Good morning from possibly sunny Vermont. When I was growing up, Christmas was a grand affair, with rituals pulling from my mother’s French Canadian side of the family. We spent Christmas Eve day preparing for midnight mass, and gathering and making foodstuff for the large reveillon (French for “awakening”) celebration that my parents hosted after mass.
My dad got his guitar out as often as he could around barn chores, and practiced the many carols and hymns he’d be playing and singing as he directed our church choir. My sisters and I would sing with him as he worked the kinks out. Though he loved his music, directing stressed him out, so we carried a bit of his tension as he went through his day.
It seemed that the kitchen and the laundry room next to it were packed with platters and bowls and Tupperware containers filled with food. Mom always left room for my aunt’s homemade eggnog, with cream stacked so thick that none of us could drink it without getting a bit “egg on our faces.” We didn’t mind.
As the day turned into darkness, Mom sent us, and later we sent ourselves, off for naps. I remember curling up on my bed, unable to sleep, wondering if I was missing anything downstairs. I’d take my bright yellow transistor radio and listen to stations from as far away as Chicago. My “naps” never lasted long. I’d get up, get dressed in my special Christmas clothes, and head downstairs to see who had popped in.
As the night drew on, we watched Vermont choral groups performing carols on WCAX, a pre-recorded show. A few times we picked out my sister’s or my cousins’ faces. Then we’d watch The Christmas Carol, and I loved the thrill of simultaneously feeling scared and safe. We all took our turns in the far living room, watching the tree lights and eying the presents already tucked under the lowest boughs. (None of them were for me; I’d already checked.) What would Santa bring?
Around ten o’clock, we’d get our coats and boots on and pile into the car. The church was just a few miles away, and for me, the best rides to church were in blinding snow. Sometimes there were luminaries lining the entrance to the door. Inside, it was all evergreens and red ribbons and tiny, white lights. And it was cold! I took my coat off so everyone could see my new dress, and shivered all the way through mass. Later, when I directed the choir, I wore thick sweaters and corduroys. I gave up looking chic for warmth. Still do, in fact.
My dad got nervous, and sometimes his fingers wouldn’t listen to him as he played his guitar. And sometimes my Uncle Roger, who played the organ, his fingers wouldn’t listen to him. And sometimes we singers were a tad off or forgot to start when we were supposed to. But overall, the music (imagine a packed church with everyone singing) the service, they were something special.
I think I was about four or five when I joined the family for midnight mass, so you can imagine how long those first services seemed. But I developed tricks to get through. I’d count all of the Christmas lights on the trees, or count the tiny blocks formed by the register on the wall. I’d count how many words I could make out of the word “Missalette.” (Try it!) I had a rich inner life to help me through the long stretches, and I guess I still do.
Then home. My dad had to talk with everyone, and he had to pack up his guitar, and this took hours. I even remember tugging at his hands a few times and reminding him about Santa. As we drove into our yard around 1:30 AM, he’d slow down and point to our roof. “Look at those tracks!” And you know what? They were there, every time!
But before we could get to the tree and its surprises, first we partied. Up to seventy friends and family came into our farmhouse, and we little ones got and gave our double kisses, took their coats and dumped them onto my parents’ bed, until they became a mound at least four feet high, taller than we were, anyway.
We got plates and cups and filled them with exotic foods like shrimp and macaroni salad and cream cheese and lime jello, and that rich, frothy eggnog. Then came the hard part. Waiting for everyone to leave. My little cousins and I, along with my sister who was next in age, would pounce on anyone giving signs that they were finishing up, and we asked if they needed their coats. Finally, the house emptied. Do you think it was time for presents? Nooooo. It was time to clean up. We went around the downstairs gathering dirty dishes, and we cleared the table of food. We hand washed and dried loads of glasses and plates and utensils, until my oldest sister gave the signal: Time for pajamas!
For those of you keeping time, let’s say it’s about 3:30 AM. We ran upstairs to throw on our nightwear and then settled into our assigned spots in the far living room. (Remember, there were eight of us.) I sat on the floor for years, finally graduating to a place on the sofa when my older siblings started having their own Christmas Eves elsewhere. I never offered to play Santa, not having enough patience. Our presents were often homemade, often practical, and always wonderful. I remember soft yellow flannel nightgowns, my little Martin guitar, ornaments made up yarn or walnuts or pinecones. Molasses cookies, books, stationery, poptarts, socks.
My dad and brother never bothered to go to bed. They just stayed up until milking time. But the rest of us got to sleep in. I was usually the first one down, around 7 AM, because I wanted to go over my loot. Over a breakfast of poptarts and eggnog, I’d scrutinize every gift and marvel at my good fortune. Then my sisters would join me one at a time, choosing healthier breakfasts. Eventually, my mom, who must have been exhausted really, joined us while still in her nightgown, a rarity, as she was always up and dressed so early. She too would review what she’d opened the night before.
We had Christmas dinner over at my aunt’s and uncle’s house. Sometimes we’d walk through the woods to get there. Our families grew up very close. My mom and her sister married my dad and his brother, so their four boys and one girl and our five girls and one boy made quite a pack. To this day it awes me that we share the same genetic material, even though we’ve all gone in different directions.
So this is my heritage, and this is why this time of year still gives me goosebumps. I couldn’t have asked for better holiday memories, and I hope that my girls are experiencing even just a bit of the joy I felt then, and still do. But so much is in what we remember, isn’t it?
What is your holiday story? Check back next week for another segment of Finding Home.