This year my siblings and I will gather Christmas Day for a luncheon celebration with our families at my parents house in a quiet suburb of Burlington, Vermont. All of our spouses will be present as well as seven grandchildren, for a crowd total of 15. Though that might seem a high number to some, to my French Canadian family it merely qualifies as a quaint gathering.
My parents immigrated to the United States from Québec, Canada in the mid 1960s when my father was hired by IBM after graduating from Sherbrooke University. Within 10 years they would have three children and have built a raised ranch for their growing brood.
Growing up my sister, brother and I were blessed to learn both English and French. My parents valued this skill as we traveled north to visit family approximately 5-6 times per year and they wanted to ensure that we could effectively communicate with our extended clan.
My brother Rick was the oldest, then sadly my mother lost a daughter (Danielle), two years later my sister Sylvie arrived on the scene and three and a half years later I came along. Seeing that my mother new the least amount of English when my brother was born, his French was the best. In fact, French became his dominant language and he had to repeat a year of kindergarten to strengthen his fluency in English.
Over the years my family enjoyed the best of both the American and French Canadian cultures. Every major holiday I can recall was spent with the entire extended family; either from my father's side, in St. George de Beauce, or my mother's in Québec City.
Guess which holiday was my favorite. Well, I was not unlike my own children, and Christmas, (or Noël), was my favorite holiday by far!
I feel that I should give you a little bit of background into what Christmas looked like for us, as it was much different than what it is now. For us French Canadians, the Christmas holiday celebration culminated not on Christmas morning, but on Christmas Eve. The hardest part of our Christmas Eve routine was by far the mandatory mid-day nap for all of us little children. Whether or not we were beyond the age of napping, on this day, all children napped.
As you can imagine, trying to get a bunch of kids to lay down and sleep when they have a years worth of excitement and anticipation built up s not an easy task. For the parents to enforce, nor for us to obey. But is was a necessary evil...
For the evening ahead held something so wonderful in store, so special, and so unique, that there isn't even an English counterpart for the word: the réveillon. (Though in Louisiana's French Quarter, this story will sound quite familiar...)
My mother had five brothers and sisters so all of my aunts and uncles, spouses, all of their children, cousins, etc., were there. It was always a packed house, and amazingly, never any discord or arguing. Looking back I am so impressed and in awe that that number of people was able to not only get along so well! but that they truly all loved each other so much.
We would vary from singing and dancing to eating and playing. Somewhere in the mix was always attending a Christmas Eve mass. After church, it was back to the réveillon for more good hearted fun. By this point in the evening most of us cousins had begun the countdown. You know the countdown for which I speak of, the countdown to open presents.
Which for us, was at the stroke of midnight. It was wonderful in every way and my only negative memory from the many years of réveillons spent in Québec, was the smoke filled hall before a few of my aunts and uncles had quit, (this was before they knew it caused cancer). They always had a "smoke free" room for us to escape to. But even those times were filled with joy and mischief as us cousins would always find ways for silliness to surface.
Before getting tucked in for the evening we always had some time to play with our latest bounty and socialize. On Christmas morning everyone slept in and eventually arose to the smell of crêpes on the griddle, coffee (for the adults of course), and real maple syrup.
As the years rolled on and my siblings and I grew older, there came a time when we stopped going to Québec City for Christmas, for Noël... My parents thought it was time for us to try an "American" style Christmas in Vermont. I am sad to report that although it was new and different, it as far less exciting. I longed for the large, family reunion style gatherings of yore. On the plus side, I discovered what pancakes are and found I liked them just fine.
Though today we are challenged by logistical roadblocks like work schedules and geography, we still get together every other year with our clan of 15, (though at our last meeting it was admittedly only 14 as Beau had not yet made his arrival). It's usually Christmas morning and it's been years since I've attended a catholic mass, but the spirit is the same.
And maybe next year I'll have my brood take a mid-day nap and stay up till midnight... Perhaps it is is time for the Sunderland family to revive this tradition from my past, and bring the réveillon to Vermont...