Christmas is my favourite holiday. I love winter in general. The bright snow glistening, building crackling fires so hot my cheeks burn, stews and braised meat, cozy days and snow days that force me to rest.
Leading up to Christmas, I have been asking folks about their traditions and the overwhelming feeling is that ours is the best. Ha! Of course I would think that: it’s my family’s tradition and so of course I love it whole-heartedly. I feel so lucky. Every family has their own tradition that makes the holiday familiar, nostalgic and comforting. Still, I thought I would share ours here.
Mom usually buys the tree and it miraculously appears in the house. Last year, she and I tried to set it upright with my 93 year old Grandpa supervising. It is a task to do this without anyone getting mad.
A few days before Christmas, Mom and I decorate the tree. Zoe isn’t always there by then. Mom and I have a scotch and use the ladder. From the basement, she brings up the ornaments Vlad and Olga gave us 20 years ago, some tacky ornaments accumulated as joke gifts as well as beautiful and precious ornaments from Grandma. These are the same ornaments that have been on the Christmas tree every year, my whole life. We put the envelopes and letters that have arrived to the house within the branches of the tree too.
On Christmas eve, we usually have a number of people over. Trevor makes congee and we eat a fairly light meal. Presents pile up under the tree. Mom and I try not to peak. The guests sit around the table long after dinner and dessert drinking wine as the fire is maintained by Uncle Stevie. Once the guests leave, Mom and I each open a present. Zoe is allowed, too, but she often foregoes this treat. My sister gets mad and accuses us ( rightly) of peaking. We giggle and eventually we all go to our rooms to finish last-minute wrapping. The house is quiet except the sound of wrapping paper and tape.
I can never fall asleep. I go to bed late, and wake up before dawn. My stocking is at the foot of my bed. Mom learned this trick when I kept waking up the whole family too early, too eagerly. The stocking is fat and heavy. It is a tacky large thing with an image of a panda family under a Christmas tree on Christmas morning. My initials are written on the top. MY sister has her own version of the panda family Christmas scene on her stocking. I take out the magazine. There is always a magazine. As a child, it was always MAD magazine. Growing up, it was often a food magazine. Now, the magazine is a food or art magazine, Vanity Fair or Vogue . Zoe gets a different magazine in hers.
I sit in bed with the lamp on and read the first little bit. I am distracted and watching the clock, waiting for an appropriate hour to wake everyone else up. I go downstairs after a bit, and put on a pot of coffee, set the dining room table for breakfast, then scoot back upstairs, grab my stocking and creep into my sister’s room - leaping on her bed and waking her up. She’s grumpy and asks if it has snowed. I open the curtains. The house begins to stir. I wake up Mom and she comes into Zoe’s room. We sit on the bed and open the little gifts in the stocking one by one. These are cute little things: food things; gimmicking things; little books. Mom frets and apologizes they are all only little things. The bottom of the stocking ALWAYS has an orange. Some years, it still had the orange from the year before. We hear Trevor go downstairs and feed the dogs. Uncle Stevie usually is away and starts a fire. Grandpa sleeps in a bit and we try to stay quiet.
Downstairs, slowly the day starts. We make a breakfast of eggs, bacon, or leftover congee. We pour mimosas and cut pannetone. When everyone is ready, we gather in the living room and take our places. Each in a chair and me by the tree. I search through the gifts and hand one to each person a few minutes apart. As each person opens their gift, they make a note of who it is from and present it. It’s more casual and relaxed than this sounds. We usually have Christmas music or the radio on. The dogs get into the thick of it. Zoe and I make piles of our opened gifts. Wrapping that can be saved, is folded and otherwise thrown into a burn pile. Opening gifts takes a while. If someone, like Grandpa, only has a few gifts, I make sure to spread the out and hand him one for every four Zoe and I open. We are spoiled. I know this now, after hearing about everyone else’s family traditions.
It seems like a lot of families do a secret Santa type thing and only buy one gift for one person. My mom is generous. Often, she forgets what she bought and buys more than she plans to. Often, she is up late wrapping gifts and so in the morning the writing on the packages are scrawled signatures from Santa.
After we open our gifts and tidy, it’s quiet time. Everyone retires to a corner to read their new book, try on their new clothes, or play a new game. Family members appear and disappear and by noon we are all dressed. Usually, we will take the dogs for a snowy winter walk.
In the evening, we get dinner started. Trevor and I cook and Mom and Zoe tidy and set the table. Trevor may smoke something outside, and we have a new tradition ( I think we are in year 4 now) of making a huge rice pilaf from the Jerusalem cookbook called Mejadra. We prep the turkey, the green beans with almonds, the squash, the gravy, the stuffing, the salad. Mom sets out snacks of chips and antipasti with crackers, salumi, cheese, pickles and preserves. We crack a bottle of wine. We probably do a shot of tequila too.
Guests arrive on time and bring wine. The house volume intensifies. Music gets louder. Everyone chats and cheers and cheeks grow rosey. Dinner is usually later than anticipated - around 7:30 or 8. When we pull the turkey out, we announce everyone should take their seat and there is a few minutes where no one listens and we need to be firm. It’s hard to coordinate 20 tipsy people, lost in deep conversations, catching up and having a good time.
Entertaining is easy at Mom’s house. She has a knack of making everyone feel welcome and at ease. Dinner is served. I carve the turkey while everyone squishes around our two tables, pushed together. As guests pass the dishes to one another, I go around the table and serve the turkey. Usually, once everyone is seated, Mom jumps up for that last forgotten thing ( water, salad dressing, candles, etc!). We cheers and toast to friends, family, farmers, each other and Lizzie, my mom.
The clock on the wall is a decoy. It says 10:10 and it hasn’t worked in 10 years. It is perfect. Time stops when you’re with people you love.