Letter from America.
I am neither a Scrooge nor a Jehovah’s Witness. I am not a Grinch. I’m not Jewish and I’m not a Muslim. The aforementioned don’t celebrate Christmas but I, as a Christian, am supposed to do so. While I do (both prayerfully and gratefully) observe the spiritual “reason for the season”—namely, the birth of Jesus—I can’t say that I relish all the commercial hoopla surrounding that birthday.
I’m not much of a shopper; indeed, year round, I avoid stores like the plague unless I am in dire need of something. I’m not creative about selecting the “perfect” gift for another person; in fact, my epic fails are legendary among my children. I recall one particularly unhappy child’s expression after she unwrapped and held up for inspection a striped-with-neon-colors sweater I had chosen for her one year. Thank goodness that wasn’t the only present she received.
If it weren’t for my sister, Maura, my first-born child never would have received her first Cabbage Patch doll, the most sought-after toy one Christmas season in the 1980s. Maura stalked the stockroom manager at Toys R Us that year, finally either charming him sufficiently (or, more likely, causing the man such heartburn) that he called my sister one delivery day and invited her to enter the stockroom to select one of the dolls before he placed the remaining few new arrivals on the shelves in the store itself. There, a horde of shoppers would battle one another in order to grab the nearly impossible-to-find item. I wouldn’t have thought to do what Maura did and certainly wouldn’t have engaged in fisticuffs in order to acquire a doll, especially a doll as ugly as a Cabbage Patch Kid.
I always enjoyed decorating the interiors of my various houses for the holidays but I loathed taking those decorations down and putting them away for another 11 months. Because nobody was ever inclined to help me, the Christmas tree, wreaths, and other holiday bric-a-brac occasionally remained in place almost long enough to greet the shamrocks I put on the front door for St. Patrick’s Day. Yes, I was that bad.
Cooking Christmas Eve and Christmas dinners, I must say, was always a pleasure once I took that task on myself. My first attempt at a meatless Christmas Eve dinner—coquille St. Jacques—was a huge success, thanks to my younger brother, Jim, who basically walked me through the process after he made the roux. Once he did that, the rest was easy. After we moved from New York to Georgia, I had not only Christmas Eve dinner but also Christmas Day dinner to prepare. Too much! I decided to follow the Cremins Family tradition of allowing my family members to “pick” on whatever they desired early in the evening of the night before Christmas and concentrated my efforts in the kitchen on producing a sumptuous Christmas Day feast. Last-minute Christmas-Eve gift wrapping done, we always headed over to our dear friend Karen’s house—right across the street from our own—for her elegant Christmas Eve celebration.
On Christmas morning, right after I said “happy birthday, Jesus,” to myself at home or at church, I gave profound thanks to Publix Supermarkets. This Southern American grocery store chain provided numerous choices for a complete heat-and-serve holiday meal. Believe me; I took advantage of several of the options they offered. (Who wants to make homemade Southern-style cornbread stuffing or “cranberry delight” when Publix could make these better than I could myself?) Oh, I’ll admit to trotting out some old family recipes on Christmas Day to make the meal my own: Hard sauce for that tin of plum pudding in the cupboard and stiff Irish whiskeys for dessert come immediately to mind.
As the oldest of our four children grew into young adulthood, they helped stave off the pre-dinner hunger pangs of our guests, notably my fifth through eighth “adopted” children, “Heavy Kevvy” Kevin Fleming, “America’s Favorite Neighbor,” Jen Hawley, Cody King, and the late, great sweet David O’Miller, who often arrived at our house for a second dinner straight from their own families’ tables. My daughter Keelan would entertain guests with anecdotes from Christmases past, Drew with songs, Devon with some meticulously crafted appetizers, and our youngest child, Conor, with a display of a new trick our latest puppy had mastered. Extra place settings hastily squeezed into position heralded the start of dinner. Whether the turkey was dry or moist, the potatoes and gravy lumpy or smooth, the prepared stuffing adequately heated or burned, the vegetables soggy and limp or delectable, every Christmas dinner seemed perfect. Second helpings were par for the course, even when leaving room for dessert.
The arrival of more of our Southern “family”—Karen, Connor, Justin, sometimes Perry, Judy, and David, often “Big Hair” Andy, and more—heralded the time for exchanges of presents and well wishes before winding down for the evening. Inevitably, someone would sit at the piano and play some sing-along music. Someone else would invite the guys out to the deck to smoke the once-yearly cigars Perry purchased. (And, okay, if you MUST know, one year someone DID throw up in the holly bush outside the front door, but I SWEAR, it wasn’t due to my cooking because nobody else got sick!)
My Christmases since those happy years have been different. Not terrible; just different. I miss being with my entire family. I miss passing off Publix cornbread stuffing as homemade. I miss the rolling eyes of the recipient of a neon-colored striped sweater. I miss the crazed barking of a puppy as yet another visitor to our house at 9:30 p.m. on December 25th knocks at the door. I miss the smell of eight cigars being smoked on the back deck on a balmy Southern Christmas evening.
This year, I’ll even miss seeing my children and my grandchildren in Georgia on Christmas Day because I have to work on December 26. (Can you spell “bummer?”) But when I DO travel to Georgia in late March or early April of 2014 to meet and greet my newest grandbaby, I wouldn’t be a bit displeased to find that my daughter still has her Christmas tree up. In fact, I can promise you now that the first song that new baby will hear from my lips will be, “I’ll Be Home For Christmas.”
You can count on me…
In recent years, I have been making new traditions as events in my life dictate. I have chosen to embrace them. I might never love any type of shopping, or cooking huge meals without a lot of help, or taking down Christmas decorations, but the reason for this season means more to me than I can express in this one small space. He, along with those who have loved me so unconditionally over the years, are the reasons I have been able to roll with life’s punches. I acknowledge that blessing every day but, on this coming Christmas Day, vow to treasure it to its fullest. While I might continue to think “bah humbug” every time I watch an advertisement for a Christmas sale at Macy’s on TV, and will still want to stick my fingers down my throat whenever I hear the song, “Grandma Got Run Over By A Reindeer,” you can be sure that I mean it when I write these words at this very moment:
Merry Christmas, and God bless us, everyone!
By Cara Sheridan O’Donnell
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