We’ve had some good Christmas Eve celebrations over the past two decades or so, since my wife and I started celebrating together. Each year we gather at my in-laws home with however many relatives and friends are available–sometimes as few as nine of us, sometimes closer to 29–and spend the afternoon talking and laughing, catching up, calling out, the usual–with the occasional decimation of a shrimp cocktail and a cheese & crackers plate thrown in, but the main attraction is my mother-in-law’s meal, a combination of her Polish and Italian traditions that suits my tastes even more than a Thanksgiving Dinner.
S he cooks a marinara sauce that is not only the best I’ve ever eaten, but which has a unique character unlike any I’ve tasted before, rich and simple, flavored with smoky cooked parmesan–and she only makes it at Christmas. This is served over spaghetti, along with pierogies, fresh baked rolls, and a multitude of delicious sides for a meatless meal that makes both carb-counters and I cry, but for diametrically opposed reasons. If you don’t get my implication: I’m the one crying for joy.
After dinner, there’s a bit more hanging around, but eventually the pious among us (which is pretty much everyone who doesn’t live at my house) takes turns slipping off to get dressed up for midnight mass. When the time is right, then, we take our leave amidst Christmas wishes, but not to head home. For the next 90 minutes or so we idle around town and the adjoining sprawl and take in the Christmas lights, carols singing from the car stereo. There’s a lot of small talk and a lot of consideration as we evaluate the displays, but we’re not harsh judges. If you’ve made the effort to celebrate by decorating your home/yard/pets you’ve got my appreciation.
For many years we did the light tour on the pretense of taking my wife’s great aunt Julie home, turning the 7-mile, 14 minute trip into a few hours of crawling through residential streets, but Julie’s up around 90 now and her vision has failed, so she’s no longer game. I’ll always smile and think of her on the tour–I’d walk her to her back door, and she would “slip” a crumpled five dollar bill into my hand “for the ride.” I tried to not to accept it the first time, and she pinched me on the wrist and chastised me. The pinch hurt, and I remembered someone once telling me, “it’s good to be generous, but it’s important to know how to accept generosity graciously.” So, hey: five bucks for me.
When we finally get home, it’s straight to “work.” We hang stockings while more Christmas music plays, put out a plate of cookies and a cup of milk for Santa–one year we opted not to put out the milk, in fear that it would get warm for Santa, and left the cup and an invitation to serve himself from the refrigerator, but Santa hit the eggnog instead. Hard.
Next up, from my wife’s childhood, the opening of a single Christmas present–a tradition I indulge–reluctantly, at first– because, well, I’m not in charge, even though it makes me nervous. My mom was a Christmas despot–we weren’t allowed even a sniff of presents until everyone was awake in the morning. Opening that present at night seems dangerous.
After that, it’s off to bed, where we all pile in for the reading of our favorite Christmas books, the ones saved after a month of reading to each other. It used to me me reading all the stories, but now that the kids are mostly grown we take turns, although there are still calls for me to read “Marty The Christmas Moose” using goofy voices for all the characters. They may be indulging me, but what the heck.
Then it’s off to bed. I used to wait to wrap all my presents on Christmas Eve, alone after everyone else turns in, right there in front of the tree, but I need my sleep more these days. Oh, I still stay up a few minutes after everyone else, but I’m content to take a few laps around the house and look at the decorations and let what memories that may come venture into my mind.