Christmas dinner

Shunpiking Magazine, December-January, 2000, No. 31

OUR CHRISTMAS DINNER table always looked like a photograph from Christmas Ideals. A dark green ceramic sleigh with hollyberry accents, filled with brightly coloured miniature tree ornaments and pine cones, sat on a smallish octagonal mirror in the centre of the table. It was bracketed by heavy, sculpted-glass candle-holders in the shape of seals -- my grandmother's, and therefore my mother's, prized possession. On the end of each seal's nose was balanced a long red taper, flame dancing to the rhythm of final dinner preparations. A freshly laundered white damask cloth hung evenly from all sides of the table, and matching dinner napkins marked each of the ten or so places identically set for immediate and extended family members and few close friends who were regular Christmas dinner guests. Our good china had been brought out and dusted off, and the good silver and crystal glassware had been polished for the occasion. The common area of the table held sparkling silver and glass condiment dishes brimming with freshly stewed cranberries and homemade chowchow, salt and pepper shakers, butter tray and water pitcher with drops of condensation running in tiny rivulets down its silvery surface.

This quaint, festive scene was abutted on one side, the living room, by the fluctuations of several simultaneous conversations -- small talk, really -- initiated and extended in part to divert attention from the late hour and people's rumbling tummies. From the other side, the kitchen, came a cacophony of clattering pots and dishes accented by muttering and cursing punctuated by cries of exasperation.

"I can't cut this damned turkey. It's all falling apart. How the hell long was it in the oven anyway? And the gravy's no bloody good. I can't make gravy like your father."

"It'll be fine. Everybody's so hungry, no one will notice. Besides, the dressing's the main event -- worth waiting all year for."

"Well, the potatoes are ice-cold by now. Here, open another can of peas. None of it's going to be fit to eat. You start dishing it up. Call everyone to the table first."

Such was the scene of domestic bliss that preceded our Christmas dinner each year.

Gathered around the festive table, we were elbow to elbow, knee to knee, left-handed people on the corners. Once settled, someone, usually one of my brother's friends, would silence everyone to propose a toast:

"To Pearl" -- turning toward Mum with much pomp and circumstance -- "for another valiant effort and great accomplishment in the face of considerable adversity -- to another successful Clark family Christmas."

"Hear, hear."

"And" -- turning to the other end of the table, to the empty chair and place setting where my father should have been -- "to George, wherever he may be. Here's to you, for upholding yet another Clark family tradition."

The meal was always delicious. And everyone typically would overeat except Mum, whose appetite had succumbed to sheer exhaustion. The final course of homemade mincemeat pie followed by "a nice cuppa tea" typically led to much groaning and belt-loosening, after which most people would excuse themselves from the table to retire to more comfortable chairs and positions in the living room. Those who remained around the table for a second cup of tea and to chat could pretty much count on two events: my mother nodding off, head almost in her teacup; and my father making a guest appearance.

Little or no sleep the night before and almost constant activity inevitably took its toll on Mum, although she would never admit it.

"Mum, wake up. You're going to spill your tea."

"I'm not asleep, for God's sake. I was just thinking about something."

And she'd nod off again, only to be jarred awake next by my father's voice.

"How's she goin'? Besht of the season," he'd slur from the doorway of the dining room, almost chewing his words with rum-thickened tongue and lips. "Looksh like I'm too late. Guessh I'll go back to bed. 'Night."

"Okay, Merry Christmas, George. See you next year."

*"Christmas Dinner" is an excerpt from Ariel's recently-published Tales of a Dysfunctional Family Christmas, Backalong Books, Big Tancook Island.

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