post Office in STL). Michelle and my fiancé at the time, Bob (who had an SUV), toted all the wrapped presents to the post office on behalf of us all.

(Top, Left) I hosted in 1993. (Top, Right) Laurie broke out the good china for us in 1994. (Bottom, Left) Jackie took on hosting duties in 1995. (Bottom, Right) We trekked to Chicago in 1996 where Jodi was the host with the most.

I hosted at my first home with now-husband Bob in 1993. And in 1994, Laurie shared with us her culinary talents as she hosted, and Jackie became the first mom-to-be in the group (no champagne for her!). In 1995 Jackie happily hosted an early celebration because Liz was expecting her first child in December. Six of us took to the road to Jodi’s house, who had moved to Chicago five years earlier. Each year we take a group photo, and the 1996 photo will forever remain my fave.

(Slideshow, 3 photos, from left) 1. Julie took on hosting duties again in 1997 but we missed Liz! 2. Sally brought us all together in 1998. 3. In 1999, we gathered at Liz's house.

We missed Liz when we traveled west to Julie’s house in 1997. Little did everyone know, both Jodi and I were pregnant with our first child at that gathering! Sally hosted at her home with husband Tom in ’98, and in ’99 Liz hosted at her home with hubby Perry in Florissant.

By the Decade: The 2000s

I hosted the 2K gathering where we welcomed fellow NMSU/Truman State Bulldog alum, Pam (she also happened to be my high school BFF and college roomie). This year we began to document our holiday tradition in a Mary Engelbreit scrapbook and chronicled every year but the first (What? A bunch of comm majors took zero photos?). After that year, the hostess kept the book and had the responsibility of collecting photos and adding a new page to the scrapbook.

(From Top) 1. I hosted in the year 2000. 2. In 2001, Laurie's house was once again the place to be. 3. Pam premiered as a host in 2002. 4. We made it to Tony's on Main St. in St. Charles in 2003 to celebrate for the first time at a restaurant.

We were back to Laurie’s house in 2001 – and Laurie once again outdid herself with her cooking skills! Pam was our 2002 host and she laid it out with a printed menu, eight courses (including stunning mint chocolate teacups), a secret Santa exchange, and a visit from Santa Claus (score!). We ventured out to our first restaurant outing in 2003 – at Tony’s on Main Street (love this place!) and dessert and a gift exchange at my house.

Our tradition of “My Favorite Things” began in 2004. At Sally’s, we took a cue from Oprah’s Annual Favorite Things giving extravaganza (you get a car! you get a car!) but toned it down a bit. Each of us would bring one small tried-and-true item ($5 or less) for each friend. Through the years, the gifts have ranged from scarves, cosmetics, treats, and household items. It’s been a blast to share our favorite products with one another.

(Slideshow, 3 photos, from left) 1. While at Julie's in 2005, Karen gifted us all with scarves she knitted. 2. In 2006, we were together at Liz's house. 3. In 2007, we posed in front of my fireplace.

In 2005 we were back to Julie’s (she’s quite the hostess), where we continued Our Favorite Things tradition (and this time, took a photo of all our treasures). Liz hosted in 2006, and we were missing our friends from the west (likely due to snow or ice, dang it!). The seven of us were back together in 2007 at my house, and the highlight of the Our Favorite Things was a hand-knitted scarf from Karen – so pretty and soft!

Group photo shoot for Better Homes & Gardens

In September 2008, we came together for a Better Homes and Gardens photo shoot in a warehouse in downtown St. Louis. We even had a glam squad fix our hair and make-up. (Photo reprinted with permission from Better Homes and Gardens® Magazine. ©Copyright 2009 Meredith Corporation. All Rights Reserved.)

In 2008 Laurie was approached by people from Better Homes and Gardens Magazine to write an article about our holiday gathering tradition and our sometimes-benevolent activities (most recently we had purchased and mailed “Sweats for Soldiers” thanks to a contact of Karen’s). Interviews took place, and we all were treated to a photoshoot, including a glam squad, in September. Sadly, the story didn’t make it into the December issue as we hoped, but Liz and Laurie made sure each of us received a framed photo from our fancy photo shoot.

(From Left) Laurie kept everything Christmassy in 2009. To our surprise, Better Homes and Gardens published the vignette that Laurie was interviewed for the year prior (sad – no photo, though!).

