Monday, December 24, 2012

Christmas Eve

As a kid, Christmas Eve was something I could count on. Even if Dad was out of work, even if mom was sick or tired or us kids had been kinda bratty for the past few weeks; even if the weather sucked, and my parents got homesick, Christmas Eve always happened. And, until I was about 16, it always happened the same way.

We'd spend the day cleaning. Not because we'd been neglecting it in the weeks prior, but because my mother wanted a clean house on Christmas morning and with 3-6 kids there was only one way to get it without completely exhausting herself. So we'd have a nice Christmas Eve breakfast, usually at some ungodly hour of the morning because we were kids and even if it meant cleaning all day, we wanted Christmas to happen NOW. Then Mom would set us to work on our tasks in various parts of the house. I seemed to always get stuck with cleaning the bathroom. This year, I'm chuckling at that as I look at that very task on my own to do list.

Dad kept us motivated, of course, and spending all the energy he could get out of us with silly dances and voices while Bing Crosby or New Song or Casting Crowns poured out of our valiant 5-disk changer. Lunch was unmemorable, which means it was probably leftovers or sandwiches, something easy. Throughout the day one or the other of us kids would be called into the kitchen to help with various parts of dinner: Stuffing the turkey, glazing the ham, helping with those delicious sweet potato rolls, that sort of thing.

We'd watch movies, too, but not very many. Christmas Eve day was more about getting ready to make the magic happen that night.

It was also one day we didn't have to take a nap after lunch. My parents wanted us very tired, so we had a short "quiet time" after lunch that we usually used to wrap (or in my case, tape-encase) our presents and get them under the tree. In the earlier days we had big dogs and no Christmas tree, so presents went on the table. Then we were back in the main part of the house, hanging out and being admonished to clean up after ourselves. I think I even remember a few threats that our gifts would be given away if we didn't.

There were more silly voices and silly dances, even a few entirely made up songs like my dad's "Gotta Have Socks" song. Sometimes mom would tell us about what Christmas was like with her grandmother, or about the legend of a very good man named Saint Nicholas.

Then the dreaded nap caught up with us. I don't remember if I fought my parents on this one or not, but knowing me I probably did. In order for the Christmas Eve tradition to work properly, anyone "Under the age of 13" (I swear that number went up every year) had to take a two-hour nap at 7. As I got into my more stubborn years on this subject, my parents got me to cooperate by saying "You don't even have to sleep, just lay down and be quiet so your brothers will." They always won that way, because I was always more tired than I knew anyway.

As an adult, I long for those naps.

One or both of the parents would then come wake us up in two hours, and I'm sure I was the hardest one to wake up for a few years. They'd give us time to turn our brains back on and get hungry - sometimes we'd watch a movie or Dad would read something to us, I think most of the time we just talked and roughoused with each other.

Then came dinner. Sweet potato rolls and whatever else my mom could conjure up that year, at the table that had been pulled out into the middle of the living room, with the good tablecloth - I think it was my grandmother's - and Grandma's china serving dishes, and candles. I remember lots of candles, which is probably why I like them so much today.

After dinner, we had family communion. We heard the Christmas story from the bible, usually in my dad's baritone. Then we all prayed together, and passed around grape juice in a wine glass and some bread. It was a serious time of night, but a very important one. That tradition is one of the things that helped me understand the most that Christmas really is all about Jesus and other people, about thanking God for the gifts we have instead of complaining about what we don't have.

After communion, and a family a capella worship song, Bing Crosby came back on and we got to open up one present. Just one. Later that changed but in our best Christmases it was always just one, for just a taste of what was to come, jut to help keep us excited.

At midnight on Chrismtas Eve we all went to bed - in the same room. It was the one time a year I made peace with my little brothers and we all just got along for a while. We were forbidden to leave the room for the next six hours, the first and last hour of which were torture. Mom and Dad wrapped our presents and made conversation, cleverly in tones that even I couldn't quite make out from my lookout position - laying on the floor half in and half out of the bedroom, hoping to hear or see something interesting.

Eventually we all fell asleep, and like clockwork I was up somewhere between 5 and 5:30 the next morning. I remember just barely daring to peek out into the living room at our old-looking clock to see if it was time yet - and doing this just about every two minutes. Promptly at six I would tiptoe from the bedroom and into the livingroom (or wherever mom kept our stockings that year) to take a peek. As the other kids got older, and as there were more kids to look after on Christmas morning, I would take that precious time to quietly unpack my own stocking even though it was against the rules. I'd marvel at the little surprises my mom had for me, and take careful account of what was expected. There'd be hell to pay if one of those twerps stole my chocolate coins!

Then, I'd repack everything just as it was, sometimes with one less piece of chocolate, and I'd go wake up my brothers and sisters.

Stockings were my mom's way of buying time. We weren't allowed to open them until all of the kids were up, and we weren't allowed to wake mom up until we were finished, or 8, whichever came last. We'd have snacks in our stocking to tie us over, and we'd watch a Christmas movie, and it was all somehow part of the same magical night.

As an adult, Christmas eve looks a little different, but not much. Today I have a few last-minute things to pick up and wrap and give away. Then I'm cleaning my house and preparing the lamb for tonight's dinner. I'll probably take time for a glass or two of eggnog, and a few pieces of chocolate. Then we'll go to church, to the candlelight service, and enjoy the fact that we have such a wonderful church family and that we are all so very blessed. After that will come dinner, this year it's Simon and Garfunkel leg of lamb (parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme) with sweet potatoes and Christmas pastas. Then some more egg nog, and we'll watch The Grinch. When my mother in law goes home my husband and I will probably spend some time watching movies or playing a video game, until the wee hours of the morning when we decide to go to sleep. Then, it will be Christmas.

I'm looking forward to having kids; an army to help clean, and army to feed and watch them enjoy the Christmas memories we help create. But this year, I'm just so glad for what has been, and for what is today, and what will be can come in its own time. 

Merry Christmas everyone. 

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