I’ll Be Home For Christmas Eve
Two days before Christmas, the year I turned six, my family moved to the tundra. At least that’s what mom called the wind-swept plains of northwest Minnesota until the day she died. I don’t remember much about that Christmas except we didn’t have a tree and, from that year on, we stayed at home for Christmas.
For reasons I didn’t understand until years later, and others I’ll never know, my parents decided to establish our own family traditions. I believe it was their desire to make Christmas special for us, not materially, because money doesn’t go far when you have eight kids, but for a sense of togetherness and family. And, for the next 19 years, until 1980 when I moved to California, all ten of us were home for Christmas.
As kids, we weren’t allowed to put up the Christmas tree until the weekend before Christmas. Dad would pull into the driveway with a tree tied to the top of the station wagon, or we would walk down the street and buy one from the man who turned his yard into a tree lot. Then the restless waiting began while the tree stood alone and forlorn in the garage thawing out.
We’re talking years before the fresh-cut Christmas tree craze. Besides, it was impossible to buy fresh-cut trees where there are no trees. Stacks of fir and pine trees, each tightly bound with string, would sit in the grocery store parking lots and freeze dry in the polar winds that whipped down from Canada. Inevitably, our tree began to shed needles the minute we carried it across the threshold—only the pungent aroma saved it from exile to a snowdrift. After years of vacuuming zillions of needles out of the carpet, my mom wanted to go artificial. “No way,” we said, and won by threatening not to come home if she did.
Once the tree was in the stand, big multicolored lights, bulbs so hot they could burn you, went on first. We would drag the apple box full of carefully packed decorations up from the basement and slowly rediscover our favorite ornaments. Our decorating scheme was eclectic; many of our ornaments were homemade, school projects, or old package tags. Foam angels covered with glitter, dried dough trees decorated with macaroni, and small construction paper hands hung side by side with glass ornaments.
Finally, Christmas Eve would arrive in a fevered pitch of excitement. That meant nonstop food for two days. Hors d’oeuvres before dinner, dinner, food after church, breakfast the next day, turkey on Christmas afternoon, turkey sandwiches before bed. We didn’t follow any ethnic traditions—thank God we weren’t Norwegian, Lutefisk is not high on my list of fun foods—but we had definite family traditions. Chewy, gooey popcorn balls made with sorghum syrup were up first. Christmas Eve afternoon we would crowd round a roasting pan filled with freshly popped kernels and slather our hands with butter to keep the scalding syrup mixture from sticking to our skin as we formed the balls. They would be gone by the next day.
In the early years, lobster tail was our big treat on Christmas Eve. We loved to watch the frozen green shells turn red as they cooked. We moved on to a Minnesota surf and turf. Torsk replaced lobster. For the uninitiated, torsk is cod, the poor man’s lobster. Swimming in melted butter, you can barely tell the difference. The turf was venison simmered in thick brown gravy and poured over mashed potatoes and wild rice. No peas or carrots, though, no one would eat them.
After dinner, and the dishes, we would huddle in front of our black and white TV to watch a holiday program. My earliest memories are of what is to this day my favorite Christmas special, Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol. I still remember the words to the last song, “We’ll have the Lord’s bright blessing, knowing we’re together, knowing we’re together heart and hand.” For me, that sums up Christmas.
By this time, we were chomping at the bit to get to the gaily wrapped presents, but everything had its place and time. Christmas wasn’t just about gifts. Tucked inside the family bible were two green pamphlets with blessings for the Christmas tree and the Christmas crib. Every year dad would read the blessings and the prayers. We tried to convince my parents that we didn’t need to bless the crib every year—we blessed that crib for over 25 years. It must have been very holy.
Next came the dreaded “Program.” There were no presents unless we put on a program. The first few years it was a simple production, a song or two and a recreation of the nativity scene. Shepherds or angels stood guard over Mary and Joseph kneeling beside a doll wrapped in swaddling towels while Dad read the Christmas gospel. Skirts became veils and old bathrobes served as shepherd’s robes. As each of us got older, we managed to avoid a part in the Program, leaving it to the younger ones, until finally, no one was young anymore.
But my three younger sisters kept the tradition going. I can still see them, adults by this time, wearing old robes, fake mustaches and paper crowns as they performed a rousing rendition of “We Three Kings of Orient Are.” I didn’t make it home the year they played nose flutes.
Check out the Lemur Sisters video of We Three Kings.
Suddenly, the doorbell would ring. We would fly through the kitchen, throw open the back door and peer into the dark garage. With loud gasps of pleasure, we would discover a box of presents delivered by Santa. Dad always said we were early on Santa’s delivery route because we didn’t have a chimney. I’m still not sure how my parents managed to get those packages into the garage without anyone seeing them; the back door was in the kitchen. Eventually, I did solve the mystery of the doorbell, but I think it’s better left a secret. Some of my siblings still believe in Santa Claus.
Following the ripping and tearing, we had to wade through piles of wrapping paper to get ready to go to church. Midnight Mass at St. Anne’s started at ten o’clock—I never understood why they didn’t call it nearly-midnight Mass—and it was always crowded. If we wanted to sit together as a family, which my parents insisted we do if possible, we had to be there by 9:30. I always enjoyed Christmas Eve mass because, much to the chagrin of my family, I could sing, even though I can’t, sing that is, and no one could tell me to stop.
Oh, I know that not everything was sugar and spice. There were the usual family squabbles and disappointments, and even anger at times, but those aren’t the memories I’ve chosen to take away. I prefer to remember the shocked face of the retired minister who lived across the street the year my dad set off bottle rockets on Christmas Eve; or eating the delicate cookies Uncle Ray would drop off (along with the moonshine that put a zing in the slush, our adult Christmas beverage of choice); or sitting in a darkened living room watching the snow fall by the light of the Christmas tree; or whiling away Christmas day in my pajamas until the turkey was ready.
With the passing of my parents, it’s rare for the whole family to spend Christmas together; the miles that separate us, physically, are wide. I try to spend the holidays with at least one of my sisters.
In five days, I am headed to North Pole, Alaska, to spend Christmas with Ruth and her family. I bet we make popcorn balls. And Ruth’s family has a Program every year. I haven’t come up with my part yet and it is getting close.
I miss my parents the most at Christmas, because, through it all, they gave me a gift they couldn’t wrap and put under the tree. They gave me their love, their spirit, and a sense of family I carry with me all year round.