This year, the Hubster and I will host a holiday open house, a new tradition inspired by Christmas memories from my childhood, when my Uncle Bob opened the door of our tidy workaday home to family, friends and neighbors, when our home swelled with music, laughter and wholesome holiday cheer.
I was the only child of a homemade family: Mom, Grandma Mae, great-grandmother Mammie, and Uncle Bob. For a time, we lived stitched together like an Amish quilt in our plain row home on South Fifth Street in Lebanon, each supporting the other in many ways.
On that special night, the Ray Conniff Singers belted out “Deck the Halls” from the stacked records on Uncle Bob’s stereo. Anticipation swirled in the air like snow flurries. Uncle Bob polished his silver martini shaker and Grandma Mae and Mom toiled in the kitchen, prepping food and making sure every surface was spic and span for our guests.
Outside red and green Christmas lights framed the doorway. The glow from our Christmas tree lights could be seen through the narrow windows. A red bow with brass bells decorated the door, singing a merry jingle to whomever entered.
Uncle Bob’s makeshift bar on the Formica kitchen counter was stocked with highball and rocks glasses that glittered under the fluorescent lighting. He skewered martini olives and cut orange and lime slices. I helped myself to the maraschino cherries while he arranged the bar’s accoutrements in straight rows like toy soldiers.
Grandma’s homemade deviled eggs sat beside sweet gherkins in a wooden relish tray on the kitchen table, anchored on each side by bowls of Charles’ Chips and pretzels, the cold meats and cheeses front and center. A winking Santa pitcher held the eggnog. Uncle Bob reminded me the food was “extra special, just for guests,” to keep me away from it.
Mammie, settled on the living room sofa, wore her best dress, lace edges of a perfectly pressed white hanky peeked out from her bodice pocket. I’d ask, “Are they coming yet?” one too many times, and she’d say, “You must learn patience, child,” an attribute that I am working on still.
Finally, our guests arrived, relatives who Mammie talked to me about daily, but whom I rarely saw; her sons, Mike and Tom and Ed, and their wives and children. She didn’t get to see them often, which explains her burst of happiness, her blue eyes sparkling and wide smile, as she greeted them, saying, “Yee, Yee, Yee,” a joyful salutation that was hers alone. I’d stand close beside her, curious and a shy, but still part of the greeting party. I considered this event my open house, too.
The crisp and clean-smelling December air lingered on the coats and scarves that I piled into a mountain on a chair, the important job that Uncle Bob had assigned to me. The house swelled with grown ups’ storytelling and laughter, which comes as a wonder and comfort to a child. I found solace in seeing my family at ease, laughing, their hardworking ways put aside for a night.
When my Aunt Ann and Uncle Dick came through the door with my five cousins, my heart exploded with joy. My cousins are my childhood siblings and they love me that way, too. I was the middle of the six-pack in the age group. Dressed in our Christmas finery, we girls sang and twirled our dresses while the boys ran around looking for trouble. We’d get a game of hide and seek going. The “children should be seen and not heard” rule was suspended for this night.
When the six-pack got too wild, Uncle Bob would call us into the kitchen to see “something special.” He set a two-foot tall motorized toy, the Spooky Kooky Whistling tree, on the floor and turned it on. It moved around in wide circles, its branch arms moving up and down, menacing-looking eyes moved up and down, and a mouth that opened in a red grin. I was afraid of it. My cousins weren’t afraid of anything.
Next Uncle Bob showed everyone Rosko the toy bartender that poured pretend martinis and smoke came out of his ears when he drank his own brew, after which Uncle Bob would say, “Isn’t’ that clever?” And we agreed that it was.
He would round out the night by playing piano for us. We would name a song and he could play it, beautifully, magically, and to perfection.
And it was upon this happiness and joy of this magical night that I would finally rest my head and wonder about the love of the Christmas season, what Santa might bring me, and of that little baby Jesus asleep on the hay.
It’s these kinds of traditions that make my heart swell, the kind that I want to hand down to my granddaughter, my little Violet.
I have a dancing cowboy Santa, a gift from my Uncle Bob, that I bring out every year for the holidays, and a toy train runs on a small track under my Christmas tree, just to enchant the little ones, myself included.