It is a little different and much the same each year. When I was a child, my family put the tree up on Christmas Eve, and I have always wondered how my parents pulled that one off. In my adult life, this day has been far too busy to include the tree--especially one that included putting on the foil icicles one by one Part of the difference may be that my mother hated to cook, so the dinner wasn't much (can it really be possible that she used to serve canned spaghetti Christmas Eve?) while I spend most of the day in the kitchen. Happily.
Today is Christmas Eve, the big event in our family. For years, we hosted a small rather elegant dinner, sitting around the table, using my grandmother's linens and old family silver, and the best recipes we could find. The guests included my own family, another set of close friends and their daughter, and my mother and step-father. Occasionally, there would be someone else, but it remained a small enough crowd to fit in our dining room.
Over the years, my family grew and grew, and we began to include close friends and their families. There is often an "extra" special guest; this year that means a twin sister from Italy and a mother-in-law from Connecticut. There will be, I think, a total of 25 adults and 5 children, including nine month old Alice who doesn't impact the number of needed forks and napkins.
In addition to what is always a delicious meal, the evening includes caroling at 7:15 around the Christmas Tree in our Town Center. The caroling only lasts about twenty minutes, but is always one of the things I love best about the season and the town. Depending on the weather, there is a medium size crowd or a very large crowd, but it always includes old people, bundled up babies, over-excited children who are racing around, and dogs wearing bows and sometimes antlers. The enthusiasm of the singing compenstates for the off key notes. One year, when there was a lot of snow on the ground, the song leader became overly energetic and tumbled off the platform into a snowbank. Walking back to the car for the short ride home, exchanging greetings with friends and strangers, always marks the real start of Christmas for me.
Not everyone in our current large crowd goes caroling. Some prefer to stay back in front of the fire and continue with the eating and drinking. In theory, someone is left responsible to watch whatever is going on in the kitchen, but there have been mixed results with that plan. Starting a few years ago, we began to hire someone to help in the kitchen, and that has made all the difference in nothing being ruined in the oven and my own sanity being mostly maintained.
The second evening tradition is destroying the gingerbread houses. I appreciate that sounds rather unfestive, but it is beloved by the children. My friend, Vivienne, has made a gingerbread house since our own daughters were small, and now, since the crowd has grown, she makes two. After dinner, we put an old bedspread down in the hall, put out the beautiful gingerbread houses, and hand small hammers (toy ones for the tiny ones) to the children. The little ones go first (resulting this year is an all-fall monologue from ten year old Leo who believes that the biggers kids should get their own house). There is chaos and flying bits of candy and much decorative sugar gets eaten.
After most people have left, the final tradition begins. Since my husband is Jewish, the grandchildren on his side have learned that Santa does not come to their houses, but will come here. They are quick learners. The stockings get hung by the chimney with care, and we put out the traditional snack: a short single malt (and it never occured to me as a child that my father and Santa shared a favorite beverage), two cookies, and two carrots for the reindeer.
Merry Christmas to All and to All a Good Night.