The distant shouting echoed in spurts giving it the sound of barking dogs. This would continue for several nights, the grownups arguing as they sat around the huge dining room table playing cards. I never understood why they played a game that made them so angry at each other.
The footsteps on the stairs grew louder now as my five-year-old brother Sammy, our five-year-old twin cousins Becky and Ben and I lay very still, our heads buried in pillows as we pretended to be asleep. The door opened slowly as Ben began imitating Grandpa’s snore. It was too late to throw something at him; they would know we were still awake. Within seconds, the door quietly closed and Sammy pounced on Ben. Becky and I jumped from our bed to separate them. Santa would think we were naughty and might not leave our presents under the tree tonight because of Ben and Sammy. Becky and I return to our beds, and the four of us lie still, worrying and hoping that if we fall asleep quickly Santa will know we are good and forget about what just happened.
It worked. Rushing down the stairs and into the living room at first light, nearly knocking each other over trying to be the first one down, we collide with the Christmas that somehow remains standing. There they are, mounds of gifts piled beneath the tree Grandpa decorated last night as he did each Christmas Eve. I can still see Gramps standing on the ladder setting the star above the seven-foot tall evergreen standing proudly in the enormous living room. In assembly line fashion, we are all passing him the lights, garland, ornaments and tinsel.
Now, without giving our gifts a second thought, we replace the ornaments that fell, bury the broken ones in the trash, and attempt to straighten the garland while pushing, shoving, and blaming each other for the mishap.
As we open our presents, we fill the living room with shrieks of delight, mounds of gift wrap, toys, games, and articles of clothing, arguing as usual over who got the best gifts. Once again, as she does every Christmas morning, Grandma comes rushing in to admonish us for being too loud and disturbing Grandpa, our fathers and uncles who are trying to sleep after an all night card game.
Mom and my aunts brought their favorite holiday dishes, but early this morning they all began helping to cook the remainder of the holiday meal, make the salads, and all of our favorite deserts. After Grandpa and the other men finish arguing over how to add the extensions, we all pitch in to help set the dining room table.
The holiday meal begins in the middle of the afternoon lasting for hours with friends and neighbors joining us. Grandpa always insists we taste everything before deciding not to eat it. The one meal that I will never forget contained something Ben and I used to play with–snails. I could not imagine anyone wanting to eat those slimy little creatures that we raced with our friends. Nevertheless, here they were sitting on my plate.
Grandpa stopped eating upon noticing that I had not picked up my fork, and so did everyone else around the table as all eyes focused on me. My tiny six-year-old body sitting in that huge chair suddenly became much smaller in anticipation of what was coming. Grandpa began, “Eat your dinner, Sara.” My turn, “But Grandpa, I can’t eat them, they are looking at me,” referring to the snail’s antennae which appeared to be tilted in my direction.
The laughter died down abruptly as Gramps shot everyone his shut-up-now-or-else look. Once again, Grandpa turned his gaze in my direction and said, “Pick up your fork and do this,” as he proceeded to stab one of the dangling, lifeless little creatures on his plate. Knowing I had no way out, I did as he said. His next command took all the courage I could muster because saying “no” to Grandpa was never an option. “Now remove it from the shell, close your eyes, put it in your mouth and eat.” When the ordeal was over, I had to admit, the snail tasted quite good but I only ate the one Gramps “suggested” I eat. I never played with snails again.
After desert, the women begin clearing the table so the men can once again begin the traditional all-night card game.
This is how I remember Christmas as a child. My parents, Sammy and I gather at Grandma and Grandpa’s house each year with my aunts, uncles, and a dozen or so cousins. We all arrive on Christmas Eve and stay until New Years Day. Sammy, Becky, Ben and I sleep together in one of the eight bedrooms, while the teenagers’ share two rooms-one for the girls, the other for the boys. The adults settle into the remaining bedrooms, and on folding beds and cots that mysteriously disappear each morning.
I loved the magic of the city lights, the crowds, the holiday shows they took us to see, the big Christmas tree that was even bigger than Grandpa’s was. There were visits with relatives we only saw once or twice a year and whose names we usually mixed up, the best snowball fights I ever had, eating treats until my stomach ached, and tons of kisses, hugs, and best of all, gifts.
As I look at the old Christmas photos with warm tears cascading down my cheeks, there is a mixture of happiness, sorrow, embarrassment, joy, and hilarity, but mostly love. I never knew who took that picture of me, face scrunched up and eyes tightly closed, placing the snail in my mouth. I can still taste it every time I see that photo, only now I refer to it as escargot.
When I sit at my own holiday table with family and friends, I fondly recall the one I sat at as a child. Mom, Dad, Grandma and Grandpa are gone now. Sammy, Becky, Ben and I have settled in different parts of the country. We call each other occasionally but rarely get to see one another. It is not just landmasses separating us. Marriages, children, jobs, new friends, new lifestyles, and all the things we embrace as part of our adult lives sending us in different directions and traveling paths that seldom ever cross again. But, each year Mom, Dad, Grandma, Grandpa, Sammy, Becky, Ben and I sit together at the holiday table once again–in my Christmas memories.