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Christmas Eves

Alyson Soko


My little sister Diana and I race to the family room. Our skin, still damp from our bath, smells of soap under our flannel nightgowns. We kneel on the blue and green shag broadloom, facing the tree. Granny leans forward in the big armchair, while Daddy sets up his cameras—one for photos, one for movies. Mummy’s family has always opened their gifts on Christmas Eve—a German tradition we’re told—which makes Christmas Eve the absolute best part of Christmas. Beside us, Mummy perches on the gold footstool, ready to organize who opens what presents in what order.

        The lights on the tree, also blue and green to match the rug, are reflected by the glass ornaments. In them I see us all, distorted by the curve of the orbs. After the family gifts have been opened, Mummy tells us we must get to bed so Santa can drop off his gifts.

        While we sleep, he places our presents near our stockings, hung by the hearth. On Christmas morning, I spy a blue and white box meant for me. Weeks ago, I’d seen a similar box high up in the hall cupboard. It holds the play dishes I’d circled in the Sears Wish Book. A sad truth washes over me; one I’d suspected for some time. I am eight years old.



After my parents’ divorce, we alternate Christmases with each parent. At Dad’s, we string the tree with red and yellow lights to complement the orange shag carpet in his family room. The plastic smell of artificial snow is familiar, but the new ornaments hold no Christmas Eve memories. I’m groundless, off balance. My throat is constricted, an imaginary belt clenches my waist. As we begin to open our gifts, I pretend a smile.



The year I turn 14, Mom implements a very modest monthly clothing allowance. Diana and I think twice about every clothing purchase we make, sometimes saving for months to buy the Levis everyone else at school is wearing.

        As a result, she goes overboard with Christmas gifts, particularly clothing. By the time all is unwrapped, Diana and I are dwarfed by a hill of attire sitting in front of us – stiff denim Levis, pinwale corduroy pants, crisp cotton blouses, wooly sweaters, and Adidas running shoes.



Diana and I are hidden away in my father’s bedroom stuffing his stocking with gifts from Santa, as he heads out to have another drink with a neighbor upstairs. Later, an urgent knock at the door; the neighbor explains that Dad has passed out in the elevator. Diana and I, along with the nameless neighbor, drag our father down the corridor and into his condo. His shirt becomes untucked. In our rush, we bang his shoulders against the doorframe. The three of us get him as far as the living room, where we position him face down on the carpet. Blushing with embarrassment, we thank the neighbor and close the door, hoping no one has seen us in the hallway.

        We kneel on either side of him. The over-sweet smell of rye assaults me with his every breath. Unable to rouse him or move him to his bed, we decide that being on his stomach is safer than lying on his back.

        “Some Christmas Eve,” I say. “Let’s go home.” Diana hesitates a moment, but follows me as I grab our dad’s car keys and my purse which holds my new driver’s license. We say little as we drive the icy streets back to Mom’s.

        When we arrive home, Mom tells us that she’s never seen him pass out; that his 6’5” frame and 240 pounds allow him to drink a lot. “No one ever believed me when I described how much alcohol he could consume and remain standing.” She then tells us of a much-earlier Christmas Eve we were both too young to remember. “Your dad had started drinking with the neighbors across the street. Once we came home to open gifts, he didn’t stop. After you two had gone to bed, he was too drunk to assemble the toy stove that Santa was to bring.” I remember that stove—we played with it for years.

        We return our father’s car to him Christmas morning. He seems mildly angry, yet sheepish. We do not spend Christmas Day with him that year.

        This is a Christmas Eve I’d like to forget.



Christmas Eve is now always at Mom’s place. She serves chicken livers and water chestnuts wrapped in bacon and spinach dip served in a bread bowl. Grease from sausage rolls coats our tongues, while the oil on our fingers soils the festive holiday napkins. Johnny Mathis’ velvet voice fills the living room as his Merry Christmas album plays on the stereo. Candles create a flickering glow. The excessive gifts of clothing continue.

