Sunday, December 25, 2005

Traditions Old and New

2005 was our first Christmas living in Celebration full-time, which meant that we added some new traditions to our usual holiday revelry. It wasn't too big of a change, since we always visited Disney World in December every year anyway. Living in Celebration made some of our usual traditions easier and gave us the opportunity to start a few that are brand-new.

Among our old traditions was the Candlelight Processional at Epcot, which we managed to see twice this year, the Illuminations holiday finale, the Osborne lights at Disney-MGM, and a walkaround of the Magic Kingdom to see the decorations. A newer "old" tradition is the snowfall in downtown Celebration, which I managed to attend multiple times. In 2003 and 2004, we were here on a limited basis, so I only saw it once or twice. Now, I can simply walk downtown any evening I take a notion.

It still tickles me to live next door to Disney World. When we first put a contract on Duloc Manor, back in the days when it was still a sandlot pockmarked with deer tracks, I remember phoning our real estate agents one evening. They answered via cell phone and told me they were on their way to Epcot to see the Processional. They had taken a notion to go, so they simply jumped into their car and headed off to see it. Sitting in Chicago, in the midst of subzero temperatures, I thought longingly of how wonderful it would be when my husband and I could do that too. Now, that's finally become our reality, and I feel like one of the luckiest people on earth.

Back in Chicago, we had many Christmas traditions, too. My favorite was our yearly "Christmas Carol" meal at Lawry's. Located in the heart of the city, Lawry's serves the best prime rib on the planet. Actually, I should say the best prime rib sauce...they mix unsweetened whipped cream with horseradish, and the result is heaven on earth. For me, the meat is merely a sauce delivery delight. I can feel another artery harden every time I eat there, but the shortened lifespan is worth it.

In December, Lawry's hosts several "Dickens Dinners," where you eat a pre-plated meal while watching scenes from "A Christmas Carol" performed in the banquet room. It's an ADD verison of the classic tale, performed in-between courses. They tell enough of the story to allow the audience to follow the basic plotline. We've been attending for several years now, and it's become a favorite Christmas event in my family.

Since Lawry's is located right off Michigan Avenue, we often combined the dinner with other holiday activities, like strolling through the crowd to see the decorations or taking a carriage ride on Lake Shore Drive. I think I enjoy visiting the downtown Celebration snowfall at the most crowded times because the mod scene reminds me of of downtown Chicago in December.

Unfortunately, my husband couldn't find a reasonable airfare in December (and I must confess, I didn't push him too hard, since I had no great desire to fly off into single-digit temperatures), so we broke that longstanding tradition this year.

Still, we managed to see a live performance of "A Christmas Carol" presented by a Celebration theater group. It was held in the Black Box Theater at the grade school. Our next door neighbors had tickets, too, so we all went out to dinner beforehand and then headed off to see Scrooge and the ghosts.

There are a lot of talented people in the area, so our community theater tends to be top notch, and this show was no exception. The stage sets were minimal, but the performance was amazing. We loved the acapella singing, and actors all did a wonderful job. I was very pleased to have gotten my yearly "Christmas Carol" fix.

This year, we also broke out of our usual Christmas Eve/Christmas Day schedule. In Chicago, we generally visited my brother's family on Christmas Eve. We would eat at his house (if you can call a buffet-style free-for-all with eight kids and two grandkids, plus a variety of assorted significant others, "eating"), participate in the present-grubbing frenzy, and immerse ourselves in general dysfunctional family revelry. When the chaos grew too great to tolerate, we'd head home to turn on the 24-hour marathon of "A Christmas Story" typically broadcast on TBS.

The next day was a recovery period. On Christmas Day, we'd spend a nice, quiet holiday at home. My husband would cook up a turkey breast with all of the trimmings, and we'd scratch lottery tickets (our traditional gift to each other) before stuffing ourselves with turkey, cranberries, sweet potatoes, mashed potatoes, veggies, and hot rolls fresh from the oven. We usually managed to squeeze in a screening of "Christmas Vacation," too.

