My best Christmas ever was when I was thirteen and in the seventh grade. December 25th, 1981. It was the only time my grandparents stayed Christmas Eve night at my house and it was the most fun.
Every family has their traditions and in 1981, mine was no different. Since I was a baby, my mom, dad, and I would always go to my aunt and uncle's house, The Palumbis Family House, for Christmas Eve. Their children, my cousins, were the greatest playmates ever. Gary, later a professional football player, was four years older, Jason, a collegiate football player, was my age, and Luke, a collegiate basketball player, was six years younger than me. To someone who loved playing all sports, there wasn't a better place to go then their house in Lake Oswego. It meant playing some sport, regardless of the weather, until after sundown.
The guests would include our family and always at least one other family that was friends of the Palumbis clan. Up until I was 20, my grandmother, Maria, or Nona as I called her, would be there, too. She was an elderly Greek woman who spoke broken English and pinched cheeks like no other. With her would be with her two sisters, Toula and Fofo, who always wore too much perfume and had saggy nylons. The three of them were quite a trio. Fofo and Toula died in 1986 and Maria died in 1989. They were in their late eighties/early nineties. When they died, it was sad, but I figure that if a person lives to be ninety, they've done pretty well for them self.
Anyway, dinner at the Palumbis house was always excellent. We'd get there about noon so Dad could roast the lamb. Thea Mimi would cook the pastitso, with my mother's help, and Theo Pete would tend the music to make sure classical stayed on the hi-fi all day long. The boys and I would just play outside until dinnertime. We'd eat a huge Greek feast and then head to the living room for presents. I'd usually get something stupid from my aunt and uncle, knitted slippers or a poster, which was sort of disappointing, but I'd quickly get over it. It was just fun being over there. After presents, we'd stay around and watch my dad and his sister share old stories about their childhood. Sometimes they'd laugh until they'd cry. It was those times that I loved. Then after a bit, it was time to head back home and wait for Christmas morning.
Like most people, I don't sleep well on the night before Christmas. Once I'd fall asleep though, it would feel like a half hour later when my dad would wake me up and say, "Merry Christmas." The routine would be that I had to wait in my room with my mom until Dad got the living room all set up. He'd turn on the tree lights, find Christmas carols on the stereo, make some hot chocolate for me and Mom, and get the stocking stuffers laid out just right in everyone's "present opening" chair. Then upon completion, he'd shout down the hall that it was time to come out. Mom and I would troop down the hall to the present room and we'd settle into our chairs. I swear that the time from waking up to the time we could go down the hall was the longest ever. Finally, we would start with our stocking stuffers and then move onto the presents. It was always so much fun to receive gifts and also to give them.
By ten o'clock, our presents would be opened and it was time to go to Nan and Pop's house. Nan and Pop were my mother's parents, my grandparents. They lived about 15 minutes away. We'd drive up there and meet my Uncle Dave and Aunt Mary. (Christmas Eve was my dad's side of the family and Christmas day was my mom's.) The highlight of Christmas morning was always breakfast. My grandparents are from the south, North Carolina to be exact, and the big breakfast is kind of a tradition back there. Upon arriving, Nan would start the biscuits. Then she'd begin the sausage. Then the gravy. And finally the scrambled eggs. It may not sound like much, but there was just so much of it. She'd cook enough for 15 people and it'd all be gone within half an hour of sitting down. After gorging ourselves, we'd make our way to the living room to open more presents. Ever since I was 5, Uncle Dave would get me music. And always cool music, too. That's what started a love of music I still have today. Nan and Pop would usually get me clothes, and sometimes they would even fit. The best part to watch was when Nan would open her present from her husband. She'd buy it for herself, but always act so grateful when she opened it. That cracked me up. Following presents, we'd play some poker or setback or watch football. Then Mom, Dad, and I would head home about 2 or 3 o'clock. I'd spend the rest of the day with friends or at church as my family tradition didn't include a big dinner or anything. Heck, I couldn't eat for a couple days after that breakfast.
