By Christine Marie Eberle
My mother died in the fall of 2007. When my father, brother and I left her hospital room for the final time, Mom’s two sisters accompanied us on the slow walk to the parking garage. Suddenly, one of my aunts punctuated the silence with, “Oh no! Where are we going to have Christmas this year?”
“At the house,” Stephen answered quickly. “Christine and I will cook.”
To be clear, we’d never attempted such a thing; our role in Christmases past had been strictly auxiliary, and neither of us lived in the house anymore. But we’d both grown up to be reasonably adept cooks, and we couldn’t bear the thought of losing the holiday tradition in the same year we lost Mom. A few weeks later, someone asked again: Were we really going to attempt Christmas ourselves?
“Absolutely,” I said. “I just hope you don’t mind eating off disposable plates. I have no interest in dealing with the Christmas dishes.”
To be clear, the dishes didn’t have poinsettias or gingerbread people on them; that would so not have been Mom’s style. It’s just that Christmas dinner was the only time her Lenox emerged from the safety of the china closet. Since Mom didn’t believe in cleaning up while guests were present, many Christmases ended with just the two of us, utterly exhausted, doing dishes for hours while Dad dozed in the living room and Stephen played Nintendo upstairs. (There’s a big age gap between siblings — which doesn’t entirely explain why the men got out of dish duty.)
On what turned out to be Mom’s final Christmas, I’d been on a clean-as-you-go mission, slipping into the kitchen whenever possible to stay ahead of the chaos. We got to bed earlier, but I pretty much missed the party; the trade-off had not been worth it. Once Stephen and I were in charge, however, I figured that skipping the fancy china would enable us to replicate Mom’s gracious attention to her guests without her Cinderella-after-the-ball reversion to scullery maid. It’s not like the dishes made the Christmas magic, right?
In the early days of Advent, we got an email from our cousin John, who had married just a few weeks before Mom died. “Sonja and I are feeling bad about the Christmas dishes,” he wrote. “We wonder if you’d consider using your mom’s china if we promise to do the dishes.”
The night of December 25 found all the cousins in the kitchen — with John and Sonja at the sink. As we jostled around each other, loading the dishwasher, scrubbing pots and pans, putting away food, and sneaking leftovers, we laughed and talked and reminisced about my mom. It was the most time we’d ever spent in a kitchen together. In a season marked by breathtaking grief, this remains one of my warmest memories.
Does that mean the Christmas dishes were magic after all?
Of course not. They never were. For my mother, the dishes were about hospitality (think Martha of Bethany before the meltdown). For John and Sonja, they were about tradition — one John had enjoyed his whole life and was looking forward to sharing with his wife. And for me, that year, the dishes were made of grace. Downright sacramental, they were no longer a fragile, labor-intensive possession but a source of connection and a vehicle for participation in the communion of saints.
Over the next seven years, our Christmas gatherings dwindled to less-effervescent affairs. My father continued to live in the house alone, but he never cooked, so pulling off an annual feast in his kitchen became increasingly challenging. When Dad died on the day before Thanksgiving in 2014, Stephen and I were sorry to sell the house, but totally okay letting go of Christmas.
We’d carried the mantle as long as we could, and when we had to put it down, John and Sonja picked it up. They have four children now, and a house one parish over, big enough for everyone who wants to come celebrate. John’s dad roasts a turkey and runs it over; sometimes I contribute my cornbread stuffing. John makes his own ice cream as well as three kinds of pie.
And it all gets served on beautiful dishes.
Christine Marie Eberle is the author of two books of daily meditations based on true stories: “Finding God in Ordinary Time” and “Finding God Abiding.” A campus minister in higher education for 26 years, she now devotes her time to writing and retreat facilitation. She cantors for her parish, St. Vincent DePaul in Germantown, Philadelphia, and works closely with the Ignatian Volunteer Corps. You can follow her at christine-marie-eberle.com.