Apparently My House is the Island of Misfit Toys. Just Don’t Send Me Any Creepy Jack-in-the-Boxes.
If you celebrate Christmas, you probably fall into one of two categories:
1. Those who honor family tradition, cooking the same meals, drinking the same drinks, playing the same love-worn Harry Connick Jr. Christmas album year after year, and taking comfort in the thought that while everything else changes — people grow old, babies get born, the ovens are stainless, not avocado, and presents arrived pre-wrapped at the front door — these other things, the ones we can control, will stay the same.
2. Those who forego tradition and family gatherings to sip mai tais on a tropical island somewhere and forget that the world even exists.
Me? I’d say I actually fall somewhere between the two extremes. When I was younger, my family did the whole gathering thing. We baked, played with cousins, sang carols, annoyed each other in that hate-you-yet-love-you way families do… the works.
Then it fell apart.
And I started moving.
And my sister started moving.
And we eventually came to learn that while some people really can go home again, it becomes a little impossible when home no longer exists.
When most of your belongings were sold while you were away.
When someone else is living in your room.
Sliding down your stairs.
Playing your sheet music like it’s theirs.
And we realized that traditions can break — will break — if the people you counted on to keep them going are no longer on speaking terms.
Then I met Justin. The first year he invited me to his family’s Christmas gathering, I felt all crumpled. Broken. Out of place. How come they could hold it together? How could they be so happy? Every year 40+ people, related by blood or by choice, all gather in a single house to eat Grandma’s famous lasagna, play a detested (yet loved) family trivia game, watch the children take turns opening gifts one-by-one, exchange white elephant gifts and laugh, once again, when the 20-year-old cousin tries to grab the one with the beer, Mom shakes the shake weight, and Grandpa wins the coveted gift card to Omaha Steaks.
Sure, there’s gossip. There’s bickering. There’s family tension. But, in all of its stagnant predictability, it’s all kinds of wonderful.
So I started to love it — to look forward to hanging out with the “outlaw” aunts who speak my language, to see how many cousin’s names I could remember, and to absorb through the pores of my skin whatever the stuff is — egg whites, perhaps? — that makes his family stick.
But sometimes we don’t go. Whether we can’t afford the tickets one year, can’t muster the energy for holiday travel another, or “accidentally” book a trip to Hawaii instead, some years we just don’t go.
And inevitably, we miss them.
I miss them.
Family via osmosis, not marriage.
But, for the years we’re not there, we’ve started our own tradition of sorts, maybe in honor of my own crumpled history. We invite all of the misfit toys — those who can’t travel or have nowhere to go or just haven’t gone yet — to our house for a little dinner. Only this year, it turned into a big dinner, where nothing was traditional: The turkey was smoked, the lasagna was vegetarian, the potatoes were au gratin, and the stuffing was German. There were meatballs. And hummus. And peach something-or-others. And white chocolate cheesecake. And mulled cider spiked with Southern Comfort.
And a new kind of family.
Not one we were born into or chose through marriage, but one we made on-the-fly, built purely from us leftovers who somehow managed to come together to make something worthwhile.
So, thanks to our motley crew of misfits on Christmas Eve and my friend Alaina for inviting us to her family dinner on Christmas, it felt, strangely enough, like ours.