I lived in Seattle, Washington until I was twelve years old. Back then, Christmas Eve was always spent with my mom's side of the family at my Aunt Anita and Uncle Mel's home. It was a big, fun family event that everyone looked forward to all year long. All the extended family that could be there was, so some years there were upwards of twenty people all crowded around the long family dinner table.
The family we celebrated with are from Sweden (came on a ship when Grandpa was 15) so we ate a Swedish smorgasbord, a multi-course dinner. Lutefisk (jellied herring), boiled new potatoes, ham, cheese and cracker plates, sil, silta, liver pate, beets, potato sausage (hard to find), rolls, and desserts. I'm sure there are some items I've forgotten, but I do remember it was a feast.
After all that food we went to the family room in the basement and played with the cousins while the men talked sports and the women did dishes and packed up the leftovers. Then it was time for the gift exchange and Santa Claus. Santa Claus was always someone different every year, I think it might have been a neighbor one year, my cousin's fiancee another, my uncle, my grandpa.
The wonder of Santa Claus was he had jingle bells to announce his arrival to the basement's back door and a bag full of gifts for the kids. Whomever was Santa Claus then had to sneak back into the house and pretend that he'd missed all the fun. This was fun for the grown-ups, too, I remember hearing them recounting the stories of it years later.
The drive home was only a forty-minutes, but we inevitably fell asleep and had to be lugged up to our rooms by Dad one at a time (while he's complaining that we are "like a sack of potatoes." Then the next morning was Christmas and stockings and a day to play.
I miss those big family Christmases. My great-grandparents are gone now, as is my Aunt Anita (cancer took her a few years ago). But the warm memories go on. And as I remember them, I remember why it's important to do family things. Why it's good to have the traditions and the food and the fun. It's what makes life alive and wonderful.