Today was the best Christmas celebration I’ve ever had.
I don’t personally observe Christmas, and my immediate family has a quiet winter holiday on the Solstice when left on our own. None of us are religious, though we all have our deeply spiritual moments.
This year, though, we celebrated mostly today, because my family is visiting. Erik and Ceci, my mom’s brother and sister in law, and their son Jason came up from Argentina, the first time in more than twenty years that their whole family has been in the United States at once. I met Ceci last when I was six. Erik came to visit a few years ago, and Jason I met for the first time this year, as he was born after I came to Argentina.
I made a Christmas bread, based on a few Italian panettone recipes I found, altered to suit the ingredients available at 2am on Christmas morn in a house that has nobody who drinks milk. Raisins and coriander and cinnamon and Cointreau in a sweet, eggy bread. I crashed at 3 and slept in late. I woke in a sunbeam to utter silence. There were no cars moving in town this morning. The wind was quiet, the usual bustle was gone.
I finished the bread and hung out on IRC a bit. It seems like the people left on IRC on Christmas are always a neat bunch of people.
At two, we went to my grandparents’ house for dinner. You know how much a room full of people who’ve been drinking laugh when someone starts telling jokes? That’s how my family, especially this family group is when sober. Eleven people polished off only twenty ounces of wine in 8 hours nobody drunk or even tipsy, and yet I think the longest period without laughing was ten minutes. We speak English in this group, but liberally peppered with spanish words and jokes that only the bilingües get, puns in two languages, and telling stories about things lost — or more often, unintentionally gained in translation. One quip was a story of Erik giving a piece of woodwork to a client, and it had gotten dusty. He said to her “No se preocupa, el polvo es gratís”, “Don’t worry, the dust is free”. Unfortunately, “polvo” also means “fuck” in Argentine slang. His coworkers explained why they were laughing after the client left.
We ate, everything was delicious. We opened some gifts early, though we didn’t put any huge emphasis on it. My uncle John left to go home and feed chickens, so we said our goodbyes. I worry about him, due to his alchoholism. It’s one of the skeletons in my family’s closet.
After dinner, we tackled the rest of the gift pile. My family gives many recycled gifts, and things like books. We definitely don’t have the same material edge that other families do sometimes. My father gave my grandpa a digital camera, something he’s hinted at wanting to try for a long time. My uncle and aunt brought several things from Argentina, Dulce de Leche, good brands that we can’t get here in the states (it’s recent that we could get it at all), and that’s always heartily enjoyed. They gave me a leather belt. Argentina is known for its leatherwork. It’s not a girlish belt, and I’d usually be hard convinced to wear a belt at all, but I’ll happily wear it. My grandmother was coveting it too. It’s got waxed thread designs woven into it, beautiful, solidly done work, too. Everything they brought has the smell of Argentina on it. It’s a musty smell, like no place else. It’s likea combination of leather and cows and yerba maté and wool all mixed together in this permeating scent. It’s a smell I deeply associate with peaceful, wonderful times with the best parts of my family.
After the giftage, my family instigated a talent show. It’s a tradition sprung from the nighttime talent shows at NBTSC. At first, everyone was timid, but mom and dad broke the ice by reading a poem for two voices that mom composed this afternoon, realizing she couldn’t get ahold of a copy of Joyful Noise.
Grandma Ann got everyone to remember Christmasses from their childhood. Her own was a good recollection of how things were seventy years ago:
In my family, we had the tradition that we had to eat breakfast and clean up before we could see what we’d received. When we were little, all our houses were two stories, and the stairs put you right in the living room. Back then we didn’t wrap the gifts, “Santa” just left them under the tree unwrapped. But for us, that means we had to be blindfolded to come downstairs and go eat breakfast.
My uncle quipped, “So then you passed that tradition on and tortured the next generation with it!”. My mom giggled at that.
We used to decorate, well, back then, the best decoration was tinsel. Strips of lead foil. It was heavy for its size! But in wartime, we couldn’t get new tinsel, so we had to save it, strip at a time. After a few years, we were decorating the tree with little 4 and 5 inch pieces of tinsel.
My mom told about those same traditions of having to wait to open presents until after breakfast and being nearly crazy in anticipation. She and Erik talked about waking up and sneaking peeks in their stockings at the end of their beds at 4 am, even though her mom was sleeping in the same bed a few feet away.
Dad told about sneaking in with his sister and opening all the packages and re-taping them. They thought they did a neat job, but got caught the next morning. Maybe this is why my aunt’s packages are so neatly taped now.
Ceci told about going to the beach in Santo Vincento with her family for Christmas Eve, and having to take a nap so she could stay up for the nighttime celebration. (Argentines celebrate very late into Christmas Eve, and people will even go to work on Christmas Day after lunch.)
A.L., my grandfather recited a poem his father taught him while working on a laundry truck, and at first the Christian theme started making me uncomfortable, being judged for “loving the Lord” or not always does. It redeemed itself quickly, though:
Abou ben Adam (may his tribe increase!)
awoke one night from a deep dream of peace,
And saw, within the moonlight of his room,
Making it rich, and like a lily in bloom,
an angel, writing in a book of of gold.
Exceeding peace had made Ben Adam bold,
And to the Prescence in the room he said:
“What writest thou?” The vision raised its head,
And, with a look made of all sweet accord,
Answered, “The names of those who love the Lord.”
“And is mine one?”said Abou, “Nay, not so,”
Replied the angel. Abou spoke more low,
But cheerily still, and said, “I pray thee, then,
Write me as one who loves his fellow men.”
The angel wrote, and vanished. The next night
It came again, with a great awakening light,
And showed the names whom love of God had blest,
And lo! Ben adam’s name led all the rest.
— Leigh Hunt
Then Erik played a song he’d written ten or so years ago on the guitar, about a man who gets a gold watch from his dying father, the only thing of his father’s left, then sells it and uses the money to move up in the world. Becomes rich and famous, but then says he’d trade all the things in for the watch, to remember his father. I started crying outright, and I think my aunt teared up too. His songs are so well composed. My parents missed any part of being the hippie generation, but Erik caught the tail end of it, and took the best parts.
After that, Jason, my cousin asked for a few words he didn’t know to be translated into English on a page he was writing, and then started to read it. He broke down crying, sobbing before he could get a word out. He handed the page to Erik, who took one look at the top line and started crying too. I recognized the pained look on his face. It’s the same face he had in every picture for years after their son Brian died, my cousin. He started sobbing and asked Ceci to try. She was crying already. My mom explained a little — Ceci and Erik’s nephew, Jason’s cousin, died two weeks ago, from muscular dystrophy. He was a good friend of Jason’s, too. I started to cry, and laughing at the pain of it, and that nobody could read even a sentence of the page without crying too. Eventually, Jason read his page. It wasn’t the words, just the deep shared sorrow that made it all so tender.
I didn’t bring my cello, so I couldn’t show it off, but it ended up okay. We all felt so much closer afterward. I forget that my grandfather is a person who thinks so deeply. He’s so often letting himself be seen as the crotchety old man, finally now with an excuse since his hearing is nearly gone. This whole visit, I find that I’m really very similar to my aunt Ceci. She’s this very short woman, but vegetarian, salt-hungry, joke-cracking, and her sensibilities are very similar to mine. I don’t think there’s many people I’ve so instantly gotten along with as with her.
I have never had a Christmas this wonderful.