Where the heck is the punch, I wondered, as I wandered around my parents’ kitchen on Christmas Eve. How can we celebrate Christmas without the punch?
Considering the holiday feast that was laid out before us, it was a selfish question, I suppose, and a very trivial one at that. But it just didn’t seem right.
You see, ever since I can remember we’ve always had this special punch during our Christmas Eve celebration at my parents’ home. No, it’s not spiked or anything like that. It consists solely of Hawaiian Punch, grapefruit juice and 7-Up, usually with a large ornamental piece of ice placed in the bowl.
One year when I was little fellow my grandpa Gilliland and I got to laughing about how much we liked the punch and how much of it we were drinking. It became an annual joke and a sort of ritual.
For 50 years, as far as I was concerned, Christmas Eves were pretty much the same at my folks’ home. Mom and dad would be there, with grandpa and grandma Gilliland, and myself. The crowd grew as a brother, my sister, then another brother joined the family. Later on we were joined by our spouses, then our children, then our childrens’ boyfriends and girlfriends, and more recently a new wave of what would be my grandparents’ great-great-grandchcildren.
It seemed to me that the group was constantly growing, but rarely - make that never - was any of the immediate family missing.
That changed for the first time two Christmases ago when my late grandfather’s health no longer allowed him to be with us. Last year it was my sister’s husband and son who were not with us, since they’d moved to Texas, and this year those two were in Texas again, absent along with my sister’s daughter, who was on vacation in Italy.
So as I sat there wondering where the punch was and thinking of those who not with us, I looked around the room. And it occurred to me that Christmas must be very different for my parents and grandmother than it was when they were young. Then I remembered that well into my 20s, Christmas Day included an evening visit with my mother’s side of the family, usually at my Aunt Clo Davis’ home in Lynchburg.
In those days my oldest brother and the male cousins in my mother’s family that are near our age exchanged gifts each year. Most of those years it seemed we traded tube socks. To kids today it might not seem like much of a gift, but back then, it was one of my favorite each year.
My mother has two sisters and a brother and when they started having kids and grandkids, I suppose that somewhere along the line the family grew too large, and there were so many commitments to other extended family that the Hopkins celebration just faded away.
But the memories are still vivid – like the Charlie Brown tree the Davises had each year, and Aunt Clo’s chicken livers, and the indoor football games we cousins played atop a bed, and so much more.
Some of those memories actually came to life this Christmas Eve as we watched old homemade movies from years gone by. In some of the footage were clips from those old Hopkins celebrations in Lynchburg, and as I watched them, I pondered how things have changed, and wondered how long it will be before the current Christmas Day tradition I enjoy with my wife, sons and grandson changes.
Here’s how the tradition goes:
It actually starts sometime around 5 or 6 p.m. on Christmas Eve when we head over to my parents’ home. After piling gifts around the tree and making the final meal preparations, we eat, exchange gifts, linger a little longer, and head home sometime around 10 or 11 p.m. My sons and I wait to wrap their mother’s gifts until we get home that night, and Elaine, my wife, is usually in another room wrapping up other last minute things. Once all the gifts are wrapped, and the young ones in the house are asleep, we take the gifts downstairs and place them under the Christmas tree, often around 3 a.m. or so.
Since we stayed up so late, we sleep in the next morning. Elaine is usually the first one on the move, cooking breakfast and snacks to last throughout the day. Sometime around noon we start unwrapping presents. It’s a slow process, with breaks for snacks and such, and we do it one present at time. That’s partly so we can see what everyone gets, and maybe partly because we want to make the day last as long as possible.
Then we clean up the mess and eat lunch.
After lunch comes stockings, with candy treats, other little gifts, and usually a nice gift tucked somewhere inside. Mine this year was a ticket to an upcoming Eagles concert.
Then we clean up some more.
Next comes the big gift. This is a tradition Elaine started several years ago. In the early years, she’d wait until everyone thought they’d opened everything, and maybe hadn’t received that one gift they really wanted. Then from some secret hiding place only she knew about, one more present would appear. And somehow, it would always be that one special present.
It took us boys a couple years to realize we had to save something nice back for her, but we finally caught on.
By then it’s late afternoon or early evening and we start playing with the toys and games, trying on clothes and eating again, and bask in the warmth of spending another Christmas Day together.
The boys have all passed their 20th birthdays now. Some year, probably before long, they’ll start their own families and their own traditions, and we’ll have to adjust our’s.
That’s not something we’re looking forward to, but just like my mother’s punch and those old Christmas evenings in Lynchburg, those memories of the most special day of the year will always be with us, and each year they’ll make the current year all that much better.
Just now, as I think back, I realize how especially lucky I’ve been. Fifty-plus Christmases and Christmas Eves, all spent surrounded by laughter, more gifts than necessary, and the warmth of those I love.
You know what? The Christmas tree is still up, the spirit is still in the air, and I think some of my mother’s punch is in order.
Jeff Gilliland can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.