        At long last, Dad has stopped drinking and is now always included in Christmas Eve at Mom’s. Along with the cheques he brings for Diana and me, he packs his toothbrush. At the end of the evening, he reminds Mom he’s prepared to stay over if she’d like him to. She rolls her eyes, wishes him a Merry Christmas and gently nudges him out the door.



I am 20 this Christmas Eve. Diana has just turned 19. Our presents have been opened. She and I are flanked by large stacks of gifts, while Mom and Dad each have a much smaller pile beside them. Diana pulls one last gift from behind her chair, and gives it to our mother. Mom unwraps the mug inside and starts to cry, but with a knowing half-smile. I am oblivious, even after I read what is printed on the mug: World’s Best Grandma. I gather my mom had figured out a while ago that Diana was pregnant. My dad and I are much slower on the uptake. Ashley is born in May. Next Christmas Eve we will be five.



Our dad died unexpectedly at Easter. This is our first Christmas without him.

        Mom suggests that we try something new this year—an open house. With plastic smiles, we greet relatives and friends. After everyone leaves, we quietly open our gifts. Never again do we hold a Christmas Eve open house.



I arrive at the cemetery at dusk and walk towards my father’s grave. The light is flat – grey and cold, like the slab of granite that bears his name. The wind exhales, long and loud. The boughs on the naked maples sway. I shiver but delay leaving, feeling I am somehow abandoning my father.

        I stop at my old boyfriend’s house en route to Mom’s. I’d never dropped in unannounced in the five years we’d dated. We broke up four weeks ago, yet he’d called that morning to wish me a merry Christmas. With me is the expensive scarf I’d bought him months before. His mother invites me in, her eyes wide, an amused look on her face.

        On the living room couch sit my ex and the new girlfriend I didn’t know existed. “No, no, I won’t come in,” I say to his mother, trying to keep my expression calm. “I’m just here to drop off a gift I bought months ago and can’t return. Merry Christmas, everyone.” I hand her the gift, force a smile and leave, my cheeks burning. I’m afraid I may vomit as I climb into my car. I feel like I’ve been punched in the stomach.

        As I reverse out of the driveway, my ex, shoeless, runs towards my car. I don’t stop. In my rear-view mirror, I see him turn and retreat to the house.

        Years later, he’ll tell me that his girlfriend was angry he’d followed me outside. I’ll smile, thankful we are speaking by phone.



I unbuckle the baby car seat cradling newborn Kirsten, just 24 hours old, while my husband frees almost two-year old Meredith from her car seat. Before we enter the dark house, I turn on the outdoor lights. Once inside, I plug in the fairy lights on the Christmas tree. I put a seasonal CD in the player, and note the dirty dishes on the kitchen counter. I peer inside the refrigerator, and am disappointed to find that my husband did not pick up latkes for Christmas Eve dinner, as I’d asked. I open the freezer door. Frigid air breathes over me as I search for something to defrost.

Spaghetti sauce? A pizza? Neither is festive fare.

        Presents spill out from under the tree; I’ve bought far too many gifts. I am my mother’s daughter. This is my third Christmas without her. In my hormonal state, I ache for her.

        Had my mother still been alive, I wouldn’t have been greeted by dirty dishes in the kitchen, and an unset table upon coming home from the hospital with my new daughter. The Christmas lights would have been twinkling, inside and out. And the aroma of Christmas Eve dinner warming in the oven would have welcomed us as we arrived home.



My ex-husband wanted the girls with him on Christmas Eve last year. But he was lonely on Christmas Day when they were with me while my Christmas Eve had been melancholy. I couldn’t bring myself to go to church alone and face all the families. We agree that from here on, Meredith and Kirsten will spend every Christmas Eve with me and Christmas Day with him.

        It grows dark as the three of us drive to the early children’s Christmas Eve service at our church. Store windows glow, the sidewalks are still crowded. Doors swing open as shoppers rush in and out, picking up last minute items.

