Christmas Eve is the best night of the year

On Christmas Eve, I want to sing out a litany of Hosannas … then go cook a 10-pound beef tenderloin.

Lumina | Stocksy United

This Christmas marks my first as a married woman, and, like all newly married couples, my husband and I are hashing out the differences in our families’ Christmas traditions. Some of those differences are small. My siblings draw names; his siblings give small gifts to everyone. My family drinks homemade lattes and Bloody Marys while we open gifts; his drinks vitamin water. One difference, however, can’t be overcome by trips to the Dollar Store or early morning runs to Starbucks. My family celebrates Christmas Eve; his does not.

On Christmas Eve, my husband’s parents and siblings don’t gather together. They don’t cook a special feast. They don’t laugh and drink and remember Christmases past under the light of the tree. Everyone just does their own thing, wherever they might be.

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In my family, Christmas Eve has always been the most anticipated night of the year. We celebrate the end of the world’s long wait for the Messiah—a wait that ended not with sunrise on Christmas morning, but in the dark of night on Christmas Eve. On that night, we go from one great supper (the Marriage Supper of the Lamb at church) to another (Christmas supper at home). Both feasts are packed: at church with parishioners and at home with friends and family. Both are also ablaze with light: candles burn and fir trees glow. Christmas carols are sung, our best clothes are worn, and for a few precious hours, Heaven seems to come to Earth.

On Christmas Eve, the air is always thick with joy and grace. God has remembered his people. At long last, the King of Kings is on his way. And with the angels, I want to sing out a litany of Hosannas … then go cook a 10-pound beef tenderloin.

That table, covered with an array of tasty and savory treats, helped me understand, as clear as any Christmas homily preached, that this night was different from all the rest.

I’ve felt this way for as long as I can remember. Growing up, on Christmas morning, there was magic: piles of presents under the tree left by some rosy-cheeked elf. But on Christmas Eve, there was a miracle: God had become a baby.

That divine generosity, of God entering into time and becoming man, manifested itself most concretely in the feast my Grandma Miller cooked every Christmas Eve: shrimp and ham, roast potatoes, dozens of tiny finger foods, and trays of Christmas candy. For that one night, my sisters, cousins, and I had free range of the buffet table. We could pile our plates high with shrimp and peppermint bark (ignoring the crudités all together) and eat on the floor in front of a roaring fire.

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There were presents every year from our grandparents and cousins. But, other than the year when every grandchild under age 10 received a plastic drum filled with Fisher Price musical instruments (the noise of that night still rings in my ears), the gift-giving portion of the evening doesn’t stand out in my memory. What stands out is the joy of a family gathered … and the abundance of the feast prepared.

That table, covered with an array of tasty and savory treats, helped me understand, as clear as any Christmas homily preached, that this night was different from all the rest. Likewise, those tasty treats—the peanut clusters, the almond bark, the pumpkin bread—made the joy of the night incarnate in a particular way. And in that, they became an occasion for grace. They helped a house full of children—big and little—enter more fully into the joy of the night that God became man.

I know how a meal draws people together. I know how it gives family and friends a reason to gather.

My Grandma Miller died 22 years ago, when I was just 19. But, the traditions she established live on.

With few exceptions, every year since she passed, I’ve driven home to Illinois to set up shop in my parents’ or sisters’ kitchens. While they ready the house, I cook. Some years, I do a smorgasboard of appetizers: bacon-wrapped dates, baked brie with cranberry chutney, creamy artichoke dip, and more. Other years, it’s a beef tenderloin with garlic mashed potatoes and Tuscan kale fried with bacon. One of these years, I’ll try my hand at the Feast of the Seven Fishes. Regardless of what’s on the menu, though, there is always fudge, cookies, and good wine.

On the few years I haven’t made it home, my family manages just fine without me. But, I like to do the cooking when I am there. Not only because I love the act of cooking a Christmas Eve meal, but also because I know the importance of it. I know how a meal draws people together. I know how it gives family and friends a reason to gather. I know how it gives a form—a concrete toothsome shape—to joy. And I know how that form, far more than an abundance of presents under the tree, embodies the joy of Christmas.

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On the first Christmas Eve, Jesus didn’t give the world toy trains and iPods. He gave us Himself. I had my first taste of what that Communion meant at my Grandmother’s house long ago. It defined Christmas for me. It mattered more than presents and stockings and “reindeer hoof prints” in the snow. A cookie-munching Santa captured my imagination. But a meal, lovingly prepared and communally enjoyed, captured my heart.

I want my nieces and nephews to experience the same. I want the miracle to matter more than the magic. So I cook to help make that possible.

But now, I’m married, and part of a family that, save for attending Mass, spends Christmas Eve like they would spend any other night. So, what will we do? Well, this year we’re going back to my parents’, so that defers any decisions for 12 months. But next year?

Next year, I hope, I’ll cook, and open the doors wide to whomever wants to come—my husband’s family, friends, and neighbors. Maybe it will be just us—just my husband and me. But I can’t envision not cooking on Christmas Eve. I can’t envision not celebrating the night that the world’s long darkness ended. Marriage has changed many things for me. But I hope it doesn’t change that.

 

Emily Stimpson Chapman

Emily Stimpson Chapman is the author of ‘The Catholic Table: Finding Joy Where Food and Faith Meet.’

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