It's a cold morning on the Saturday before Christmas and we're all wearing fancy clothes under our coats, piled shoulder-to-shoulder in the car, headed for Beaver Lake. It's the same every year and it always has been for as long as I can remember. Well, except that one year when I was about 12 and Aunt Sue tried to do dinner instead of brunch. Now that I'm older I can't say I blame her, but we just about mutinied. After all, Christmas wouldn't be Christmas unless we were all eating sausage quiche and downing Uncle Frank's martinis before noon.
For literally as long as I can remember we've celebrated Christmas at my aunt and uncle's house this way. The weekend before Christmas my Dad's side of the family gathers at the house on the edge of a lake. It's always the same people (maybe with an extra guest or someone's new girlfriend), always the same food, always the same routine, and it just wouldn't be Christmas without it.
There's Uncle Frank's Charlie Brown Christmas tree (and the year or two he talked of opening his own tree farm), Neil Diamond crooning carols on the stereo, and mom's coffee cake. The little kids -- it used to be my brother and me, but now it's our cousins' children -- inspect the packages under the tree, finding every last one with their name on it in tantalizing anticipation of the moment they're finally allowed to triumphantly rip the paper off. They sit as patiently as they can through a late breakfast (a buffet of fruit salad, quick breads, blueberry pecan stuffed french toast, a very specific sauage quiche/scramble), through older relatives quizzing them about school, friends, and a year's worth of updates. Through Uncle Frank sending them to the cellar to get more tonic or tomato juice. Through the family photo where we try to coordinate squeezing 20 people into a tiny space while making a self-timer work. Then a special kind of torture, as the littles are made to pass out gifts to all the others, and then, finally, they're allowed to dive into their own. It's chaos: Paper ripping, laughs erupting, explanations and thank yous floating up to the vaulted ceiling, captured in some kind of magic bubble.
After breakfast and gifts, most everyone drifts downstairs. With the frosted, frozen-over lake visible out the windows and the fire roaring the adults play darts (and, fair warning, there are Rules. Do not break them.), or help the kids with ping pong, and my cousins' spouses and their kids play guitars and sing. Eventually the call comes from upstairs: Round Two is ready. Ham, homemade pierogies, a deliciously complicated, cheesey, turkey cranberry wreath that I'm in charge of weaving together. There are also cookies. I don't know why they seem to show up once a year but you know those peanut butter cookies with the Hershey's kiss in them? It's not Christmas at Aunt Sue's without them.
After Round Two, everyone lazes about, pant seams busting, waiting for Santa to come.
(This is a crucial point in the day. Once, about 15 years ago, my uncle hired a magician who showed up about here. It was exactly as awesome as you think. I think that deep down we're all still waiting for another magician to arrive at the crucial moment.)
Santa used to wear the whole suit, when some of the grandkids were younger. Now Santa shows up, several martinis deep, minus the suit but with the same hat. I don't know how long the hat has been around, but it's missing it's pompom, which makes for 100% of its charm. The day Santa shows up with a brand new hat and perfectly puffed pompom will be grounds for (another) mutiny.
Aside from his hat, Santa's sporting his red sack, chockablock with individually wrapped ... lottery tickets. Santa prides himself on everyone winning, and this is how it works: Santa, who speaks about himself in the third person, goes around to the group, in order of age, ladies first. This mean that my 94 year old Gram starts it off every year and the youngest boy cousin finishes the round. Anyone who wins, whether it's one dollar or one hundred, is out of the next round. This goes until all the cards are gone and most everyone has won. Now and again Santa has been known to wrap up five dollar bills and Dunkin Donuts gift cards for some extra insurance: Santa really wants everyone to win.
Would you believe that in all the many years we've been doing this no one has won over $100? (Let that be a lesson to you: The house always wins.)
Speaking of all those many years that The Saturday (it used to be Sunday) Before Christmas has been happening: In all that time I've only had to miss it twice, since I moved to the DC area. As is the case for most of us, it's always hard to balance all the holiday festivities, and it's impossible to make it to everything. It's especially hard when "everything" is happening hundreds of miles away. Every year it's difficult to make decisions about what can comfortably be made to happen, and what must be skipped, with no shortage of heartache and rending of garments over difficult decisions. And so the holidays go in adulthood.
But I have a secret. There's a way to combat this, the missing out on traditions. And it's this: Make some new ones. I'm telling you, it's one of the very best things about being a grown up. What have become my traditions as an adult? On Christmas Eve my husband makes cinnamon rolls from scratch. We pop them in the oven Christmas morning, and pop a bottle of bubbly while we're at it (Mimosas!). Cinnamon rolls from scratch are labor intensive and a pain in the ass, which is all the better for ensuring that they're a once a year treat. Not only are they delicious (and I wish I had a recipe to share, but it's all in Zach's head), but I love having something of our own to celebrate with each other, and with those who may come to visit. It's the perfect bridge between the past and present, the old and the new: exactly as the holidays should be.
This is my last post before the new year. I've mentioned it before, but want to thank you again for taking time out of your lives to read here and for being such wonderful supporters of Food Lush. It's been a lot of fun for me in this little corner of the internet this year, and it's all because of you. I wish you and your family a healthy, happy season full of warmth, joy, and light. Happy new year, my friends. May it be the best one yet.
What are your family holiday traditions, old and new?
(All photos were taken by me, last year at the lake.)