Growing up in the East End of Xenia while we still had segregated schools the two main venues for Christmas activities were East High and the churches. We, of course, went to Zion Baptist Church on East Main Street. I have already written about how my father and I were, for years, responsible—or more accurately he was responsible and I was his aide—decorating the basement of the church for the Sunday School kids. He served as Superintendent of the Sunday School for years. (I wonder why they call it superintendent when there is no principal? Alliteration I suppose). Anyway, when I was about 12 and firmly ensconced in the junior choir despite not being able to sing a lick, our ambitious choir director Zelda Booth, decided that we were going to perform Handel’s Messiah at the Christmas Concert.
I had never heard the Messiah sung before and was singularly unimpressed, despite her build-up of how the wonderful piece the piece is, including its history, during our rehearsal. We learned it in parts and I did not think it was all that. As we got closer to the day, however, and the parts came together I began to see what all of the hubbub was about. It still stirs me to this day to hear it sung and I am annoyed when people do not know the history of the fabulous composition enough to stand up when they hear it. But then, ignorance of any kind annoys me. Although I am not one of those academic dinosaurs who insist that anything worth knowing was in existence in the 19th century and, therefore, the university canon should not include anything more modern, and certainly should not include anything that is not western in origin, I do think there is a certain basic knowledge base that all people should have. Standing up during the Messiah, actually RSVPing when requested to do so and understanding the difference between the contraction you’re and the possessive your, should be at least the beginning of cultural literacy. But I digress; I will write a post on cultural literacy later.
Besides singing in the choir and the Sunday School Christmas Party and the classroom parties and pageants at school as we got older some of my friends and peers began to have Christmas parties. Christmas parties make great sense in my opinion, the house is clean and decorated and you are going to be cooking anyway. My mother did not share my view and I was not allowed to have but one Christmas party.
That took place when I was 14 and featured, besides Christmas cookies, a newfangled dish called pizza. My parents were not about to buy pizza from IT Pizza for my friends, nope we were to make our own with a kit, I believe it was Chef Boyardee. The kit contained a flour mix you had to add water to in order to make dough and then roll it out into the basic shape of a pizza. There was a small can of sauce for you to slather on and some Parmesan cheese in a packet to sprinkle on that. If you wanted anything else, pepperoni, sausage, onions, you had to provide those yourself. My parents sprung for pepperoni—which was not sliced, but a little log looking thing, for the pizzas.
Food was only part of the negotiation. I wanted them to stay upstairs while I had my party and they were not too fond of that idea. We finally negotiated a deal in which they would have the right to make frequent, unannounced trips down the stairs to “check” on us. I was not too unhappy with this compromise since I knew the stair creaks by heart and knew I would have some warning before they appeared to separate the smooching couples and turn a few lights back on.
Our teenage parties consisted of three things, eating, dancing and kissing. One of my friends, Carl W. was an only child and had frequent parties since his parents basically let him do anything he wanted to do. He had a large closet in his family room and it became the best make-out spot in the East End. Frequently teenagers were so crammed into that closet that you could not get out if you wanted to. One of the unfortunate consequences was that it got quite hot in there and my friends who straightened their hair often found it had “gone home” or gotten nappy due to the heat and sweating in the closet. Most of us were willing to risk it for the fun of illicit kissing and my hair, being good, did not do that anyway. But I digress.
I did not have a closet, but I was able to turn down a lot of the lights while my parents were upstairs and the pizzas turned out well, so my first, and only Christmas party as a teenager was a howling success.
When we were a young married couple we ran into the dilemma of wanting to spend time at Christmas with our friends, but having a child that we needed to get to bed at a decent hour on Christmas Eve. That meant we either had to follow tradition and drag him along to Christmas parties and throw him on the bed with all of the other toddlers sleeping while their parents partied, or entertain folks ourselves.
We opted for the latter and began a tradition when my son Michael was 4 ( that would be 39 years ago) that continues to this day—the Christmas Eve Open House.
It is great fun, over the years we have gone from couples with small children who would find their own fun while we played board games, gossiped, went down memory lane about Christmas’s past, to couples, or sometimes now singles due to divorce or death, whose grandchildren get together at the Christmas Eve function too and exchange memories and play games and gossip.
Our first parties were at 883 Tremont Rd, our first house which we bought from my mother for the grand sum of what she owed which was $8,000. A charming small cottage we outgrew when Nikki came along. We lived for a few years out by the high school at 267 Helen Ave, a nice, but boring house and then moved here on Wilberforce, Switch in 1982. When Nikki got to be about 16 I tried to stop the Christmas Eve Open House figuring it was begun because we had a kid and wanted him home on Christmas Eve, but now with Mike grown and on his own and Chris home from college but running around to see friends, we only had Nikki at home and she was certainly old enough to go out on Christmas Eve if she liked.
The children acted like I had suggested killing the family pet and roasting him for Christmas dinner when I suggested that perhaps it was time to discontinue the Christmas Eve festivities. So, the tradition continues. I have also tried to alter the menu from time to time, no go there either. If there is so much as one type of cookie missing there is grumbling. On Christmas Eve we never know who will show up and always hope two things; 1) that someone does show up and 2) that we have enough food for whoever does show up. Some of our friends who no longer live here show up unannounced. Frequently friends bring other friends or family members some of whom we know some of whom we do not. It is always fun and always interesting and we have never run out of food yet, although we have come close.
One year my nephew who was a student at MIT brought a classmate home with him, the young man was from Bulgaria. So, you never know who might be here. You can generally count on certain folks, who have never missed bless them. One year we had 15 inches of snow and I was sure we would be eating the meatballs, bbqed small sausages, veggies and dip, salsa and dip, Christmas cookie assortment and Wayne’s famous rum cake all on our own. Not to mention the egg nog and adult beverages. But, as the moon rose and the snow began to glitter from the cold, bless their souls ,they came trooping up between the high banks of snow on the path and the Christmas Eve tradition was once again observed. Some years we have maybe twelve people, some years it is closer to thirty, you never know.
This year I have pulled out some old pictures for us to look at and laugh about. The men in afros, the women in mini dresses, we were to coin a phrase, a hot mess!
How long will the Christmas Eve party go on? I am pretty confident that when we get too old, or too feeble or too dead to continue it one of the kids will pick it up.
To borrow a phrase from Dr. Seuss, “Christmas Eve Open House will always be, just as long as we have we.”
Merry Christmas to everyone! Hope yours is safe, fun, full of food, family, friends and frolic.