I was reading a blog the other day by an Englishman who moved to Australia when he was young. Australia’s seasons are directly opposite ours. Christmas falls in the middle of summer. He said there were lots of people who migrated from England to Australia at that time, and it was laughable to watch them try to keep their Christmas traditions. Plum pudding and duck was not the greatest way to eat in 95 degree temps. Australians string a few Christmas lights on the BBQ pit, eat a light lunch and then head for the beach. The Englishmen sweated and filled their bellies and were miserable heading to the beach afterwards. There are some things that are hard to change, and Christmas traditions are one.
My family always celebrated Christmas on Christmas Eve. My Dad put off his Christmas shopping until Christmas Eve, so he always running around getting things for us right up to the time we unwrapped gifts. Momma made gumbo for dinner. Now, much like the English, you have to realize that often it is 85 degrees at Christmas down here. The windows and doors might be open or the AC turned on because we are all sweating like crazy trying to celebrate the winter holiday in summer conditions. By God, we were going to wear sweaters and winter clothes – regardless of how hot it was. So, gumbo was not always the most appropriate Christmas Eve dish, but it’s what we always had.
My Dad’s parents opened gifts with us on the afternoon of Christmas Eve. He was an only child, so that made the most sense, and for many years, we lived in their backyard. Occasionally, some of the Graves cousins would come over with their kids, and we’d have a big free-for-all. After we opened gifts, the Open House party would begin. In fact, more than once, the Open House guests arrived before we were done unwrapping gifts. Booze, food and people would start to fill the house early in the evening. We never sent invites, but the same people would drop by year after year. As we got older, the guest list gew to include our friends, and the party got bigger and bigger. The party went on until the wee hours of the morning and usually included Daddy making prank calls on some LSU greats like Dale Brown, Charlie Mac or somebody else he worked with. The party always … always ended with Momma making biscuits for breakfast.
By the time I got old enough to know the truth about the magic that happens on Christmas Eve, I began to look forward to those Open House parties. Momma and Daddy said the first one happened one Christmas Eve after they had gone to bed. They heard a knock at the door, and a couple Daddy knew from work was standing there. They stayed up and drank and talked until the wee hours of the morning. They had so much fun that they told other people to stop by the next year. And, stop by they did. Christmas Eve is thought of as family time, but there are so many people that don’t have places to go, and an impromptu informal party fits the bill. The party went on consistently for about 10 years. It grew by leaps and bounds when kids our age started coming and hanging out. I had moved away by 1984, but it was THE place I’d meet up with old friends when I’d come home.
In 1989, there was a hard freeze in these parts, and, unlike places up north, Southern Louisiana pipes aren’t insulated. The party was ON regardless, and there was no water … read no toilets. One tree was designated the men’s room and another tree on the other side of the yard was for the women. But, traditions and parties die hard here. A little inconvenience like toilets was not going to stop the frivolity. Our little kitchen was the place to be. In my brother’s “jock” years, young men lined the cabinets, holding their cups of magic and teasing me and my sister and our friends. It was the one place where I got to hang out with my parent’s friends from work that I had heard about over the years. I felt like it was a window into the grown-up world before I got there myself.
Our Christmas Day was pretty non-existent except for the hangovers once Santa quit stopping by. A big meal didn’t appeal to anyone, and Christmas day lunch was usually something small but maybe a little festive. Our holiday was Christmas Eve. My parents had to have been exhausted, especially in the years when Santa was still in business. Momma always took down the tree the day after Christmas. I think she was glad it was over. I was stunned when I moved away, and people left their trees up beyond the New Year’s holiday.
Christmas Eve’s are more quiet now for us. If you don’t have kids at Christmas, you are sort of a tag-a-long and dependent on the hospitality of friends and family. I guess that’s why the Christmas Even party was such a success for my parents. My parents and I have spent many Christmas’s together. I treated them to a Christmas train ride on the City of New Orleans one Christmas. They boarded in New Orleans and met us in Union Station in Chicago. We’ve spent Christmas in the mountains in Tennessee at a State Park lodge. Many times the three of us have celebrated a really quiet Christmas Eve on the dock on Graveyard Island in Pierre Part LA. It’s where I am today. Just a couple of years ago, they came up to Memphis, and we ate at the Paula Deen buffet at a Tunica casino. We went on a Christmas Riverboat cruise to see the bonfires on the levee down here right after my first divorce. Last year, we drove to the levee to see the Christmas bonfires before they were lit. This year, we are going to party once again. My friends Jo Ann and Robbie, my sister and her husband and my parents and I are going to one of the bonfire parties to experience it first-hand.
If y’all are looking for something to do tonight, come on with us to Lutcher. It’s going to be cold, but you’ll have a fire to warm you, and I know there will be plenty of food. Merry Christmas y’all … and don’t forget those who have nothing to do on Christmas Eve. They might just like to stop by. And, if you want to know more about the bonfire tradition, click here. I wrote about it last year.