Thursday, December 15, 2011


In years past Christmas was a living room filled with gifts shoehorned in from wall to wall and stacked three layers high; it meant licking over 300 stamps and attaching them to hand-written cards going all over the world; it meant Christmas Eve with my family, Christmas week with Rick's family and then a final affair with our closest friends on New Year's Eve. It meant thousands of dollars in gifts, travel and food. We had the money. It was fun, but now things are different.
We still hang out the quilted stockings my mother made when she could remember all our names but now we draw names for three relatives and limit the stocking stuffers to $10 each.
We no longer buy gifts for all our siblings and close friends; it's only the kids under 18 who luck out with wrapped boxes under the tree. The Christmas Eve dinner still happens although I'm not flying in crab cakes from the North Carolina shore, but what we do is more fun then anything I can remember from those halcyon days of just a short time ago. Here's the rundown of Christmas with the Melahns.
Christmas Eve starts early in the afternoon with the gathering of the cooks at my sister's house, the participating chefs are assigned tasks. Those that can't cook, and they know who they are, are assigned parts of the meal that they can purchase rather than make. My middle sister's assignment always has something to do with dinner rolls, the pre-baked ones you can purchase in the grocery and heat up in the oven just before dinner. The rest of us take on more ambitious tasks, although last year's Potatoes Anna ended up starting an oven fire before they got baked all the way through. The goal is to have the meal ready by six.
This rarely happens to the dismay of my cousin, Maggie, who runs her life on a very tight schedule. If you say six, you better mean it. If you knew my cousin Maggie you'd understand the importance of promptness and the consequences of tardiness.
When the kids were really young they were allowed to open their gifts before the meal was served. There's no point in torturing the young. Now since the girls are all teens and tweens we're hoping they've learned the attribute of patience and if not cousin Maggie will set them straight.
Our Christmas Eve meal is typical Midwest German, only foods that are either brown or off-white are allowed. We've tried to introduce some verdant greens, a touch of hot red but the best we can do is a bit of yellow and then only in the form of some Wisconsin cheese.
After the meal is cleared and before dessert, it's stocking time. The stockings my mother made all had embroidered names on them but as the family grew and changed and my mother's memory began to fail we've resorted to pining post-its of new members over the names of those no longer with us.
Now this year will also have a new twist and I'm not sure how this will pan out, but last year I gave everyone a ridiculous looking Christmas sweater. I scoured the thrift stores for months picking up a two-dollar gem here and a fifty-cent steal there. This year we're holding a competition to see who can make their ugly sweater ever uglier. We asked for a $10 donation from each family, that'll give us a $70 pot, to be used as prize money for the contest winners.
We've decided on a Survivoresque method of prize distribution. Each member will be allowed to cast one vote for the person they believe created the best of the ugliest. Just like on the Survivor finale it's the one with the most votes that will win the million dollars or our equivalent of a million dollars. We'll probably break for dessert after the sweater competition. I know Maggie will require a line item mention of this, so here it is.
After dessert there are two more gift exchanges we'll do to fill out the evening. The first we refer to as dumpster diving. The requirement here is that you bring one wrapped gift to the party. This gift has to have been purchased for virtually nothing or retrieved from the dump for free. These gifts are placed in the center of the room. One adult is responsible for writing numbers on little slips of paper that correspond to the number of guests at the party. One of the kids then goes around with a hat from which each person draws a number. The number will establish where you land in the queue for gift selection. The higher your number, the better. Here's why. The person with number one chooses first. They pick out the gift they guess to be the most desirable. It's kinda like "Let's Make a Deal", you've no idea of what's behind curtain number three. They get to unwrap their gift and everyone gets to ooh and aah or laughs hysterically. Now the person with number two gets to pick their gift. Here's the rub. After unwrapping their gift if they decide they like what number one got better than what they picked then they can trade with number one and number one can't do a damn thing about it. We've had people run off into adjacent rooms in a fit, trying to protect their original selection. Now see why going last has its advantages. You get to survey the whole crowd and pick whatever you want.
Our last game is called "Regifting". This is something that some of us prepare for all year long. It's the opportunity to get rid of everything that didn't sell at the summer tag sale or those gifts you've received throughout the year that you never wanted or needed. This game requires that nothing be wrapped. Again all items are placed in the middle of the room. We use a pair of dice for this one. Gambling was never a sin in my family. Everyone gets a turn at throwing the dice. If you get doubles you can select an item. As in the previous game, once the items begin to get picked you can trade your selection for someone else's pick under the assumption that there would be anything here you'd really want. Some of us pray we never roll doubles and have to take something home we never wanted in the first place.
We've made the price of entry into our recession conscious Christmas pretty low on the financial scale, but the humor and joy of the evening can't be matched. When tears are running down your face because you're laughing so hard at two people fighting over a pair of size fifty-four triple EEE brassieres and granny panties you know you've had a priceless Christmas.

Late last summer we got a call from a graduate student in journalism at the University of Wisconsin. She had seen a piece on us in another magazine and wanted to know if she could do an article on us for the "Curb", a young magazine produced and published by the communications department at the University of Wisconsin. The magazine appears both in print and online. Our cub reporter did a great job of chronicling our transition from Manhattan to Madison. Here's the link to the online article:

Chicago, IL, 2005 (Toys)
Brian Ulrich, photographer
Represented by Julie Saul Gallery, New York

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