Growing up, Christmas Eve was typically spent in one of two places: at my grandparents' house, near Seattle, or at the home of some friends of my parents, who lived in the same town we did. At least once we were at my uncle's house in California, the year we went to Disneyland. I don't remember having a Christmas Eve dinner at home until I was well into my teen years.
As a young child, going to my parents' friends' house was great. We'd have a big dinner, complete with clam chowder (and ever since, clam chowder has been particularly associated with Christmas Eve in my mind). There was always a birthday cake for Jesus, and we'd sing the happy birthday song. Then, we'd go upstairs and have a pinata. That was the best part of the whole evening. They had a big open rec room with a high ceiling. They'd tie it to the high point of the ceiling, and we'd all take turns being blindfolded and smacking it with a broomstick. It was always full of candy and little toys. After the pinata, we'd exchange gifts between the families, before we went home to await our visit from St. Nick.
Going to Grandma and Grandpa's was equally fun in my mind. Oh, I don't remember what we ate for dinner, which is surprising because so many of my childhood memories center around food. I do remember begging and begging to open just one gift on Christmas Eve. Sometimes Mom gave in, and sometimes she didn't. And I remember the tree – they had these really beautiful old lights that had a plastic collar around them, so they looked big and full even though the bulb themselves were small. And they had bubble lights. I could stare at those things for hours! Grandma collected nativities, so their tree was full of ornaments featuring the Blessed Family. Who knew there were so many different kinds!
One year, I was probably about 12, we were at Grandma and Grandpa's house and I was sleeping in the living room. They had a funky fold-out chair that turned into a bed – like a sofa bed but much, much smaller. The chair was right next to the Christmas Tree. Sometime in the middle of the night, I awoke to a faint jingling sound, and heard a rustling next to my bed, near the tree. Excited and terrified, I stayed as still as I could, eyes squeezed shut, pretending to be asleep. Something brushed my cheek, just for a moment, and then all was still. I finally dozed off again and awoke to a beautiful Christmas morning. To this day I have no idea what or who that was. Could have been one of the dogs. Could have been my brothers messing with me. I highly doubt it was my parents, who were the epitome of “early to bed, early to rise” people, and simply didn't get up in the middle of the night. But that year, I believed in Santa Clause like no other.