Christmas holds a special place in my heart. I feel a cheesy Hallmark movie coming on…but seriously, what a wonderful holiday. It fills me with so many memories (and I find myself watching those movies every year. Guilty!)
My family has always celebrated with large gatherings. The food is always the main attraction. Presents were always a part of the celebration –Of course, try telling a five-year-old Santa Clause is broke. The kid won’t have it! But food, food has always been at the top of the Christmas shopping list.
Typically, our Christmas tradition is to make Cuban food. This is due to my father. But over the years, my mother who is originally from Mexico has added to the menu as well: Tamales de puerco, de Chile rojo, or de pollo; posolle; menudo. One time my grandma and aunts made churros and buñuelos. Sweet fried desserts drizzled with cinnamon and sugar. There is always plenty of café (my mom won’t drink Cuban coffee, but I love it) and Abuelita Chocolate (it has an extra kick of spice that wraps you in warmth).
I can taste it now – Juicy, tender, pit-roasted carne de puerco; the delicate marriage of rice and black beans that is congrí, served with steamy ucar, glazed with sour garlic sauce and a big chunk of pan Cubano. This white bread needs no fancy slicing of a knife. The best way to eat it is to tear it, piece by piece without hesitation, without sharing. It tastes best alone. I’m thankful there’s a local Cuban bread factory 15 minutes from my house. Someone is always assigned the important task of picking some up. Cuban food is nothing without the bread. It would be a sin to eat carne de puerco with anything else.
Since my father’s passing, 11 years ago, I’ve been adamant of keeping this tradition alive. I am the only Cuban left in the household. My younger sister is married and although my brother has always been Cuban by association, sometimes I think I’m the only one who craves it anymore. I’m not sure what’s in store for this year’s menu. My sister is currently pregnant with her third child and cannot stand the dominant spices associated with Cuban cuisine.
I’m excited all the same. This year I’m bring home a special guest, my boyfriend Thom. He’s so wonderful and I’m annoyingly over heels for him. We met at a bookstore where I used to work. We had the opportunity to spend one retail Christmas together. If you’ve never worked retail during the holidays, you haven’t got a clue about human nature. I’m telling you, it’s like shining a light on people’s true personalities.
Talk about madness! Frantic last minute shoppers, crying babies, long lines, no breaks and the employees run amuck! The overhead sings “I’ll be home for Christmas,” and the employees are thinking, “yeah, right, if only in MY dreams. Will someone please turn that *Cheez-Its off?!!”
My General Manager always did a great job of keeping our spirits high. “Wear a Christmas hat” she’d say or “the rush is over; let’s go take pictures on the stairs!” Employees would reluctantly gather on the staircase and forget about our retail worries until someone caught our attention at the register.
Our store had the best steel grand staircase, stretching from the front of the store to the second floor. I don’t understand why a bookstore would include it. What a hazard! Every tile, every foot off the ground, almost beckoned reckless behavior, “Hey you! Yeah, you! Run and jump on me. Don’t worry about falling. I’m only four stories high. There’s a 50 percent chance you’ll live to sue.” The store brought in some interesting characters that “shopped” there. Every time I posed for a picture I thought, yeap, this staircase was built for this very purpose, to showcase its grandeur. We were more than happy to oblige.
This holiday season I’m not working. Christmas has sort of snuck up on me. In retail you start preparing for Christmas mid September, okay, maybe October. It helps to prepare you mentally and plan your own celebration in advance. By Thanksgiving dinner, I would have the whole house decorated, including the tree, lights outside and the secret Santa names ready to be pulled.
School finals took up all my time this year. Thom and I decorated the living room and set the stage for Thanksgiving dinner. When it came time to play secret Santa, no one wanted to participate. During the first week of December, it was my mom who put up the tree and along with my step father, decorated our front entry.
I am not discouraged. Christmas isn’t about presents or lists (sorry Santa, add me to the naughty list). It’s about family and taking the time to reflect on the year’s blessings. Some traditions fade. The food might not be Cuban cuisine this year, but at least there will be a feast and for that I’m grateful. My retail family and I may never stand underneath those stairs, with those silly red, green and leopard trimmed hats, but the laughter stays in our hearts. The important things remain – Each other.
It can be tough to open yourself up with family. They are your biggest critics, but also your biggest supporters. My biggest wish this Christmas is to extend that sense of togetherness, that sense of unity, to Thom, the love of my life. Unfortunately Thom has not been home since he moved to Houston in 2010. I need for him to see me in my natural environment and to know that he is now also a part of my family, like he is a part of me. And yes, the package includes headaches and awkward moments too (at no extra charge).
When preparing for this blog I called Thom’s mom, Peg. Hi Peg! I am so grateful for her. She raised a great man. (Peg, I’m not merely fluffin’ here. He’s wonderful. I promise to smother him with love.) She emailed me a few baby pictures of Thom. I immediate text Thom at work and demanded he marry me on the spot. “Not today love J,” he said. Still, I’m looking forward to future Christmases with my own little Thoms running around. I hope next Christmas Thom and I can spend it with his family too.
I’ll leave you with an introduction I made for my Christmas album on Facebook. It’s about two years old, but the thoughts remain dear to my heart.