Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Home for the Holidays

Clutching luggage in each hand, one bag balanced on the  very edge of your shoulder, you kick the door with the toe of your boot. Thunk thunk thunk. A distant patter of footsteps, someone hurrying to greet you. The knob creaks and turns, and then the door swings up, suffusing the winter night with warm air and yellow light. It slants across the law, a distended rectangle reaching out to welcome you home. 

Panting, you heave your burdens--duffle and gift bags--over the threshold. As the chill ebbs from your limbs, you breathe hellos and how are yous, fielding hugs and backslaps. A bundle of fur bumps past your shins--the dog rushing in before you. His head low and his tail beating, he innocently displays all the excitement you feel as you let your luggage fall to the foyer floor. Your shoulders ache from the relieved weight as you think "I'll worry about those later." For now, you are home. 

This year, we spent Christmas in Virginia with Mark's family: the Hobbs and the Richardsons.

Every family has its own unique holiday traditions, but Mark's family always ensures that a few of my own family's traditions are observed. Every year, without fail, my own mom made sausage and cheese balls. After opening our gifts, she would pull trays of sausage-cheese balls, crumbly and warm, from the oven. Crispy and brown, they were always too warm to touch, but we grabbed them anyway, bouncing them around on our palms before dropping them onto a small plate. Too good to wait. My sister, father, and I would wolf them down, pausing only to douse them with Tabasco sauce. (Some families are wine connoisseurs. The Black family are hot sauce snobs.)

The first year that I spent Christmas with Marks, I passingly mentioned that I would miss Mom's sausage-cheese ball breakfast. To my surprise, I awoke the next morning to their familiar smell and found a small plate sat before me, complete with a side of Tabasco.

It's the little things that let you know you are loved.

For me, Christmas can be described through its various tastes and smells.

Heady cinnamon. The buttery, velvety softness of chocolate-peanut-butter fudge. The tartness of cranberry. Sweet boiled custard, smooth and thick on your tongue, like melted ice cream. Juicy ham, spiced with brown sugar. The creamy whirl of mashed potatoes, drizzled with salty ham gravy.

The day after Christmas, Mark's maternal grandmother hosts a Maryland-style holiday dinner, and her dining room swells with family. Having lived in Baltimore before relocating to Virginia, Gram whips together a seafood feat that makes everyone's mouth water. Steamy shrimp, fried oysters, and lumpy crabcakes whose "one per person" rule would test a saint's willpower. Marylanders are as proud about their crab and seafood as Carolinians are of their BBQ or Georgians of their fried chicken. The pride is well-deserved.

Eating seafood at Christmas surprised me the first time I ever encountered it. Being from the Deep South, I associated tinsel with casserole, Santa Claus with chicken and ham. But after having been a member of Mark's family for three holiday seasons, this tradition now feels just that: traditional. It simply wouldn't be a proper Virginia Christmas without shrimp.

Recently, I encountered an interview article of the ever-vivacious and cherry-lipped Taylor Swift in which she remarked that some of us love to give gifts and some of us love to receive gifts. I definitely fall into the former category. I honestly derive as much or possibly even more joy from selecting paper, ribbon, and trimmings than I do from unwrapping my own presents.

However, this year, I received an unexpected gift that upended my giving preference. On Christmas Eve, my iPhone pinged with a text message: a video file of my father reading The Night before Christmas. As a little girl, I would snuggle on my parents' bed with my sister (along with a stuffed animal and a kitten or two) to listen to him read the familiar poem. Even though my sister now has children of her own and I'm married and living hours away--when we're all together for the holiday, we still curl up like little girls, ready to be read to.

It's funny how something as simple as hearing your dad's voice can make you feel both gut-wrenchingly homesick and content to your very core.Such is the magic of the holidays, I suppose.

What are some of your favorite Christmas traditions?
How did you and yours celebrate? 

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