By Gene Cashman
Handel’s Hallelujah and Watt’s Joy extinguished the glow of the Christmas Eve candlelight service three minutes before seven o’clock. I gave a nod to my wife, “let’s roll; we’re responsible for the hors d’oeuvres.”
As family protocol dictated, the first to maneuver the crush of the holiday crowd exiting the service was to beat a path home to light the fire and turn on the oven. Failure to move with the nimbleness of an Indycar crew could have ruinous effects on dinner preparation. So, as soon as the preacher uttered amen, the family would split in a dozen directions. The logistics of the exit were almost always complicated by the nature of the arrival. Usually, driving age members of the family arrived in the order they got ready, bringing in tow any aptly dressed niece or nephew they could grab. Not unlike a paratrooper standing in the doorway preparing to make a jump, as soon as that tie and coat were on you were expected to “Go! Go! Go!” Seats had to be saved. There was great unspoken pressure to ensure a whole row was staked out so the family could sit together. This meant that the family was parked, widely dispersed, in no fewer than five cars. It wasn’t uncommon to not know if one were first or last to leave or to realize as the crowd thinned that you’d been left altogether. Despite the appearance of chaos and drama, there was good reason to rush to worship together and then back to my parents place to eat; what awaited you when you arrived was a place to belong.
The assurance of the season filled the hallway from the garage to my mother’s kitchen. The aroma of warm bread, butter and garlic, mulling spices and rosemary drew me forward eliciting both fond memory and great expectation. An embrace from my mother, a hug from my father and the sheer state of activity clearly indicated that this year my car was the last to arrive from church. “How long until the meat is done,” I asked my father as he made a roux for the gravy. “It’s at rest. I turned the oven off,” he replied proudly. “Should be ready when we are. Let’s make a toast and stoke that fire.”
There are various traditions in my family spanning the whole of a calendar year, none more standard yet eloquently simple as Christmas Eve. As we entered the den, the rest of the family, still dressed to the nines, lounged about as if in pajamas. Warmly snuggled up by fire and the glow of twinkle lights on the tree, the cousins stuffed their faces with Hershey Kisses wrapped in green and red foil. The adult children held glasses of wine, and reminisced about funny stories from years past. I was overcome by how good a feeling it is to belong to something. “Have you been good boys and girls this year?” my father interrupted. Roaring to form with his best Santa voice he whipped the kids into a frenzy of expectation. “What do you have for us,” called out cousin Mac. “Yeah, yeah, yeah,” cried young Ellie with excitement, “presents, presents!” As it was every year his wise reply came at the peak of excitement, “well then, we’ll just have to wait and see what the morning brings,” drawing, of course, boos and hisses from the children.
The clink of a glass indicated a transition. “It’s getting cold,” my mother reminded her brood from the dining room, “and children, remember the tide and Santa waits on no man, woman or child.” Each year my mother prepared a table, festive and shining with a generation’s worth of silver and linen, painted ceramics and crystal ornamentation. Even with the aged fragility of the arrangement it welcomed all to its bounty gladly and without pretension, even the youngest diner. “I love this meal,” exclaimed my sisters in unison. “I never eat this meal except at Christmas,” replied Cousin Robert. The meal always consisted of beef tenderloin, green beans, mashed potatoes and of course gobs of buttery bread. My family locked hands to give thanks allowing joyful fellowship to unfold from there. The meal’s grand finale, the event that signaled the coming long winter’s nap, was the ice cream ball contest. “Each year,” my mother reminisced, “my own mother and grandmother would roll ice cream into a ball and stick a candle in the middle.” The children watched closely as the ice cream treats were distributed to their plate. “And as tradition goes, the last diner to eat all the ice cream with their candle still lit wins the first stocking of the Christmas morn.”
This, of course set off competition and friendly argument over who won well into the after dinner coffee conversation, until the grandfather clock dutifully called the night to an end at a quarter of ten. “The most compliant night of the year,” I proclaimed aloud, “for the kids to make it into bed.” My wife smiled and whispered under her breath, “and good thing too because we still have a lot to do!” One by one strewn coats were found and children rustled into warmed cars to be whisked home for bed. As I walked through the den to find a lost shoe I took pause at the family pictures on the mantle to appreciate a place to belong, a family to love. The fire still glowed, the tree shone, the chairs were empty but the new memory fresh. “Thank you mom and dad,” I called out as I walked through the room, “and help me never forget to pay it forward. Merry Christmas!”