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Christmas Past


It was still dark when I woke up for the third or fourth time that night. I reached under my pillow and pulled out my mother’s little folding travel clock with the fake alligator hide and opened it to view the green-glowing hands and numerals: 4:45 a.m.!

We were under strict instructions to not wake my parents before 5:00, so I lay there. Christmas was hell.

tourtierreA few minutes later my sister came into the room and I got down from my bunk bed. We sat on the floor whispering until it was one minute to 5:00. Then we woke my little brother and headed for my parents’ bedroom.

Dad got up and went to make sure “Santa Clause was here” while we waited impatiently on their bed. He returned with good news and we dashed for the living room.

About 8:00 the folks started making breakfast. Dad made biscuits while Mom made cream and chipped beef (for some reason this was a common Christmas morning breakfast). There was certainly jam to go on the biscuits, and hot chocolate. We may have had cheese grits as well. And then we returned to our toys and books.

Everyone took a nap and then we started getting ready for the party. Mom and Dad always had an open house on Christmas Day and they put out an impressive buffet. There was roast turkey from Christmas Dinner the night before along with two or three mustards, two or three breads and rolls, mayonaise, cheeses, and similar sandwich fixings. Dad had cooked a ham earlier in the week and he sliced that up too. I don’t recall when it began, but for years my job was making sausage balls and there would almost certainly have been spiced nuts, Chex mix, and crudities. Mom filled a large glass bowl with Ambrosia set out the leftover cranberry relish. I seem to recall a Waldorf salad as well.

Then, of course, there was Dad’s eggnog that he began making on Thanksgiving weekend and then finished (by adding the cream) on Christmas day. This was always a major hit. Mom’s Bourbon Cake and Dad’s fruit cake would be crammed onto the now-groaning board somewhere, and about 2:00 people would begin arriving. For the next four to six hours the house would be filled as people arrived and left and the food gradually disappeared.

My parents continued the open house tradition long after we’d grown up and moved away, but eventually it devolved to just family and then sort of petered out.

Although none of my immediate family is religious and the event is now much lower-key than in erstwhile years, we all still celebrate Christmas every year as a time when as many of us as possible gather together and remind ourselves that we’re a family. We still usually have Christmas dinner on Christmas Eve. This year I’m hosting it and my sister is coming down from Virginia.

I’m planning to serve a Quebecois (French Canadian) savory pie known as a tourtière that is traditionally eaten at Christmas. My mother has quit making the Bourbon Cake, it simply became too much effort for a woman in her late 70s (now 80s), but I took over the tradition and so we’ll have that for dessert.

I also mailed each of my siblings a huge slice of Bourbon Cake. It’s not the same as having all of us gathered for the holiday, for the open houses of my childhood, but at least we’ll all be able to share a taste of our Christmases past on Christmas Day.

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