No matter what seemed to occur during the Christmas season for my family in the tender years, nothing could truly deter the amazement of Christmas Eve at my Aunt Virginia’s. Whether it had been a nuclear war, zombie holocaust, or alien invasion, a simple trip to my Aunt Virginia’s on Christmas eve would cure all ills. No specific year really stands out to me through the time fog, but simply a collage of nostalgia and wonderful memories.
The setting at Christmas eve was always at my Aunt Virginia’s and Uncle Steve’s home in Little Canada, Minnesota. It was a little rambler with dark siding and long driveway. It always seemed inexplicably large and layered when were finally inside of it. If I wandered around it today, I would be awestruck by how small it was, and more so by how many people we managed to jam in there that hallowed eve. I remember always driving there with my family and even though it was only about ten minutes away, the drive would seem endless like we had taken a wrong turn and we were cutting across the arctic circle for posterity’s sake.
My aunt Virginia was a short maniac of a woman who, if you misspoke or said something too quietly in front of her would turn abruptly to you and say in an almost primal grunt “What?!”. Each year, she would mix some sort of dire cocktail usually a Strawberry Daiquiri three fourths alcohol and one fourth watery mix. When my sister had reached the wondrous age of 17, my Aunt Virginia threw some glasses her way stating that she would like the diabolical punch and that she was plenty old enough. Such was the typical practice for anyone in Virginia’s proximity.
My Uncle Steve did not try to fill us with inebriating toxins, but instead would corner us with ridiculous math questions and logic questions the moment we walked in the door. At the time, and only at that time, math was in my considerable control and I was in the cherished advanced math class at my middle school. I remember walking in the door on Christmas Eve and being immediately cornered by my Uncle Steve in the doorway.
My Uncle Steve was professor of education at the University of Minnesota, and because of his pronounced physical stature and sharp thick rimmed glasses could have easily been a famous 50’s Hollywood actor. The guy had charisma to say the least. I remember one of the question to this day “what three numbers added together equal the same as when they are multiplied together?”. Seeing this imposing but extremely friendly professor as seldom as I did I would be awestruck. He would wait patiently as I raked my mind looking at my parents for support but they were no help, being as clueless as I was presently. He would then smile and said “1, 2, 3! Can you believe it?”.
The house on the inside would be decorated in the typical Christmas fashion with a luminous tree, garland on the shelves, and random Santa statues everywhere. The Christmas decorations do stand out to me within my memory, but not nearly as much as the cowboy doors that accentuated the hallway. At the entrance to the hallway to reach the bathroom there was a pair of black cowboy doors hanging in the middle of space, just like they had been ripped out of the entrance to a saloon in Deadwood.
These doors were the constant scene of non-traumatic head injuries, smashes, and general childhood intrigue. Moreover beyond the wonder they inspired, they stopped this high traffic area and movement hub from being a reckless dash for us children. Courtesy a few smacks to the cranium.
For entertainment at Christmas Eve normally my cousins and us would be content wrestling and beating each other up. Sometimes after a particular injury which would cause the floor or furniture shake enough to attract an angry screaming adult, usually my Aunt Virginia, we would be forced to explore the video cassette inventory they had. My Uncle being a professor and my Aunt also being a learned woman, the vast amount of kid friendly video’s at their house on Christmas Eve would be very sparse.
We would be left with films like “Beethoven Upstairs” and “Patton” or a huge galaxy of black and white movies that because of their completely alien color scheme would be an immediate veto. After that we would have a whole collection of national geographic or nature specials that would seldom contain anything cool like sharks, dinosaurs, or flesh eating mammals. Sometimes we would luck out and get a television with cable, but usually not, because some antisocial adult would claim it the moment they walked in the door.
Last but not least in the Christmas Eve memory inventory would be the food they prepared on the blessed evening. Braciole would be the chief dish, a rolled up Italian meat thing that would be simmered in its own juices and stuffed with green olives and other good things. I remember watching my Uncle Steve helping himself to small portions with his fingertips, then nodding his head in satisfaction. Gibanica would be served along with it which is a Serbian cheese dish which consisted of just cheese pretty much. The stuff was good enough to eat out of a dumpster somewhere.
Sadly, like all good traditions this one ended rather abruptly. My Uncle Steve suffered a massive heart attack and passed away, and my Aunt Virginia was forced to sell her house with the cowboy doors. My parents took on the Christmas Eve tradition and their celebrations easily rivals that of my Uncle Steve’s and Aunt Virginia’s. Now as things come and go we rely even more on this tradition to calm us in these times of uncertainty. The beauty of family, and that love that outlasts even memory.