This year has been tough on all of us, and as Thanksgiving week came and went, it’s clear that the holiday season will be tough as well. After last week’s virtual Thanksgiving feast, and my real-life socially-distanced Thanksgiving dinner, I thought I would kick off my 2020 holiday posts by writing about all of the holiday family traditions we normally have, even if they may not be exactly the same this year…
Every Thanksgiving, we celebrate with my dad’s family. We spend all morning cooking, cleaning, and trying to maneuver the tables into a suitable situation to fit all of us (and then end up putting them in the same formation every year, anyway!). Dinner itself is a flurry of food being put on the table, plates being passed around, and then plates being cleared off the table as food is distributed into plasticware. Sometimes we will play a game, sometimes we will hit the outlet mall for some early Black Friday deals, and sometimes we will just hang out together. No matter what we do, though, my dad and I insist that all of my cousins give us Christmas lists before they leave. Black Friday is the next day, and we simply will not set out to shop aimlessly. We mean business!
Black Friday is always an adventure for me and my dad, because we spend the day racing around the King of Prussia Mall trying to get as much of our lists accomplished as we can (as well as picking up some stuff for me that dad can sell to my relatives to give to me for Christmas). This year, I didn’t have lists for Black Friday because, as it turns out, it is far easier to get my cousins’ lists when we see them on Thanksgiving and I can hold their pie hostage and poke them with pens until they make us lists.
You know what they say, desperate times…
When dad and I return home exhausted from a full day of bargain hunting and mall-trekking, we heat up some Thanksgiving leftovers and buy whatever we missed online. Now that my cousins and I are older and we all pretty much only get one gift from each family for Christmas, most of our shopping is pretty easily done by the end of Black Friday.
Gone are the days where dad and I would go mall- and store-hopping to find all of the toys and clothes on everyone’s lists. Those days were chaotic and could leave us feeling hopeless that we would never find that damn toy they asked for, but I do still miss them.
With all of the shopping done, it’s then a sprint to Christmas Eve with me wrapping presents for my cousins while watching a Christmas movie in one room, my dad wrapping presents for me while watching a Christmas movie in another, and my mom baking 13 different cookies, 2 different pies, rice pudding, and whatever else anyone needs while watching a Christmas movie in the kitchen. We try to get as much of the stuff done for Christmas Eve and Christmas Day as we can before the actual days are upon us. As you can imagine, this doesn’t always go according to plan, and we end up running around gathering and prepping on Christmas morning.
When Christmas Eve is finally upon us, we load the car up with several pies, cookie trays, rice pudding, gifts, a LARGE chunk of steaks, and novelty toys and headwear (my dad likes to give everyone random things to wear and play with on Christmas Eve), and head to my Gommy’s house for 7 fishes.
Seven fishes Christmas Eve dinner is an Italian-American tradition where you have 7 different fish dishes. For us, it’s more like a few different kinds of shrimp, some scallops, and fried flounder. My mom and I don’t really eat seafood, so we cut into the giant slab of steak instead!
Then, after dinner, we all cuddle up in the living room together while someone (usually my dad, now that my grandfather has passed away) reads about Jesus’ birth from the Bible. It’s usually around this time where everyone changes into their pajamas or loungewear. My mom’s mom (Mom-mom) always gets us Christmas pajamas to open on Christmas Eve, so I get to open that present first so I can get cozy.
After that, it’s present time, which is now only slightly less fun now that my cousins and I are older. We pass out gifts from each family one by one, and Gommy hands out her gift bags for everyone.
Fun fact: my parents, my dad’s sisters, and their spouses used to do Secret Santa as well, but considering the rules that you can’t get yourself or your spouse left them with few possible combinations, almost every year, each person got the same person for Secret Santa…and then got the same gift for that person…over and over. So they decided to scrap it.
As presents are opened, toys are played with (sometimes by the children, sometimes by the adults), clothes are tried on, and gift receipts are discussed. Finally, we move back into the dining room for dessert, after which, the families begin to leave one by one. If I’m still awake when we get home (which, if you know me, you know is unusual), we read Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas then head to bed.
The next morning, I come downstairs to the tune of Dad yelling, “SANTA CAME!” as we grab some breakfast cookies and gather around the tree. Back when I was younger, both sets of grandparents would come to visit. They made their Christmas morning rounds to all of their children’s houses (that live in the area).
Now that everyone is older, my parents, Dan, and I have a quiet Christmas morning together, either just hanging out watching TV or exchanging presents. Some years, in order to preserve our chill Christmas morning, we’ll open presents together the day after Christmas so that we don’t have to go anywhere after that — we can just enjoy each other’s company and our PJs.
Regardless of what happens in the morning, in the afternoon, we do the same routine as the night before: pies, cookie trays, rice pudding, gifts, and novelty games in the car and head out, this time to see my mom’s family.
Christmas at my Mom-mom’s house is a pretty chill affair. We sit down to dinner almost as soon as we walk in the door, then hang out and talk the rest of the evening and sometimes play a game. At some point after dinner, my Pop-pop breaks out the blender and makes Brandy Alexanders (I’ll sometimes ask him to make me a chocolate milkshake instead). Sometimes I take a nap on my grandparents’ incredibly comfortable couch.
Although that rounds out what happens on the big day, the holiday fun doesn’t stop there! My dad, Dan, and I always try to take at least a few days off between Christmas and New Years to allow for some togetherness and activities. Whether we’re going bowling, doing an escape room, visiting Longwood Gardens, or just hanging out at home, it’s always nice to have extra time with my family.
Finally, after an entire month of holiday preparation and celebrations, it’s New Years Eve. My parents, Dan, and I head into Philadelphia to see the different light shows, but first, we stop at Reading Terminal Market for a roast beef or pulled pork sandwich and pick up some desserts for after dinner. After we traverse the city and we’ve seen all that we can see, we go out for a nice steak dinner, where we do a year-in-review of our year month by month.
The entire way home, we complain about how stuffed we are and wonder aloud if we’re going to be able to stay awake until midnight. If one of my friends is throwing a party, Dan and I will head out to their place to join in, but we are always sure to come home before midnight to ring in the new year with my parents. If there is no party going on, we’ll return home and attempt to stay awake, ultimately fail, then have Mom wake us up right before midnight. We ring in the new year with my parents, kisses all around, then go to bed to continue the slumber we already started.
It’s been a tough year when it comes to togetherness. We’ve had to distance from our loved ones and miss out on some great family traditions. I hope that this nostalgic journey through my family’s traditions has filled you with some holiday spirit and that you can still feel that holiday magic, even in these tumultuous times. Happy Holidays!