Archive | December, 2020

Already Missing Christmas Parties Past

14 Dec

I’m going to come clean here: I have fantasized, more than a few times over the years, about not having our annual Christmas Eve Open House. This rebel thought roars in my head about mid-December when I am paralyzed by the sheer number of errands I need to run, menus to create, appetizers to prep, RSVPs to count, glasses to polish, furniture to move, and, oh yeah, gifts to buy, to wrap to distribute — after I finally figure out what the heck I’m giving people!

It’s delicious to think it: Let’s just not have it this year. We’ll be like the Kranks in the Tim Allen/Jamie Lee Curtis flick but we’ll actually skip it.

In the past 20-plus years, we’ve skipped only one. That year we spent the entire two week Christmas break in Lake Tahoe. Otherwise, it’s always Christmas Eve at the McMahons! It requires planning, running around, considerable cost and several full-page, single-spaced to-do lists. And we love it. I love it. I. Love. It.

But this year, yet another casualty of Covid, It will not happen. I was quietly holding hope that we could somehow pull it off. Maybe all outdoors. Maybe a smaller guest list. Masked up. Maybe?

But today, as I honestly face the news of single-digit availability of ICU beds in LA County, new record upon new record of infections, we just cannot risk it. Not with my 85-year-old-parents joining us. Not with friends who have medical issues. Not even with the healthy and robust among us. The risk is too great.

We will not be having our annual gathering. There, I said it. Like many things we fantasize about, reality is a disappointment.

I am lower than the South Pole about it.

Oh! What an event it is! I do a lot in the weeks leading up to it. But it’s always an all-hands-on-deck effort around here on Christmas Eve day. The McMen move furniture to the garage for better crowd flow past the bar, they set up coolers and tables in the back yard, my dad decorates individual wine and champagne flutes with ribbon, my mom serves as my sous chef and kitchen tidier as I messily pull together the baked meatballs, the cheesy crabby bites, the baked brie, the dips, mini-quiches. Maureen my bff brings over a platter of ham sandwiches mid afternoon. There are post-it notes on all my favorite serving dishes, serving spoons and the party silverware. 

Oh, and then the desserts….my mom brings her bourbon balls, which seem to get stronger every year! She makes fudge too. I bake Symphony Bar Brownies and a create a giant Banana Pudding in my trifle dish with our friend Mark in mind. I assemble a platter of all the fantastic morsels that have come my way as gifts (although I save out a few chunks of Teri’s English Toffee for myself!) 

Sometime around 1 in afternoon, the guys make a run to In-N-Out to pick up our traditional Christmas Eve lunch — burgers, fries and shakes — usually enjoyed in the backyard in the sun.

We try to do as much as we can to prep the bar area, but what to put out is is always a mystery. There’s something that becomes the popular “drink of the night.” And yet I can never predict it. One year I set out a bottle of pomegranate liqueur next to the prosecco, and voila! a bubby red favorite was born. The next year, I did the same, but the liqueur was still around for the following football season (it was Roll Tide Red, so it worked!). One year red wine will go go go, and the next, someone will be asking if there’s more Rombauer Chardonnay, or digging deep in the cooler of craft beers. 

Occasionally, it’ll be booze that hits— there was the hilarious year that Whisky was the go-to drink of choice. There were a LOT of laughs to be had that year (although perhaps fewer ho-ho-hos on Christmas morning). One particularly chilly year, Fireball made an appearance. It hasn’t been invited back!

I don’t recall what the drink of choice was the year we ran out of ice, but within 7 minutes of that announcement, three different neighbors had run home and brought back their actual full refrigerator ice compartments to dump into coolers and buckets. Clutch!

We always set up a separate sparkling cider table for the kids and non-alcohol imbibers, as well as hot coffee. 

By five in the afternoon, we’ve got it pretty well set (although I can always find something else that needs to be done…). Hence, Joe has taken to volunteering to help at our church’s 5:30 service. Either he has a Servant’s heart, or he is wise enough to know that if he stayed around, I’d discover some new idea or project that might need doing.

