I used to dread Christmas day. It seemed less about peace and more about stress and faking the funk. Each year, back in my mid-western hometown, my family would undergo a day-long trek, traveling from home to home, exchanging gifts. The ritual began early in the morning and lasted until late in the night. I despised it. But, now living in Austin, 900 miles away from home, I think back with fond memories.
On that day, we'd awake early. My wife and daughter and I would rush through our gift exchange — no time for modeling new clothes or removing dolls from packages. We would load up my pillbox-sized car with gifts, burying my daughter in the back seat.
Our first stop would be at my mom's house. Though I’d moved out of my childhood home years ago, I missed Christmas day when it was just mom, my three younger brothers and me.
Mom was good about giving gifts she knew people would like. For me, she'd get a collectible Budweiser stein or a scale-model car. For my wife, strawberry dishes, cups, refrigerator magnets, things she had collected since high school. But our gift exchange was brief. We'd have to move on to our next destination — my in-laws who lived on the same street.
My mother-in-law was all about decking the halls. Her house would be decorated grand with brown-skinned angels and porcelain figurines. White lights would encircle each window, and flicker in sync with the soft Christmas music playing in the background. The mood would be quiet but festive.
For breakfast, my wife's mother always prepared an egg casserole with pancakes and sausage. My wife's stepfather would busy himself on the deck, smoking a turkey for our evening dinner. We'd eat breakfast, exchange gifts and ready ourselves to head out again.
Our next stop would take us west where we'd visit my wife's father. Dr. W. was an eccentric psychologist, a hippy, having not evolved much beyond the 60s. He was a highly intelligent man, well read. His basement hangout was heavily populated with shelves that were stocked with books on psychology, philosophy, science fiction.
Dr. W. was a divorced bachelor who rarely cleaned house, so before we could sit down and talk, we'd have to brush away months of piled up congestion — magazines, peanut shells, paper plates with dried-up black beans. Clutter thrived like bacteria in a petri dish. Dr. W’s gifts were never wrapped prior to our arrival. It was customary that my wife would wrap them for him, so before we could make our exchange, my wife would partition herself off in a corner — still within conversation distance — and wrap up our presents. We'd take pictures, tear open packages, and then move on.
S and J were a couple of teenage girls my wife used to babysit when they were young children. The girl's father and Dr. W. were close frat brothers. The family lived in a one-story house so small, we practically sat knee-to-knee, bunched up close together, catching up on news over the past year. We'd snack on cookies the girls had baked with their mom, and then it would be time for us to return to my in-laws for dinner.
Mrs. B, and my wife's auntie, would have prepared an extravagant meal for their entire family. Dinner was served from Christmas-print china, polished silver and crystal. I always thought chitterlings and china made for an interesting combination, and I'd have a gag-reflex each time the plate was passed in my direction. After dinner, we'd exchange gifts with my wife's extended family.
My wife's stepfather was a well-known politician. He was a colorful curmudgeon who kept local newspaper columnists busy writing about his public antics. But it was his private behavior that reporters would have killed for, had they'd known so much. We'd listen intently as he told behind-the-scenes stories about other prominent public figures. His stories were a hoot. My father-in-law laced his dialog with the n-word, and cracked enough racist, sexist and homosexual jokes to have made even Archie Bunker blush with embarrassment. I'd stuff myself with smoked turkey and pecan yams, but leave enough room for dinner number two at my mom’s house.
Being late in the evening, my family would have already eaten dinner, so we'd have dessert and visit with my grandparents who were strict Seventh-Day Adventist (with a Jewish slant). They didn't believe in observing the holiday, so there was never a gift exchange with them. Still, our trek wouldn't be over.
My wife and I mentored a "needy" couple with two toddler children. They were a very young, hip couple, who knew how to work the system. They received generous amounts of welfare from every possible source, though the mother worked full-time and the father had a good-paying, unionized factory job. They were fashion aficionados of the utmost ghetto type. They dressed their children in expensive designer clothes, exclusively Tommy Hilfiger, Nautica and other labels we could never afford. They would show off the gifts they had exchanged amongst themselves — expensive jewelry, leather outfits, fancy clothes for the kids, large sums of money for after Christmas shopping sprees. And the mother would turn up her nose at the clothes we bought for the children, probably at Target or K-Mart.
On our way home, sometime after mid-night, we'd leave gifts on the front porch of another family friend. Finally, exhausted, we'd go home.
It's been seven, possibly eight, years since our last Christmas trek. My wife's parents, and most of her aunts and uncles of that generation, have retired and relocated to Vegas. My family is still lives in the mid-west.
Here in Austin, we're planning a quiet Christmas day. We’re not going anywhere, except for maybe a movie later in the day.
Thinking about our old Christmas trek, I miss it.