Borrowing from Ms. Monkey’s theme for today, this started out as a comment on her blog but started to get rather too long for a comment.
Christmas road trips were also a part of my life growing up. With divorced parents, I would almost always spend Christmas Eve and morning with my Mother and then my Dad would pick me up around noon and we’d drive back to my Grandparents’ house where he also lived, which was a few hours away.
Not surprisingly, something that I loved the most was two very different Christmas dinners. My mother’s family is Italian and we would generally spend Christmas Eve gathered at my Grandmother’s house. All of us, which worked out to, let’s see…two, three, six, nine…at least 20. I always felt like I didn’t quite have a place. My step-brothers were four and six years older than me and my younger cousins were younger by that much, and when my little brothers were born, there were nine and 14 year age gaps. Still, even when I was young, it wasn’t so much about the gifts that my uncle-dressed-as-Santa would dispense as it was about the food. Being Italian, there was plenty of food to go around. Lavish antipasti (the deviled eggs were always my favorite but the shrimp cocktail grew on me as I got older) were spread out in the living room while people arrived before dinner and milled about and chatted and caught up. We all lived within a 20 minute drive of each other and it seemed like my Mother was always talking with our relatives and yet there was always so much more to talk about when we saw each other in person, which always confused me. I guess I started out as a wall flower pretty young.
But I digress, we were only on the antipasti. Dinner was over the top but we didn’t do the traditional Italian Christmas Eve fish dinner. Though my Great-Grandparents (both of whom only passed away recently) were both immigrants, they had become thoroughly Americanized and so our family tradition was the best of both worlds. Dinner always started with a pasta course–perhaps substituting a variety of pastas for a variety of fishes. My Nana made fresh pasta by hand from scratch every day and though that was the only pasta we ever ate at home, being gathered around a table with my entire family made it that much more special. Fusilli, lasagne, stuffed shells or manicotti. Enough pasta to feed an army. But that was just the first course. There was salad and after that, came out the more Anglo-American style meal: baked ham, mashed potatoes, scalloped potatoes (yum!), carrots and peas. None of us could move after all that but there was always dessert. Again, a blend of traditions: Italian cookies like anisettes and pizzelles and more Anglo-American treats like pies. My grandmother would always make a rum cake and there’d usually be a pistachio cake too.
After all that, THEN we’d do gifts. There were already some under the tree but my uncle would dress as Santa and emerge from the basement (which I never questioned, there being a perfectly serviceable fireplace in the living room) bearing more goodies for the kids. We always knew it was my uncle, but that wasn’t the point of course. Finally, after all that, we’d bundle up and head home. I was an altar boy, but we almost never went to Midnight Mass, though I imagine my great-grandparents did.
Christmas morning at home would usually find me wide awake around 5.30 or 6, sitting quietly in my room playing video games or patiently staring at the gifts under the tree. I knew better than to try to wake anyone up before 7.
The rest of the morning was usually a blur. I was never one for ripping the wrapping paper off my gifts, despite my mother and step father’s best attempts at trying to get me to do it for the camera. Carefully and methodically, I would undo the wrapping in reverse order of how it had been taped on. After gifts, we would have breakfast and my parents would usually have to pull me away from whatever new video or computer game I had gotten and force me to eat and then get ready so my father could pick me up to head to my Grandparents’ house.
Grandma and Grandpa’s in Central Massachusetts almost always greeted me with a white Christmas, even if closer to Boston we had no snow. Things there were usually more subdued than with the Italian side of the family. My dad’s side of the family is more far-flung so there would always be less of us, but even on holidays when we would all gather together, the Hungarian-Germans just weren’t quite as rowdy. I liked the more gentle nature of celebrations there even though I now miss my rowdy extended Italian family. Dinner with my Father’s family felt much more…British. Roast beef, Yorkshire pudding, the usual sides. Cookies and maybe a pie for dessert, but always accompanied by a Jubilee Roll from Friendly’s.
As I got older, I was often the only grandchild at the house until dinner time and my Father and Grandparents would have to prod me into opening my gifts under the tree and in my stocking. It just wasn’t what the holiday was about for me anymore. Particularly by the time I was a teenager, I treasured the week that I would spend at my Grandparents’ beautiful old Victorian house. Until just before I graduated from high school, they were the last house on the street and they didn’t even have a street number–that’s how rural it was. It was quiet and there was no one yelling from one end of the house to the other, no pressure of chores, no pressure of school. And always the offer to go do fun things like go to Higgins Armory Museum in Worcester or go into downtown Northampton or Amherst and spend an afternoon in a bookstore. Or just spend an afternoon curled up in my favorite chair in the living room, reading. Or help my grandmother cook dinner or bake a coffee cake. Mmm…Grandma’s coffee cake. That’s a post of it’s own.
So, I guess my Christmas road trip memories always remind me of how different the two sides of my family are. These past few years are the first years that I’ve spent away from my family and I’ve yet to come up with any real traditions of my own. I don’t own any ornaments or lights. I’ve never bought my own tree. Last Christmas, we were at the tail end of Snowpocalypse here in Portland and the city had basically been shut down for a week. The Man and I had only recently started dating and had survived a week together at my apartment with breaks to trudge around town on foot. I had to work a double on Christmas day and we spent the night at the hotel I work at because I had to work again early the next morning. It was very mellow and low-key. We had grand ideas for Christmas this year because he thought he was going to have friends from back East coming to visit, but that fell through and it looks like it’s going to just be the two of us again. I’m okay with that, but I might have to make some lasagne anyway…