I set to mopping and tidying and we all clean up and dress fancy – and by fancy I mean our best jeans and maybe a Christmas sweater. By 6:45 Joe is back. We all bundle up and load into the car to head down to the beach for our Church’s Candlelight Pier Service. In the early years,  I was sure one of my boys would light my hair on fire while I was holding them and they were holding a candle. In later years, we’d look around for them and see they had been waylaid by so many church friends welcoming them home from college. My parents used to come until recent years, when they opted instead to go with Joe to the church service. 

The Pier Service has always been deeply touching. So many familiar faces, glowing in the light of the candles, family by family smiling in the similar manner of those related by blood, nestling close together, singing our way through the Christmas story. The waves are crashing, and the night is always crisp but not too harsh. Well, there was the year the wind was so strong it blew one of the large music speakers off the side of the pier into the water — but generally, the weather has been manageable. 

After about 45 minutes of singing about the coming Christ, and short words of wisdom in between the hymns from one of our pastors, we adjourn. I’m always hurrying to the car (no stopping to chit-chat family, let’s go!) so that I can beat the Rouvieres and Andersons to my house. Rarely do I win! But they, like family, can be found lighting candles and pulling appetizers out of the oven by the time I make it into the house if I am too far behind them.

The always expanding and or shrinking (depending on the year) guest list is a beautiful blending of human beings. We always include some of our neighbors, our local circle of friends, members of our church family who we’re close to, that year’s Bible study group, anyone the boys want to invite, folks we haven’t seen in awhile. Maybe the physical therapist one of us has been seeing to get us back from injury, or a coach or teacher that has been especially helpful.  We can’t get crazy zealous with the number of invites (ask me how I know!), so sometimes we have to stop the inviting just shy of the number that would require the fire department to be alerted! It is always a different mix of people and always festive and fun. One year we even had an NHL player and his family as they were living locally and Christmas orphans. 

I love that the conglomeration of bodies is such that it takes me half an hour to make a pass through with appetizers, or to make my way out to the backyard where the wine is. Those precious little conversations along the way are priceless — those with the college kids who are home for the holidays, or the grandma of one of my boys’ friends who is flushed from a little bubbly, or the neighbor that we have somehow not seen for a few months because of travel, or the 20-year-old who explains that next year, she’ll be trading her sparkling cider for champagne ( Sorry, Abby…this would be your year.)

It is awhirl with happy conversations, the younger kids are making a mess in the pool table room, or playing corn hole or ping pong out front. The laughter drowns out the Christmas music. It is Merry Chaos indeed. 

One night a friend came to me while I was doing a mid-party tidy at the bar and thanked me for inviting his family every year even though we were not really in the same circle of friends anymore. He looked at me seriously and said, “Take a moment right now. Just a beat. Look around. Look at the faces. Listen to the laughter. Look at the life and the community you and Joe have built with all these beautiful people.” His words brought a tear to both our eyes.

I did as he said.

I drank it in. The smiles, the giddiness. The jokes being told. Heads thrown back at the punch line. The toddlers with chocolate rings around their mouths. The friends making an effort to seek out and visit with my parents. The hugs. The shared laughter. I vowed to do this “pause” every year and thank God for the richness of our family of friends. It is my favorite moment of the night, a true blessing.

Perhaps my second favorite time is late in the evening, when but a handful of folks remain, and all my “work” is done. These folks don’t need hosting at this point. I take off my shoes, pour a last libation, sit down and chat. We fix another plate. We talk about the night, and our plans for Christmas Day, and the new year. We mark time together, gathering with joy and anticipation in honor of the birth of Jesus Christ, the Messiah.

On December 24, we will still gather to sing — although distanced around an outdoor tree at church rather than with a large tight crowd on the Pier. But we will say our masked, six-foot goodbyes there. Our Christmas Eve will not be as full, nor as rich, as in these many decades past. It will be quieter, full of love still, and allow us time to reflect.

What a blessing we have had all these years to be able to host such a gathering, to turn on some carols, get a fire going, light a few candles, throw the doors open wide and invite our loved ones to celebrate together.

I miss it already. I promise, regardless of overbooked schedules and tight deadlines and tasks, I will never fantasize about skipping Christmas Eve again.

God bless you, friends. Until we toast again,