This is going to be a strange year for holidays. Thanksgiving was weird and Christmas will be no different. For this post I thought I would take a stroll down memory lane of Christmases past.
Christmas movies that feature chaos and extended family gatherings were always foreign to me. Aside from a few years here and there when we were very little and my mother's parents joined us, it was mostly just my parents and my brother. I'm not going to lie, it was really nice. I do understand there is value in the big family Christmas, but what I grew up with, the quiet times of togetherness and ritual, were very special to me.
The Christmas season at the McBride household began with a trip to the tree lot, usually the weekend of or the week after Thanksgiving. We were a "real tree" household. Every year we would trek to the same lot, the one behind the Burger King with Wisconsin firs. Dad would strap that sucker to the top of the car and somehow get it in the house and on its little tree stand.
My dad was and still is a master of Christmas lighting. He would meticulously string the whole tree with white lights (it was always white, as per my mother's request) and it always looked perfect. The ornaments started out as traditional wooden and glass trinkets that were purchased when my dad was stationed in Berlin. But my mom also made picture ornaments. She would wrap ribbon around a halved styrofoam ball and tack our family pictures onto the flat side. Once we had enough picture ornaments to dominate the tree she began alternating pictures and traditional ornaments every other year.
Some of my favorite memories of Christmas and of my mom include decorating the tree with her. She was a good singer and I can carry a tune and we are both good at harmonizing, so we would always break out the Christmas carols. We didn't need accompaniment, it was all acapella. Somehow that made it more special. Our quiet harmonizing, the pretty lights, and the strong scent of the pine tree are all tied up with my memories of hanging decorations. The final touch to the tree was the fake snow. It seemed like a complete mess in theory, but somehow managed not to get everywhere and it looked pretty.
Christmas Eve we always went to a movie. We tried to pick something Christmas themed, but sometimes that wasn't an option. Afterwards we would drive around looking at Christmas lights. We (mostly my mom and I) would sing carols again as my dad slowly patrolled different neighborhoods. Lights would be pretty harshly judged and it wasn't until Ryan joined us the first year we were married and was fairly horrified by our exclamations of "that's tacky!" that I realized this was perhaps not the most Christmassy activity.
After lights we would return home to sit in the living room by the fire and play board games. When we were little we would each get to open one present to take the edge off of our Christmas mania. Mom would make hot chocolate with actual milk and chocolate and put mini marshmallows in. Then it was time for bed.
I had major Christmas insomnia as a child. It was terrible. Falling asleep was no big deal, but then I would wake up around 3am and just not be able to get back to sleep because CHRISTMAS. Then when it was late enough that I could go peek at the stockings I would creep downstairs to investigate. Our living room took up the entire front of the house and generally had an open door, but on years when someone was getting a big present the sliding doors would be pulled shut. You knew things were serious when there were closed doors. Once there were bikes in there, but the biggest present was the year we got the piano.
Once everyone else was awake we started with stockings. My mom hand knitted all of our stockings. I have no idea how she accomplished this, but we still have them and they are adorable. She even made two new ones when Ryan and Kristen joined the family. When we were children those stockings would be stuffed to the gills. You would always have to triple check the toe of the sock to make sure you didn't miss a stray Hershey's kiss.
After stockings was breakfast break. The most magical breakfast of all because it featured the coveted Christmas Roll Wreath. Let me deconstruct the roll wreath for you: the family potato roll dough rolled into golf-ball sized balls, then dipped in butter, cinnamon and sugar and placed inside a large bundt pan. The pan is then placed inside of a warm oven for the rolls to expand and rise and then it's baked until delicious. The end result is a very pretty wreath of pull-apart cinnamon goodness. Also there is bacon. It's the world's most perfect meal.
Breakfast digesting we would then head to the main event. Present opening could take hours depending on the year. Half of the time I already knew what was coming. My mom had a very crappy hiding place on the top shelf of her closet, and until I outgrew sneaking peeks I would check out my stash every year. By junior high I was no longer interested in spoiling any surprises, but the year I got my car stereo I discovered it months in advance by accident. Another not-so-clever hiding spot, I was looking under my parents' bed for the cat and lo, there it was.
Dad's presents were easily spotted under the tree. Not only were they the most nicely wrapped with clever and artistic accoutrements, they also helpfully lacked name-tags. I feel like the first few years he thought of it as a challenge. To be sneaky so we wouldn't know the recipient, but also so he could look clever with his razor sharp memory. And then he would unfailingly forget the recipient and we would open someone else's present. After that he just thought it was funny and refused to add name-tags because that was his thing.
I would drive everyone mad by taking my sweet-ass time unwrapping gifts. This meant removing tape so that it did not tear paper. I still to this day open presents this way, but it doesn't matter so much these days with fewer presents to manage.
After presents it was time to call my best friend Rebecca on my Garfield phone so we could swap itemized lists of our loot. Then I would pass out from exhaustion of having been up since 3am, having consumed my own body weight in roll wreath, from the general excitement of the morning and to conserve energy for round two: Christmas dinner.
I won't rehash Christmas dinner here. If you're curious, check out the Thanksgiving post and copy paste the menu. It was exactly the same. And exactly as delicious and filling.
Christmases changed a bit after we left home. There was the strange year I was stuck in San Antonio my final year of college because I was undergoing plasmapheresis treatments and couldn't leave town. My family came to me that year and we celebrated in my tiny apartment. Then after I got married we started going to Steans Ranch every other year. There were a couple of times we were stranded at home when we lived in Phoenix, again because of medical complications, but we were not alone either time. My parents came out the first time and the second my brother-in-law Jason joined us.
About 12 years ago all of the parents had moved to the Austin area and we started all spending Christmas Day together. We would do mornings at our own homes, but afternoons would be a McBride-Steans affair. And now we have the Davis-Steans clan expansion pack with the niece and nephew and often Boney-McBride contingent in Doug and Kristen. Ryan's cousin Susan and her dad Donald are always there and sometimes we even get our good friend Juan aboard. It's a lot different from the party of four I grew up with, but I've come to adore getting together with this large crew.
After my mom passed, adjustments had to be made. Karen certainly took up a lot of the slack, now hosting each Christmas dinner, but I've taken up the mantle of Christmas morning. I'm happy to say I finally mastered the roll wreath, though I will never be the champion of stockings that my mother was. Other new traditions have formed as well. Christmas Eve now includes a get together at our house with food, drink, and a birthday cake for Susan. After the party has dwindled down to me, Ryan, Doug and Kristen, we take a spin around the neighborhood and more good-naturedly admire Christmas lights, then cap off the evening with our traditional Terrible Movie night.
As I said up front, this year, like Thanksgiving, will be much different. Some of the activities will be the same, but the people will not be there. My dad lives close enough that we can go hand off presents and food and chat in his backyard for a bit, but it will mostly just be me and Ryan and Scout. And I am thankful for them and am looking forward to spending the day with Ryan and touching base with family and friends to check in. We'll make the best of it.
Please stay safe and make smart choices. Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays, and may you have a better 2021. See you next year!