My Favorite Party
Rebecca Sicree on Christmas Pizzas, Hospitality & the Best Gift of All
When my son Tom was sixteen, I asked him which of our Christmas traditions he would keep for his own family. He thought for a minute, then answered, "Opening one present on Christmas Eve."
"But we don't do that!" I protested.
"Yeah, but I wish we would."
"Isn't there anything we actually do that you would keep?"
He didn't hesitate. "Pizza on Christmas Eve," he replied.
I never planned on pizza. When I was growing up, my mother always prepared a beautiful roast beef dinner on Christmas Eve, during which we shared oplatki, the postcard-sized Polish wafers stamped with Nativity scenes. (On Christmas Day, she served leftover roast beef sandwiches and got to relax.) My husband's family, which has their big dinner on Christmas Day, did have pizza the night before.
My mother-in-law did not plan this either.
"One year the Boy Scouts gave us their leftover pizza supplies, which we happened to use on Christmas Eve," she explained. "The next year the kids all claimed that it was a tradition, so we couldn't stop doing it."
I was married thirteen years before I ever spent Christmas in my own home. (We finally realized that we could no longer fit six kids, their winter clothes, their gifts, and the gifts for both extended families into our sagging station wagon and still see out the rearview mirror). That year I tried, really tried, to cook my own roast beef dinner on Christmas Eve. At four in the afternoon, I found myself trying to calculate how I could feed everyone, clean up, and still transport various altar servers, choir members, angels, and sheep to the Children's Mass at 6:30 without resorting to desperate measures, such as time travel or bi-location. At that point, my husband stepped in, gently returned all the food to the refrigerator—and ordered take-out pizza.
Now we have a tradition that, like the laws of the Medes and the Persians, cannot be changed.
A Daunting Form of Charity
The irony is that, until I stayed home and failed at re-creating my mother's dinner, I was never able to offer hospitality to anyone else on Christmas Day. "Yeah," one of our Christmas guests joked over dinner, "it would have been just me and the cat, sharing a turkey burger." You can't have company for dinner if you're not home—or if you're running off to evening Mass a
If we think of hospitality as just throwing parties, then it seems more frivolous than virtuous. True, the host was generous, we think, but wouldn't that generosity have been better spent if the money had been saved and given to the poor? Then we sigh and shake our heads, forgetting exactly which apostle we are echoing. We also forget, as Mother Teresa said, that "loneliness and the feeling of being unwanted is the most terrible poverty." Perhaps this is why hospitality is stressed so much in the Bible, and sins against it are so strongly condemned. If the Bible is full of stories of angels dropping by in disguise and wandering prophets working miracles for women who shelter them, it must mean that to welcome a guest is to welcome God.
Hospitality can be a daunting form of charity because it requires you to give up a little control every time you invite a guest into your home. One time a guest of ours brought a pony and gave the kids rides around the yard. Another time we ended up with a snake hunt in the middle of a baptismal party, led enthusiastically by my son's godmother. ("Susan," her husband apologized, "was very reptile-deprived as a child.")
Sometimes you don't even have control over who the guests are. At one party, I noticed two little blondes, dressed in shiny skirts and gauzy wings, flitting about our yard. I didn't recognize them, so I assumed my husband had invited them.
He didn't know who they were, either. Neither did any of our kids. We eventually learned that they were guests of our guests. They disappeared, smiling and nameless as real fairies, at the end of the day.
"To Make You Happy"
One of the biggest surprises I had was the party I found when my four daughters, all under ten, called me into their bedroom. Red plastic streamers connected the tops of their two bunk beds, like the canopy of an alien rainforest. The girls had created them by untwisting red plastic leis, which are as close to tropical vines as you can get in midwinter in Pennsylvania.
"It looks," Tom said with approval, "like Shelob was here."
"We wanted to surprise you," Teresa confessed to me, "but we were afraid you would get stuck in it." Then she and her sisters sang This Is the Day the Lord Has Made for me. Teresa and Maria, who could read, sang the lyrics, and Isabel and Genny, who could not, echoed on cue.
"We wanted to have a party for you," Teresa explained, "because you were mad and grumpy all day. It was probably our fault. We wanted to leave this up until your birthday and give you a present, but we decided to give you a concert instead. We wanted to make you happy."
My birthday was not for another two months. I wanted to cry, but the girls were too little to have understood why.
