Leftovers: You don’t have to be Christian to love Christmas Eve

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In my world, Christmas Eve has long been known as “What’s a Jew to Do?” night. 

Unless my daughters and I were invited to crash a neighbor’s gathering, we’d head out to order The Family Dinner, consisting of two from Column A and two from Column B. It’s a stereotypical notion that Jews eat Chinese food at Christmas time, and a factual one as well. After all, what else is open?

As time passed, we started collecting people and cramming around a hibachi table downstairs at the old Fuji (now N to Tail) on Exchange Street in Portland. One year, long after the girls were out of elementary school, we dined with Ms. Flynn, their third-grade teacher, her son and his partner. Another year, we were joined by a longtime, multi-restaurant partner in crime, and her mom and sister. Yet another year, I invited a struggling artist I met at an art show earlier that day. Now, she’s a successful painter and we’re still pals. 

There was something extra special those Christmas Eve nights. The food seemed better, as did the tableside show of watching shrimp tails fly off the chef’s spatula onto a plate. And, my personal favorite, the graduated stack of raw onion rings bursting into a flaming volcano. 

While those nights were precious memory makers, no Christmas Eve was as stellar as the one I spent going to midnight Mass with my lifelong friend Bruce and his large family. Old enough to value the gift of Christmas morning as sacred time to sleep in, the family hit the nog early and opened their gifts after dinner. With much merriment and in heavy food comas, we bundled up and headed over to the church. Having never been in a place of worship other than a synagogue, there was no frame of reference for what I was about to experience. 

The impressive and intimidating church was a massive old cathedral in a Lake Michigan-front factory town that built Gremlins and Pacers back in the 1970s. Everything about it was grand, and I was instantly mesmerized by the incense, the bells, the choir, the chanting, the stained glass, and even the crucifixes. As beautiful as it was, it freaked me out a little and the incense was making me sneeze. But still, I was enthralled by the history and meaningfulness of it all.

When we arrived at the church, Bruce’s mom handed us silver dollars to put in the collection plate. This seemed outrageously funny to Bruce and his siblings, but the snickering was lost on me until later. 

Halfway through the mass, I was feeling squished between Bruce’s mom on one end of the family, and his serious Wisconsin state trooper dad on the other. It was then a parishioner approached us with a copper pan attached to what looked like a long broom handle. His mom dropped her coin in first, and the pan went down the row until it got to Bruce’s dad. Smiling as I’d never seen him do before, he quickly cupped his hand around his silver dollar and pinged the bottom of the pan with his finger, making it sound like his offering had been dropped in with the others. 

Apparently, this irreverent but amusing act was a family tradition passed down from his own father, and never failed to infuriate Bruce’s mom. Each year there was a resolution it wouldn’t happen the following Christmas Eve, only to be broken at the delight of his children and the regular worshippers who always sat near them to witness the shenanigans. 

As for Christmas Eve 2019, I’ll be celebrating old-school style with my Number One daughter in California. Straight off the plane, we’re going to her favorite Chinese restaurant, known for their scorpion bowls and award-winning egg roll. Across the country, my other daughter will be finishing up at a hibachi table with her friends. 

Hopefully, your own memories and holiday traditions will ping your heart in a happy and joyful way, too. Hug each other a lot and as always, enjoy your meal.

Natalie Ladd is a Portland restaurant veteran, freelance writer and connoisseur of all things Bruce Springsteen. She loves Boston sports, chewy red wine and has never sampled a cheese she didn’t like. She can be reached at natalie@portlandphoenix.me.