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Our Time: What’s your holiday style for gatherings?

Santa always came to my house on Christmas Eve.

I never asked why he came early, just for me. My dad would take me “away” — usually to the corner pub — and finally give me a dime to call home. Mom would say something like, “He just drove away,” which let me know it was time to rush home and open presents.

I was 4 and 5 years old. I’m an only child and we lived in Baltimore at the time, far from extended family but near my dad’s IBM office.

As I grew up, holidays took on a different patina, often depending on who I knew “outside” my own tight circle. Who could I join, impose on, muscle into to have the Hollywood version of a family get-together?

Alas, over the years, I’ve learned families don’t look forward to holidays with delight. Many have a certain dread — from worrying whether Uncle Harold will drink too much to being bored with Aunt Katherine’s umpteenth rendition of the “roots” story to fretting about how a new boyfriend or girlfriend will be accepted by the ensemble.

I never knew many folks like George Economos, who grew up in South Dakota and has never been rootless. For him, Christmas means family — 32 people including children and grandchildren and cousins and so on.

“About 11 of those coming this year are kids from about age 1 to 14,” says Economos, a retired commercial real estate broker who lives in Laguna Niguel, Calif.

“We alternate (houses) between my son and my cousin’s son. It’s a big party. We used to have a sit-down dinner, but now it’s a buffet thing. At my son’s last year, we had lamb chops and shrimp with garlic and stuff like that. And we drink wine, of course.

“Everyone loves to come. Even relatives who have an excuse to ‘go to the other side’ show up.”

Christmas is the biggest deal, but the Economos family has get-togethers for somebody’s birthday or Thanksgiving or something.

Maybe it’s the wine.

Now that he’s retired, Economos likes to combine personal excursions with family parties. Like deciding to visit all the national parks on his way “home” to Sioux Falls for his mother-in-law’s 90th birthday party.

So he drove, alone, to Zion, Bryce, Salt Lake, Jackson Hole, Yosemite, Custer, the Black Hills.

Did we mention he’s a widower? “So why should that keep me from my mother-in-law’s birthday?” he asks. “She’s family.”

Not everyone shares Economos’ perspective.

There are no familial ties — or wine good enough — to entice Carl (not his real name) to look forward to holiday time with any relatives — his own, his wife’s, even yours.

“Holidays bring out the worst in people,” said Carl, 54, of Santa Ana, Calif. “They fawn all over each other and don’t mean a damn thing they say about love and getting together soon and all that crap.

“Yeah, my wife gets put out with me, but truth is truth.”

We might be moving from a nation that focuses on family at holidays to one that relies on friendships.

What do the experts advise?

“Take a warm relaxing bath and curl up with a good book,” says one site I found online.

“Find or create a group of friends and get together,” says another.

“Do charity work,” says a third.

Or try to split the pie, as I do.

Christmas Eve is still my time to entertain family, host a dinner, let them admire my Santa Claus collection before opening gifts.

Christmas Day is my time for friends, for a lengthy adult dinner — with wine — in some nice, upscale restaurant.

I savor both my ho-ho’s. And never the twain shall meet.

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