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.”
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