All of us gathered at Laurie’s house in 2009 where we exchanged our faves (love Liz’s custom Christmas tree earrings) and wrapped warm socks, hats, and gloves for women in need at Sally’s employer, Caring Solutions. And surprise, Better Homes and Gardens resurrected the story of our tradition, and it appeared in the December 2009 issue! Because of our “national” exposure, our alma mater picked up a version of the story for their alum publication, The Truman Review. Crazy!

By the Decade: The 2010s

By the 2010s, our scrapbooking dedication had waned, as apparently did our interest in capturing our group in photos. Our busy work and family schedules had us embracing the practice of gathering at lovely restaurants.

(From left) Wild Flower Restaurant offered a very festive background for our 2011 photo. We gathered in early 2016 to celebrate the 2015 holiday at Bishop's Post in Chesterfield.

To give these restaurants a plug, we enjoyed Table Three in Grover, Mo., Wild Flower Restaurant in Wildwood, Prasino in St. Charles (we missed the Columbia, Mo., gals due to wicked weather), McGurk’s Irish Pub in O’Fallon, Bishop’s Post in Chesterfield, Magpie’s Cafe in St. Charles (sad side note: several of these restaurants have since shuttered). In 2017, we landed at Julie’s again (did I mention she’s a great hostess?). I was laid up after knee surgery in December 2018, so we settled for a quick visit at my house. The beautiful Il Bel Lago in Creve Coeur was our spot for an early gathering in 2019.

(Slideshow, 4 Photos, from left) 1. Julie reigns as the most frequent hostess after taking on duties again in 2017. 2. Isn't her shawl and ornament divine?! 3. Laurie prepped some pretty festive Jello shots! 4. We celebrated Liz with a pretty fancy cake and candles.

By the Decade: The 2020s

Our current decade started out with a thud as it did for the rest of the world when our holiday tradition was put on hold for two years thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic. “After not being able to meet for two years, I was hoping we wouldn’t abandon our tradition,” Jodi said. “So, I was thrilled when everyone was available on Dec. 3 this year. It almost felt like the Christmas holidays would finally be complete this year!”

Group Photo at Circle 7 Ranch in 2022

The gang was all together at our 2022 Girlfriends Christmas Gathering at Circle 7 Ranch after a pandemic-forced hiatus.

We came back strong in 2022 with all seven of us appropriately landing at Circle 7 Ranch in Ballwin in a lovely private room that allowed our aging ears to hear each other tell stories, laugh and, well, retell stories! (Sally strongly recommends the Loaded Tots!) It was SO good to be back together. This year, we played Scrooge Your Neighbor as a way to exchange a self-care gift of our choice.

Looking Back

Throughout the years, exchanges morphed, and our locations varied – and that worked. “I really enjoyed our ‘fave things’ gift exchanges,” Liz said. “And, while gathering at a restaurant makes it easier (no one has to host – and all that entails), I think the gatherings at a girlfriend's home were extra special and made it easier to connect and visit with each girlfriend.”

Without a doubt, the constant has been our love for each other and the support and joy we have brought to one another. “The bond I have with these women is strong,” Jodi said. “Even when my husband and I moved away from St. Louis for nearly 30 years, it was important for me to come back for these get-togethers each year because we have a long history of friendship, caring, lots and lots of laughter, and shared memories of so many significant moments in our lives.”

Karen does a wonderful job of explaining the big picture of our traditions and shares some of the details that explains just a little of how this group friendship thrives.

“I think the group endures because of the life events we've shared. It's a constant. Its anchor is our shared pasts, but the common life events – births, deaths, celebrations, sadnesses – entwine our separate experiences,” Karen shares. “For those of us on the outskirts of the group, there's always room for us to move back into the circle as if we never moved out. We always have those touchpoints: Sally's 'you know what's really good?' Or the memory of five or six of us crammed into Dan's (Laurie’s husband) car to mark the odometer's turning over its first 100k ... or the wedding parties and birthday dinners, the group hugs that helped to heal the heart break of a parent's death or a difficult diagnosis. The holiday gatherings are part of the cement. We are so lucky.”

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Dec 22, 2022

I feel blessed to know a few of these amazing woman, and grateful to call them friends ❤️

Heather McDorman
Heather McDorman
Dec 23, 2022
Replying to

So kind! Wish I knew which friend you are! 😘


Dec 19, 2022

LOVED seeing the photo cavalcade! Such a fantastic tradition!


Dec 16, 2022

Love that you girls have kept this tradition going for so long! Also incredibly grateful that you participated in the filling of Santa’s letters and that Bob accompanied me to some somewhat sketchy places to deliver our wonderful gifts! You go, girls!

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