December 28, 2015

Thoughts on Christmas Past and Present

I've survived my second Christmas away from home. My family does a big Christmas, and I really really really missed it this year.

During one of the last teaching days of the semester, I received by mail an invitation to my parent's annual Christmas party. Many of you readers are probably attendees of this party, and you know why missing it is a big deal.

Every year, my parents throw a huge party sometime in the week before Christmas and it's pretty amazing. They set up a Christmas wonderland in our house. The real tree is at least 10 feet tall and covered in glittering ornaments and strand after strand of tiny lights. My mom sets up her "village pieces"--miniature, winter-themed ceramic buildings lit from within--around the house. She pulls out huge strings of garland that we store in giant Rubbermaid cans. She hangs them on window sills, on banisters, and basically in any free space that needs a dose of holiday. From the garland, she hangs ornaments, bells, glittery snowflakes, lights, and so on. Once my mom is finished decorating, the house looks like something from a magazine. Seriously. She's that good. The decor is only part of the party though.

My stepdad is from Germany, so one of the party traditions started because he wanted to share some German food with our neighbors. From it's modest beginnings nearly 20 years ago, the food has become bigger and tastier every year. The party has grown so much that about 150 people come to eat and drink throughout the night. On party morning, he (and maybe my mom, too) cuts open huge bags of sauerkraut and empty them into two large electric roasters--the kind some people use to cook turkeys. After the kraut is in, they add pink ham shanks and plug the roasters in. We learned in the first years of the party ythat the roasters have to go in the garage because otherwise the pungent sauerkraut smell is way too strong in the house.

One of my jobs, when I lived at home, was to make the Glühwein, a sweet, hot, mulled wine that is often served at German Christmas markets. It starts with a simple syrup on the stove top, then oranges, cinnamon, and cloves are added. The fragrant syrup is then mixed with cheap red wine and served from a slower cooker to keep it warm. It's one of my favorite winter drinks.

The Glühwein is one of many drink options available from the open bar that my parents splurge on every year. One of their good friends runs a wine shop in town, and his business offers bar service. When my parents built their new house, they built a huge bar in the basement that is perfect for this party.

Upstairs, all sorts of snacks are spread on the dining table: traditional German cookies (made with Oma Elfriede's recipes!), a variety of cheeses, crackers, chips and dip, licorice, and maybe a veggie tray or two. As guests arrive, many bring Christmas cookie and fudge platters to add to the table.

The sauerkraut and ham roasters come inside at party time, as well as grilled bratwurst and fresh rolls. If you go hungry at this party, it's your own fault!

Guests wander in and out throughout the evening. It's an open-house style party. At the peak of party time, it's a packed house, full of merry people with plates of German food in hand. Most guests who come to the party come every year, and some of the guests only know each other from the party. It's fun to share this tradition with so many people.

Because my parents love to drink wine, most guests bring a bottle as a gift. When there are over 100 guests, you can imagine that my parents can practically restock their wine cellar by the end of the night.

What I love the most about the party is seeing how happy the event makes my parents. They are loved by so many people, and amidst all of their friends, they seem to glow. I can't rule out that the Glühwein isn't part of the glow, but the party epitomizes my parents and the Christmas spirit to me.

After the party, the festivities only continue. My mom's birthday is December 22, so there's always something fun happening that day.

On Christmas eve, our family tradition is again from my stepdad's German recipes. It's seared pork tenderloin and white asparagus served in a creamy, Cheese-Whiz-based sauce. Cheese-Whiz, yes. Don't ask, just believe. It's so good. My grandparents and my mom's brother and sister, plus their families join us for the meal. After dinner, it's time for presents and dessert for those who still have room.

Christmas morning with my parents is among my most favorite things. Still full from the night before, we pour cups of coffee or cocoa and open our stockings. My brother is 13 years younger than me, so I got to experience the magic of Christmas morning through his eyes for most of high school and college. He would wake me up really early because he couldn't open his presents until I was up. It was darn cute. My parents are really good at giving gifts. They are very generous. Our stockings always had fun things, like make-up for me, or a new video game for my brother. There was also usually chocolate and maybe a gift card to our favorite store. Santa also brought presents to open Christmas morning. In recent years, cool sportswear for my brother and nice sweaters and jewelry for me. We eat leftovers from the party and usually a few pieces of Christmas chocolate. The cats play in the wrapping paper and the dog eats the treats from his stocking. We go for a walk in the cold Nebraska air, and later we have drinks with my parents' good friends.

This year I spent time reflecting on some of the materialistic ways that I value Christmas. Yes, I like presents. I like giving and receiving them. But this year, I realized that what I like about presents is feeling remembered. That is, someone thought about me and wanted to represent that thought somehow. Small gifts or nice gestures mean a lot to me. I made Alan a memory map--a list of some of my favorite memories with him from our travels. Alan made me breakfast and coffee on Christmas morning. He also made a tiny Christmas tree and presents out of paper. He wrote me a note on a paper snowflake. I definitely cried. Not out of sadness, but out of something like joy. A small reminder that I'm valued and loved.

On Christmas day, we finally bought a couch and a Japanese screen to make our apartment feel less like a dorm room. That was our Christmas present to each other. Having a comfortable place to sit and relax together made me feel a lot better.

I'll be honest. I was a mess this Christmas. I was missing home. Most of my few friends here had taken off for the holidays, and I was feeling lonely and forgotten (though not for lack of Christmas messages on email and Facebook--thank you to those who sent them! I REALLY appreciated them). Welcome to my pity party. The box my mom sent to Thailand nearly two months ago is MIA in the Thai postal system right now, and that feels like a huge blow me. I'm just craving a little piece of home. Alan and Egg are a great comfort to me though. They sit and listen without judgment when I am upset. Alan makes jokes to make me smile, and Egg suckles on my ear to let me know that he needs me.

I'm grateful for Alan and Egg, and for my family, and for my memories of Christmas traditions. It was hard to miss Christmas with my family again this year, but I had Christmas with my new family. We did different things, and it was good, too.

As for next year, I'm already planning to go home for Christmas. I hope I can be home in time for the party!