        The organist is playing carols as we enter the church. The low notes vibrate in my legs as we walk up the aisle. I breathe in the atmosphere: damp coats are piled high at the end of pews; a din of excited voices fills the warm air. The girls suck on candy canes as they open the plastic bag of crayons and pages to color that the church provides to keep small hands busy. Soon, we stand and together we sing Adeste Fideles.

        There is no other place in the world I want to be.

        A few moments later, Kirsten hands me her sticky candy cane and whispers, “Mummy, I don’t feel well.” I put my arm around her and suggest she take a few deep breaths. But then I hear the sounds of a wee tummy about to empty. I grab the bag of crayons and hold it under her chin. As the nativity play begins, I grab our coats and we move to the exit, dropping the ruined bag of crayons into the trash.

        Once home, we have a light dinner before we get into our pajamas. Kirsten’s now feeling better. We sit close to the tree and Christmas begins.


December 23, 2011

I’ve coined the phrase The Four-Day Extravaganza to describe the four days which make up Kirsten’s birthday on December 23rd, Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, and Meredith’s birthday on Boxing Day.

        On my girls’ birthdays I try to do something special with each of them, unrelated to Christmas.

        Kirsten turns 14 today and she wants to go to the mall. As we meander through the urgent crowds, I’m smug in the knowledge that all my shopping is done, and all gifts to the girls have been thoughtfully wrapped in Christmas or birthday paper. Later, as we glide upwards on an escalator, my cell phone rings.

        “Hello?” The caller is my niece’s boyfriend. “I’m sorry. I don’t think I heard you – let me get to a quieter place.”

        Yet I do believe I’ve heard him. Still, I try to extend this moment of hopeful uncertainty. I move out of the flow of people, and walk towards the linens department, signaling to Kirsten to follow me. She glares at me—she has no interest in sheets and towels. But it is quieter here. No one appears to be buying bedding two days before Christmas. “Would you say that again, please?”

        “Ashley went to see her mom, and when she got there, Diana was dead.” I search out somewhere to sit down. I perch on the edge of a bed made up to showcase a comforter set. “She thinks it must have been a heart attack. Anyway, Ashley’s phone battery was dying, so she asked me to call you.”

        I look down at the bedding on display, taking in the multiple layers of coordinated sheets, blankets and pillows. I examine the fabric on one of the many cushions, and am drawn to the ice- blue shade of its background. Diana’s eyes are this color.

        “Are you there?”

        “Yes, sorry. Where’s Ashley now?”

        “She’s at Diana’s place waiting for the police.”

        “If you hear from her, please let her know I’m on my way.”

        I’m shocked by the anger I feel at Kirsten’s birthday being interrupted. This is not the first time Diana’s issues have messed with my plans. I search out Kirsten and find her looking at duvet covers. “Sweetie, I’m really sorry, but I’m going to take you home. Auntie Diana has died, and I have to drive out there to meet Ashley.”

        “She died on my birthday?”

        I look at my daughter who looks more like my sister than she does me. “Yeah, I guess she did. I’m so sorry sweetheart. We’ll reschedule your birthday dinner—do something special after Christmas.”



We’re now a much bigger group. I drag my husband and our collective five girls to church, along with my in-laws. They humor me; I’m the only one who really wants to be here. At the opposite end of the pew, my husband plays with a phone app that tracks Santa’s progress around the globe. Later, in in the middle of the sermon, his phone makes a loud jingle bell sound. I glare at him; the girls unsuccessfully stifle their laughter. His mother motions to him to put his phone away.

        At home after church, we make latkes; the smell of oil and onions overpowers the aroma of mulled wine steaming on the stove. Our voices drown out the Christmas CD I’ve put on. After dinner, the opening of gifts goes on and on. It is perfect.

        Once the girls are asleep, we fill their stockings and then fall into bed. I spoon my husband, breathing in the aroma of oil and onions which clings to his hair and mine. I reach over to open the window a crack, and the fresh cool air rushes in.

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