- Kathryn R. Biel
'Twas the Night Before Christmas (Eve)
So I think we can all agree that 2020 is a year like none other. For a person like myself who doesn't do well with change, this year has added a level of baseline stress I didn't think was possible. We're going into Christmas, abandoning all our traditional plans, in the hopes of keeping our loved ones (especially our elderly parents) healthy.
I'm sort of glad for the COVID excuse really.
This year, Christmas Eve was going to be all different anyway, and the loss of our tradition hits me hard. It makes my heart hurt. Having the excuse of having to stay home lets me avoid facing a new reality this year. You see, within a few years of my birth, my aunt and uncle began hosting Christmas Eve. I vaguely remember their first house, but for the past forty years (or close to it), it's been in one location (we won't discuss the rogue year Aunt Maureen graciously let another family member host). My dad has a large family-- one of eleven children-- so Christmas Eve was when we saw them all. I remember driving home from Aunt Maureen and Uncle Andrew's as a child, scouring the sky for signs of Santa's sleigh. After all, I knew he was in the neighborhood because he'd stopped by for a visit.
It's no wonder I loved this Christmas Eve tradition. I made my family debut as people stopped by my parents' house on Christmas Eve in 1975. I was 6 days old. Having a birthday Christmas week was always hard, but on Christmas Eve, I was part of a special club. My birthday is December 18th. In 1992, my cousin Genny was born on December 19th (and also made her family debut on Christmas Eve). My cousin-in-law, Sarah's birthday is December 23. Aunt Maureen's father, Mr. Kelly, was a Christmas baby. My godmother, Aunt Catherine, is a Boxing Day baby. The group of us always had our special moment among the red and green. And speaking of babies at Christmas Eve: it was great for the mother. That baby was snatched the moment she walked in the door and she was able to eat and talk and some family member or another took care (with delight) of the newest family member.
A word about the guest list: in a family that's big, to begin with, there was always room for more. Friends of one uncle or another were invited. In-laws were invited. Friendships and relationships were formed. I looked forward each year to visiting with Robin and Hector and Aunt Roz's sister, Aunt Donna (not my aunt). My dad would bring his friend, Dave. I brought my mother-in-law. There was always room for more. My daughter still doesn't understand that the two other girls there are not her cousins, but cousins of her cousins (on the other side of the family) and that they won't be at all the Kopach family gatherings (though we'd have no problem if they were).
It was a great time, with great food and great people. An established tradition that I appreciated so much when I became a mother. Once I got through all the decorating and card writing and gift buying and wrapping and school plays and Christmas parties and baking, I could relax on Christmas Eve. And for the years when I hadn't been able to take my kids to see Santa, I was assured they'd still get a visit. It was especially useful the year Sophia was being a holy terror and Santa had some words with her about it. She knew it was coming the minute he walked in the room.
Sometimes my Uncle Andy played Santa. Sometimes they pressed any available male into the role. It was always a dangerous time for new boyfriends, as they were often given no choice. Sometimes Uncle Tom, the only brother-in-law in a family with 10 brothers, took on the role, handing out lottery (and fake lottery tickets).
Seven years ago, just after Christmas, Uncle Andy was diagnosed with cancer. He passed away a little over five years ago. Aunt Maureen, with help from her grown children and their spouses, soldiered on, making the best out of it. It was never the same, but in so many ways it was the same. There was still that tradition, the door always open, the wonderful food, the candles lining the driveway, cookies from the cookie swap, Uncle Chris playing the piano, and a sense of family, regardless of whether you were or not.
This past year, Aunt Maureen sold her house and moved out of state, to be near her daughter and her family. It's totally understandable. It's totally reasonable. And yet, it breaks my heart. First of all, I miss seeing my aunt. But I'm heartbroken at the end of a tradition I've known my whole life. Things will never be the same again. I know, life changes. Things change, whether we want them to or not. We had to accept that with Uncle Andy's passing.
I'm so grateful for the 40-er-something years of Christmas Eve gatherings. I honestly loved every minute of every one. I don't know what Christmas Eve 2021 (and beyond) will look like, but I hope it can replicate the wonderful feeling of family that Aunt Maureen and Uncle Andy gave us every year.
It was the best Christmas gift ever.
Telling stories of resilient women with humor, heart, and a happy ending, Kathryn R. Biel is the author of 16 award-winning romantic comedy, women's fiction, and contemporary romance titles, including Live for This, Made for Me, and Ready for Whatever: The UnBRCAble Women Series. Her next novella, Vision of Love, will be featured in the limited release anthology, Love in the City, available 2/16/2021.