Monday, December 5, 2011

'Twas the night before Christmas – I had a full house...

Holiday traditions vary from one family to the next. One of the challenges in a relationship can be fitting in with the seasonal practices, and living up to the expectations, of your SO's relatives. For my Blissemass offering, I thought I'd give you a moderately extreme example.

I fell in love with J. early in the fall of my first year in grad school. That initial holiday season we spent apart (triggering an outpouring of lonely, horny poetry on my part) but by the following year we were definitely a couple, so he invited me to celebrate Christmas with his family in Lincoln, Nebraska. We spent twenty four hours on Amtrak, traveling to Lincoln from our East Coast university. I have fond memories of our sharing a bunk in a second class sleeper, separated from our fellow passengers by nothing more than a heavy curtain. Needless to say, we had to stifle our moans of passion, but neither of us was immune to the thrill of semi-public sex.

Anyway, we arrived in the frigid Great Plains town on the 23rd of December. Born and brought up in New England, the daughter of a college professor, I really didn't know what to expect from J.'s working class, mid-western family. I guess the sentiments were mutual. J.'s mom had never met anyone Jewish before. Her relief was obvious when she saw how relatively normal I looked, and when I assured her that yes, I did indeed eat ham, their standard Christmas Day fare.

My own family wasn't much for organized religion of any sort. We celebrated Chanukah but we still had a Christmas tree, though no presents. I'd been included in many of my Christian friends' festivities over the years, so I figured I had some ideas about typical Christmas Eve traditions. Some people, I knew, went to midnight services. One friend's mom always served cheese fondue. In other families, each individual opened a single present. How different could it be in Lincoln?

Little did I know!

The next day, just as dusk was falling, J.'s uncle came around in his pick-up. “Time to head over to the Holiday Inn”, he told me. The Holiday Inn? I wondered if perhaps there was some sort of Christmas buffet dinner in which we would all indulge. J. just grinned, enjoying my confusion.

This wasn't, it turned out, just any Holiday Inn. In the Holiday Inn, Lincoln, Nebraska, four tiers of rooms faced into a huge courtyard strewn with lawn chairs and potted palms, centering on a giant, kidney-shaped swimming pool. A translucent dome arched over the whole area, protecting it from the subzero winds outside and the snow just beginning to fall. Heat lamps beamed down from the supporting girders. Inside the courtyard, a steamy, tropical atmosphere prevailed. We might as well have been in Florida or the Bahamas.

J.'s extended family – two sisters, parents, aunts, uncles, cousins, in-laws, along with all their progeny – had reserved most of the ground floor rooms. Within fifteen minutes, the kids were splashing in the shallow end of the pool or doing cannonballs off the edge. Sweating in the warm, humid, chlorine-laced air, the rest of us stripped down to tee shirts. It had never occurred to me I might need a bathing suit at the height of winter in Nebraska! Food and drink emerged from picnic coolers to be set out on the tables. And the Christmas Eve party began.

The main entertainment for the evening turned out to be the annual Christmas Eve poker game. As it happens, poker was one of the primary things I learned in graduate school. I lived in a group house with four guys, including J. (that's another story!), and they played poker every Wednesday night. I wasn't much good at the game – I've never been very skilled at hiding the truth – but I understood the rudiments. When J.'s dad invited me to join in, I thought, “Why not?”

We sat around that plastic table for hours, drinking beer and playing hand after hand of five card stud: J., his father, his uncle, his brother-in-law, and me, the shy little girl from Boston. Actually, I'm sure I wasn't drinking beer – I hated beer back then - but I must have consumed something else alcoholic, because I remember feeling silly, tipsy, a bit wild. And the odd thing was, I was winning.

Something about the bizarre situation inspired me. I'm not sure which felt more exotic, the synthetic tropical paradise or the blizzard swirling outside. I'd never played so well before, and I never have since. My boyfriend watched the poker chips accumulate in front of me. The pride I saw in his eyes made me feel warmer than ever. A buzz of sexual arousal made everything more vivid.

I kept thinking I should bow out, so that J. and I could return to our room and I could jump his bones. When Lady Luck is smiling, though, it's hard to turn your back on her.

Three aces. Four tens. A full house. The cards fell my way that Christmas Eve, and I felt lucky – lucky to be there with my lover, lucky to part of this strange but welcoming family, lucky to be alive. The two hundred fifty bucks I won were just the icing on the cake.

It was past midnight when the game finally broke up. The heat lamps in the dome were extinguished. The kids had been put to bed. The women had long since retired. Most of the rooms around the open area were dark.

Even J.'s boisterous, beer-saturated relatives spoke in hushed voices. Whispers of “Merry Christmas” hung in the humid air as we cleared away the empties and bid each other good night.

I stood on the threshold of our room, peering into the shadowed courtyard, listening to the whir of the ventilation system and the lap of water against the walls of the pool. It was Christmas, and there was a kind of magic here, not really so different from the enchanted silence of a breathless, snowy night. Something special, even holy.

