As stores begin to display Christmas wares way too early, and holiday commercials are rushing us into the holiday mentality, I can’t help but revisit memories of childhood Christmases surrounded by family, tradition, and the spontaneous ride of a lifetime. I must have been twelve or thirteen, and it was an exceptionally cold Christmas Day in New Jersey. As my big family was prone to do, we were all gathered at my aunt and uncle’s house for what was our yearly tradition. It looked much like every Saturday did for us, with our big loud Cuban family cooking, dancing, and just enjoying each other’s company. The only difference was we were all dressed in our holiday best. The previous night, Christmas Eve, we had enjoyed a delicious menu of roasted pork, yuca, black beans and rice, and all the traditional foods reserved for that time of year.
For me, the highlight of the evening always came after dinner. My aunt, my dad’s oldest sister, spent weeks leading up to Christmas Eve organizing what she simply termed, “Chistes” (translation: Funnies). Everyone would pull their chairs into a circle and one by one we would each take the spotlight. Names had been randomly drawn in a top-secret ceremony where my aunt was the only one privy to the names selected.
The gist of the activity went as follows: You drew a name in advance, then purchased or created an item that was telling of that person’s year, and wrote a limerick to go with it. I recall getting a gymnast Smurf the year I started gymnastics. I think one of my uncle’s got a wig the year he started losing his hair. There were no rules, and amazingly no one ever got their feelings hurt. That particular year, my dad got a plastic lobster since the highlight of his year was fishing in the Florida Keys and freezing his catch for a big paella later in the year.
This must have been the trigger because shortly after we wrapped “Chistes” my dad and my uncle started reminiscing about Florida and the warmer weather. That very night, it was decided that we would all take a road trip the day after Christmas! And thus, the “ride of a lifetime” was born.
At thirteen, you would think this ride involved my first time on a Harley in some Sons of Anarchy fantasy, but that ride didn’t happen until my 30’s (that moment was captured here).
No, this ride was in a sixteen passenger van that automatically became a twenty passenger van for my big Cuban family in a time before seat belts were the law. Each family was told to pack only one bag, difficult to do for those families of four, but somehow we managed. Not only did we need enough room for passengers and luggage, but we also needed room for sandwiches and snacks because our income bracket didn’t allow for restaurants of any kind. My dad’s prized possession and the instrument to get any party started, his Ricky Ricardo conga drum also had to make it in the van.
We were squeezed together like sardines. Napping was a luxury, especially when you had a relative’s foot in your face because somehow they decided they needed more beauty sleep than the rest of us. Stops at the gas station were a real treat, and to spectators we must have looked like a circus was in town. Each time, we had to unload the conga drum and several bags, so we could all pile out one by one to use the restroom.
The entire trip took 21 hours, but the memories of that trip have lasted a lifetime.
Do you have memories of a spontaneous “ride of a lifetime”
(clean enough to share here)?
How about fond memories of holiday traditions?