A few years ago, one of my friends had read Grisham's Skipping Christmas, and passed it on to me to read. We both were pretty much tired, over, and done with the "Canned Christmas Spirit®." She said to me, "Does this not sound like a wonderful idea in theory?" I loved the book and understood every bit of sentiment in it -- including that desire to "fit in" (when they're hounded by the neighborhood to put up Frosty).
As for me, Christmas really hasn't been the same since about 1981. Oh, the traditions stayed the same, but the location and ambience changed, and there are moments I'd give anything to whisk back to around Christmas 1977 or 1978. For much of my life, until the mid-90s, Christmas Day consisted of getting up, opening the presents, having breakfast, and then taking one present with me and going to my grandmother's for the day.
At that time, my grandmother lived in this little townhouse-style apartment. It was like a crackerbox -- just a small screened-in front porchlet, a teensy foyer next to the stairs, two medium-sized rooms downstairs, a very oddly shaped kitchen (long and narrow). Upstairs was the lone bathroom, and two bedrooms. Now imagine roughly 30 people crammed into this space. The kitchen barely had enough room for two people to work in -- there was no hope with 4 or 5 people all needing to warm stuff up. The downstairs rooms weren't huge either -- and with Granny's huge Christmas tree, there was even less room. But it was warm, loud, and full of love.
When it came time for dinner, all the adults and older grandchildren ate in the main rooms downstairs. We younger grandchildren ate on the stairs, in age order -- turning in opposite directions so that we could at least see each other. My brother and youngest cousin were always at the bottom.
In 1981, we had it at my uncle's house. Granny had had a stroke earlier that year, and wasn't up to maneuvering in her apartment just yet. In 1982, she had one last Christmas at the apartment. Then my uncle found a nice, one-floor, spacious apartment for her in an elder-complex in his town. My grandmother made sure to nab the activities building for our Christmas celebration each year. That continued until 1994 (if memory serves). That was after Granny moved to the nursing home ... and my aunt used her church's social hall for the dinner.
Granny died in October 1996. We had one last dinner there. It didn't seem right not to have it. We decided to make it the Sunday after Christmas, which was probably one of the smartest things we'd ever done. We had the largest crowd ever. I met some of my cousin's children for the first time; he's in the military and it was the first Christmas he'd ever had a chance to come down to the family dinner.
Then, as things go in families, the good will fell apart, and for the next several years, we had no Christmas gathering. At all. Nothing. In 2001, several of the cousins closest to my age were talking at my cousin's wedding, and we realized how much we missed our Christmas gatherings. None of us really wanted to do anything on Christmas Day itself -- especially given that so many of the cousins are married with kids and have other obligations. But something to mark the season.
So I came up with the idea of meeting in January, once all the holiday hubbub was over. I also figured if we had it at a restaurant, there would be no muss or fuss over who was bringing what, and who would be responsible for whatever. This way, you would show up, bring your money and your appetite, and that would be it. If you couldn't make it, we understood. If you could, fantastic! I'm working on #6 of the January Dinners. I look forward to those, because they're fun, they're drama-free (for the most part), and I love seeing everyone! While I miss those home-cooked meals, I enjoy the family time more.
But it's not the same as the days in Crackerbox Palace.