“Lisabet,” J. called softly from inside. “Come to bed.”

[Don't forget that every comment you leave today is one more entry in the Blissemas drawing. You could win a Kindle, or lots of other great prizes. Click on the banner below for complete information on Blissemas fun!]


Victoria Blisse said...

I adore non-traditional traditions! Thanks Lisabet!

Lisabet Sarai said...

Thanks, Victoria! I wouldn't have even remembered this if it hadn't been for BlisseMas!

Debby said...

Love your post. Blending is very difficult but can be so much fun.
debby236 at gmail dot com

Anonymous said...

Loved your story - very atmospheric.

My parents Christmas eve tradition was to visit an elderly aunt who insisted on giving us kids a glass of Cherry Brandy and two chunks of Bournville dark chocolate - they were disgusting but still remain the taste, and smell, of Christmas for me.

Mary Preston said...

My family plays cards when we all get together too. Not for stakes though. We play 500 - so much fun. Traditions are important.


Harlie Williams said...

Great post and I bet you did feel a little out of place but worked out in the end. My brother's BF growing up was Jewish and he loved coming over to our house and enjoying Christmas. In fact, my mother bought him a real small tree and he decorated it with Jewish ornaments and it was his Chanukah bush.

Great story. Thanks for sharing it.


booklover0226 said...

I enjoyed reading this post; it was very nice.

Tracey D
booklover0226 at gmail dot com

Anonymous said...

It sounds like a really memorable holiday, definitely different from ours. (Gotta say, if I had kids, I'd consider the hotel with a pool now that I've heard of it.)


Adriana said...

Lisabet, what a totally wonderful story! And I've been to that very Holiday Inn in Lincoln - part of a Honeymoon trip, actually - so you brought back memories :).

Jenny Twist said...

What a lovely story, Lisabet. I've never done anything like that on Christmas day.

cheralyn said...

I enjoyed reading your story! cheryllynne(at)rocketmail(dot)com

orelukjp0 said...

I know anytime I visit my sister in Wyoming, we go to the Holiday Inn and the kids all swim and play. We didn't play cards but the beer and Jack Daniels sounds familiar.

orelukjp0 at gmail dot com

Anonymous said...

LOVED your story! I live in the SouthWest now and havent been home for years, so I really miss our "Southern" Christmas traditions. We would get up early Christmas Eve and travel to my grandparents house (hours away). Their house was an old plantation style home in the country --and thankfully big enough to house all the relatives that would show up. All Christmas Eve day, relatives would arrive. Kids played, adult men gathered to discuss where to go hunt for the tree and still manage to get in some "turkey hunting" too. Adult women would cluster in the huge kitchen baking and cooking all day. It was like our own little world. Then, that night we would all gather around the HUGE Christmas tree and decorate it. Everyone would set out their presents and then the kids would be sent to bed. Homey memories, but the most precious to me.

Wishing everyone a Blessed and Merry Christmas!
Hugs, Kari Thomas,

tammy ramey said...

what a great memory,thanks for sharing it. my family usually plays dominoes when we get together and the insults and jokes that fly around are hilarious. I hope you have a Happy Holiday Season this year too.

Anonymous said...

I love your post. Non traditional traditions make good memories.

Shadow said...

Great post! Thanks for sharing! When we play games, the insults fly and we have so much fun! Have a wonderful Christmas!

Unknown said...

OMG, how could J not have warned you to bring a swimsuit? Pretty cool though that you fleeced his relatives playing poker.

My dad's family gets together on Christmas Eve. We always have lasagna, salad, garlic bread & christmas cookies. There are always an interesting variety of each food item & no one goes away hungry. Of course when you get a bunch of people together enough times, you will eventually get a moment that never gets lived down. For our family, that is the year that the punch bowl shattered & drenched my cousin in slushy juice. No, he didn't clang the dipper against the side of the bowl, he was just standing near it when the cold temp became too much for the old bowl to handle. Fun times. :-)

drainbamaged.gyzmo at

Shelley Munro said...

LOL that sounds truly memorable. It also sounds like loads of fun with all the family there.

Colleen C. said...

Thanks for sharing with us... I enjoyed reading your post today! Happy Holidays!

Maria-Claire Payne said...

What a fantastic memory, Lisabet -- and how great you not only kicked ass playing cards, but had J to play with all night!


Naomi Bellina said...

What a great story! I spent a memorable New Year's Eve at a Holiday Inn pool. My boyfriend and I signed up for the traditional dinner and party, but shortly after we sat down at our table, we realized we weren't in the mood to socialize. We took off our party clothes, dug out our suits, relaxed in the hot tub, then ate snacks and played pinball for the rest of the night. Sometimes events turn out way differnet than they start.

The Scarf Princess said...

