Monday, December 24, 2007

Christmas Eve, the Best Day of the Year!

When I was a child, we celebrated Christmas on Christmas Eve. That is to say, it was the big event day. My mom spent the day in the kitchen cooking a big dinner. The Christmas tree (always a real one) was put up in the living room about a week before Christmas. My oldest brother spent Christmas Eve day shopping for gifts... he always left his shopping for Christmas Eve. (We always worried if he would be back when the turkey was done or if it would dry out while we waited for him to get home.) My dad typically spent the day puttering around in the garage or at his work bench in the basement.

I was usually on emotional overload from the time I woke up in the morning. I would help my mom in kitchen not so much because I enjoyed cooking but because it gave me something to do. You know what I mean. That was back in the days before video games, computers, cable T.V., DVD movies, etc. when the options for entertaining oneself were limited. So I'd help my mom for a while and then go sit in the living room and stare at the Christmas tree and the few gifts that had been placed under it. I'd pick up each gift that had my name on it and try to guess what was inside. I never guessed right but it was a good exercise for my imagination. After a while I'd get bored and wander back in to the kitchen and ask my mom what I could do. She'd always find something to keep my hands busy for a while.

Eventually my brother would come home from shopping and rush upstairs to his room to wrap the gifts he bought. My mom would grumble that the turkey was going to dry out and would rush around putting all the food in serving bowls. I would get assigned the task of carrying the dishes to the table. I was so excited at that point that I worried that I might drop a dish or bowl. That was the height of my excitement... the moments just before we sat down to dinner. Once we sat down to eat, the evening I lived for 364 days of the year began. As a kid, there was absolutely nothing I enjoyed more than Christmas Eve.

The food was always fabulous (and the turkey was never dry ;-) My mom was a wonderful cook. We usually had turkey and all the trimmings, sometimes a ham too. And kielbasa. Always kielbasa. Both fresh and smoked varieties. Sometimes there were mashed potatoes but more often than not we had pierogi... both the potato and cheese variety and the ones filled with sauerkraut. We had baked sweet potatoes too. I don't remember the vegetables, but I'm sure there were some ;-) Fresh bread was always a staple on our table too. And then there were the desserts. My mom was literally born in a bakery and grew up there too. My maternal grandparents owned the bakery and my mom learned to bake bread, cakes, pastries, pies, cookies, etc. at an early age. She made such wonderful goodies!

Dinner was always just our immediate family. We would all eat quickly with little conversation to begin with. Then when the desserts were served the conversation would pick up and we would linger at the table enjoying the chruschiki (angel wings), cheesecake, cherry pie, Christmas cookies (cut out cookies, spritzes, and "chicken necks"), and best of all, the fruitcake! I have never understood why people make fun of fruitcake. Those who don't like it never tasted my mom's. She always made several cakes in October and put them in the attic to stay cool and let the flavors blend. Of all my mom's recipes, her fruitcake is the one my brothers and I treasure the most. How I miss her fruitcakes!!!

After dinner my mom would go back into the kitchen and try to figure out where to put all the leftovers (our refrigerator was never big enough). I'd help her by cleaning the table and carrying the dishes to her. As soon as the food was put away and the dishes were done (except for those that had to soak a while), we'd all pile into the car to go see Christmas lights. Back in those days, people didn't put lights on their houses on Thanksgiving weekend. For the most part, you didn't see people putting up their outdoor lights until a week or so before Christmas (usually the same time they put up their Christmas tree). And more often than not, they didn't turn their lights on until Christmas Eve. So driving around to see them was always a much anticipated treat.

No sooner would we all get in the car than either my mom or my dad would realize they'd forgotten something (usually my dad forgot his cigarettes ;-). We'd all groan and wait impatiently while they went back into the house to get it. Unbeknownst to us kids, they would actually be getting the gifts out of hiding and putting them under the tree. After we drove around looking at lights for an hour or so, making a point of driving by my aunts' and uncles' houses who lived nearby, we would return home to find that Santa had been to our house while we were gone!

My family was a typical blue-collar, working class family. But when Christmas Eve came around you'd have thought we were rich. There were always a lot of gifts around the tree and to a child's eyes the packages seemed enormous. I always got everything on my Christmas list except a real horse. I put "pony/horse" on the top of my list every year but I never got one (as a child I didn't understand about city ordinances prohibiting such things).

After we were done opening our gifts we would sit around and play with our toys, drink hot chocolate and nibble on ribbon candy, mixed nuts, and the little hard candies that look just like raspberries. Eventually, the excitement would wind down and I'd go to bed.

Here's a picture of me with my brother Jerry on Christmas Eve after the presents were opened. Notice my bride doll and Huckleberry Hound? And that couch... so vintage 50s!

On Christmas Day we went to Mass in the morning and then spent the day at home or occasionally visiting relatives. It was not as fun as Christmas Eve but it was still a nice day with lots of good left overs and all our new toys to play with.

The Christmas tree would be taken down a few days later, usually the day before New Year's Eve. My mom's rule was that the tree had to be taken down before we welcomed in the New Year.

I am fortunate in that when I married (both times) my mother in laws (both lovely women who I've never had a squabble with) hosted family gatherings on Christmas Day. This worked out well because we never had to choose who to spend the Christmas holiday with. We've always spent Christmas Eve with my family and Christmas Day with my husband's family. I've hosted Christmas Eve for my family at our house for the past 20 years and will do so again this year. I can only remember hosting my husband's family once on Christmas Day. All the other times my mother in law has hosted it at her house.
I want to say a special thank you to Thomas MacEntee for all the work he has done putting together all our Advent Calendar of Christmas Memory posts. I don't know if I've more enjoyed recording my own Christmas memories or reading everyone else's! There were times, in the past month, when I didn't think I'd be able to get through all 24 days of posting. This was definitely the longest string of consecutive days I've posted to my blog since I started blogging. Whew! And thanks to everyone who has participated in this project. I've really enjoyed reading about your Christmas memories and seeing all the pictures you've shared!

As you're reading this, I'm most likely in the kitchen cooking food for Christmas Eve (I start cooking 3 days ahead of time) or else I'm doing some last minute gift wrapping. I hope you are busily creating happy holiday memories of your own. I wish you and yours a wonderful, safe, and Merry Christmas!

[The Advent calendar number graphic used in this post was created by NicNic at the NBK blog.]