Feliz Navidad (Part 1)

Like many Hispanic families, we celebrate on Christmas Eve. As kids, the cousins and I loved this arrangement because we didn’t have to toss and turn in bed while wrapped presents taunted us with the delayed gratification of Christmas morning. But now, we’re grateful for the nighttime celebration because we can recover from our drinking, and sleep in the next day.

As a child, I thought everyone’s holiday consisted of a house crammed with family and friends of the family or friends of friends of the family. In those times, chaos was a friend and bedlam had to take a number. Children bounced off the furniture and yelled jokes over the booming stereo, which alternated between tejano jams and warped LPs that blared the pop music of the day. The adults mixed margaritas while new attendees entered to festive shouts among a whirl of snow. I assumed that everybody’s Christmas was a raucous house party.

We played games, of course. But our activities weren’t quaint, Dickensian formalities where everybody sat with hands folded and chuckled at the outcome. Instead, we started boisterous rounds of “Life” or “Candyland” or whatever was available, making up our own rules because no one had the patience to read the directions. And regardless of what we were playing or watching or doing, ten different conversations started among us.

As adults, most of our Christmas games begin with an inebriated demand or shouted inspiration, and contests end when another, better game starts or a cousin declares, “I win and you all suck!” At any time, a heated match of “Clue” may draw to an ignominious conclusion when a mojito splatters the board, or a hand of poker dissolves into frenzy when everyone begins openly cheating.

The feast has altered over the years. As kids, the announcement that dinner was ready provoked us to rush the kitchen like the bulls of Pamplona zeroing in on a chubby tourist. Because there was no line or system whatsoever, everyone crowded into the hot room while reaching over, around, and past each other. Drinks were mixed up, plates were tipped, and hips were checked. But we got what we wanted and danced around one another until retreating to the dinner table or the couch or a folding chair or just a wall.

Today, we all chip in to help. Cousins bring food to share in an adventurous potluck. We pile our plates high with tamales or Puerto Rican rice or ham or lasagna or Aunt #1’s special turkey with mole sauce. Who knows what will be served?

We uncork the wine bottles and pop open beers. Most important, Cousin #1 has long had the responsibility of mixing the tequila sunrises. She performs this task with a focused intensity, hunched over like she’s defusing a ticking bomb. The constant flow of beverages is far too vital to be assigned to amateurs.

It isn’t really Christmas, of course, until our abuela throws a fit. Each year, she denounces the food as inedible, even if we made a separate dish solely for her (often something that she consumes every other day of the year). The first few holidays, someone brimming with Christmas spirit would try to cheer her up. By now, however, we barely notice when she storms off. It’s tradition.

Everything leads up to the opening of the gifts. But I’ll post more on that later.


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December 2008
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