What defines a memorable holiday? Is it seeing family that you haven’t seen all year? The one gift that makes you squeal with delight (or moan in despair)? Is it the food, or the ritualistic traditions that have been part of your family since you can remember? My most memorable holiday is associated with the weather. Extremely bad weather. December, 1998 was the last holiday season before my wedding and I would never again share Christmas with my family the way I had growing up; I was so uptight about all the family traditions being the same as they had always been so I could participate in them one last time. The outdoor lights had to be just so, and the trees had to be trimmed the way they always had been. I tried to plan everything so precisely, down to the music we listened to while we were decorating; I was leaving my childhood in the past and I was determined to cling to it as long as I could.
On December 23rd, I went with my mother to deliver a Christmas gift to my flower-girl, Carol, and that’s when everything started to fall apart. On the way home it started to sleet, which was awful because my mother didn’t have an SUV back then, and her Oldsmobile didn’t handle winter driving very well. We made it home in one piece and went ahead with the preparations without much thought to what was going on outside. I headed off to bed around 11:00, happy with the way things were going. Then, about 3:00 Christmas Eve morning, I woke up to the grinding sound of the heat pump cutting off and on; apparently the sleet had turned into a full-blown ice storm and our power had gone out. I remember my mother brought me an extra blanket and I went back to sleep thinking we’d probably have power back later that morning. I awoke to find myself living in a crystal palace. The ice storm had passed over, leaving everything coated with a cold glaze which was as gorgeous as it had been destructive. My sister and her (then) boyfriend (now husband) were on their way home from Virginia Beach, where my sister was in college, in a front-wheel drive sedan. To say my mother was on pins and needles would be an understatement. My father had built a fire and we sat in front of it, waiting for them to get home. It felt like we waited forever and I can still hear myself whining “this will be the worst Christmas ever!” The usual hour and a half trip from Norfolk to Richmond took over three hours, but they finally arrived with their dog in tow, worn out but safe. All we needed was to pick up my grandmother, who in good weather lived ten minutes from us. We were worried about her being in a cold apartment at the age of 84, so we convinced her to pack her bag and join us where she could at least stay warm in front of the fire. My father left, and even though he had a truck, it still took him 30 minutes to travel the winding one-lane road that connected our neighborhood to the main road. Once everyone was together, we had to worry about more practical matters. Since it was obvious at that point that the electricity wasn’t coming back on any time soon, we had to accept it and deal with it the best we could. Our best, however, wasn’t much, as we had a well instead of a county water line. No electricity meant no water and no water meant no flushing. Things were bound to get gross in a hurry. Another practical issue was food. Back in the “old days”, we always had our big holiday meal on Christmas Eve. It consisted of roast beef, rice and gravy, green bean casserole, squash casserole, and pound cake with a jello swirl for dessert. All that was sitting in a refrigerator that was losing its cool the longer the power stayed off. Anyone for hot dogs? I still remember how ridiculous my father looked standing outside at the gas grill, bundled up like an Eskimo to grill food that we wouldn’t normally have eaten since July. It wasn’t one of the fanciest Christmas dinners I’ve ever had, but those hot dogs were the best I’ve ever eaten.
After dinner my sister’s dog needed to go out so we bundled up and headed down the driveway to see what the weather was like. It was a clear night and in the moonlight, the ice seemed to glitter like ornaments. I had to admit that, despite feeling like my perfect holiday had been ruined, it really was beautiful. My sister and I had a tradition of pulling an ornament off of the neighborhood’s gaudiest mailbox, but that year the entire tacky thing was frozen solid. In hindsight, it was probably for the best. After all, is vandalism really a good way to celebrate Christmas? My fondest memory of that evening was how we all crowded into the den to sleep by the fire. We all had on multiple layers and even the dog wore a sweater. I vividly remember my grandmother lying at one end of the sofa and my mother at the other end – it amazes me how images like that stick in my mind even after all this time. When Christmas morning arrived, the sun was out and we had stayed warm all night thanks to my father waking up every couple of hours to stoke the fire. We brewed tea and warmed my grandmother’s sausage balls for breakfast and then opened gifts by candlelight. Eventually, the power came back on that afternoon and we were lucky – some rural areas didn’t have power for over a week.
Since 1998, there have been so many changes to our holidays. My beloved Gran, who was such a big part of our celebrations, passed away in 2000. With the addition to our family of my nephew in 2004 and my niece in 2005, our family changed again and we altered our plans once more to be able to attend the children’s service with them. My grandfather moved to Richmond in 2007 and is now a central figure in our celebrations. Change is inevitable but it should be embraced. You can’t live in the past. I learned that in 1998 and carry that with me, along with the unique memories to this day.