I think I was about 12. My parents were bartenders when I was growing up, so they often had to work Christmas Eve, but this year, the bar was open Christmas, and Dad had to work. Mom and I were supposed to eat dinner at the Grill, so we could all have Christmas dinner together.
As a kid, I complained about our lack of traditions. Most kids I guess complain about having to follow traditions. About having to go to see Aunt Nancy every year even though it’s so boring, and my cousin Victor is a creep who won’t let me watch anything interesting on TV. But I craved the monotony of ritual and the extra connection of the family you only get to see once a year.
My grandmother moved to Oregon to be near us, when I was about 14. Before that, she’d visited on a Thanksgiving or two, and when she was in town, we had Thanksgiving with her brother Jim and his wife Flo, their daughter Mona, and a varying cast of family. No one my age to play with, and nothing for a kid to do there but try and pet the cat that hid from everyone. I loved it. When grandma wasn’t in town, we didn’t do anything.
The Thanksgiving before the Christmas when Dad had to work, I asked Mom, “why don’t we have Thanksgiving with Jim and Flo again?”
“We haven’t been invited.”
I rolled my eyes. I was probably getting good at it by then. “So invite ourselves. Flo won’t care.”
We had Thanksgiving there every year from then on until I left for college, and even though Jim died a few years ago, my parents still celebrate Thanksgiving with Flo and Mona. This makes me happy even though I’m too far to be a part of it.
Christmas though, Christmas could be anywhere. We could do anything. Over the course of my childhood I probably had 10 different stockings, each one picked up at a drug store a week before Christmas. Christmas Eve, we went to a party, the one constant, thrown by a good friend of my parents. They collected Santa statues and grew hot peppers in a pot and played hide the pickle in the Christmas Tree and my Godmother always brought her famous Chex Mix and someone else brought famous deviled eggs and my Dad always made his famous pork tenderloin. Once we got home though, it was all up in the air again. Sometimes we opened a present Christmas Eve, sometimes we opened all the presents from relatives Christmas Eve, sometimes we did stockings Christmas Eve and sometimes we didn’t do anything at all on Christmas Eve. Christmas I opened presents, and there were some GOOD presents, but once the wrapping paper was scattered on the floor and the gifts were laid out, that was it, the day was pretty much over.
And the year I was 12, my mom and I were supposed to stay and have dinner with Dad, but when we’d been there for only a few minutes, the crowd was so thick that we could feel the sweat from the family next to us. Most people don’t go out on Christmas, but when they do, there aren’t many places to go.
Dad couldn’t really sit, or stop, he was too busy. And the noise was bewildering me and giving Mom a headache so she said, let’s go home.
I was down about leaving without having Christmas dinner with Dad. I was more down when we tried to get dinner someplace else and couldn’t find an open elsewhere.
There was no food in the house, beyond salad dressing and ketchup and several bottles of mustard.
We finally stopped at a 7-11. We got Red Barron frozen pizza.
And I guess I’m that kind of grown up. I think most Christmases were better than that one. Most of them I was happy and had fun with my parents and loved my presents. I resented not being dragged to the things I was too young to enjoy and thought I must be missing some huge secret.
I don’t have nostalgia for the church services I never went to or the one gift I got to pick out every Christmas Eve to open first, or the way we… well, I can’t really even imagine the traditions I thought I ought to have had beyond what I’ve seen on A Christmas Story.
Instead I get to think back and laugh about the Christmas I went home with Mom and had frozen pizza.