This sounds like a great Christmas celebration and as a current Nebraskan that is indeed the only way to get through these frigid Midwestern winters. I'm sad we've never done this but you've inspired me. My family does play card games during our Christmas get-togethers though and I LOVE it.

joderjo402 AT gmail DOT com

Nichelle Gregory said...

What a lovely memory to share! So festive and fun!

Happy Holidays, Lisabet! :)

Wendi Zwaduk and Megan Slayer said...

Great post and fantastic story!

Anonymous said...

Great story thanks for sharing it.
And what a happy ending.

susan said...

Thanks for sharing a special Christmas with all of us. I can recall some very fond holidays and I hope I can always remember ones that seemed to be a bit more special then others. We are a card playing family and have played cards on Christmas already. I can also recall four Christmas in a row where we were all ill and we still made do and had a nice Christmas. it was chicken pox one year, mesales another and flu and the last was the worst MUMPS for all four kids and mom. Oh yes..that one really tested our sense of adventures for sure. We had lots of ham or turkey left over as only my husband could swollen anything like that. Jello and pudding was not the ideal Christmas meal. ah susan Leech

Michelle said...

Sounds like a wonderful Holiday tradition...and nice and warm too...

Michelle B. aka koshkalady


Lisabet Sarai said...

Thanks to all for your comments!

@Harlie - I believe in celebrating whatever you can. Jewish, Christian, Buddhist - it really doesn't matter. The same things are important to us all.

@Adriana - So now everybody knows I didn't make this up...! Sometimes I wonder if I imagined it (it was a LONG time ago!)

@Kari - I can just picture your "southern" Christmas; sounds fabulous.

@Kathryn - I didn't fleece anyone! LOL. I won fair and square!

@Maria-Claire - you got the message ;^)

@joder - Actually, in the three years J. and I were together, I had some wonderful times in Lincoln. I've actually set a couple of my stories in Nebraska.

@Susan - Mumps is horrible when you're an adult. I hope you never have another holiday like THAT again.

And once again, everyone, thank you! I really appreciate your enthusiasm.

desitheblonde said...

wow that was great and i would love to read and win the kindle for book i need one bad

Huguette En said...

Nice and ineresting post! Great memories :)

Robin Glasser said...

isn't funny what we learn in, poker in graduate, chess in sixth grade...wonderful article, Lisabet

Jennifer Mathis said...

now that sounds like a great time

Brandy B aka Brandlwyne said...

We have our traditions, memories will be all we will have, like going to church on Christmas Eve, watching cartoons with the girls... going to family's homes for paries. I hope we have instilled good family memories for my girls :)

brandyzbooks at yahoo dot com

Emerald said...

I'm so late getting here, but I just loved this account. My family actually had a similar tradition for New Year's. I grew up in the Midwest as well, and we and two or three other families with whom my parents were close friends (we kids were friends perhaps be default) went to a Holiday Inn nearby and spent New Year's Eve there. We actually referred to it as the "holidome" in a combination of "Holiday Inn" and reference to the large dome you mentioned that covers it (not sure if that's an official term or not). There was no poker at our gatherings that I'm aware of, but then I was one of the kids at the time, so perhaps that went on after I was put to bed! :)

Sadly, the Holiday Inn/holidome where we went was destroyed in one of the floods Iowa has experienced over the last decade. I really adored that place...going there for New Year's was one of my favorite things during my childhood.

Thanks for sharing this, Lisabet.

Carol L. said...

Great memories Lisabet. Nothing like shaking up the traditional expectations. :) Thanks for sharing. Happy Holidays.
Carol L
Lucky4750 (at) aol (dot) com

J.C. Martin said...

Did you play some strip poker after everyone else has left? Interesting X'mas memory. :)

kimmyl said...

Great post. I love the holidays and all the family fun involved. It seems that every year is always different with new memories.

Ruth C. said...

During Desert Storm, we had Christmas twice - Dec. 25th and again in Jan.

Our son was stationed in Germany in the Air Force and was unable to obtain leave for Christmas - but came home in Jan.

He flew out of Frankfort and just before Christmas of that year a plane blew up over Lockerbee, Scotland. If he had gotten leave for Christmas he might have been on that plane, so we were thankful that he was OK.

Each Dec., I remember that horrific incident and say a prayer for those unfortunate people.

On a happier note --

Ruth C.

Debbie said...

Loved your comment. We don't really have any traditions that we follow. But we always get together with as much family as we can gather and have a great feast on christmas day. We love to cook and of course eat!

Amy said...

I miss playing cards (though usually Pinochle)at my aunt's house after all the dishes were cleared away and done on holidays. Many fond memories. Thanks for bringing them back.

Julianna said...

Lovely story--thanks for sharing and Happy Holidays!

Tonya said...

What a great story! A memory to retell and keep always. Family fun is definitely memorable. ;) Thanks. Happy holidays!


I love playing cards. Now and then get together with friends to play. What memories I have over the years just from playing cards.

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