But December 25th, 1981 was different. Christmas Eve was absolutely normal, same place, same slippers, but it started to snow right around dinner time. We headed home right after the presents were opened. It was a blizzard and when we got home around eight, our phone was ringing. It was Nan and Pop and their power had gone out. My dad and I hopped in our VW rabbit and headed up to their house in the snow to bring them home with us for the night. The road was pretty deserted all the way up to the house, also extremely dark the last couple miles, and it was pretty fun with my dad and I on a little adventure. I, however, wasn't 100% excited. I was 13 and I had to give up my room to my grandparents for the night. That meant the couch for me and that held no appeal whatsoever. When we pulled into the driveway, they came out with bags of presents, a duffel bag, and a loaded cooler. We packed everything in the hatchback and set off for home. With the snow, it was pretty slow going.
We pulled in about 9:30 and Mom had hot chocolate and popcorn waiting for us all. Nan and Pop got their stuff settled in my room and we sat down in the front room. It was weird. This was so far removed from the normal tradition that it kind of freaked me out. But it wasn't that bad. About 10:00, the kids from the neighborhood met outside and I went out to enjoy a huge snowball fight. I had to take off my gloves because it's impossible to throw a good snowball with bulky gloves on. End result, however, was some seriously frozen hands. Small price to pay for the fun I had, though. I went inside about 11:00 and there were my parents and grandparents still sitting in the front room.
My grandparents were talking about their Christmas traditions they had when they were kids. It was pretty amazing. These were stories I'd never heard. I thawed out by the heater and then sat down on the couch next to my mom to listen. Pop told about how one Christmas he got an orange and that was it. And Nan once got a pair of shoes that her mom had saved for five months. I didn't realize how tough they had it. But the stories kept coming. How when they were first married, they couldn't afford presents so they made each other cards worth favors. How when Pop was nine his dad had a heart attack on Christmas eve and they spent Christmas wondering if he'd survive (he did, for another ten years at least). How when Nan was twelve, she got some fabric so she could make some new clothes, which she had never had. I sat there transfixed by these stories. I had no idea. I always thought my grandparents were just always old and always lived in that house in the heights and always had money. I guess I'd never thought about it before. Watching them talk about their early Christmases together was amazing. They sat there on the loveseat holding hands and laughing and smiling and I will never forget those looks they gave each other.
I think my favorite stories though were the ones about Christmas when my mom was little. The time they went trampolining on Christmas day and my mom, at age 12, fell off and knocked herself out cold and her brother, my Uncle Dave, couldn't stop laughing (he was 8). And the one where my mom made her mom a Christmas batch of cookies and they were so bad that Nan had to spend the better half of that day in the bathroom. Seeing my mother in a different light was odd. To me she had always been Mom, but in these stories she was Janie, someone's daughter. It was awesome.
Everyone headed off to bed at about one in the morning. I grabbed a blanket and pillow and lay down on the couch. It kinda hit me then that Christmas isn't just about the presents. It's about the stories and memories. It's about the love between family members. It's about Nan and Pop and Janie and the trampoline and that memorable Christmas orange.
The next morning, Dad woke me up and sent me to my room with Mom to wake up Nan and Pop. We waited for an eternity before Dad finally called us out to the living room. Uncle Dave and Aunt Mary were there waiting (Dad had called them the previous night while I was having my snowball fight), along with the stocking stuffers, hot chocolate, and Christmas carols. We unwrapped the presents and I really have no idea what I received from anyone. Then Nan brought out that cooler that she put in the garage the night before and started breakfast. I ate until I thought I'd explode.
The thing I remember most about that day was that everyone was smiling the whole time. There was laughter in the house all day long. And a lot of hugs, too. That was 34 years ago and my traditions have changed quite a bit. Christmas Eve is still at my aunt and uncles, although there are a couple wives and kids added to the mix. And my mother died nine years ago so she’s out. Christmas morning is way different. Pop died 18 years ago and Nan did the same eleven years ago. I can't believe I haven't had that southern breakfast for 15 years; I used to go to my dad's house for Christmas breakfast, but now I open presents with my wife and daughter. The food is not as good, but the company more than makes up for it. I still know how blessed I am.
We still talk about that 1981 Christmas with fond memories. This year I’m sure we’ll talk about how my father doesn't come to Christmas any longer because of his crazy new wife. We'll also talk about a bunch of the other Christmases, too. We talk about Nan and Pop, my mom, and Nona, Toula, and Fofo. But I still always think back to that snowy December 25th a long but not too distant 34 years ago. That was when I learned about Christmas.