Most of the photographs I see on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day are of food and families. Exquisitely-set tables, elaborate dinners, generations of relatives with freshly-scrubbed faces and beautiful clothes (or, sometimes, new and often comically matching pajamas), happy pets and the occasional engagement ring.
They might as well be pictures from the surface of Mars.
I’ve worked for many years as a church musician—and most of that in a very big church with many, many services. Not only are Christmas Eve and Christmas day workdays, they’re two of the biggest workdays of the year, with extra services, huge crowds, extra musicians. And don’t even get me started about the perfect-storm of a bad year when December 24th falls on Sunday, which means it’s a “regular” workday all morning, and then suddenly becomes Christmas Eve in the afternoon. And if you work in a parish that has services on Saturday evening (“anticipating” Sunday morning), it gets even worse. A special Christmas Eve dinner is out of the question. And by the time you get home on Christmas Day, what you may want more than anything else is to collapse.
That’s not to say I haven’t tried. Hearing about the Feast of Seven Fishes in some families, I tried picking up sushi on my brief Christmas Eve dinner break. It was sort of festive, but far more rushed than feast-like. Looking for a simpler option, I tried a particular tortilla soup I liked. It was tasty and quick to prepare, but one year it was accidentally too spicy and I turned my head to cough after the first spoonful and re-injured a pulled back muscle and had to play Midnight Mass on some pretty serious pain medication. (That was my first year in the parish and the head of the search committee that hired me worried that they’d made a terrible mistake.)
So I decided: whatever. A ham sandwich eaten in the choir room can be perfect Christmas Eve–maybe with a cookie for dessert. Big Christmas Dinner can be postponed until after I’ve had some sleep.
And then I decided: I’m not doing that any more. I’m not working in a big parish, and I don’t miss it. I may fill in here and there, playing one service on Christmas Eve in order to give a colleague a couple of hours off to have a decent meal with her or his family, but that’s it. And on Christmas morning I am home with my small, happy family.
It doesn’t mean that December is quiet and restful, though. This year, between teaching and concerts and writing and re-writing and re-writing the re-writes and rehearsals and performances—both of us doing shows at the same time in different theaters—there wasn’t a day off between Thanksgiving and Christmas Eve. But, while driving to the train station in the morning, or in the few minutes before sleep at night, or in text messages exchanged here and there, we made plans: I’d play my one service on Christmas Eve with her in attendance to hear the music she loves so well; we’d go for a little drive to look at the lights; then we’d come home to roast a fast-but-festive spatchcocked chicken. On Christmas Day, we’d have a late breakfast of pumpkin-cream-cheese French Toast Casserole, and slow-cook a dinner of Boeuf Bourguignon.
Of course none of that happened quite the way we planned. The looking-at-lights trip happened several days after Christmas. The beef stew went into the pressure cooker rather than a slow oven. And what we thought would be a quick Christmas Eve nap resulted in her waking up on Christmas morning.
I’m just reporting, not complaining.
But there it was, the 28th, and we still had a raw chicken in the fridge. “Should I spatchcock it?” I asked. “What about Alton’s fried chicken?” I was skeptical about thermal-control issues, but she had given me a spiffy new instant-read thermometer for Christmas. So I used my treasured boning knife to portion the chicken. She made the spice blend and moved on to other household tasks. I buttermilk-bathed and spice-rubbed and flour-massaged.
While the chicken rested I prepared the salad, scrubbed and started the potatoes baking.
I cranked up the not-very-effective exhaust fan, opened the kitchen window, and heated the oil
I checked each piece with my spiffy new thermometer, and kept them warm in the oven until everybody was finished.
It was a wonderful meal.
Oh, Christmas Eve? I woke up from our nap sooner than she did. I padded downstairs in my robe and slippers to I assembled the French Toast casserole so it could rest overnight. Then I realized I really did want some dinner. I had a ham sandwich and a cookie for dessert.
It was perfect.