THE FAMILY ALBUM: 59 Christmas Eves

Tonight is my 59th Christmas Eve. I do not recall the first several occasions, but I’ve been blessed with a strong memory that can retrieve moments from most Christmases following 1967.

Growing up in the 1960s and 1970s, our Christmas festivities were like those we now see in black-and-white movies or television shows. There was a traditional recipe that was meticulously and exhaustingly performed, and each year was recognizable as the process and patterns seldom changed. There were a lot of Norman Rockwell scenes with a splash of Donna Reed and Mamie Eisenhower.

Trimming the large house on the hill at the corner of Main and Ninth Streets was no exception to the prescribed formula. The tree was decorated identically to the previous year, save for the newly created school photo ornament which was added and compared to previous ornaments. My grandparents’ tree was far more to my liking as it was comprised of ornaments of family history. Our tree’s decorations were still new and without much history.

Mother was very innovative and graced the season with many homemade decorations. My favorites were the thirty-plus crocheted and spray-starch stiffened snowflakes that were hung against the heavy forest green draperies in the long rectangular living and music room.

Aprons and other festive linens, many of which included cross stitch or needlepoint decorative designs, were retrieved from cedar and hope chests. The white hobnail ashtrays in the living room were replaced with ceramic ones of hand-painted Santa Clauses, a Christmas tree, and a snowman. Christmasy candy and nut dishes took their respective places on the coffee and end tables.

Familiar aromas swept through the house as the baking commenced. Grandma Donna was the true baker of the family and fortunately, this was overtaken by my sister when she grew older. Fresh sprigs of evergreen pierced the air as did the scented votive candles on the mantle. Mother always purchased an evergreen spray made specifically for artificial trees.

The holiday greeting cards began arriving about the second week of December with mostly business greetings and advertisements coming after Thanksgiving.

In Sunday school, the anticipated stories were repeated, and the Christmas section of the hymnal was used. To my recollection, Advent and Epiphany were not highlighted and the entire focus was on the nativity narrative.

The week before Christmas, our friends and neighbors began exchanging fruit bowls/baskets, homemade delights, candles, and other seasonal gifts. For over thirty years, Mother still used the beautiful wicker tray, filled with holly and ribbons, and a large, globed candle as a dining room table centerpiece, a much-beloved gift from my band director, Paula Simmons.

We also squeezed in the holiday gatherings for extended family. At some point, we drove up to Dewart Lake for dinner with my great-grandfather, Virgil Barmes, and his second wife. I also recall meals and gift exchanges at my paternal Richardson relatives. In later years, my great-aunt and uncle, Evelyn (Grandpa Leroy’s sister) and Dewey Smith began hosting a Barmes family pre-Christmas rally.

Grandma Donna and Mother spent a good amount of time uptown shopping. Heading out of town to Anderson, Indiana’s Mounds Mall or one of the three major shopping malls in Indianapolis was a huge, single event. We had everything we needed in the multiple stores in Elwood’s business district or in the stores of T-Way Shopping Center on the southern side of town.

Christmas Eve arrived, and there was always a late family lunch with my grandparents, uncles, Grandma Donna’s parents, Garrett and Belle Clary, and Grandma’s sister and brother-in-law, Joyce and Rod Riser. Joyce and Rod’s daughters arrived two and six years after me. This meal was the formal Christmas ham dinner prepared by Grandma Donna.

I do not ever remember attending Christmas Eve services in my younger years. I highly suspect our church, Trinity Evangelical United Brethren, later Trinity United Methodist Church, did not offer them because I am certain we would have been in attendance.

After spending time at my Clary great-grandparents, or my father’s parents, Rosemary and Adam Mroz, my step-grandfather, we returned to either our home or my grandparents’ home for the opening of immediate family gifts, followed by lunch left-overs, making ham sandwiches from dinner. For me, this was always the highlight as there was an intimacy of just having my parents, grandparents, and uncles, sometimes, my Clary great-grandparents, in one place.

The following morning was a traditional family breakfast with my parents, maternal grandparents, uncles, and any available friends and neighbors before the formal Christmas dinner and celebration. The Christmas breakfasts disappeared for several years but were revived after Mother married my stepfather (adoptive father). My sister, Dena, who can single-handedly and eagerly cook for an army, later hosted these breakfasts to a massive level that included many family members, neighbors, family friends, on-duty police officers and firefighters, and anyone else who happened to be in the neighborhood.

Those later Christmas breakfasts highlighted our family’s maxim of “family is whoever walks through the front door.”

Grandma Donna died in June 1992, and several of our customary events died with her. That following Christmas, the three of us asked Mother if we could forgo the traditional Christmas Eve ham dinner.

“Sure,” she said. “What do you want me to fix?”

My brother piped up with “lasagna.” Lasagna was a Christmas Eve dinner feature for the next eight years.

For many Christmas Eves, I was either singing for services or serving as a director of music for churches and would not arrive in Elwood until 3 AM. In those years, we altered the routine so that we were all together.

When I began adopting my sons, they were absorbed into my family’s traditions but as time went on, we began adopting our own traditions. Perhaps, “tradition” is not a correct description as it often changed as our family changed with time.

In 2000, my eldest son, Mother, and I found ourselves without anything to do on Christmas Eve.  I was not directing a church music program, and my siblings, now married, were with their extended families. Mother suggested we go out to eat but nothing was open in Elwood. I aimed the silver Chevy Lumina south on IN-37 toward Noblesville and Indianapolis, hoping our luck of finding an open restaurant would improve. Near the intersection of highways 37 and 32, we discovered a Chinese buffet. For the next fourteen years, Chinese buffets were our standard Christmas Eve dinner. Several of those fares were joined by my sister and her two eldest sons, Jon and Andrew.

My Christmas Eves are now relaxed and uneventful. I prefer this way as I no longer fancy the traditional anxiety of planning, celebrating, and darting from place to place. Christmas Day dinners are now spent with Mama Kay, her daughter, Laura, Laura’s children, cousin Joyce, and Laura’s dad and stepmother, John & Janice Moore and it is the most satisfying gathering of my new-found traditions. After Christmas 2019, I spent the day with my sister and her family, but that hope for a new tradition was brought to an abrupt halt by the pandemic. I am hopeful to see them following the holidays and “A Carillon Christmas.”

Fifty-eight years have supplied me with a smorgasbord of rituals, some long-lived, and others short. While I treasure those time-honored Christmases of my childhood, I do not miss them nor wish to replicate them in any measure. The preparation and strain would be wildly fatiguing. Even Mother once observed that we should just get together more throughout the year and not compress so much into the holidays.

Mother was right.

About Wright Flyer Guy

Darin is a single adoptive father, a teacher, playwright, and musical theatre director from Kettering, Ohio.
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