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Sunday, December 17, 2006

CHRISTMAS STORY #7: CHRISTMAS AT THE IN-LAW'S

"Wassail, Wassail all over the town,
The wine it is white and the ale it is brown..."

Christmas for me has always been a family affair. From the time I was a small child, it meant visits from the relatives, everyone gathered around the tree on Christmas eve drinking ginger ale, eating the delicious Christmas goodies Mom had baked while we played games like monopoly and crokinole or snakes and ladders. The men would tell funny stories. My Uncle Frank always recited “’Erbert Burped” and Dad’s famous singing of “When Father Papered the Parlour” never failed to send us into rollicking laughter. Mostly Christmas meant remembering the true meaning of the Season with carol singing and stories of the birth of the Baby Jesus.

The children (me, my sister and various cousins) would be tucked into bed with the proverbial visions of sugar-plums dancing in our heads, convinced Santa could be heard stomping on the roof, and going off to slumber-land with happy dreams of the surprises we’d find Christmas morning under the tree and in our stockings.

Christmas dinner was a festive event. Turkey and all the trimmings, Christmas pudding with money hidden inside, and everyone gathered around the table with bowed heads while Dad or Grandpa or Uncle Frank said the blessing.

This is the way my Christmases always were in my family. And I thought it that way for all everyone.

What a surprise I got when I got married and was introduced to Christmas at the Ukrainian in-laws. The first time my husband took me home to spend Christmas with his family I was shocked and amazed. It was my first introduction to a hard-drinking, hearty-eating Ukrainian way of celebrating the holidays.

There I was, the new bride, sitting in the midst of a party of elderly folks, a bottle or two of rye whiskey plonked on the coffee table and water glasses filled to the brim -- neat! It was the first time I’d tasted rye straight and it made me gag. I guess I was too polite to say ’no’, so when nobody was looking I passed the glass down to my husband who eagerly downed it, matching glass for glass with the old folks. As the afternoon wore on, the merriment grew more boisterous and argumentative. It was a wonder to me how those elderly folks could drink so much.

I’ll never forget one of the Christmases we were invited for dinner. We’d already had my family’s Christmas dinner but we also had to go to the in-law’s house or they would be offended. Lena, my father-in-law’s common-law wife, was a great cook. She made the best cabbage rolls and perogis. This Christmas she had prepared a very large turkey to feed all the friends who were to drop in. By the time the bird was cooked and ready to come out of the over, she was so drunk that as she removed the turkey from the oven she teetered over and the bird slid off the pan and dropped on the floor. Without missing a beat she picked it up and plonked it on the platter. I was an eye-witness. The others were probably too drunk to notice.

Anyway, it was a delicious dinner and as usual, she was constantly filling your plate.
“Eat! Eat!” or your glass “Drink! Drink!”
It didn’t occur to me, the naive youngster from the tee-totalling family, that all that booze was eventually going to be my husband’s downfall.

Oh yes, those Ukrainian Christmases were memorable. Especially the one when my father-in-law almost cut off his hand when he was demonstrating the new chain saw he’d got for a present. He was drunk, of course, and hardly felt any pain. But he bore the scars forever after and in fact caused serious nerve damage so his hand was never the same. Did that deter the constant partying? Never!

They were good-hearted folk though, and I know their intentions were well-meaning.
My mother-in-law, on the other hand, was a different story. My husband’s parents had been separated for many years and it was easy to see why there was no communication between them. She was a Seventh Day Adventist, strict and totally lacking the joviality and good nature of Lena and Harry. In fact, I was sure she had the ability to put the evil eye on me and quite frankly I was a bit scared of her. She had weird eyes and would sit scowling at me when I arrived with my husband and baby. She had her own ideas of how I should be handling my new baby boy and I know she didn’t approve of me one bit.

She’d cook us dinner once in awhile, never Christmas dinner, because she didn’t celebrate Christmas the way the rest of us did. In fact, my husband’s younger brother, still a teen-ager, lived with her, and at Christmas he was not given any gifts because she said it wasn’t Lennie’s birthday. It was Jesus’s birthday. I always felt sorry for Lennie so we’d invite him to our place and made sure he had lots of presents, and of course he’d drop by his father’s for the Christmas meals too. Maybe the way he was brought up warped him because he grew into the most avaricious nasty man, a bank-manager who had total control over both his parent’s finances and wills and made sure when they died neither of my children got a cent -- it all went to him, his Ukrainian wife, and their two kids.

Those Ukrainian Christmases were memorable, mainly for the vast amounts of food and booze that were consumed and the chaos that reigned as a result. Invariably it would somehow end up with a fight breaking out. I didn’t realize it then, but my father-in-law was not the jolly guy he seemed to be and poor Lena was often the brunt of his drunken temper.

It was an experience worth remembering, but to this day I prefer the old fashioned Christmases of my childhood.

Instead of spending Christmas with a massive hangover I’d rather enjoy what it is really meant to be, a time of good cheer spent with relatives and friends, presents stacked under the tree, stockings hung by the chimney with care and children nestled in their beds waiting for Santa to arrive. (He didn’t get a glass of whiskey at our place, just some ginger ale and home-made Christmas cookies. There weren’t any fights, Mom never ever dropped the turkey on the floor, and nobody ever cut their hand off with a chain saw!)

"A very merry, dancing, drinking
Laughing, quaffing, and unthinking time..."
John Dryden 1831-1700 "The Secular Masque" 1700 l. 39

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