The holiday season changed for me 20 years ago when my father passed away. For the next several years, my mother and I would try to “get away” for the holidays. We both needed to do something to make it an atypical Christmas, to make it feel like we weren’t “missing something” without my father around.The first couple of years we traveled to Ireland, where my mother is from, to visit her younger brother Joe and his family in Naas in County Kildare. One thing I never realized until then was that the Irish celebrate the whole week between Christmas and New Year’s, kind of like we do here at The Press. Many of the local businesses are closed for the entire week, except for the pubs, of course, which are packed most nights with people getting their merry on.
One of my favorite memories of that trip was getting a dusting of the white stuff on December 24 and waking up to a slightly white Christmas morning, which my family in Ireland hadn’t seen for years. It has been more than a decade since I last visited Ireland, and boy am I itching to get back. And not only to see my family, but to visit my good friends John, Marie and their daughter Ella, who recently decided to make Ireland their home.
A few years later, our Christmas destination changed from Ireland to Cabo San Lucas in Mexico, a place where Drummond, my mother’s boyfriend, had vacationed for years and had gone with my mother a few times. One of the reasons Drummond chose Cabo, besides the warm, desert climate, was the fishing.
As he and I went out on a fishing charter one Christmas Eve morning, the sun was just coming up over the horizon and I snapped one of my favorite photos of all time.
We made it to our fishing spot a few hours later and started trolling for marlin. We hooked up after a little bit and I was handed the fishing rod, since it was my first time big game fishing. After about 45 minutes of reeling like crazy, watching this fish jump out of the water, shaking its bill trying to throw the hook, I finally got it to the boat.
It was the largest fish I had ever caught. The first mate said it was “ciento ochenta y cinco libras” (185 pounds) and it was between 6 and 7 feet long. Since it wasn’t gut hooked, we snapped a quick photo and released it back into the Pacific, to possibly make a wonderful Christmas Eve memory for someone else.
The last few years we have spent Christmas down in Accomac, Virginia, where Drummond is from and where my mother spends a lot of time these days now that she is enjoying retirement. It is a very small town on the Eastern Shore of the Delmarva peninsula. It is a small and quaint town, one that brings to mind the stories I’ve heard and pictures I’ve seen of what Westhampton Beach and Sag Harbor must have been like 50 to 100 years ago.
Christmas Eve is celebrated at Drummond’s sister Ann’s house two blocks away, with her kids and grandchildren. Everyone enjoys the fresh oysters, from both the bay and sea and brought by her son-in-law, Steve, and the homemade chili made by another son-in-law, Jeb.
Christmas Day is usually spent at Drummond’s house, with me cooking breakfast while my mother and her sister, Cecilia, go to mass. After mass, we eat breakfast, open presents and then I get to enjoy a quiet, relaxing afternoon in front of the fire/television playing with whatever gadgets Santa left me under the tree. Mom and Cecilia then head to the kitchen to create a Christmas feast.
One of my favorite family traditions, which we introduce wherever we spend Christmas Day, comes at the end of our dinner, when we pop the “Christmas Crackers.” If you have never heard of them, they are festively decorated cylinders with open ends that contain a strip of cardboard-like material in the middle with a little explosive adhesive that makes a loud pop, like a cap gun, when you pull it apart with your table neighbor. Inside each cracker is a small toy, puzzle or game (similar to those you would find in a box of Cracker Jacks), a fortune, riddle or joke, and a brightly colored tissue paper crown that we all wear while enjoying our desserts. It is a European tradition that started with my mother’s side of my family many years ago and continues with whichever family or friends we celebrate with on Christmas Day.
As I get ready to celebrate my 40th Christmas, I still miss my father and realize Christmas will never be like it was. But I accept the holiday for what it is, which is gathering with family and friends, and creating new memories. I would like to wish you all a Merry Christmas and a very Happy New Year! I hope your travels are safe and your gatherings of family and friends are full of laughter, delicious food and, of course, great memories.