Monday, December 31, 2012

Christmas Meteor

At our house, Christmas strikes like a meteor.  Not one of those sneak-up-on-you-out-of-left-field, wake-up-one-day-and-discover-a-meteor’s-coming-for-lunch kind; no, this is one of those you can always see coming, the kind whose progress you can follow as it tracks its way towards you.  But it looks so distant and so tiny for so long that it fails to register any alarm (in fact, I can already see next year’s meteor way out there in space, twinkling innocuously).  By the time you’re ready to start taking it seriously, of course, it’s too late.  That accelerating ball of rock is looming over you in the sky, trailing fire and smoke, dropping its advance shadow on your house, and you look up knowing there is nothing that can deflect its weighty mass from smashing into you. 

At our house, the moment of impact is the same every year.  6:00 p.m. on Christmas Eve.  We have a tradition of hosting a Christmas Eve party every year, a tradition that goes back to Elizabeth’s parents, both of whom have since passed away.  The party, however, lives on, in the same house (now our house) where it’s been happening since about 1982 or so. 

Anyway, six o’clock is it.  That’s when all preparations must cease.  In years past, we have sometimes had a few moments to spare, when we would huddle together as a family in the eerie quiet, looking around in nervous anticipation, waiting for that meteor to explode all over us.  The past few years, however, we’ve been attending Christmas Eve service at our church, and so miss out on that fleeting, weird tranquility, which is no big loss.    

The meteor’s arrival is marked by the muted thud of car doors closing.  Within seconds of that, the first of many shockwaves comes blowing through our doors.  Within mere minutes, we are swept away by a surge of friends and family, pulled apart and lost amongst a roiling sea of merry-makers, often losing visual contact with each other for half-hours stretches at a time, even though we are all contained in three connected rooms within the same, modest ranch-style house.  There may be fifty or more of us on any given Christmas Eve, bumping and ricocheting and pardoning each other, and a fair number of children, who, with an art long forgotten by us adults, weave nimbly through a dense forest of moving grown-up legs. 

And yes, there is food.  Elizabeth always lays in enough to eat so that no matter how much sheer tonnage is vaporized by the meteor’s impact, there is sure to be mountains of it remaining at the end.  Turkey, ham, cheesy potatoes, fried raviolis, cold shrimp, tamales and tortillas and beans, and veggie platters, olives (of both green and black), and pickles galore.  Our niece Eva started bringing red chile last year, my new favorite, which I have caught myself guarding jealously and calling ‘my preciousssss.’  Then there are those fiendishly delicious things we call beanie-weenies, which have nothing to do with beans at all, but are actually little cocktail sausages wrapped in bacon impaled on toothpicks and broiled in brown sugar.  They will survive only the first fraction of the evening, no matter how many dozens have been stockpiled.  The presence of the beanie-weenies tends to encourage early arrivals, since the ones who don’t get there in time run the risk of having to hear about ‘those heavenly heart attacks on a stick’ from those who were directly involved in their decimation.    

Forming their own little sugary domain on some festively decorated card tables are the desserts.  I believe I may have mentioned something last year about Elizabeth’s annual “Christmas Crazy,” a frenzied period of about 48 hours duration in which a wide variety of confections are produced with the same relentless rapidity as fastballs fired from a malfunctioning batting cage machine.  The Christmas Eve party is the primary impetus behind “Christmas Crazy.”  Elizabeth’s prodigious output is supplemented by our niece, the one I call the Miracle Girl, who brings a junior partner’s dedication to “Christmas Crazy,” and the goodies to back it up.  I won’t bother trying to make a comprehensive inventory; rest assured that if it’s sweet and comes from an oven, you’ll probably find it in there somewhere.  At its peak, the crowded tables approximate a rugby scrum as people work through the piles in search of their particular favorites.  All the activity creates an impressive cloud of powdered-sugar dust that can hang overhead for hours, sometimes posing a problem for those with respiratory issues.   

Somehow, within the whirling maelstrom of the evening, we are brought together for a toast of Crown Royal to the memory of Lew and Josephine, Elizabeth’s parents.  Depending on how long the party goes, there will be a second, and possibly a third, with some individuals saluting their memory privately, and at more frequent, intervals.  But this fragile fellowship is soon ripped asunder, each of us submerging again into the tumultuous mix of games, and gift-givings, and conversations.  I have learned to keep a watchful eye on a favorite relative of Elizabeth’s, chasing her off whenever I spy her scooping up shreds of tissue and wrapping paper, or picking bits of Hersey kiss foil out of the carpets, or surreptitiously trying to wash the dishes.  Doesn’t she know, I ask myself, after threatening to show up at her house one day and randomly start cleaning, that this party is for her?  It’s for her and her husband and their kids, and Randy and Susan, and Rick and Karri and their two girls, and Tommy and his two boys, and Becky and Anna, and Pete and Yvonne, as much as it is about our own immediate family.    

It takes about four hours for the dust to begin to settle.  People have other places to go, other parties, their own Christmasing to do.  The crowding eases, the constant call for more ice diminishes, the pulse slows.  Later, after we have bid a Merry Christmas to the last of the guests in the chill, still air of our front yard, we come back inside the now-hollow hull of the house.  We put what remains of the kids to bed, and Elizabeth and I collapse on the couch in the back room, the TV set running an endless loop of A Christmas Story. We are depleted, run down, exhausted.  Around us, the house is still smoldering, sometimes literally, like the time Elizabeth accidentally set fire to the garland on our mantle during her thankfully erstwhile, candle-happy years.  I survey the condition of the house and realize that Santa will shortly have to wade through the wreckage around us, still at some risk to his personal safety, despite the noble efforts of certain angelic guests.  I expect, like I do every year, that this will be the time he finally decides he’s had enough, and simply toss the gifts on the sidewalk at the end of the driveway, taking his cue from our newspaper delivery person. 

Nevertheless, we are happy.  It was another good party.

For many years, I thought we did the big Christmas Eve party simply because that was what we did, because it was a family tradition.  I’ll admit it took me a long time to realize that it was something more than that.  The people who come back, year after year, taught me there was a larger purpose in what we were doing.  We open our doors to the chaos, we willingly put ourselves smack-dab in the path of the meteor, because we want to give people a warm and happy, if not particularly serene, place to Christmas.  I think that’s what it’s come to be about for us.  At least, that’s what it’s come to be about for me.  And you know, it wouldn’t surprise me much to learn that’s something like what Lew and Josephine intended when they started this Christmas Eve tradition all those many years ago. 

So our traditions carry on, their meanings sometimes obfuscated under the constantly deepening sediment of time and the hasty, sometimes stumbling hand-off from generation to generation.   Sometimes the meanings are lost, and sometimes traditions die, though the shell may linger on indefinitely, like a wayward ghost.  And sometimes they’re renewed, or rejuvenated by somebody unexpected somewhere down the line, someone who sees something precious, something that makes them worth saving, and cultivating, and passing on to the next generation, who, in their turn, will have their own chance to forget, and maybe even remember. 

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