Ah, Christmas. The gathering of the families. The opening of presents next to the twinkling lights of the tree. The traditional food - homemade sticky rolls for breakfast, cookies and snacks throughout the day, the candlelit dinner. There's something very comforting about going home for the holidays and knowing that things will be the same.
Except things aren't the same. They never really are, no matter how much you want them to be. You don't wake up at your parents' place anymore and gather, giggling, with your sisters at the foot of the stairs while your mom fusses with the camera. You wake up at home when the cats stomp on you and insist that you get up and play with them, and then drive over to your parents' house at a more acceptable hour, when the sun has already risen. You do the traditional opening of the stocking presents before breakfast, but somehow it isn't quite the same when two of your sisters are missing. You eat the sticky rolls - which are just as good as they always are - but unlike when you were a kid and didn't care about things like calories and fat, you actually stop when you're full instead of continuing to suck them down because they are so darn good, and you drink juice and take a vitamin that isn't shaped like a cartoon character, but comes instead from a bottle that says, somewhere on the label, 'mature'.
You perch on the couch instead of the floor when opening your presents because your knees like it better that way, and instead of the coolest new toy, you get things like ladders and industrial measuring tapes and books on home repair, and you're pretty darn excited about it because that's really what you wanted anyway.
In years past, the whole family has gathered, but now that the sisters are married with children, and one lives in another state anyway, you don't have that 'whole family' thing going anymore, and when the older sister shows up with her husband and son in tow, it's more like they're visiting then that they belong here in the first place.
You were once the one who was ripping open presents with child-like wonder, but now you watch your nephew do it, as he carefully tears the paper off and gets excited about whatever is inside each one ("Wow! A box!"). You all lose bets on which toy he will love the most because even though the wagon that your father painstakingly built for him in the garage garners a lot of childish glee, what really keeps him entertained for the rest of the day is the umbrella made by Crayola, with wide stripes of color. And he keeps coming up to you showing you his umbrella. "Jeffer! Grabrella! See grabrella!" and you are ridiculously pleased about how he keeps asking you and no one else to put the cover on, and then remove the cover, and all the while he watches soberly before running off with his favorite gift.
You all sit around the table for 'lunch' and eat crackers and dip and cheese, but you know you're getting older because you worry about the fact that there's really no vegetables for the meal and you try to limit the number of cookies you cram into your face, even though Christmas has always been the one day that mom and dad didn't watch what you ate and let you stuff yourself silly.
And then when your older sister leaves and the house is suddenly quiet, you look at your mom who has been quietly miserable all day with a nasty cold and you tell her that if she is wanting to cook some huge dinner just because she thinks that you'll be disappointed, that you won't be, and you'd rather just do leftovers or something. So instead of the traditional holiday meatloaf and mashed potatoes and baby peas served on the fine china, with grape Kool-Aid served in the ugly green pitcher, you all pile into the car and drive around all of Solano county until you find the one place that is actually open on Christmas and you join hordes of other hungry travelers over burgers and fries and shakes. So maybe it's not festive and it's not by candlelight and instead of the dulcet tones of a brass quintet playing holiday tunes on the CD player in the other room, you hear the din of a short order cook and the snarling tones of the woman behind the counter who is making it painfully clear that she would rather be anywhere but here tonight. You joke about how your last Christmas dinner at 'home' wasn't the traditional one and how it will scar you forever and you're sure to need counseling (all said tongue in cheek when your mother dithers out loud about how this is just not what she had in mind) until your mom finally realizes that it's okay, you really don't mind at all, and that what matters more than the presentation and the food itself is that you're laughing and eating together and having fun, and that's what's most important anyway.