We went to our neighbor's house for Christmas Eve dinner and then to the late church service. My father's birthday is Christmas Eve as well, so we celebrated that morning in a specifically non-Christmas way. This was to insure his birthday was not cheated by the forthcoming Christmas merriment. All of these activities meant my mom would begin preparing the house and table days in advanced. Loose ends were addressed on the afternoon of Christmas Eve.
The first gathering was a Christmas lunch for my mom's family, a 20+ guest event. Everyone brought food and treats and more gifts for sharing.
After her family left, my mother would reset the house and tables for my father's family, another 15-20 guests. Their arrival brought yet more food, laughter, visits, and presents.
As a child I remember this all running smoothly. It was our yearly routine. I never felt rushed or stressed, and we seemed to have plenty of time to visit with each family.
As an adult, I wonder at my mother's ability successfully to host two large parties while still maintaining the joy and magic of Christmas Day for us. Never did I feel these guests were intruders. Rather, I knew they were family and special guests whose arrival we greeted with excitement. I am the youngest cousin on both sides by a long shot, and I knew which cousins would indulge a little girl's Christmas energy.
A few years ago I asked my mother why she did it. Of course part was owing to the fact that she had the best house for entertaining a large group and she enjoyed welcoming our larger family into our home. But another reason was because my brother and I were little and she didn't want us to have to leave our house on Christmas Day.
In other words, she did it out of love. And, so, it was a ministry. It still is the only season we all gather on both sides of the family. Were it not for her hard work and dedication my childhood memories may not be so idyllic and without a doubt my relationships with my extended family wouldn't be as strong as they are now.
Our routine has changed. My older cousins got married and had children of their own. Just as in the case with my parents, they didn't want to drive long distances with their children on Christmas Day so different traditions were born. We still gather every year to share the season and our lives lived over the past year.
Now my brother and I bring home our families to experience the magic of Christmas morning at my parents' house. Because of my vocation, Christmas Eve is a very late night for my husband and me and my mother's Christmas ministry hasn't changed. She and my dad attend the early service at my church. After we've had dinner at our house, Mom and Dad take our kids back to their home. They help the little ones put out milk and cookies for Santa and say "goodbye" to our Christmas elf. By the time my husband and I arrive at their house at 2 a.m., our kids have long since been enjoying the dance of sugar plums in their heads. Mom and Dad then keep the kids occupied until 8:30 a.m. (or as long as they possibly can contain the energy of 3 children anxious for Christmas to begin. This gives my husband and me some much appreciated rest so we can enjoy the season's greatest morning as it unveils itself.
My mom is still holding sacred the magic of Christmas for my brother and me and our families.
As I look back on those early years of dual parties, I am reminded of another ministry my mom shared. It was through those preparations that I was taught the ministry of hospitality. As I learned the correct placement of water glasses and dessert forks, I also learned the importance of setting a proper table and preparing a home for company. It's not about appearances, being uptight or high-brow, or even just wanting things to be organized. It's about making your space as comfortable and stress-free as possible for your guests.
The importance of setting a proper table has resonated with me more than just a little as I have matured. My husband and I love to have our home filled with friends and family. I enjoying hosting and the work of preparing my house and table for guests.
But much of what I learned about the ministry of hospitality from my mom has been essential to my ministry as a priest. Every time we worship, it is my responsibility to get our parish "house" and table in order. From planning the liturgy to the actual setting of the altar and Eucharistic prayers, I am the chief host at our religious "parties". I learned early the importance of putting guests at ease and this has become a central part of my approach to leading worship: if I am relaxed and joyful, so too will be those who choose to worship in our church home.
The traditions have changed around my parents' house for Christmas. There are fewer to feed and we share the cooking duties. This year my dad cooked an amazing rib roast from one of the cows raised on the farm. But the table is still my mom's to set and you can be assured that those who gather around it are relaxed, welcomed, and happy.
Standing Rib Roast
(Though we didn't want to lose the meat it takes to make it stand so ours lay on its side)
I don't have measurements here so you'll have to experiment. The particular source of this roast was a Belted Galloway - Angus cross, so the meat is flavorful and leaner.
For any roast or other lean meat - I cannot stress enough: BRINE! From pork chops to turkey to pork loins to chicken breasts to lean beef, it makes a world of difference.
Here is my dad's Christmas brine:
The recipe after THE BRING isn't as CRITICAL, though I think he used this one: