As Ralphie proclaims in A Christmas Story, Christmas Eve was the highlight of the kid year for me. I’d wait all day long on December 24, for my mother to finally announce that it was time for us to pile into the car for our annual pilgrimage to Grandma’s tiny house to take part in the Ulrich family Christmas celebration. I was always anxious on the way over because I knew that only those who arrived early enough would be able to claim one of the few coveted seats in the living room. My uncles would bring in all of the dining chairs and a few folding pieces to augment the sparse number of seats that were normally there. It would be every man woman and child for himself to stake out a claim to a place for resting one’s posterior.
My mother was always a safe driver which I greatly appreciated, but on that night I wanted her to drive our Ford like a crazed racer. Sadly, she always stayed the course of responsible navigating and so I fairly wriggled myself into a frenzy of anticipation as we moved through the streets of southeast Houston toward the area just east of downtown where my grandmother lived. I would tick off the landmarks as we inched closer and closer, hoping that we would be lucky enough to beat the crowd.
Of course Mama new exactly what she was doing and invariably I would see that we were among the first guests to arrive. With a sigh of relief I’d note that I had my pick of great seats as my Grandma Ulrich padded across the room to greet us. She was as short and round as Mrs. Santa Claus, and the the graying braid of her hair fell down along her back, leaving her wrinkled round face to radiate a beautiful smile at us. She always wore the same shapeless cotton dresses that had grown faded and soft from being laundered hundreds of times. If it was cold she wore a woolen beanie on her head and warmed her feet in fleece-lined slippers. If it was a warm Houston Christmas, which was more often than not, her feet would be bare.
Grandma Ulrich spoke only a few phrases in English. Otherwise her communication with her children was in Slovak, a language foreign to all of us grandchildren. She had come to the United States from Trencin about 1913, and rumor has it that she had actually spoken some English at an earlier time, but by the 1950s and 1960s when I was still a youngster she had seemingly lost all ability to communicate in English and she was virtually a hermit in her home. She was an enigma to me, but somehow I knew that she understood who we were and she communicated her love with smiles and body language and by referring to each of us as “pretty girl” or “pretty boy.”
On Christmas Eve there would always be a small tree inside the living room that my uncles had purchased and decorated. Theirs was a valiant effort of rather ugly plastic ornament and lights made to look a bit more festive with silver icicles. In later years the real tree would be replaced with an aluminum one that no longer required much more effort than turning on a light that reflected various colors onto the metallic limbs.
The room was always filled with the aroma of fresh citrus and apples piled into huge enamel bowls along with nuts of every variety. This was my Grandma’s splurge, a feast of plenty that was not available during ordinary times. The dining table in the next room was festooned with the biggest Whitman’s Sampler that I had ever seen and fresh loaves of bread. Best of all, my grandmother would play her role as hostess by bringing every man, woman and child a cup of the coffee that she brewed in a big white enamel pot. The children’s version was heavily diluted with generous scoops of sugar and a mixture of one third cup of milk. I suppose that was my first exposure to a kind of latte.
After surveying the scene and placing Grandma’s gifts under the tree we would find our seats and pray that we would have no reason to leave them during the proceedings. Once the entire crowd had arrived those places to rest became coveted territory and even simply standing to give someone a hug might result in the loss of a resting place. The rules were unwritten, but everyone understood how they worked. It was an equal opportunity contest that disregarded age and manners.
Ours was a raucous affair with the loudest voices dominating the conversations. Our was perhaps the original Griswold family Christmas, with a cast of characters fit for our own movie. Since my manner of speaking was rather quiet I tended to simply listen to my aunts and uncles holding court. My grandmother usually sat in a chair in the corner with her feet dangling but not quite touching the floor. Hers was the only reserved spot in the place, her throne from whence she watched the kingdom of children and grandchildren and even great grandchildren that she had helped to create. Like most mothers she delighted in having the whole crew under her roof.
When the moment for presenting gifts to her arrived, everyone watched the expression on her face to determine whose present she appeared to like best. The offerings were usually new dress and night gowns along with more slippers to warm her feet. Sometimes there were flowers or sweets as well. She would smile and laugh and make each of us feel her appreciation. Then she would promptly take the gifts to her bedroom, rarely to be seen again.
The highlight of the evening came when my uncles announced the drawing of envelopes containing money prizes that might have anywhere from one to one hundred dollars inside. There seemed to be lucky family members who selected the biggest prizes year after year and those of us who tucked away our one dollar bonuses in the hopes that maybe next year we would get the big one.
Eventually us kids released our seats to weary grownups and ended the party outside playing games and watching the celebrations at nearby homes. Mama would end our ecstasy by reminding us that we had to get home before midnight or Santa Claus might pass by our house. We’d reluctantly leave our cousins behind with another fabulous Christmas Eve at Grandma’s house already becoming a fond memory.
When I think of how simple those times were, I am amazed at how much we enjoyed them. I suppose that what was really happening inside that tiny little house was the outpouring of love that we felt from our grandmother, our aunts and uncles and our cousins. Of course times change. The family grew and grew. My Grandma Ulrich died. My aunts and uncles left this earth one by one. We cousins developed new traditions with our own families. Now we rarely see each other unless it is for a wedding or a funeral. We speak longingly of those Christmas Eves and promise again and again that we will do a better job of getting together. Somehow life pulls us in so many directions that it just never happens, but each of us recalls the magic of those nights before Christmas. We think of our grandmother walking across the room with mugs of coffee in her hands as she sweetly smiles and calls us “pretty boys and girls.” No gift we have received since then is as precious as that memory.
Now I hang one of my grandmother’s plastic ornaments on my tree each year. It’s a silver angel that reminds me of Grandma’s sweetness. On Christmas day I fill one of her enamel bowls with apples and oranges and nuts. I still drink my coffee with lots of milk and sugar and see my round little grandmother walking toward me in welcome. These visions are always the very best gift I might receive.