Though we had been invited to my parents' home for Christmas Day dinner at 3:00 p.m. that afternoon, knowing that we wouldn't sit at table much before six o'clock that evening, we deliberately delayed our arrival (thinking that the appointed time was far too early to be either reasonable or necessary). Upon our arrival sometime after 4:00 p.m., I was immediately greeted with a reprimand from my mother, who of course couched the assault in terms of concern rather than frustration. The others (my sister and her family - spouse, children and partner of one of the children) had already arrived, and by the looks of it had successfully made their way through the fresh oysters (which they described as disappointingly microscopic) and some alcoholic beverages. As always, the kitchen was the fulcrum of the congregation, as we hovered about the central table laden with shrimp, various cheeses and crackers (none of which especially attracted me mid-afternoon). Meanwhile mother had recovered the bottle of Champagne from the garage where it had been kept cool, and the contents of the bottle were distributed among those who wished to partake, which essentially meant everyone except my father and me. My mother asked whether I could smell the turkey basting in the oven, which I assured her I could.
As the wheels of society were further lubricated and synchronized, we were eventually herded by my mother into the main reception room where stood the customary synthetic Christmas tree (which several people commented looked smaller than before) sheltering an abundance of wrapped gifts and displaying among its simulated branches envelopes which everyone knew contained the right stuff. The hors d'oeuvres from the kitchen had been transported to the reception room, where there were already further trays of tiny salty biscuits rich in butter and particularly good with a drink. The ceremony of distributing gifts was then initiated by my mother. I meanwhile attended in the den to putting on a new and recently acquired CD of Christmas music by "The Gents", an upbeat rendition of old and new tunes by a European troupe. To my surprise my older niece and her partner both recognized my favourite track on the CD. It is always rather a shock to discover that young people, notably one's relations, are intelligent and worldly.
The tradition of exchanging gifts is one which runs deep in our family, in spite of the protestation of some of us to the largesse of the habit (which is the environmental equivalent to the tar sands). Apart from the customary personal items (like body lotions, books and costume jewellery), the utility of bank drafts have come to represent the acceptable standard. The younger artistic element of the clan provided what to my father especially were the more interesting and acceptable gifts; namely, hand-made cards and personal photographic renditions. My sister and her husband spoiled us with a bottle of Grey Goose vodka, a classical CD and a gift of movie classics to be shared with my parents. Fortunately, the intimacy of the assembled persons spared us any collective sense of vulgar extravagance in this routine affair, which frankly appeared to have almost everyone in its grip.
Over the years, I have been trained to understand that in our family there are actually two rounds of "presents" (the meaning of which word is best appreciated as though it were something like "Monopoly", implying a kind of protracted game requiring intermittent breathers). The first round, which I have already described, focuses more on the small gifts, or what my mother likes to call for the children especially, their "socks", being a reference to the bulging red bits of textile hanging by the fireplace. Customarily, following this titillation, there is a break before we retire to the dining room for the main meal. Capitalizing on this interruption, I took the opportunity to read to the gathered family Dylan Thomas' "A Child's Christmas in Wales", which to my mind captures more perfectly than anything else the excitement of Christmas.
When it came time to move to the brilliantly decorated and candle-lit dining room, we were informed that service was buffet style, in that each of us was invited to move about the kitchen, from one platter or tureen to another to choose what and how much of it we each cared to savour. The first stop was the large white turkey platter, where my father stood, having skilfully carved the bird and isolated the dark meat from the white, the stuffing in a separate bowl. Then there were buttered green string beans, thick mashed potatoes, sweetened and spiced squash, aromatic creamed onions and nutty cranberry aspic. At table there was a boat of rich gravy. Once we were all seated at table, and following a brief debate concerning in what language the grace should be recited (Latin having been dismissed outright by my father), my sister, in her exuberance and growing impatience to get on with it, recited the standard Anglican blessing, and we all dove into the business at hand. The wine glasses were charged more than once throughout the feasting that followed, punctuated by the visceral expressions of delight and satisfaction of all.
Once again, after the main meal and before dessert, a reprieve from consumption was ordered by "Management" (a term of endearment coined by my father for my mother), who beckoned us all back to the large reception room to indulge ourselves in more presents. Given that everyone was by now fairly stuffed, the invitation was not ignored. During this second installation of extravagance, there was a good deal more tranquillity as we each began to feel the soporific effects of the day and the nourishment we had so eagerly enjoyed. My brother-in-law confided that he had been up until 3:00 a.m. that morning, wrapping gifts and putting together devices with the usual easy-to-assemble instructions.
The final act of the family Christmas drama was the return to the dining table, now burdened with fresh fruit smothered in a rich cream sauce, homemade raspberry pie and Belgium chocolates, all served upon ornate Limoges porcelain as a complement to the glittering sterling silver flatware. Coffee followed in minute cups which were of necessity regularly recharged.
When it was all over, what followed in the kitchen was reminiscent of what a pack of wolves must do with the corpse of its most recent victim, as everyone swarmed in to extricate portions of the remaining food to take home with them, though in fairness it was done at the exhortation of my mother who accepts that she always prepares more food than is ever consumed, and certainly more than she and my father, living alone, can possibly enjoy in the days that follow.
Gathering up our various gifts and bags of morsels, embracing one another cheerfully, amid echoes of "Merry Christmas!", we packed ourselves into the Buick and headed home to the country.