Christmas Eve wasn't anything special or holy when I was young. No one dragged me to church, and while my mother has gone for the last 20 years or so, she didn't when my sister and I were little.
Our neighbors growing up were German and their tradition was to open one gift on Christmas Eve at midnight or thereabouts, whenever they got home from church. When my sister and I got wind of this early gift-giving, we demanded the same. So we do that now, waiting until as close to midnight is reasonable, given whatever little kids are around, and open one gift, sometimes a package that we choose and sometimes one chosen by someone else if it's new pajamas or a housecoat to keep warm in the morning before all the other gifts are opened.
Oddly, food wasn't a central part of our Christmas Eve traditions either. For a period of years, we would show up at some relatives' house and eat ham, turkey, salad, bread rolls, and whatever else the 12 aunts and uncles would bring (there were a total of 16 aunts and uncles, plus my mother and her husband, on his side, but two couples lived far away and didn't come). In more recent years with a smaller group of us, we've gone to a restaurant, a different one each year.
The real traditions start with the stockings. My older sister and I have had the same stockings since perhaps forever. They're patchwork quilted stockings, and I identify mine by a large pink patch on one side. My sister's has a yellow patch in the same spot. We hang the stockings on the chimney mantle, and "Santa" fills them with small trinkets and lays them on the foot of our beds.
My older sister and I shared a room when we were younger, and we'd wake in the middle of the night to riffle through the treasures with the lights still off, trying to feel what each gift could be with our hands in the dark. Gifts in the stocking were almost never wrapped in wrapping paper, and we typically got the same things only in different colors.
An Orange in the Christmas Stocking
After a few minutes of guessing, we'd turn on the lights and see if we were right. We'd squint as the lamp burned our eyes, and dump our loot all over the bed: a toothbrush, an over-sized pencil or perhaps a pen with a plume or rhinestones on it, silly socks, and a smattering of candy canes from the tree and miniature chocolates. And at the very bottom wedged into the toe of the stocking was an orange.
My mom claimed that getting an orange in one's stocking at Christmas was an English tradition. Reading around, I can't find any decent or reliable sounding information on the history of why we do it, but apparently a lot of people in the U.S. do it, too. I'm fine with my own justification that oranges are winter fruit, but still a special treat because they come from afar (which would be as true in England as my hometown in New York state).
Christmas morning we'd pack up all the stocking booty and haul it to the living room or den, wherever the Christmas tree was, and dump them on the couch. Then we inspected all the presents. We poked, lifted, and shook every box we saw with our names on it. My mom would eventually rise and join us, first asking what was in our stockings. We laid out all the goodies again and showed her one-by-one our new instruments of dental hygiene and writing.
Out came the oranges, which my mom gathered into a bowl and took to the kitchen to slice.
When it's time to open presents, to this day, we go one-by-one. Anyone sitting on the floor can pick up a gift and say, "Mom! This one is for you. You go next!" But it's a little like drinking sake or soju: you never fill your own cup. You always wait for someone else to serve you. It puts me in the mindset of thinking about other people and getting excited to see one of my sisters open something special I bought for her.
Then there's halftime. We take a break. Someone makes hot chocolate and coffee. My mom arranges the quartered oranges into a big bowl, and then slices bananas on top so we have something to nibble. Breakfast doesn't happen until the very end, usually around 10:30 or 11:00.
We open all the gifts under the tree and set aside into a pile ones for people who aren't there at the moment, significant others and close friends who may arrive later or not until the next day. When we think we're done, there's usually one more gift hiding somewhere, and not always under the tree. My mother is notorious for getting halfway through breakfast, then springing up from her chair to shout, "Candice! There's another one for you that I forgot in my closet!"
Conceptually for me, Christmas sits somewhere between being a family reunion and a farce. The family reunion part may be obvious. December 25 may be the one single day of the year when the tightest members of all my family get together come hell or high water. Not even Thanksgiving has that stature any more. This year, my flight lands at midnight Christmas Eve. I'll make it, but just barely.
As for the farce part, I'm a non-believer, and I as such I'm opposed to celebrating Christmas in the truest sense of the word "celebrate." I almost feel like it's not fair to Christians for me to take part in their big day.
Some of my friends who are in similar positions have thrown down all pretense and embrace Christmas as a commerce day, a day of gift giving and receiving, an American holiday that has little to do with Christ these days. And that's fine. But it does make me feel a little bad for the people who are still into the holy part of this holiday. If I were in their shoes, the commerce part would drive me batty.
If you are a believer, thank you for tolerating the rest of us. And whatever your own traditions, may you cherish them in memory and carry them forward to the next generation. Merry Christmas!