Of all the memories I have from childhood, Christmas stands out as of the best. It wasn't the gifts, or the time off school that I loved. It was the annual tradition of our family to gather at my grandparents's farm on Christmas evening.
My family is huge. Mom is one of 8 kids, and although we all lived within a few miles of each other, we only ever gathered as a group once a year.
That gathering was something I looked forward to all year long. There was something so wonderful about all of us coming together, stuffed into one small farmhouse, and enjoying being with one another. That was a gift in itself.
On Christmas night, my family would pile into the car. My sisters and I would usually be wearing some new piece of clothing we got for the holiday. My favorite Christmas past outfit was where the three of us were wearing matching knicker and blazer outfits that my mom made. (Wish I could dig up that photo...) It was the 70s and we looked the part.
The farm is a second generation dairy farm, set back from the road. The driveway was always packed with cars, with overflow parking in the adjacent asparagus field. We'd park near the milking barn, doors popping open and my sisters and I hurrying towards the house. We'd scoot past the barking (and often scary) German Shepherd named "Lady." (When Lady passed on to the great dog park in the sky, Grandpa would replace her with the exact same breed, another giant tan and black guard-dog which he always named "Lady.")
As we neared the house, we'd pass through a gaggle of uncles, leaning against the cars as they smoked cigarettes, beers in their hands, laughing and telling jokes. We'd scoot by them, shouting Merry Christmas and grabbing a few hugs.
Before we even neared the door, you could hear the sound. Usually about 30 people would be crammed inside the hot room, and the high-pitched sounds of my aunts laughing, and the screams of a cousin getting chased through the house welcomed us as we opened the door. We spent the next 10 minutes fighting our way through the kitchen, getting hugs and and having our cheeks pinched.
There were always a few new faces at the party. An uncle's girlfriend. Friends of an aunt who were in town for the holiday. Or relations from some part of our huge extended family.
I'd drop my coat and search for a plate. Food was a central theme for our family event. We celebrate Christmas with a huge Mexican dinner. Grandma would be at the stove, spatula in hand, frying up taquitos. The fresh tamales and enchiladas made by my aunts lined the counters. You never went away from Christmas night without being completely stuffed.
Once I'd pile my plate high, I liked to find a spot and just watch the action. Our family is diverse and you'd be hard-pressed to classify any of them into a tidy little genre. Some are wealthy. Others barely get by. Some have careers. Others can't keep a job. I was always so proud that with all the differences between us, we seemed to accept everyone as they were.
When I was a kid, I'd run with the pack of oldest cousins. We'd have to chase off the annoying younger cousins who followed us everywhere, and once in a while we'd sneak outside to spy on the uncles. As I got older, I was more interested in talking with the adults, even though most of what they talked about wasn't too interesting to me.
I can remember the first Christmas The Man attended. I was nervous and excited to have him there. I looked across the room at him talking with my grandfather and knew that he belonged to this family too.
I remember the last Christmas my great-grandmother was with us. She sat in the rocker, her oxygen tank beside her, smiling as she watched the craziness. She always added a touch of class to the event and we missed her terribly after she passed.
And I remember the year we didn't get to have a Christmas night party. Our family had just arrived at the farm, when everyone came out of the house and shouted at us. Our house, about 20 miles away, was on fire. I don't know how someone knew to call the farm, but they did, and we turned around immediately. (The back half of the house was destroyed by an electrical fire which started in the garage. No one was injured but we lost a few animals. We lived in a hotel for many months while our house was rebuilt.)
I haven't been to a Christmas night party with my family for years. In fact, I can't remember the last one I was at. We moved away about 18 years ago, and we haven't spent many Christmases there due to our work schedules. There were a few years where there wasn't a party because it became too much for my grandparents to host it every year. Since then, it's been held at my parents home, or my aunts home. I wonder if it's the same?
I really miss those days, and that's one of the hardest things about being away from our family.
Maybe next year we can make it, and will bring a new face to the party. Fingers crossed.
To my family, love and miss you all!