The family was gathering at my parents' log and stone house in central Pennsylvania. My cousin, Fred, has been marooned there since April, recovering from a back injury, but now waiting to rejoin his life on tour as one of the dancers in Sesame Street Live. He's been baking Christmas cookies. Monica, Porter (16), Nico (13) and I drive across from Rhode Island - with The Amber Spyglass playing on the tape deck to speed up the five hour drive. My sister Cathie arrives with Eric, Bridget (6), Leo (4) and their dog, Bella (that I always call Rosie). They have swung through Berks county to pick up a mountain of tamales for our dinner.
My sister Chris would come up from Baltimore to complete this year's cast of an even dozen.
The morning of Christmas eve: on the 24th there is generally a fair amount of sitting around and chatting. There is some last minute Christmas shopping. It was a drab and drizzly morning, but Dad's bird feeders were active -- nuthatches, titmice, woodpeckers, finches and sparrows. And squirrels, of course.
In our family there is a strong slugabed contingent - (small, early-rising children are the cross that Cathie and Eric bear). The two teenagers might never rise voluntarily.
Mom and Monica went off to the farmer's market for supplies and to pick up the turkey. I scouted the property's six acres for a suitable Christmas tree. The bar isn't particularly high. My father planted hemlock trees years ago, and though they are more spindly than the classic Christmas spruce, spindly hemlocks have become traditional in our family. Last year, we took down what looked like the last passable top, but 2014 must have been a good year for growth. I rousted Porter from his bed and he helped me saw the top eight feet from a good looking tree.
We shook it dry, attached it to its base, and with several people working to prevent stray branches from sweeping away breakables, maneuvered it into the living room. Chris wound on Christmas lights, while Bridget and Leo waited patiently to put on the ornaments. At the dining room table they and Porter clipped snowflake patterns out of folded paper.
Chris was making pizzas for supper - based on what people wanted and what she had on hand -- potato pizza - a pesto and fresh tomato pizza - a regular old cheese pizza. Bottles of wine were opened. Pizza was cooked and consumed. The tree was decorated. Nico and Porter set up an ancient and dangerous electric model train under the tree. Nico, Bridget and Leo constructed a small gingerbread house to leave out for Santa. Eric disappeared to enact elaborate wrappings upon the presents for the kids. I sliced more potatoes for a last round of pizza - purple and pink Peruvian potatoes that Chris and Monica arranged into a yin yang symbol on the round dough. In such projects the day wends its way.
The stockings were arrayed around the wood stove, which stands in the great stone hearth and presents began to accumulate under the tree. Everyone gathered around and we sang Christmas songs, reading from sheets that Cathie once printed out decades ago. With Fred, Nico and Porter now holding things down - they can actually maintain a tune - the singing is less ludicrous than it used to be.
It was late when we had sung the last, and Bridget was very concerned that we should get to sleep before midnight, so as not to derail Santa's visit in any way. We reassured her, and the gingerbread house was set out - and the nine carrots for the reindeer were laid out on the porch - and the kids went off to sleep.
The next morning, Santa had left the gingerbread house a ruin, and he had filled the stockings. The rule is that children can delve into their stockings as soon as they are up, but the presents are opened only after everyone has had breakfast. This has led to much slugabed-abuse in the past, but this year people were up and about relatively early. The stockings - with their chocolates, oranges and numerous little gifts were all quickly spilled out. The presents had to wait until Fred's experimental eggnog french toast casserole was consumed, the adults were properly caffeinated, and the turkey was in the oven, so Mom / Grandma could settle down in peace.
Years ago the adults reined in the gift exchange to where each of us gives to only one other, with a spending cap placed upon it. So I gave Fred a shirt and a scarf and a bottle of our favorite Irish whiskey. In turn, I received from a Chris a music CD ("The New Basement Tapes") and an excellent bottle of scotch. The kids are exempt from such restraint, and they get presents from all. The young ones got their heaps and the teenagers got a smaller, denser pile that included a higher percentage of clothing. The boys and I pooled our resources to give Monica spending money for the trip to Hawaii she'll be taking with her sisters in February.
Dad also exempted himself and gave gifts of things he has long owned and wanted to pass on. For example, to Porter, who is a magpie when it comes to shiny things, he gave his old and excellent turquoise belt buckle, a tiger-eye bolo and a pair of tie pins. To Nico he gave dozens of his baseball cards from 1953 - Satchel Paige - Billy Martin - Phil Rizzuto. To me he gifted my great, great grandfather's pistol - a little, rusty Foreman and Wadsworth .32 caliber from the 1880s. And a Cisco Kid comic of his own childhood. And so on.
Gradually, the cooks migrated toward the kitchen and the rest tidied up the mess. A feast was being assembled of turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, homemade gravy, baked apples and sweet potatoes, green beans, cranberry sauce, pickled beets and bread rolls. Eventually we dozen gathered at the table, joined hands and expressed our gratitude for the food and fellowship and the safe travels that had brought us all together once again. And we ate, which is far and away the most sacrosanct of all of our Christmas traditions.