Every year without fail, starting the weekend after Thanksgiving, I get really excited about Christmas. With a family as large as mine, all four weeks leading up to the big day are packed with traditions that simply cannot be skipped, and in the beginning, I wouldn’t even dream of trying. I look forward to decorating and baking, shopping and parties. But inevitably, being a person that possesses very little patience and more than my fair share of egotism, the initial excitement begins to wane.
It all starts with the decorating of the house and the tree. The night before we put everything up, mom begins pouting in earnest. “I’ll have no part of it! It’s all a bunch of mess and I’d rather leave it all out in the building”, she says in a huff. Every year she refuses to participate and while we spend our morning hauling in tubs of ornaments, she stalks from the kitchen to her bedroom and back, complaining loudly about the clutter and butting into branch placement arguments.
The only part of the tree decorating tradition that she enjoys is the music. We crank up Barry Manilow’s Christmas album and sing like a chorus line of trannys drunk on eggnog. Our favorite is Baby it’s Cold Outside, but the CD must play in its entirety at least twice before we can switch to anything else. However, this year was only Ray’s second Christmas with us and he isn’t yet used to protocol. After only four or five Barry songs, he pitched an almighty fit to watch some football or basketball game. Of course he got his way, but by the time the game was over he’d heard enough bitching to last a life time and promptly disappeared into the woods to go hunting. He has yet to learn that fighting is an important part of the process.
Another issue that’s cropped up with our tree tradition is that I’ve become a bit anal about the theme. We have a plethora of ornaments in all shapes, sizes, and colors but in recent years, we’ve kept it color coded. Blue and silver has been the theme of choice for the past three years and, try as I might, I simply cannot have a mishmash of random ornaments. I like it uniform and clean; they have to match. My sister, Leigha, is on board, but the kid is not.
Most people would argue that Christmas trees are meant to be decorated by children and I, almost completely, agree. That’s why we bought Hannah her very own miniature tree for her bedroom, to massacre to her heart’s content. We still let her help decorate the big tree, but only with preapproved, matching ornaments. And when she starts whining that I’m not putting the hooks on fast enough or when she hangs everything together in one huge clump, I can feel my eye start to twitch. As a result, the excitement I felt when unloading the boxes hours before is almost completely gone and in its place is a special brand of irritation, reserved just for the holidays. The funny thing is, once everything is up, she could set off a bomb in the middle of it and I wouldn’t care. It’s the process that matters.
We have a wrapping tradition too. It’s quite simple: I like doing it and no one else does. So everyone piles their presents in the living room and I sit in my pajamas, with a cup of sweet tea (or liquor if it’s readily available) and a movie on the TV. And I trash the place. Scraps of paper, price tags and boxes fly everywhere. And at first I enjoy it, I really do. I love wrapping presents and stacking them under the tree. But no matter what, at least ½ to ¾ of the way through, I get angry that no one will help me and I mutter to myself about how I do everything and the rest of them are lazy bums! But, on the rare occasion that they decide to join in and help, I cringe while they wrap because they do such a piss poor job.
Last year we added the Elf tradition, but like most things that haven’t been in effect forever, it’s almost fallen by the wayside. We bought this book called “Elf on a Shelf” that comes with a tiny replica of the main character. Hannah named her elf Shefford and it’s his job to report back to Santa each night, telling him whether she’s been good or bad. Every morning when she wakes up he’s in a different spot, but she isn’t allowed to touch him or he loses his magic.
Last year, saying “Shefford is going to tell Santa” went a long way in helping with the whining and tantrums. This year...zilch. She’s reached an age where she’s realized that she can pretty much get away with murder and still receive a significant amount of loot on Christmas day. Not only that, but everyone keeps forgetting to move the damn elf before she wakes up. As a result, I doubt Shefford will be making an appearance next year – he and his cheeky painted grin will retire to the North Pole where they belong.
Then of course there’s the shopping. I generally go once with my mother and once with Leigha, but the three of us cannot go together. It causes massive arguments over which toy gun is the best for which germ breeder and whether we really need more wrapping paper. Seriously, we’re those people – standing in the middle of an aisle in the toy store, Leigha and I hissing curse words at each other and attempting to maim one another across the cart with whatever is handy while mom flaps her hands and squeals “Oh! Oh!”, “That’s enough!”, and “That’s it! We’re leaving!”
My sister and mother are both indecisive when it comes to shopping. They will wander through a store for hours, picking up and putting down dozens of things, making virtually no progress at all. Then suddenly they’ll look at the clock and realize they’ve been ensconced in retail hell for far too long and they’re going to be late getting home. That’s when they return with bags full of presents that don’t make a lot of sense, but that cost much more than they intended to spend. And half of them will be for Leigha.
“You know she doesn’t shop well”, mom says to me in accusation. As if it’s my fault she decided to take the teenager that’s more concerned with picking up her latest pair of hooker heels than what is on the list.
It’s a different story with mom and me. I prod her up and down each aisle with military precision – reading names off the list and barking orders. “Get that. No, no! Put that down! What are you doing?! Let’s go, go, go!” I’m a very detail oriented shopper. If I don’t have a list and a clear idea of what I’m getting, I don’t want to go.
But it’s not all business. We laugh a lot too – making fun of the other shoppers and each other. We’ll usually break for lunch or dinner, spreading receipts out on the table and pouring over the list before diving right back into the mayhem. It truly is one of my favorite parts of the holidays – spending that time with her, knowing that, at least for this, she’d prefer to be with me over my sister.
