Christmas was always loud and brash and full of laughter and joy at the house on Portland. This year like so many before it, Mom picked out the long needled Norway Pine and decorated it with ornaments old, new, gaudy and beautiful. She was careful to put the breakable ones up high, away from our cat. Tonto occasionally took to his lumberjack skills and climbed the trunk and gave a good shake, or, worse, toppled it altogether. To be sure, we tied it up with fishing line to give it a fighting chance against the cat's deft tree killing skills.
The relatives start arriving about 5:00. Along with my brother Paul, I am a student at the University of Minnesota. My brother Rob is home from Rochester, New York where he is attending NTID. Tom, Pat and Jane are all moved out and raising families of their own. They arrive with kids and spouses in tow for the annual Christmas gathering at mom's. Everyone is in high spirits, exhausted from all the preparation, yet finally ready to let down and enjoy the night with family.
After the welcoming hellos and Merry Christmases are said, people begin settling in. Beers are cracked among the brothers while the ladies sip wine. Sisters Jane and Pat live dangerously sipping "the recipe" a concoction modeled after the two sisters on the Waltons' television show while Mom worries about whether the standing rib roast is done or not. Our grandmother Dagny sits in the overstuffed chair looking regal in her Christmas outfit and large necklace sipping a cocktail of her own and laughing her Barney Rubble laugh that I love so much. All of us dread the goodnight slobbery kiss from Dag whose lips were always unnaturally wet at kiss time. The kiss is an annual joke between us, one we looked forward to in a twisted sort of way.
Dinner is the annual fare of roast beast, Dagny's oyster casserole, green beans, mashed potatoes, gravy and a crystal bowl full of sister Pat's mysteriously good "Green Stuff". It's a merriful mix of pistachio pudding, whipped cream, and fruit cocktail that made the holidays complete, despite all of the wrongness of a pudding and fruit mix. A line forms at the buffet lined with platters and bowls of steaming food. The adults gather around the antique dining room table set with mom's sterling silver place settings and her china with the rooster art. The delicate crystal goblet stemware holds wine or water. Tapered candles burn in the middle of the table warming the room as it buzzes with laughter, stories, and compliments on the meal. The food smells savory and delicious. It smells of love and richness and Christmas.
When dinner is finished, annual tradition has the Landwehr/Kaufenberg/McKasy men clearing the table and doing the dishes. Sisters Jane and Pat joke about how nice it is to see the boys working for a change, and even nicer how good it is to see them all working together. The discussion over dishes jumps from world issues to what's wrong with the Vikings' running game. The mood is jovial and anticipatory, each of us men stifling our expectant happiness at opening our gifts which happens when the last fork is dried.
After determining that this is Tom's year to pass out gifts, he settles into the Santa chair and starts reading off names. The nieces and nephews play elves and run the presents to each of the recipients. Carols seep from the stereo and a light haze begins to form near the ceiling from the various smokers in the group. The Un-candles on the mantle, a gift from Christmas two years prior, partially neutralize the smoke as they burn their vegetable oil fuel. The moment is frenzied with half a dozen conversations going on during the present distribution. The young kids have halos of electricity, barely able to surpress their pent up excitement. Through all of it God swirls about the room whispering in each ear,
"Do you see this? Isn't this beautiful? Revel in it. Hold it. This is Me. This is love. This is My love."
When the last gift is passed out we dig in. There is no taking turns among this group. Each person tears and unwraps at their own pace. The kids rip with voracity while those with fewer gifts take time to watch and enjoy others' moment of happiness. The room buzzes with cacophony and chaos. "Thank you, Mom!" is shouted more times than can be counted. Gasps are plentiful and dramatic. People spontaneously try on the sweaters, and slippers and hats that they receive. Toys are unwrapped as mom warns "Watch those small pieces! Every year something gets lost or thrown away in the wrappings."
It is an unbridled free-for-all of momentary excess, greed and gratefulness, and I am loving every second of it.
Everyone relishes in their gifts for an hour or so before they start packing things up for the ride home. As midnight approaches Rob and I prepare to go to Midnight Mass across the street at St. Luke's. It is an annual tradition with the two of us, one we would later include our wives in.
We walk into the cavernous church dimly lit for arguably the biggest service of the year. The huge pipe organ fires up the first notes of "O Come All Ye Faithful" as the congregation stands for the
After the long but beautiful service, Rob and I head out into the cold darkness for the walk home. Our breath hangs in the air as we talk about the neighbor girls from up the block that we saw in church, and how they've become beautiful young women now. Then, when I least expect it, Rob hockey-checks me into the snowbank where I land hands-in-pockets, in a heap.
He runs away laughing and shouting, "Merry Christmas, bro," while I'm left to dust myself off and take chase in my dress shoes through the frozen night. I am shocked, damp, and laughing as I slip and slide down the street. I am equal parts amused at my brother's trickery and annoyed at my own naivete. I should have expected it. It is a moment of sibling goofiness carried into adulthood. Grown men being boys on Christmas Eve.
We arrive home and after a bit of wind-down to a few more Christmas carols and one last gift assessment, we unplug the tree lights and head up to bed.
It is in every sense of the word, and average Christmas. There was much preparation going in, and the inevitable letdown after the last gift was opened. At the same time it is a small moment of perfection. It is a glimpse of heaven, or maybe into the fiery heart of God's eternal love. We're over 30 years removed from this Christmas of long ago and we continue to pass down these traditions of Christmas to our own kids. Food, merriment, gifts and hearty helpings of hugs and warmth.
This Christmas, I hope that wherever you are, you take time out from the chaos and freneticism of the day to step back and look around. Be grateful for those that love you, but give to them by loving back. Next year will be differently the same. But for now, you have RIGHT NOW. Live it!
Merry Christmas everyone!