A fire house packed full of relatives and friends is a recipe for good memories, no matter how random things become!
For me it isn’t Christmas without my extended family: five siblings, thirty-two nieces and nephews, aunts, uncles, their children, their children’s children, and friends we’ve known for years. This year I’ll travel over a thousand miles to join in my family’s chaotic Christmas.
My family outgrew house parties almost forty years ago. Instead we rent a room in a small firehouse in a small town in upstate New York. We bring food and drink and gifts and music and crafts.
The firehouse has a fully equip kitchen, and a party room with basic tables and folding chairs, and a garage for the firetrucks. The paneled walls are decorated with original art from local artists, awards, and photos of notorious firefighters. Sometimes they decorate a Christmas tree for us, other years we pile the gifts next to the kids’ craft table.
Years ago my parents owned the house across the street. My mother, ever the joiner, helped plan the yearly firehouse carnival and even gave her two cents about building an addition onto the building. She insisted it must have a commercial kitchen.
Ironically this party room is the very space where we congregate today. Because the space is so big, we invite friends, guests, and orphans who are looking for a crazy holiday experience.
I’ve invited various dates over the years. One man was so overwhelmed by the intensity of the party that he pulled a chair into the corner and fell asleep. The next man was chided for staying awake, and a third was jokingly accused of eating all the cheese off the bean dip, which made him stick close to me for the rest of the party so I could grant him immunity from further embarrassment, which mostly worked.
This is no ordinary potluck. We don’t plan the menu; we eat whatever shows up. One summer we held a party and every person brought fried chicken. There wasn’t a drink, a potato chip, or a wisp of dessert. My uncle declared a Fried Chicken cooking contest. We came up with a point system, sampled all of the entries, and declared a winner.
My family doesn’t do reunions: we do holidays.
We arrive at the firehouse early to set up tables and cover them with the homemade tablecloths my mother sewed. These misshapen rectangles of varying patterns and colors resemble a patchwork quilt which is perfect for our imperfect plans. Mismatched cloth napkins are placed in front of metal folding chairs and we set the table for—however many are not celebrating with in-laws or on a beach somewhere or otherwise busy. This year we will have upwards of thirty.
The rule is that you must bring a fully cooked dish; unusual is expected; a new recipe is encouraged. There is always room to warm food in the two commercial ovens or carve meat on the metal island in the center of the kitchen as we stand around and entertain those who are still cooking.
My mother was right to have them build that kitchen.
In the dinning room, two tables are set up for appetizers, two for the main meal, and two more for dessert. Though the quantity changes for each party, last year there was half as many pies as there are people; no matter how you do the math, that’s a lot of dessert.
It takes all afternoon to set up, hang out, eat apps, hang out, eat dinner, hang out, have a gingerbread house creation contest, hang out, eat dessert, hang out some more, then exchange White Elephant gifts before we put everything away and erase our footprints.
If there hasn’t been an emergency where the siren howls and volunteer firefighters drive off in one of the two shiny red trucks, we sneak into the garage with the children. We don fireman hats and fireman coats and take photos while sitting in the trucks with our hands on the steering wheel, or hanging off the back, or smiling in front of the equipment walls. Trust me, this game never gets old.
A fire in this town is a tragedy, as it would be anywhere. But the firefighters know that when they return, they’ll be greeted with food and drink while we listen to their stories and offer kitchen towels to wipe the soot off their arms and faces.
Last year was the first time I have been home for Christmas in years, choosing Easter and summer visits as less expensive travel opportunities. I polished my ten second greeting, which is all you get with my family, and worked the room as I gave a kiss on the cheek, our standard greeting, to each person present.
Maybe being schooled in chaos better prepares us for the rigors and uncertainty of our see-saw lives. We’ve all learned how to remain both an individual and a part of the crowd at the same time. We’re not afraid to “show up” with food, stories, and sarcasm, knowing that the celebration is a little bit better with our attendance.
There might be sledding in the winter, an impromptu baseball game in the summer, or some random game of catch out in the parking lot. Sometimes we visit the ancient cemetery on the hill to lean against the tombstone of our adopted grandparents, Nana and Grandpa, who used to be a well-loved part of our crowd.
This family gathering is my idea of holiday cheer. Loud. Obnoxious. Playful. Inclusive. Unplanned. Fun. When I’m not able to be with my family, I miss the noise, the tradition, and the drama that only my family knows.
Nobody has explained to this group that White Elephant gifts are meant to be discarded after the party. My family saves their unwanted gifts, then regifts them at the same party the next year.
“It’s the chicken!”
There’s a rubber chicken that has been around for years, the ugliest plastic cookie jar that is in the shape of a large woman who doesn’t want to share, and something that looked like a cross between a pillow and a dog bed.
Each gift comes with insults from the room:
“Don’t trust the cookie jar owner.” “If you’re sent to the dog bed, consider yourself in the dog house.” “That fat mirror is an improvement.” “Don’t pick your nose when using finger paints.”
There are occasional gifts that are opened with glee, such as an old, dirty vest my brother no longer wanted. The twelve-year-old nephew who opened it, put it on immediately and refused to continue the game. He promised to wear it to school. And to church. And on a date with the girl he had a crush on.
“Wash it first?” we laughed in unison.
We laugh a lot during Christmas parties.
The upper tier of my family is at an age where health challenges linger, suggesting a future of dependence, medication, and earlier bedtimes. Once my mother—the matriarch—goes, likely the family will break into more manageable pieces and the decades of celebration at the firehouse will be over.
I’ll miss the absurdness of too much: food, family, friends, festivities. Perhaps I’ll be invited to a dinner where each guest gets one piece of meat and a boiled potato for dinner. Sure, I’ll be grateful for the invitation, but I’ll miss being where I belonged, with people whom I belonged to.
Before I start mourning the loss of what I still have, I need to figure out what I’ll bring for the White Elephant exchange this year. Although there are no official rules for what the gift should look like, I’m on the hunt for something that’s demoralizing, useless, and hideous.