Thursday, December 24, 2009

Christmas Eve Gift!

Christmas Eve gift, online community! I gotcha!

"Christmas Eve Gift" is a game that my husband's family plays every year on Christmas Eve, along with it's next-day companion, "Christmas Gift." The point of the game is to be the first to say "Christmas Eve Gift" or "Christmas Gift" to everyone else you see before they say it to you. It's silly. It's childish. It's a LOT of fun!

I love Christmas Eve. It's probably my favorite day of the year. It may not have all the presents of the next day, or the fond wishes of Valentine's Day or the green-seeking of St. Patrick's day, but it has it's own kind of peaceful anticipation. Christmas Eve's back home used to be a relaxing family event. My little brother and I would take full advantage of our vacation from school to sleep in late, then get up and lounge around the living room in our pajamas until the afternoon rolled around. Sometimes we'd play games, more often watching Christmasy movies until a parent told us it was time to get dressed and ready to go.

Sometime around four or five we'd all pile into the family car to drive a few blocks over to my dad's mom's house, where we'd arrive with arms full of gifts and be greeted with the smells of good, old-fashioned, heart-attack special, southern-style food baking or frying in the kitchen. Grammy, as I always called the curly-red-haired old woman in sweatsuits who delighted in teaching us how to play Blackjack, would usher us into the living room, absolutely forbidding my mom to help in the kitchen (she always did anyway), and pour both my parents a glass of red wine before retreating back to her Paula-Dean-ery. My uncles and-- in earlier years-- an aunt (who subsequently disappeared off the map) would all make their way one by one into the same room, taking up residence on the ratty old couches. My Uncle Pat, especially, could fill a room all by himself, his loud-voiced arguments and boisterous laughter booming in all our eardrums. Every year my brother and I would eagerly ask Uncle Pat to show us his old burn scar he got when he was our age, and as he peeled up his workman's jeans, he'd tell the story of his foolish play with matches, the moral of the story obvious in the wrinkled folds of scarred flesh. Then dinner would be served, and we would either crowd into the tiny kitchen or balance our plates on TV-dinner stands on the couch.

Dinner usually was a toss up between fried chicken or chicken cordon bleu, with greenbean casserole, and my favorite sugary dish to this day: Grammy's candied sweet potatoes, with the just-brown mini marshmallows crowding the surface of the dish like floating glaciers. After dinner, my mom would once more brave Grammy's wrath to muscle through the dishes. Those two women cleared the kitchen within minutes, for which we as kids were always grateful, as we sat, anxiously chomping at the bit, while staring at the gifts under the colorful Christmas tree. Sometimes we couldn't resist snatching up one or another and shaking them, for which we were promptly chastised, and we would lay it back in place and sit back with a sigh of longing.

Finally, the ladies came out of the kitchen, everyone's wine glass got a quick refill, and everyone sat once more, my brother and I taking up our seats near the tree to hand out presents. Usually, Uncle Pat somehow received the most gifts, and my little brother was always fascinated by the model trains and RC cars he unwrapped from our mysterious septuagenarian great-uncle in Iowa. This same uncle sent us NASA memorabilia, and I always received a doll from Grammy's sister, Rose. Though I was not particularly fond of dolls, I was always enchanted with a new one for at least a few days before that unblinking glass-eyed stare earned such enmity that I stored it in the blackest recesses of my closet, never to return. Sometimes we would receive a set of RC cars, and my little brother and I would have races over the brown shag-carpeted living-room floor, while Uncle Pat and my father argued politics.

When the time finally came to bid everyone goodnight and head home, I would lean in close and kiss Grammy's wrinkled, soft cheek, which always smelled of the powdery makeup that dusted her bathroom counter. We would hug Uncle Pat goodbye, wrapping our arms around his massive shoulders like we were wrestling a bear. I usually waved goodbye to my reticent Uncle Dennis, a tall beanpole who usually sat most of the night with only a sentence or two escaping his mouth. Then we would follow my parents out into the cold winter air, the dry Idaho wind whipping our hair and coats. Tucked back into the car with our gifts in our laps, we would talk about plans for the next day: whose house we'd go to, or who was coming over to ours; which relatives would be in town to celebrate; which wrapped packages under the tree at home we knew were ours. My brother and I took great pleasure in hinting what we had bought for our parents, and I'm sure more often than not, they knew what everything was before they even opened it.

We would arrive home to a twinkling Christmas tree framed in our big front window, with the Christmas lights around the trim of the house softly glowing. It was family tradition that everyone opened one small gift from under our family tree on Christmas Eve, so we would immediately start clamoring for everyone to gather in the living room. I can't decide if I was more excited about opening my own present, or selecting one for my mother to open, but we always opened one at a time, "ooh"ing and "ahh"ing at whatever was inside. Then my parents would send us off to bed, encouraging us to fall asleep quickly because "Santa knows if you're sleeping, and he won't come until you're asleep!"

One year, at our house in downtown Boise that had a loft over the living room where my brother slept, Santa was spotted filling our stockings on Christmas Eve. It was dark when my little brother snuck out of bed to peek over the rails and gain a glimpse of Santa Claus. He told us about what he saw the next morning at breakfast, tight brown curls gently tousled from sleep and his little round face screwed up in innocent confusion.

"I saw Santa last night," he said.

"Oh yeah?" my parents asked, interest instantly riveted.

He nodded, clearly troubled. "But he didn't look like the pictures," he informed us matter-of-factly.

"What did he look like?" I asked. I was fairly sure by now that Santa was imaginary, but not sure enough to completely doubt my brother's obviously convinced earnestness.

"He was skinny!" my brother insisted. I watched my parents exchange a knowing smile, and I held back my own laughter. My little brother had caught my dad stuffing stockings, but in the darkness of the living room, he'd thought he'd spotted a curiously skinny Santa Claus. So from that day on until my brother found out the sad truth about everyone's favorite jolly sleigh-driver, he swore on his honor that Santa was actually a trim and fit figure (apparently with an amazing metabolism when it came to my mom's chocolate chip cookies).

Yeah... I love Christmas Eve. There's something magical about it that somehow gets lost in the hustle and bustle of Christmas morning. It's not the gifts, though. Admittedly, I've always loved getting and giving gifts. But even though I still get gifts, I miss those old days driving over to Grammy's house for Christmas Eve dinner and enjoying the company of my little family just before bed on Christmas Eve. I think the real gift of those Christmas Eves was family. If you think about it, the first Christmas revolved around the gift of family: Mary and Joseph welcomed a new little one into their family, and in so doing, were adopted into the family of God through their faith in the One He had sent. Tucked away in a smelly old barn, that blessed family celebrated the gift of love in the most memorable fashion any family ever did, wrapping it in cloths and laying it in a manger.

Like me, you may be far away from family this year. Or you might be surrounded by a huge family, stressed out at all the demands for gifts and visiting, and so on. Or you may not have any family. Whatever is the case, I hope you can take the chance to appreciate the greatest Christmas Eve Gift: the Son of God who came into the world to welcome you home. Merry Christmas Eve, everyone! And happy birthday, Jesus.

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