Every other year, all through my childhood, we spent Christmas in Ohio with my mom’s family. (On alternate years, my dad had to take his turn as the on-call anesthesiologist.) I looked forward to those family Christmases so much, I think I started counting the days in September. The big family tradition was a Christmas Eve potluck, the whole clan coming together at my Uncle Fritz and Aunt Ellen’s house. I fondly recall my cousin Betty’s delicious pies and singing Christmas carols all together and Uncle Fritz dressing up as Santa to hand out the presents. I remember, as my generation grew up and started having kids, how crowded that little house became — tables laid end to end from the kitchen all the way to the front porch — and how full of love and laughter it always was. I remember falling asleep on Christmas Eve next to my cousin Susan, with her brother camped out on the floor beside the bed so my parents could have his room. “Shhhhh!” he would say. “Did you hear that? It sounded like sleighbells!”
Until this year I hadn’t been back to Ohio at the holidays for over two decades. The torch has been passed to the next generation, and my cousin Frank and his wife are now the hosts for Christmas Eve. Over the years the exchanging of gifts has evolved into its own ritual. Everyone brings one gift and they are passed around the circle as my cousin Robby reads The Night Before Christmas. It was fun to see him in that role, to watch him be Uncle Rob to a whole new generation of cousins.
After the story and the gift exchange came the carol singing, which has always been my favorite part of Christmas Eve. Songbooks were handed around and, as I heard my family’s voices raised together in song, I realized just how much I had missed being a part of that. I got a lump in my throat when, on a lyric about Mary with the babe in her arms, my eye fell on my cousin with her toddler daughter sleeping on her lap.
I think my favorite moment all night, though, was when the group skipped “O Christmas Tree.” My cousin Shellyn, sitting next to me, tried to insist that we sing it but wasn’t being heard… so I just started belting out “O Christmas Tree.” Shellyn and her sisters joined in, and we drowned out the other song until everybody was singing “O Christmas Tree.” For a few moments I was a teenager again, instigating with my cousins.
Mom loves the singing, too, and she loved seeing the whole family at once. And Betty’s pies are as good as ever!
I’m a big one for rituals and traditions, always have been. It makes me melancholy to consider that my particular branch of our family tree ends with me, that there is no next generation to whom I can hand down the boxes of my mom’s old family photos or into the toe of whose Christmas stockings I can place the traditional tangerine. But my cousins on Mom’s side are keeping the family tree healthy and I think our traditions are in good hands.