When I was growing up, all of our extended family lived east of the Mississippi and we didn’t. So my parents created traditions for the six of us. Christmas Eve was the big night for the O’Connors. We have lots of old grainy home movies of the Christmas Eve performances of everyone…one-by-one hanging stockings at the living room fireplace and mugging for the movie camera, except my mom. I think she was always just tired and wanted us kids in bed so she could put out all the presents and grab a few hours of sleep before we woke up at 5:30 to see what Santa had left for us.
Christmas Eve dinner was the same for decades: roast beef tenderloin, twice baked potatoes with cheddar cheese and bacon and butter, spinach souffle (I miss spinach souffle) and an orange jello/sherbert thing that only my dad liked and we finally got my mom to stop making it a year or two after he died. Did we have dessert? Mud pie maybe? I can’t remember.
We went to Mass on Christmas Eve so that we didn’t have to do anything on Christmas Day. The year I was 6, I was the Littlest Angel for the St. Elizabeth’s Midnight Mass. I wore my First Communion dress and I carried the Baby Jesus up to the creche on the altar on a little satin pillow. Few people who knew me then or know me now would label me an angel but I have always been interested in being the center of attention.
My dad liked to mix it up on Christmas Eve and go to a different church depending on his mood and the Christmas Vigil mass time. Sometimes we went to St. Michael’s downtown because it was a little grittier and I think reminded him of Christmas Eve mass when he was growing up during the Depression. Other times, we would go to the far tonier St. Mary’s Cathedral and later when we were all in our 20s, we went to our parish church Holy Rosary pretty consistently.
Twenty years ago, my siblings and I were all young adults, my boyfriend at the time was with us and we were going to Holy Rosary for mass and then back home for the feast. My parents had the habit of leaving for mass early so they could go to the rectory and personally deliver a large check to the priest to make up for their less than stellar weekly mass attendance. We all knew that is what they were doing so we never bothered to bring money for the collection.
Christmas Eve of 1991, my parents left and the five of us were to follow a bit later in another car. Before we left, I noticed that the oven was on but my mother had forgotten to put the roast in. Roll the eyes like a good 26-year-old know-it-all and throw the roast in before we hit the road to go to Mass on the other side of town. We arrived at church, found my parents and knelt down for a quick prayer. I finished, crossed myself, and leaned over to my mom, “I put the roast in the oven for you.” Duh, mom. She flipped a giggy, ACK! It only takes 45 minutes to cook!!! And she grabbed her purse and ran out of church. I spent the rest of the Mass praying that my mother wouldn’t die in a car accident on Christmas Eve because her smart-ass, never-roasted-anything-in-her-life daughter had come close to ruining the roast beast.
While my mom was gone, my father was one of the parishioners helping with the collection, which means he had a basket with a long handle and walked down one side of the church stopping at each row of pews for people to put their money in the collection basket. He got to our row and we all sat there looking at him knowing he and Mom had already given a sizable check to the priest. He stood there looking back at us and then he started shaking the basket so everyone could hear the change clinking around and saying, “oh c’mon it’s Christmas, you have to give something.” One of his greatest joys in life was embarrassing his children. And he succeeded, we were all embarrassed and scowling and hissing at him, “DAD! stopppp it!!” My dad really did amuse the hell out of himself.
I returned to praying for the safe return of my mother. Only a Catholic mother would drive all the way back to the ‘burbs, save the roast and then drive back to church. She sailed in, got right in line for Communion like nothing had happened, gathered up her family and went home. And I was able to exhale. Ahhh, good times.
We really did have the best Christmas Eves.
My mom died in October, 2008. That Christmas Portland had over a foot of snow which is disastrous here. There are very few snow plows. Portland is not a city equipped for 12-18 inches of snow that sticks around for a week. I am still not ready to go into the details of that Christmas Eve but I will tell you it ended with me, my brother John and sister Katie all lying on our backs and talking under the dining room table. Brigid, who was 9 at the time, stood by the table and said (and we could only see her legs), “You know my teacher is going to ask me what I did over vacation and I’m going to have to tell her something.”
Since my parents are gone, we have changed up Christmas Eve and this year it will be at my sister Molly’s house with friends and family and lasagnas and tortilla casseroles. I made a pumpkin lasagna yesterday, my first ever and I have a $130 worth of beef tenderloin ready to put in on Christmas Day.
December has a been a rough month for the U.S. and I pray for all the families who have lost loved ones this year. I am so very blessed. My good friend and ex-husband is sober and that is one of the greatest gifts he could ever give himself and his family. My sister-in-law (or whatever you call your brother-in-law’s sister) and her husband just had a healthy baby boy on the 22nd. My children are happy and healthy. My family will be together tonight except for Katie who will be in Denver but I think she will be having a white Christmas, so that’s a little consolation.
And finally I have my Deren, the most loving, patient, funny and ridiculous man I have ever known. As I said, I am blessed.
Best wishes to all of you for a warm and happy holiday and prayers for health and happiness in the New Year.