As the newest member of this family, I am unsure what to expect this Christmas. The family has a tradition of doing a "Round Robin Dinner" on Christmas Eve. It involves having cocktails and appetizers at an aunt's house, dinner and a few piano accompanied carols at my mother and father in-laws, and desert and a one-gift exchange at my wife's grandma's place.
Being a guy who was steeped in tradition who usually celebrated Christmas Eve at one location (mom's place) every year, this arrangement actually sounded intriguing.
Pennsylvania Welcomes You! the sign reads as the Accord hurtled eastward.
I stand drinking a Heineken at my Aunt Alice's place talking to Donna's uncle Dave, a friendly guy who carries the conversation. This is a good thing, considering I am really just getting to know this family and feel like a displaced Midwestern boy in an East Coast Christmas Soiree. This Christmas Eve began by greeting each of her aunts and her grandmother with welcoming pecks on the lips(!) - something again that I neither expected nor initiated, but which made me feel like one of the brood, right out of the gate. It is weird how such a simple gesture brings a level of comfort to a nervous introvert like me.
The house is noisy with laughter, conversation and an undertone of Christmas carols lilting from the stereo in the corner. I make the rounds with the newest members of my suddenly increasing extended family. As I get to know each person from three-minute conversations, I realize that these folks are just like my own family. Some struggle with job changes, relationships or money issues, but all of them fundamentally love one another and ultimately, me, the new tallest member in the family.
So I have another piece of cheese and sausage on a cracker and mingle away.
With the last of the dinner dishes washed, the entire extended family of aunts, uncles, cousins and grandmother sit around my mother in-law's upright piano singing the twelve days of Christmas. Each day of the twelve is assigned to a different person who repeats their part when the song reaches them.
Everyone has a hearty laugh when, at every refrain, my aunt Alice belts our her line in her Pennsylvanian accent, "Five goden rings." The first time she sang it without pronouncing the "L" at a Christmas prior, she was assigned the part every year after. Every family develops their own quirky traditions, and the Neufang/Phelps clan was no different.
It turns out I am assigned the "Eight Swans-a-Swimming" creating a moment of focus on me that I am not comfortable with, but roll with anyways, because I don't want to not fit in with my new family. I am accompanied by my two young cousins Kathy and Connie on either side of me. As grade school students, it seems they are smitten with "the new guy" and while at first their level of openness and acceptance of me is uncomfortable, after the whole kissing introduction to the aunts, I begin to wonder if maybe this family is just full of big love. Maybe it wouldn't be so awkward as an "outlaw in-law" after all. Maybe it was God's way of saying welcome to the family.
After the Nine Ladies Dancing, the girls and I belt out "Eight swans a swimming!"
On the final leg of the round-robin dinner, we are gathered in the living room of my grandmother in-law, if that's what you call them. There is a pile of $10 gifts under the tree. Everyone is given a number and the number determines the order of choosing a gift. People are careful to choose, because no one wants the dreaded "Turd Bird." The bird is a dried up cow-pie that is decorated with feathers and a head to look like a bird. It is another New York tradition that I have become a part of by marriage.
After everyone has a present, the tradition allows one gift pass per person. The greediest among us go for the larger/heavier gift, or perhaps the more ornately wrapped one in hopes of upgrading from the one we have. Everyone surveys the gifts closely, as the Turd Bird winner from last year could have disguised the gift this year by using a bigger, heavier box, or perhaps wrapping it in especially flashy foil wrapping paper.
It is a form of Christmas gift Russian Roulette.
People take turns opening their gift, one by one around the circle. Eventually the victim is revealed and everyone laughs and taunts the 1991 winner of the Turd Bird. Pictures are taken and everyone begins to wander to the dessert table for cookies and a bit of grandma's percolated coffee, which bites with tannins but soothes our soul.
At evening's end, we hug one another and I face another barrage of kisses on the lips from people I've only met a couple of times. I feel I have crossed over into a family of acceptance and love. I am grateful to God above for each and every one of them. One can never have a big enough network in this world, and my East Coast network was pretty amazing, if I didn't say so myself.
I put on my coat, thank grandma one more time and head out the door with my wife. As I look up into the dark sky I am amazed by the magnitude of stars I see, something we don't get back in the cities.
And my heart is filled to bursting on this cold Christmas Eve in a small New York burg. God above has blessed me with a family I never expected - a gift of another sort. And it didn't come from a store, wasn't wrapped in a box, and it fit like a comfortable sweater. Yes, I was blessed this Christmas, that much is sure.
So, my wish to all of you is that you look around you this Christmas and recognize the multitude of human gifts you are surrounded by. They are the true meaning of Christmas.