Even though I’ve called Chicago “home” for nearly the last ten years, when it comes to the holidays, going home always means going back to Minnesota, where my parents and brother still reside (although no one still lives in White Bear Lake, the town where I grew up). At some point I imagine that will change, but for now celebrating Christmas in Minnesota follows a very familiar formula.
This year, I decided to take the Amtrak both ways between Chicago and Minneapolis. It was much cheaper than flying (only $134 roundtrip), the seats are far more comfortable (I can stretch my legs out all the way!) and I avoided the hassles of security lines and checking luggage (with Christmas presents, it’s unavoidable if I fly). On the downside, the trip was scheduled to be just over 8 hours but ended up being closer to 9.
I arrived in Minneapolis around 11:00 p.m. on the Wednesday night before Christmas. I spent Thursday doing some last minute Christmas shopping and then going to the Minnesota – South Dakota State basketball game with my dad. What should’ve been a blowout was instead horribly close, but the Gophers pulled it out! Ski-U-Mah! Much to our surprise, when we left the game just after 9, we found ourselves in the middle of blizzard-like conditions. Needless to say, the drive home was incredibly slow.
We awoke Christmas Eve to about 6 inches of new snow on the ground, breaking the Twin Cities’ record for total snowfall in the month of December! Luckily, my mom’s side of the family gathers for Christmas Eve dinner at my aunt’s house, which is just down the street from my dad. No driving in the snow for me! Dinner is now a pretty quick affair on Christmas Eve, although it didn’t used to be. Growing up, it was always at my grandpa’s house, with the younger kids eating in the basement, the adults in the dining room and my cousin Stephanie and I (the oldest cousins) eating at a card table in the living room with my grandpa. After dinner, we would sometimes sing Christmas carols or the cousins would gather in the basement to play games.
The last couple years have been a bit different, with dinner being a much briefer affair at my aunt’s house. Seating is a free-for-all, although we still tend to divide ourselves by age, with the older cousins sitting with our parents in the dining room and the younger cousins opting for the kitchen. The meal itself has barely changed since I was a kid, set up buffet-style with turkey, ham, mashed potatoes, cheesy potatoes, stuffing, a simple veggie dish, and my aunt Mary’s famous Jell-o pretzel salad. Now that I’m gluten-free, the stuffing, cheesy potatoes and pretzel salad were off-limits to me, but I brought a yummy sweet potato casserole to make up for it.
This year, instead of playing games, my almost two-year-old niece Evangeline was the main attraction after dinner, with all of cousins taking turns carrying her, giving her cookies and teaching her how to jump on the furniture. Next year, I am sure that nephew Gideon (just born in late November) will add to the fun!
I always spend Christmas Eve at my mom’s house so we can open presents together Christmas morning and this year was no different. When we were kids, my brother Marc and I used to wake up at the crack of down to open our stocking stuffers before dragging mom out of bed around 7:00. As teenagers, this tradition evolved to not just waking her up, but doing so by blasting “Grandma Got Runover by a Reindeer.” Eventually our song of choice became “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” and we continued with that until Marc got married a few years ago.
This year, I was up by 7:00 as usual, but Marc and his family didn’t make it over until around 9:00. While we usually take turns opening presents, Evangeline is a bit too young for that concept so she opened about 5 or 6 presents before getting bored and letting the rest of us take our turns. Gift opening was followed by our traditional breakfast of scrambled eggs, bacon and coffee cake. It wouldn’t be Christmas morning without my mom’s coffee cake – she tried something else one year and Marc and I protested loudly. Luckily I managed to alter the recipe this year to make it gluten-free so I wouldn’t have to go without – just the thought of it made me really sad!
Soon it was time to head back over to my dad’s house for my third Christmas celebration and meal in 24 hours. More food to eat and more presents to open! The highlight of the evening was definitely my dad pulling Evangeline around the kitchen floor in her new sled as she shrieked in a mix of fear and delight. We followed that up with a crazy game of hide and seek and ended the evening with a rousing chorus of jingle bells. While we used to stay up until all hours playing games like Scrabble or Trivial Pursuit, this year we called it a night by around 9:00!
By Sunday, I was completely exhausted and spent the entire day on the couch watching TV with my dad, alternating between football and HGTV (odd combo, I know). And Monday morning, I was on the train heading back to Chicago, another Christmas come and gone just like that.
I couldn’t help but reflect on the way back to Chicago how we have stayed with so many Christmas traditions over the years, but at the same time so much has changed. I miss how magical Christmas used to feel. I can remember a time when I would sneak out of bed around 3 or 4 in the morning to catch a glimpse of the Christmas tree aglow in the living room, with presents finally piled high underneath it. Even when I was a young adult home from college, there was an excitement about waking up to find my stocking stuffed with goodies at the end of my bed, quietly opening everything with Marc before mom woke up.
Now, while it is still great to see everyone (Christmas tends to be the only time of the year I see any of my extended family), it sometimes feels like we’re just going through the motions. We stress over buying gifts, preparing meals and coordinating schedules and in the midst of it all, the magic has disappeared. I’m sure it’s just an unfortunate consequence of growing up and becoming an adult, but I realized as I rode back to Chicago that I sort of long for a day when Christmas has a little bit of magic to it again.
How have your holiday traditions changed over time? Do you still feel the magic of Christmas?