Its hard to believe its now been so many years since my family's last Christmas eve together. Our family tradition, for decades, was to gather at our family farm -- the farm my great, great, great grandfather homesteaded in Missouri in the late 1800s -- and enjoy an evening together with my immediate family -- grandmother (Granny), grandfather (Pop), my mother, father and sister. Of course, there were always the widowed aunts, uncles and various other members of the family who had no where else to be and were always welcomed at the Hitt family Christmas table. Being the only children present, my sister and I got more than our share of attention.
Grandma (I never called her Granny -- at the time it seemed disrespectful to me -- even though it certainly wasn't), would prepare a feast of a meal that included turkey and ham and all of the standard trimmings -- mashed potatoes, dressing, etc. -- but also her famous Waldorf Salad. And, pies. Lots of amazing pies. Somehow, the little table where we ate was always large enough for all of us to sit together -- no "kids table" here. I liked that.
After dinner, we would move into the living room -- which was about 10 feet from the kitchen table. My sister and I would wait, sometimes not so patiently, listening to the adults reiterate how delicious everything we had just eaten had been while my grandparents would slowly clear the table, put away the left overs and wash and dry the dishes. It always took forever. But, this was the way it was done and always had been.
Finally, grandpa would enter the room with a stack of brown paper grocery bags -- the official sign that it was almost time to open the lute that usually engulfed the 4 foot tree with antique ornaments and bubble lights -- the unsafe ones that could (and from several personal experiences did) burn the fingers of little boys and girls who touched them.
We weren't the most religious family but on Christmas eve, depending on which relatives were present, someone would read the passage from the Bible about the birth of Christ. Then a conversation undoubtedly would ensue about the fact Christmas had become too commercial and not about family and Christ.
As if planned meticulously, but really just because of years of tradition, the evening would continue exactly as it had for generations. The youngest would now clear the presents one by one from under the tree -- passing them to the appropriate recipient - by first reading their name aloud. The piles grew around each of the adults and mountains would appear in our spaces. The excitement and anticipation increasing with each delivery.
As sort of a torture to my me and my sister, the rule was now that each person -- from oldest to youngest -- would open their gifts while the rest participated in the role of audience. Grandpa wanted the wrapping paper placed in the grocery bags after each opening. Grandma never seemed to hear who the gift was from. Kelly and I just wanted them to get it over with so it would be our time.
When it was our turn, we would open our presents in the same way -- with the help of mom or dad when we weren't old enough to read. Frankly, I don't remember many of the gifts. My family wasn't wealthily. I don't think you could have really even called us middle class. But, I never felt we were poor. I just knew I loved Christmas eve and this was the finale of a very happy evening every year.
Looking back, I think the enormous number of gifts had more to do with strategy than finances. We had a lot of small gifts. I'm pretty sure at the end of the evening more had been spent on the wrapping paper than the items enclosed.
At the end of the evening, grandpa and my Dad would get out the holy grail of gifts -- the savings deposit books. In a ritual that lasted for 18 years of both mine and my sister's lives, my dad would put on his reading glasses and tell us about each $5, $10 and sometimes $20 deposit that they or someone had deposited in to these accounts -- accounts that on our 18th birthdays would be ours to use for whatever purpose we wanted -- college being the highly suggested idea at each and every reading. At the time, I didn't fully appreciate the thought and effort that went into this. Even when I cashed my account in at 19, and collected my approximately $1800 (not quite enough for college), I didn't get it. It's not until now that I grasp the love and hope that went into those little, boring books.
Somehow, at least in my Norman Rockwell recollection of those evenings so many years ago, it was always snowing and so quiet outside. And, of course, we had to be home and asleep before midnight or Santa might not stop. So, exhausted, usually my Dad carrying my sleeping sister and me and my mother carrying our bags of socks, underwear and whatever else we had gotten earlier in the evening, we would drive the 30 minutes home to put out the milk and cookies and get some sleep before the next morning when we would make our own Christmas morning traditions.
Other than my Mom, Dad and sister, everyone else is long gone. The house still stands. Empty now. My parents built a newer home just down the lane when I was in high school. My sister and her family live a few miles away. New traditions, new family members and new homes have replaced those.
For me, however, the memories of those special nights are the best gift of all.
If you've read all of this, thank you for allowing me to take a moment and be nostalgic on this Christmas eve. I hope you and yours are enjoying or creating warm and wonderful traditions that will be remembered for a lifetime.
Off to bed now or Santa might not stop!