Tamales, a traditional Mexican dish, were always a must: On Christmas Eve, we'd feast on this delicacy along with enchiladas, pinto beans, and guacamole. When happily full, we would cuddle together on the couch and watch old home movies on VHS tapes. In the montages of our Christmases past, my twin sister, Barbara, and I began as babies, too young to understand the meaning of the holiday; then rambunctious toddlers, waddling toward the magic of a glowing tree; and then wide-eyed children, missing teeth and surrounded by cousins.
When I was 8, my family spent our first Christmas in Washington, D.C. It was like stepping into Narnia, a place so foreign from our home in Midland, Texas. My grandfather was President, and he invited his huge family to spend the holiday with him. It didn't matter the pressures of his job; it wasn't Christmas if he wasn't surrounded by those he loved.
And for an 8-year-old, the White House was truly magical during the holidays. Every room was meticulously decorated according to a central theme. One year it was All Creatures Great and Small, which celebrated animals and nature. That Christmas, the gingerbread house was decorated with tiny marzipan animals, including our beloved pets: Willard, Barney, and Spot. Another year, the theme was A Red, White, and Blue Christmas—all of the trees were dressed in patriotic colors, and the scent of the dozens of evergreen trees was intoxicating. Every night, there was a different party with cookies and hot chocolate galore, but for us, the sweetest part was being around our many cousins.
On Christmas Eve, when our large brood had moved on to Camp David, my cousins, sister, and I wrote, directed, and produced plays. In one of the large meeting rooms where the Presidential Cabinet gathered, we used the enormous conference table as our stage and dressed in reindeer costumes to perform an epic variety show to celebrate the occasion.
When my dad became President, he continued the tradition of including his parents, brothers, sister, and all of the kids in the festivities. He felt the same way his father did: Christmas meant family.
Nearly 10 years ago, on the first Christmas my husband, Henry, spent with my family, he was shocked by the evening's plan.
"Mexican food?" he asked incredulously.
Yes, Mexican food combined with videos of past Christmases, some spent in Texas, some in D.C. This was our night: simple and filled with love. But it took bringing Henry into our family for me to realize just how special our traditions are. He's from Richmond, Virginia, and was accustomed to ham biscuits and turkey and fancy parties.
But it isn't the food or the rituals that make a holiday. There was a common thread between our pasts. Henry and I shared a collection of memories of the years gone by: our dads reading the Christmas story, church services by candlelight, a table filled with laughter. The images from the grainy videos of our childhoods looked very similar.
We care about the same things: love, laughter, family, and faith. Now, my extended family spends Christmas Eve around a huge table, dining on beans and rice, enchiladas, and tamales, our beloved tradition imported from Texas. We laugh. We watch football and catch up on each others' lives. Even as Henry and I create new traditions with our young family, we remember that the time together is what's most important. Oh, and we serve both tamales and ham biscuits.