This post is dedicated to Wanda, my former mother-in-law. When my first child had her first Christmas, I convinced Wanda to celebrate with us on Christmas Eve, while we spent Christmas Day with my family. Recently she accused me (in good fun) of altering her traditional Christmas celebration all those years ago in order to forward my own agenda. I beg to differ: circumstances being what they were, it was only her second, maybe third Christmas ever; hardly enough time to establish a tradition for me to break. Also, my argument at the time was that Christmas Eve was much more special for my sister and me when we were little, so I was giving her a gift by giving her Christmas Eve. She didn’t buy it. So this is my written testimony.
My sister, Teri, and I spent Christmas Eve with Oma and Opa, my dad’s parents. Oma would pick us up from home in Pasadena and drive us to her house in West Los Angeles, about a half hour away. The roofline of her squat, green 50’s style ranch house was traced a sting of large odd-colored lights: orange mostly, with some blue and green, maybe a yellow or white somewhere in the strand. A four-foot table-top Christmas tree greeted us when we walked in the door. Presents were piled in the spare bedroom, all papered with the same paper. Every year, the same paper! White with red poinsettias, I believe, with some kind of strange goldish accents. Either she hit a good sale once and bought tons of the same print, or she had one monster roll of the stuff. I never knew which, and by the time I thought to ask she had run out and had no idea what I was talking about.
Oma spent all day fluttering in and out of the kitchen. I never paid attention to what she was doing in there, except that she’d call us in to feed us boterkoek or peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. I assumed they were none-of-my-business-and-I-wouldn’t-understand-anyway kinds of things. So Teri and I spent the day playing with our Tinker Toys or Lincoln Logs, rolling around with Casey the keeshond, banging on the electric organ, or sitting on Opa’s lap while he read a Raggedy Ann and Andy story in his deep voice, smelling of tobacco and coffee. Anything, really, to keep our minds off the presents we’d open after dinner.
Dinner was always the same: spaghetti. During the rest of the year Oma was the pot roast queen, and no meal…no meal…was served without homemade mashed potatoes. Christmas Eve, however, was always spaghetti with meat sauce, green salad tossed with green onions, tomatoes, and Hidden Valley Ranch dressing, and homemade garlic bread with tons of Kraft parmesan cheese. (I tried to convince Wanda to make spaghetti for Christmas Eve, but that was going too far.)
Once dinner was done and post-meal conversation had subsided, it was time for PRESEEEEENTS!!! Oma and Opa had the uncanny ability to give us the perfect gifts. Teri and I knew that the best presents of the year were hiding behind that perpetual sea of mono-wrap. I still remember my ultimate favorites: a Strawberry Shortcake jacket, Western Barbie, and a drop-waist mini-dress that reminded me of a figure skater. If we got clothes, we’d stand in front of the heavy curtains hiding the sliding glass door and model for pictures. By the time we were done oooing and aahing over the last present, the spent wrappings were already gone.
New clothes were kept on and worn to the candle light service at Culver City Presbyterian Church. Our other grandmother was there, too, so we’d all sit together. They had a segment during the service called the Children’s Sermon: a guy (every year the same one, can’t remember his name) stood in a corner at pew-level rather than on the pulpit, invited all the kids in attendance to join him, and gave a short kid-friendly talk about the significance of Christmas. It looked like a painting where Jesus is talking to a group of children, except the 70’s version where Jesus is clean-shaven, short-haired, and wearing thick glasses and a suit with big lapels. I was always too shy to walk up there and join them, so I stayed in my pew between Oma and Opa, drawing pictures on my program with the short pencil provided to write your name on the offering envelope. My favorite part was singing Christmas carols; especially at the end when the older teenagers would light the candelabras set in front of the tall stained-glass windows, all the lights were dimmed, and we’d sing the long version of Silent Night followed by Joy to the World.
Christmas Day at our other grandma’s house was lovely. We always wore something pretty. Our presents were always thoughtful. Dinner was lovely. The conversation was mostly polite, unless Grandpa Wally picked on Aunt Peggy and made her cry. My grandmother was always a gracious hostess. We tried our best to use our good manners and be considerate guests, honest we did. It was all so…lovely.
I remember the year I asked Wanda to take Christmas Eve, and I told Teri about it. “Oh my God!” she squealed. “Remember how all the wrapping paper was the same for years? And how it disappeared before we could even finish unwrapping the damn presents? And remember how Oma’s presents were always the best? And spaghetti, every year! And the salad always had green onions and Hidden Valley Ranch dressing. Remember her ugly 70s couches and taking pictures in front of those gawd-awful curtains? Remember those orange Christmas lights? Remember going to church and seeing Grandma, and then we’d see her again the next day? Remember how boring Grandma’s house was? Is Wanda going to make spaghetti? She has to make spaghetti!”