This year, we planned to attend the 11 p.m. service at church on Christmas Eve. On Christmas Day, we would do our gambling ritual, with lottery tickets from our new home state instead of Illinois. Then we'd start a new tradition by eating dinner at Jiko (the restaurant in the Animal Kingdom Lodge). Jiko was one of the few Disney World eateries that still had space available; thankfully, it's also one of our favorites.

But our plans changed rather spontaneously when some friends invited us over on Christmas Day. I couldn't refuse, since they were planning to order Chinese food in homage to "A Christmas Story." How could I not agree to pay tribute to my favorite Christmas move of all time?

Thus, we flip-flopped the order of our holiday celebration, switching our Disney World meal to Christmas Eve. Somehow I managed to get reservations at Ohana in the Polynesian (another of our favorite Disney restaurants). We'd indulge in their wonderful all-you-can-eat skewers of meat, accompanied by salad, wontons, shrimp, and chicken wings, and topped off with bananas foster for dessert. Then we'd attempt to divert enough blood from our stomachs to our brains to keep ourselves awake for the 11 p.m. service. Then, on Christmas Day, we'd feast on egg rolls, fried rice, and other Asian taste treats.

When Christmas Eve arrived, we spent the morning and early afternoon finishing up last minutes shopping, banking, and the like. In Illinois, December 24th is usually a madhouse at any place of business. In Florida, Publix was a little more crowded than usual, but not to the holiday level that I'm used to. Amazingly, the bank was nearly deserted.

We took a dip in the hot tub before heading over to the Polynesian. The traffic at the Magic Kingdom toll plaza was heavier than usual, but not as bad as I had expected. I think most people had headed to the theme parks early, so by 5:30 p.m. we were caught amongst the stragglers. We were seated almost immediately, although I noticed that our table was in a danger zone. At Ohana, there are various games for the kiddies, including coconut rolling and hula hoops. If your table is on the outer rim, and especially if it's in a corner, you're a prime target for errant coconuts or out-of-control plastic hoops. There aren't a lot of tables for two, so our choices were limited. But we've eaten at Ohana enough to have honed our self-preservation skills, so I made it through the evening with only two cononut strikes on my chair.

After a delicious but heavy meal, we headed home. I took the long way, making a pass through downtown Celebration to marvel at the snowfall crowd. I knew that when we returned for church at 11 p.m., it would be a ghost town by comparison.

Actually, we left our house at 10:30 p.m., and by the time we arrived five or ten minutes later, downtown was deserted but the area about Community Presbyterian Church was hopping. I didn't think that such a late service would be well attended, but our fellow worshippers were out in droves. We managed to find a decent parking spot and headed into the sanctuary, clutching the candles we'd been issued at the door.

The service was a lovely blend of traditional and contemporary Christmas music and readings of the Christmas story. My choice of church was reaffirmed when a movie clip was used as the lead-in to the was the "Santa" sequence from "Christmas Story." At the climax of the service, we lit our candles and held them high as we sang the closing carol. It felt odd to leave church in the darkness, and even more odd not to be clutching a cup of Barnie's coffee. Soon, we were back in East Village, snug in our warm beds, awaiting Christmas Day.

The next morning, we started off with the traditional lottery ticket scratching session. We had a few small winners, but nothing higher than $20 (most were free tickets or $1). Then we called my brother and sister-in-law to share holiday greetings before heading out.

We had volunteered to pick up the Chinese feast on the way to our friends' house. They had ordered a variety of tempting dishes, although I was sad that "smiling duck" was not among them. Still, we had egg rolls, shrimp fried rice, orange beef, a shrimp dish, and two chicken entrees (including one with the insidious name of Ho You Gai Pu). The spread was quite impressive, and we all dug in with gusto. I had heard good things about the Chinese restaurant we'd ordered from, but it's a bit of a drive outside of Celebration so I hadn't gotten around to trying it yet.

Everything I tried was delicious. I hate all varieties of Chinese shrimp, but the beef and chicken dishes were more than adequate. The egg rolls were quite yummy, too. Then, as I shoveled in my chow, it noticed it: a long, black hair soaking serenly in the bowl of orange beef. Since none of us had matching locks, I suspected that it had been deposited by the cook. Should I say something or just ignore it? Should I try to subtly remove it so as not to horrify my fellow diners? What if someone got a hankering for a second helping of beef? I had to do something!

