“When anybody asks, 'What are you writing about now?' if I try to reply, the book-in-the-works sounds so idiotic to me that I think, 'Why am I trying to write that puerile junk?' So now I give up; if I could talk about it, I wouldn't have to write it."
- Madeleine L'Engle, A Circle of Quiet


Christmas at Grandma's House

Monday, December 24, 2012

Christmas Eve was always the big day in my family.  Sure the big Christmas dinner was served on Christmas Day, but that seemed like nothing compared to the excitment of Christmas Eve.

On this day we would travel to Grandma's house.  My aunts and uncles and cousins would all be there, filling Grandma's little house to nearly bursting.  There was laughing and talking and occasionally – as is inevitable with so many children in the house – a bit of whining or crying.

There were plates and plates loaded with our favorite things: frosted and decorated cookies shaped like Christmas trees, Santa Clauses, snowmen, candy canes, and stars; cathedral cookies with colorful marshmallows that looked like stained glass windows; spritz cookies of various shapes in pink, green and white and topped with sugar and gumdrops; pfeffernusse (German for pepper nuts), little round crunchy cookies that tasted like cloves and molasses.  With all those sugary treats within reach, the energy level among the cousins could reach nearly frenzied levels, which was about the time that our mothers started slapping our greedy little hands and telling us that we'd had enough.

When the sun began to set, my cousins and I would be drawn to Grandma's beautiful tree, covered in ornaments.  The ones proudly displayed in front had been made for her by our own chubby little hands.  But, of course, what was attracting us to that tree was not the ornaments; it was the pile of gifts wrapped up in red and green that spilled out onto the living room carpet from under the boughs of that tree.

"Can we open presents now?"  "Is it time yet?"

But it wasn't time yet.  Before gift opening came the Christmas program.  Grandma would sit at her piano in the adjacent room and play Christmas carols while we sang along, some of us gathered around her at the piano and others nearby in the living room.  The house was so small we were close to each other no matter which room we were in.  We'd sung the songs so many times we knew all the words – or at least we thought we knew them.  (I was nearly a teenager before I found out that the words in Away in a Manger were "till morning is nigh", not "till morning is night".

Then those of us who were currently taking music lessons, whether by or against our will, would take a turn displaying our talents, playing a carol or two on the piano, or violin, or whatever the instrument du jour.

Then came the reading of the Christmas story from the book of Luke, always from Grandma's bible that was so big most of us had to use both hands and forearms to carry it.

And Grandma sat in her rocking chair with the red cushions and colorful afghan, her eyes closed, listening, soaking it all in.

Finally, after what seemed like weeks and weeks of waiting, one of the parents would say, "Well, I suppose it's time to ..."  But they never needed to finish that sentence.  We knew exactly what was coming next.  Someone – an adult, or later on one of us who had been deemed old enough to handle the responsibility – would be designated the gift-doler-outer, and the gifts would be passed out.

Tensions levels rose exponentially as each gift was placed next to its recipient, but we weren't allowed to open them until each and every gift had found its place.  And when they had ... the tension burst and the paper flew.  One of the mothers would run to find a bag or box in which to contain the scraps of paper and ribbon, but Grandma's living room inevitably became one big flurry of red and green paper bits.  And it didn't end until the very last gift was opened, the very last "thank you" said (often at the urging of our mothers) and the very last hug given (also at the mothers' urging).

Those of us who could tear ourselves away from our gifts would then retire to the kitchen where somehow Grandma and the moms had gotten dinner ready in the midst of all the confusion.  Oyster stew was the traditional dinner, but only the adults partook and I suspect most of them only choked it down because it was tradition.  Salmon stew was the alternative for those of us who couldn't handle the oyster version.  But mostly, those of us in the younger generation filled whatever corners of our belly that weren't already filled with cookies and sweets, with oyster crackers and Grandma's lefse.

Ah, lefse.  That potatoey, buttery, thin, chewy, crispy, soft, tasty lefse.  I could never get enough – and forty years later I still can't get enough.  What ever would I do if I had not been raised in a Norwegian family?  I'm sure that even if I'd never heard of lefse, some part of me would know that there was some potato-based vacancy in my culinary life.

After that, we went to church where we would hold little white candles in little paper disks and sing the old Christmas carols by their light.  I was always amazed by how much light those little candles could generate.  And when we blew them out and our tired feet stumbled out to the car, we could barely make it home, into our jammies, and into our beds before we fell asleep.

Christmas Day was like a bonus day when we opened whatever small gifts our parents could fit into a stocking and ate a big ham or turkey dinner ... with more lefse, of course.  But Christmas Eve, that was the important day, the day I (and probably my cousins, who are now scattered all over the country) remember when I think of childhood Christmases at Grandma's house.