Longbranch Christmas: Something Different

Way back when the grandkids were embarking on their individual treks through the school system, our son-in-law, Matt, had a fantastic idea.

We were seated around the table in the usual Thanksgiving stupor amid the residual devastation left behind by the marauding horde that is our family. Surveying the tabletop destruction, Matt suggested that we celebrate Christmas by choosing a different country each year to learn about and follow their Christmas traditions—foods, decorations, stories and games. Each family would do some research and share the information when we reconvened in December.

In spite of the tryptophan-induced state of the assembly, the idea was adopted with enthusiasm. One of the children was dispatched to cut strips of paper and collect pencils. Each person wrote the name of a country on their ballot and deposited it in a big bowl. We let the youngest child draw one slip of paper. And that’s how our foray into international Christmas celebrations began.

China was the first country chosen. Christmas is not widely celebrated in China, but we persevered. One family opted for food planning, another signed up for games and the rest of us took on tasks as they were identified.

The Christmas dinner was a feast for the eyes and the palate. For the most part, the elder contingent dove in with relish. As epicurean critics, the most frequent review was, “That’s interesting.” However, the younger ones exhibited a reluctance to try some of the unidentifiable edibles. Several of them lamented about the weird selections placed before them and opted for plain rice.

One of the married-ins grew up in a family that counted ketchup as vegetable—so latent parental influences may have had an effect upon the receptivity of the kid contingent. The only extra helpings requested by the kids were the result of “double dog dares” to try another bite of mapo doufu (tofu in a red chili sauce that set mouth and hair on fire).

Perhaps we overhyped the weird and overdid the spices, because there were ample leftovers of fried eel, bhendi (okra), baozi (steamed dumplings) and of course oyster soup.

With no turkey in our systems, we were unphased by tryptophan as we left the table to learn more about Christmas traditions in China. John, another son-in-law, had discovered an online article written by Sascha Matuszak documenting a unique Christmas celebration in Chengdu, China. Although it was a recent tradition, the citizens of Chengdu had avidly embraced it and thousands gathered in the central square on Christmas evening for the celebration.

At that point in his narration, John abruptly excused himself and disappeared, leaving us to speculate about what sort of thing was planned. He returned with a large bag from Archie McPhee’s, the famous Seattle novelty store, and continued his explanation of the only Chinese Christmas celebratory tradition he could find.

He said that on the given signal—“It’s on!”—the citizenry of Chengdu engage in a wild melee, randomly bopping each other with inflatable bats. We were all very amused. 

Imagine our delight when John opened the bag and distributed inflatable bats to one and all. He explained that we were to refrain from bopping one another until he gave the traditional signal, “It’s on!”

The children could hardly wait to get started. Neither could the adults. It was on! We battled back and forth throughout the house. Amazingly, nothing got broken except our perception of family traditions. 

The following Thanksgiving we went through the ritual of selecting a different country. One of the moms had put “The Deep South” in the pot. The children objected because “The Deep South” was not a country, to which she replied, “You say that because you haven’t been there. Believe me, it is a whole different country.” The drawing commenced and the country selected was Mexico.

The pinata was a hit. A few rounds of La Pirinola (beggar’s dice) redistributed pinata candy. Ball and cup toys had been tucked in each stocking, so we ended with competitive rounds of El Balero. 

The next year when the subject was broached, the kids had organized a voting bloc that was solidly in favor of a repeat of the Mexican celebration. 

And that marked the end of our international run. It has been tacos on Christmas ever since. 

On the bright side, one of the grands recently found a stash of inflatable bats. I suspect that there will be a Chinese flair to our traditional Mexican celebration. I’m sure it will be a hit.

Award-winning columnist Carolyn Wiley lives quietly, for the most part, in Longbranch.

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