We bake rice krispy treats and cookies, cakes and pies. We make The Dip and little hors d'oeuvres called Christmas stars. We take Hannah to see Santa Claus and provide snacks for her school and daycare celebrations. There are programs to attend, cards to write, and parties for work, friends, and family. December is mapped out from beginning to end, and it can grow tiresome. And still, it seems we add more and more traditions every year. This one is no different.
Ray, my soon to be stepfather, apparently has a family every bit as large as ours. Mom, Leigha, and Hannah have been to their gatherings before, but for one reason or another, I never have. Since they got engaged, attendance to his family’s Christmas became mandatory. “It would be tacky to meet them at the wedding when you’ve had plenty of opportunity to do it beforehand”, mom said. And so on Saturday night, we went.
Ray had been in a fishing tournament all day and would be late, so it was with much bickering and shoving that we made our way to the party without him. I wasn’t sure what to expect. These people knew my daughter, but not me. Would they think I was an asshole for never coming around? And more to the point – what terrible stories had my mother told them about me? Spreading my business, with a special twist, is a habit of hers.
Arms laden with presents and food, we walked single file through the door. They were gathered in a detached garage turned rec room. There was a full kitchen set up on one side and an old wood burning stove on the other. The center was filled with long picnic tables and a few round tables covered in Christmas table cloths and decorative centerpieces. Hanging about a foot from the ceiling, one going around the entirety of the room and a smaller one at the center, were handmade train tracks complete with antique steam engines. They looked straight out of a scene from a Christmas movie. Every inch of wall space was covered – old license plates, pictures, football paraphernalia and, oddest of all, an entire wall dedicated to unopened packets of tools.
There were people everywhere. Toddlers ran through the legs of chatting adults and sullen teenagers sulked in the corner. Younger men hunched over the cooking area (it was a fish fry) and older men sat close to the stove. The women arranged side dishes and flitted back and forth, greeting new arrivals and shoving children gently away from the hot food. It reminded me of a tamer evening at my Papa’s and I immediately felt more at ease.
After shedding our coats and settling on a bench, they started to come over one by one. The men shook my hand and smiled warmly. The women went a bit further – embracing me, kissing and patting my cheek, saying how lovely it was to finally meet me. I’ve never been much of a toucher, but their attention didn’t bother me at all.
We socialized for awhile before Ray arrived, opening the door with a crash and a blast of cold air, euphoric from winning his tournament. He was immediately set upon by everyone, especially the women, and I thought to myself that it explained a lot about his personality. His mother died when he was young and he’s very close to her twin sister, who was there front and center. He seems to be something of a family pet.
Eating next to his cousins, laughing and joking over dinner, I felt like I’d always been there. I hoped that Ray felt the same with our extended family and I made a note to ask him sometime.
There were forty people there, not including small children, and after dinner we were lectured on the rules of gift giving. The game was Chinese Christmas. Each person brought a $15 - $20 gift and put it in a stack. Then we all drew a number to dictate when we could choose a present. Rather than go the normal route and start with number one the organizer, Ray’s uncle, decided to start with number 40 and go to number 20. Then switch to number one and go to 19. And with Chinese Christmas, you always want to have the number that goes last, because you can choose any present you want. The announcement of the new rules was followed by an immediate groan from the recipient of number 40, causing everyone to laugh.
When the game began, our little group huddled up and speculated about which presents we should choose from the stack and which we would steal, given the opportunity. (You can either open a present from the stack, or steal a present someone else has already opened.) As it progressed, I learned a little more about the people around me...and the reason behind the strange wall of unopened tools.
A woman unwrapped a small power drill and waved it in the air over her head for everyone to see. A roar of laughter went up around the room. My family looked around in confusion while fingers were pointed and chatter broke out. Ray’s cousin filled us in. “See that wall over there full of unopened tools?”
We nodded. “Yes...”
“Every year, when we play this game, Uncle Joe steals until he gets a set of tools and then tacks it on the wall. It drives everyone crazy, so they all try stealing them back from him. See that display of knives over there? He does it with those too.”
Another cousin interjected. “And look”, he said pointing over my head to a high shelf, “do you remember that glass? We threw that in the trash ages ago! He must have gotten it out again!”
Everyone laughed. And when, a short while later, someone opened a gift containing pocket knives and Uncle Joe’s eyes lit up, we laughed along with them.
The game continued on – with more friendly ribbing, desserts and drinks and stories. It was probably the most fun I’ve ever had at a family Christmas. And technically, it wasn’t even my family. But they treated us like we were from the moment we walked in the door.
Later, as we pulled on jackets and gathered our things to go, the handshaking and hugs began again.
“Come back soon, you’re family now.”
“It was so wonderful to finally meet you.”
“We’re so glad Ray has ya’ll.”
His mom’s twin, my immediate favorite, hugged me goodbye. There was just something about her face – I couldn’t look at her without smiling. “I’ve given something to Ray for you girls”, she said as we walked out the door. “Merry Christmas! Thank you!” And we were gone.
Ray handed me an envelope with my name on the front as I was climbing into my car. I drove off into the dark, leaving the others with him, and I replayed the night’s events in my head – laughing at the image of a disgruntled Uncle Joe after he’d managed to steal the knife set, then lost it to the very next person. I hadn’t expected it to go that well and I certainly hadn’t expected to have such a good time.
Still lost in thought, I pressed a knee against my steering wheel and reached for the envelope. I broke the seal and pulled out a small white card that said “Merry Christmas” in silver script across the front. As I opened it, a stack of bills fell out onto my lap. I smiled, stuffing the money and the card into my purse.
Oh yes, I thought, that aunt is definitely my favorite. And this, the whole night, is definitely a tradition I won’t grow tired of anytime soon.
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