Finally, I decided that the direct route was best, so I announced, "There's a big ol' black hair in the beef." Since we own three cats, I knew that my husband wouldn't be overly distressed; he'd think it was yucky, but he wouldn't lose his lunch. Thankfully, our friends are both pet owners and parents, so they don't stress over minor grossness either. We plucked it out and examined it...due to its length and color, we determined that it was definitely Chinese in origin. There was no hair in any of the other entrees, so we figured it had to be a fluke.

Actually, the perverseness of the situation appealed to me. No, we didn't get a duck served to us with its head on, with a grostesquely smiling beak, and we didn't have Chinese waiters serenading us with, "Fa ra ra ra ra." But finding a hair halfway through the meal definitely ranked right up there in unique experiences.

My finding slowed us down only temporarily. Since the rest of the food appeared to be untainted, we re-commenced shoveling it in. Perhaps we would have been more rattled if we hadn't already consumed large quantities of cheap Publix wine with the meal. The label describes it as "Fine Wine Product," which makes me think of how Velveeta is described as "Cheese Product" lest anyone make the erroneous assumption that it bears any resemblence to actual cheese. The blackberry merlot that we traditionally imbibe in is more like alcoholic Koolaid than wine. It goes down oh so smooth! Better yet, it apparently has tranquilizing properties that chilled us out enough to ignore foreign protein in our food.

We had one more "Christmas Story" moment when the kids were opening their presents from various relatives. One of their uncles works at an alligator farm. He didn't send a pink bunny suit (nor a green gator suit), but he did send an alligator-themed vanity set complete with scale-patterned mirror!

On the way back to Duloc Manor, we drove around looking at Christmas lights. We've been doing that throughout the season, and there are a quite a few good houses here in town. Unfortunately, although some come close, none has quite surpassed the three best ones near our home in Chicago. Sadly, all three of those homes have stopped doing their displays anyway, so at least I don't feeling like I'm missing anything now that I live in Florida.

One was a house that rivaled Clark Griswold in the sheer volume of lights. It was literally completely covered with light strings...the roof, the side walls, the fence...everything. The people who lived there installed hooks that stayed up all year 'round, just to make their Christmas decorating easier. Their garage door opening was covered with a sheet of plexiglass, and they set up an animated scene inside. There were various little cottages set up in their yard with moving scenes, too. They even produced a video on holiday home decorating. You could easily find their house, even if you didn't know its exact location. Just drive to the general area, listen for the tick of a spinning electric meter, and then follow the sound to the traffic jam. The glow of their rooftop was visible several blocks away. Unfortunately, they moved and the poor slobs who bought their house were plagued with disappointed visitors for years thereafter.

The second home was a showcase of little houses containing figurines, put up by a family to honor their son who was killed in Vietnam. They ended up continuing the tribute for decades. Finally, a few years back, the homeowners posted a sign that it would be the last year for the extravaganza because they were simply too old to do all the work involved.

The third home was my favorite for its unabashed tackiness. In the Chicago area, there is a chain of stores called American Sales that sells all manner of tacky plastic light-up Christmas figures, from Santas to snowmen to complete nativities. I don't know if the owner of the home had burglarized an American Sales or what, but the house was a vast bastion of glowing plastic. Legions of hideous Christmas figures were lined up on the lawn on wooden risers. The risers covered nearly every inch of available space. The home owner wasn't content to have one of each figure. Instead, there was something like a dozen or more of each. There were rows of elves, teddy bears, snowmen, polar bears, gingerbread men, candy canes, penguins, Santas, reindeer, and anything else you can name. I still marvel at the fact that they never had an electrical fire. I don't know why they stopped erecting their tacky wonderland, although I suspect that the neighbors got an injunction.

Oh well, Celebration might not be able to match the insane outdoor displays of Illinois, but it's sure got the Chicago weather beat. And our traditions here might be a little different, but they're good ones nonetheless. To all my blog readers, I hope that your Christmas was as merry as ours, and have a happy new year!

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