When it comes to holidays, Christmas Eve is my favorite.
It’s the one night of the year when everyone converges at my mother’s house for the traditional “Seven Fishes” meal, arriving around 6:30 full of excitement and ready to tie on the proverbial feedbag. I don’t know how many families have seven fishes, but we come pretty close:
Bacon-wrapped scallops. Shrimp cocktail. Stuffed littleneck clams. Linguine with white clam sauce. Baked stuffed lobster. That’s five. At one point, we had an iceberg lettuce salad tossed with shrimp topped with lemony dressing, but that was deleted some years ago.
The truth is, it’s hard to eat that much at one sitting. By the time the lobster comes out of the oven around 10 p.m., I’m usually stuffed and have to wrap mine up. Over the years, I’ve tried to save room, but the clams get me every time.
It’s not ladylike or something I’m proud of, but I think I ate 14 clams one year. After I wolfed them down, I’d stack up the shells in front of my plate and wait for the next round. Because seriously, there was always another round, another platter to be passed and devoured.
How much of a big deal is Christmas Eve?
My father put a four-season porch on the house to accommodate the Christmas Eve crowd. When he was arguing his case to my mother, he noted that the house could no longer comfortably accommodate the family, which now included seven sons-in-law and 17 grandchildren. Of course, they used the porch at other times, but its main function was accommodating the folding tables and chairs on Christmas Eve.
For the past several years, my mother has had the distinction of placing the biggest Christmas Eve order at a local fish store. I know this because the owner Lisa told me. It makes sense: every year, Mom hosts somewhere between 30 and 40 people. Over the years, this has included siblings, cousins and parents of in-laws.
When I told Lisa that Mom wasn’t hosting her party this year because of Covid-19, she stopped what she was doing. “Wooooow,” she said. It had become such a tradition that even Lisa couldn’t believe it wasn’t happening.
The night and the meal preparation belonged to Mom, though seriously, I think she’d have been thrilled to pass it off to someone else. It would be a monumental task for any hostess, but Mom is now 87. When I pointed out to my kids that it would even be an effort for a woman my age, they looked at me like I had two heads.
But it would. Hosting close to 40 people is very hard work, even if you have help. The only people who think hosting big parties is easy are people who don’t host parties, and I know plenty of them.
Of course, things are different this year because of Covid-19. With Mom’s party off, I decided to host a small gathering consisting of three fishes at my house. I invited Mom. She thanked me, but said she planned to stay home. She’s since accepted an invitation from one of my sisters, who lives nearby.
She didn’t look upset about a low-key night though. In fact, I think I saw a tiny shred of relief on her face. For the first time in about 60 years, she’d be a guest and could relax. She was finally getting a reprieve from her hostessing duties. It only took a pandemic to make it happen.
Of course, I’ve never hostessed Christmas Eve, so this is all new to me. But I’m already learning from my mother’s experience. I’m not making a pasta course because it’s too filling. And I’ve already handed off the clam prep to my son, who spent about 20 minutes telling me how hosting parties isn’t a big deal.
My daughter wants to decorate the place, so I told her to have at it. I think there are streamers and snowflakes involved, but that’s OK. I was 19 once, and remember the joy in decorating for parties. She’s also handling dessert, which is such a relief.
We’re keeping things very low-key: No heavy appetizers. Fewer courses. No trashing of rooms with manic ripping open of presents, leaving wrapping paper and ribbon everywhere. It will be different, but it will still be Christmas Eve. And I’m still looking forward to it despite this year’s restrictions and constrictions.
However you plan to spend it, I wish everyone a joyous holiday and a very happy and healthy New Year.