Here we are, at Christmas Eve, and the end of the Virtual Advent Tour sponsored by sprite. She asked me if I would like to write the post for today, since I've done it for a couple of years, and I'm more than pleased to do it.
Until I was about 6 years old, we lived out of town, away from the rest of our extended family. My parents always had plenty of friends, so it wasn't like we were never around other people, but it was quite a shock to me when we moved back to the town where both of my parents had grown up, and all of a sudden I had tons of relatives who knew all about me, and I was just learning about their existence!
My father was part of a family that had four children: himself, his sisters Mary Agnes and Helen, and his youngest brother John. When he was about 13, his father was killed by a train, and the kids were split up to live with relatives - my dad and my Aunt Mary went to live with one set of grandparents, and Aunt Helen and Uncle John went to live with their mother and her parents. From what I was able to gather, they never spent a whole lot of time together as a family after that, and my father and my Aunt Mary were very close to each other as a result.
Aunt Mary married a wonderful guy from a really large Polish family, and they had four sons - the three older boys were in between the ages of my sisters and me, and the youngest boy was two years younger than I am. Aunt Mary's birthday was Christmas Eve, and of course, that was when her husband Uncle Eddie's family had their big Christmas celebration. So from the time I was pretty young, we always went to their house on Christmas Eve.
And oh, was it something! Uncle Eddie's family would be there, and they were such a fun group of people - they loved singing, dancing, and just laughing together. They treated us like family as well, and walking into Aunt Mary's house on Christmas Eve was like walking into a family reunion of people who had longed to see you for years (even though it was always just a year since we'd last seen them).
And the food - homemade by Uncle Eddie, all of the pierogies, cabbage rolls, breads, and sweets, etc. that you could imagine. Walking into the house, the smells alone made your mouth water, and even if you had just eaten dinner an hour ago, Uncle Eddie made you a plate, and no matter how full you were, you devoured every bite and it tasted better than anything you could ever remember eating!
But wait - then there was birthday cake! Always a bakery cake (I don't think Uncle Eddie ever tried to make a cake for her, and the boys were typical boys of the time and likely couldn't even boil water). Everyone - and there were usually at least about 40 people crammed into their small kitchen around the table - would sing "Happy Birthday," and we'd all have some cake. Then everyone would move into the living room, admire their tree, and Aunt Mary would have small gifts for each person.
At the time, I thought this was just the best - it was *her* birthday, and we were the ones who received gifts! It was never anything big, but it was a package to unwrap and take home, and frankly that was as exciting as anything else.
I think of Aunt Mary and her family every Christmas Eve, and especially remember that it's her birthday. She and Uncle Eddie both passed away years ago. We never really kept in touch with our cousins, nor did they make an effort on their part. When I was in college, I heard through a mutual acquaintance that the eldest had moved somewhere in the South to start over after kicking a drug habit; the next kid was in prison for drug dealing and theft; the third son had married, had a couple of kids and moved to Utah once he came out of rehab for alcoholism; and the youngest was married and working in the coal mine. I am sorry to say that at this point, I know nothing about any of them, or even if they are still alive, and that's really too bad, because I know that would make my Aunt Mary sad to know.
But even now, my sisters and I still talk about "Christmas Eve at Aunt Mary's" and how much fun it was, and who would always be there, the food, the singing, the polkas, and the warm embrace of love to anyone and everyone who walked through the door. They were like the rest of the family - hardly any money, making it through things as well as they could, and wanting the best for their kids. Outsiders looking in probably felt sorry for them, since they never had a nice house, or a fancy car, and because their kids had so many troubles as they got older.
But Christmas Eve at Aunt Mary's was the highlight of the year. And now I realize that it was because of the feeling of family and belonging, and unconditional love just because you existed. Not the gifts, not the food, but the people, the excitement and huge greetings you received when you opened the door and crossed the threshold. I've never experienced anything like it since, and that could be just my imagination and my memory telling me so, but I'm not convinced that is the case.
My wish for all of us this Christmas Eve is that we all have at least one small part of this feeling for the holiday. Whether you are with the family of origin, or the family you have created; with your friends, or your roommates, or even on your own with some furry or other pet companions. I hope that you will have one second of the feeling of being loved, being special, being welcome. Christmas should be that as much as anything else.
Merry Christmas to you and yours.
And Happy Birthday, Aunt Mary.