Christmas in northern Minnesota is a picture postcard: Tall, white clapboard church steeples rising above snow-encrusted evergreen trees along winding rural roads twinkling with holiday lights.
I’ve spent all but one of my 37 Christmases in the house I grew up in, sleeping in the same bed of my youth. It’s a comfortable, comforting thought: No matter what else happens throughout the year, at Christmas I know how things are going to go at home.
For the holidays, my mom puts each of her hundreds of holiday decorations in exactly the same spot it was last year and the year before that and the year before that. The hand-colored Rudolph and sleigh team I crafted as a grade-schooler will be right over the kitchen sink, and the hand-colored Santas and wreaths created by my sisters will be hung on adjacent cabinet doors.
On Christmas Eve, the table will be set with my mom’s china (making its yearly appearance from storage), and in an honored place right next to the china will be some faded yarn-and-toilet-paper-roll napkin holders we made as children.
And there will be way too much food, with a giant Butterball turkey basted by my mom and usually a big ham for Uncle Beanie, who for some reason doesn’t like turkey.
There will be baked beans and mashed potatoes and turkey gravy and dressing and cranberry sauce and whipped cream/Jell-O salad and lefsa (a Norwegian delicacy) heaped with butter and sugar. And for dessert, pumpkin and applie pie along with Christmas tree-shaped ice cream.
Relatives and friends will be happily sandwiched into our kitchen, and the talk will cover the same ground it always has: The weather, the Minnesota Vikings and Twins, automotive and farm equipment repairs, children and grandchildren, neighbors and absent family members.
We’ll laugh about holiday stories from years gone-by: My favorite is what I affectionately refer to as the “barf-o-rama,” which began more than 30 years ago when one of my sisters “tossed her cookies” right before our big meal and ended when I stood up for a closer look and, overcome with the moment, promptly coated the entire table with my own “cookies.”
Throughout the evening, my now-grown sisters – each with children of their own – will delight in telling my wife and children stories from my youth that I can’t even remember and tend to doubt ever happened.
Following dinner (we call it “supper” in Minnesota), we’ll make a feeble effort to sing a few Christmas carols before the presents are handed out, and then we’ll wade through brightly wrapped packages and ooh and ahh over Gold-Toe socks and Fruit-of-the-Loom underwear.
Then we’ll adjourn to play some games, maybe cards or a homespun version of Pictionary, and my mom will make popcorn and pull out a recipe for punch that apparently captivated me as a youth. (I wrote the words “simply scrumptious” on her church recipe book next to the punch recipe, and every year she proudly shows that inscription to anyone in her path.)
Finally, she’ll pull out plate after plate of Christmas cookies that she, and to a more reluctant extent my dad, have prepared in honor of this annual family homecoming.
These plates of cookies will whirl around and around the table, and at every stop, someone will say that they’re awfully full already, but…
I didn’t know it at the time, but I’m very aware of it today: I was lucky enough to grow up in what the TV talk shows would have us believe is a pretty unique family.
No molestation. No mental or physical abuse. Parents who seemed to love each other all of those years and, most of the time, even seemed to love us kids.
Our Christmas gathering wasn’t an extraordinary event in our lives; it was simply a more joyous extension of our every-day lives.
As luck would have it, I won’t be going back to Minnesota for Christmas this year. But the sights and sounds and smells I remember so well aren’t far from my thoughts.
As long as my memory serves me well, I can always go home for Christmas.
I hope that regardless of where you spend this holiday season, you’ll be able to go home for Christmas, too.