Fun, but No Repeat
Real hospitality is a form of love because it is personal. No institution, no matter how welcoming, will ever laboriously untwist plastic leis to make you happy. There is a qualitative difference between serving on a reception committee and inviting guests to your own home. (Well, our guests were always invited by someone, if not by us.) The difference is that, when you invite people personally, it matters to you whether a particular guest comes or not, and the guest knows it.
This became clear to me in the difference between two events that I organized. Back when I had only seven kids, I organized a medieval banquet for an educational association, and arranged for re-enactors to provide the food and presentations. To my surprise, I discovered that my daughter Maria, age five, was especially excited about it.
Then she asked, "When are we leaving for the mad, evil banquet?"
I knew I had to correct that mistake before any active little minds could act on it. "We are just going to have dinner," I explained, "the way that rich people did at the time of Joan of Arc."
"You mean at the time of Noah," seven-year-old Teresa corrected me.
I was puzzled. "No," I told her, "that was much, much earlier."
Now Teresa looked puzzled. "But I always thought Jonah Ark was Noah's wife."
I was afraid to ask if she thought St. Joan had been swallowed by a whale.
Fortunately, at the banquet, none of my children acted more mad or evil than usual. I signed up Alec and Tom to be pages, hoping they would learn to like waiting on tables at home, too, but this custom did not, alas, catch on.
About sixty parents and children showed up and everyone seemed happy, so the banquet was a success . . . but we never held another one. No one even suggested it. It was, well, just an educational program, and even a really good program is not a real banquet.
An Instant Tradition
Ten years and three children later, our family held a Twelfth Night party in our parish hall on Epiphany that reminded me a bit of the medieval banquet. We had games for the children and dancing for the teenagers. (Out of respect for teenage sensitivities, my husband graciously agreed not to wear his Wolfman mask while working as the DJ.) We had a potluck dinner, so everybody took a spoonful of everything. We even had sword fights.
The sword fights were in the mummers' play, "The Turkey and the Turk," by G. K. Chesterton, which my older children put on with their friends after dinner. In England, groups of garishly costumed actors, called mummers, traditionally go door-to-door on Twelfth Night, performing skits and asking for money. The plots vary, but they usually include Father Christmas (the narrator), St. George (the hero), the Turkish Knight (the villain), the Princess (the reason for their fight), and the Doctor (who brings the slain combatant back to life as comically as possible).
In Chesterton's play, St. George and the Turk fight three times, and the German Doctor, sounding more and more like a frenzied Dr. Frankenstein, replaces first the Turk's wounded arm, then his leg, with mechanical ones after each round of fighting. When the Turk is finally wounded in the head, however, he refuses to let the Doctor replace it with a mechanical one (our Doctor offered him a Darth Vader helmet) and instead makes peace with St. George, to the cheers of everyone but the disappointed Doctor.
After all the work we put into rehearsals, we were anxious about the turnout for the party. So we invited everyone we knew and some we didn't, though they all seemed to know us. (When you have ten kids, this happens uncomfortably often.) We were afraid, you see, that everyone would be tired after the holidays and no one would come.
We were wrong. Over a hundred people showed up.
We learned a few things. One was not to allow children to blow up their own balloons unless you really, really don't mind water balloons. Another was not to fight with wooden swords against metal ones. Metal swords, especially metal broomsticks covered with cardboard and duct tape, eventually suffer from metal fatigue. Wooden swords do not. Wooden swords, in the arms race of stage props, are doomsday weapons. After withstanding multiple bruising rehearsals, our poor Turk's sword suddenly bent in half during the first duel, forcing him to hold it together with his free hand for the next two fights.
It could have been worse. At least the Turk was supposed to lose.
Fortunately, we learned that audiences like accidental comic effects even more than planned ones.
But the most important thing we learned was that a party is different from a program. Our Twelfth Night party wasn't even over before our guests were asking us about next year and our kids were asking me to find another play. For a party is really a gift you give your guests to make them happy, to share your love with them, as my daughters with their red plastic leis understood. For Christ himself compared the reign of God to a wedding banquet, and all our hospitality here on earth is but a dim reflection of his.
Now when I ask my kids about their favorite Christmas custom, they say the Twelfth Night party without hesitation.
It probably didn't hurt that someone brought take-out pizza. •
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