Author Jill McCorkle shares memories of Great-Aunt Claudia on December 24.

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When I was growing up, even more exciting than Christmas morning and day was Christmas Eve. I loved the anticipation; I loved the rituals, and it is something I have tried to continue. The gestures and traditions were simple, yet they brought comfort and excitement. My dad wore a silly bow tie with holly and jingle bells in the earliest years, and then later, when I was in high school and going through a crafty phase, I crocheted neckties for all the men in the family. They continued wearing their ties for a long time, and I still have my dad's. I put it out each year, along with a note I once left for Santa that my father kept in his wallet.

My mother always made sweet-and-sour meatballs, so the whole day, the kitchen smelled of that wonderful combination of chili sauce and grape jelly. My Aunt Ruth always brought an enormous banana pudding. In the early years, there was punch, but as we got older, it simply shifted to the beverage of your choice. The small ceramic tree was always in the same place, and so was the copy of A Charlie Brown Christmas, the Nativity scene, and a Santa music box I got as a 6-year-old. (Now, 50-plus years later, he still skates!) In my earliest memories, the tree was decorated with those big multicolored bulbs and icicles (still the best deal in town), and that's the look I try to duplicate today.

The gathering of family members there in our small living room—and later, when my grandmother could no longer get out, in her living room—happened many other times throughout the year: Sunday dinners, Thanksgiving, and various birthday celebrations. Yet the anticipation of opening presents (we were allowed to open one on December 24) coupled with the excitement of Santa Claus coming boosted Christmas Eve to a level of thrill that surpassed all other occasions.

There was always holiday music playing on the turntable. The Great Songs of Christmas albums, which were produced annually by The Goodyear Tire & Rubber Company as a promotion, boasted a who's who of musicians: Leonard Bernstein, Doris Day, Tony Bennett, Johnny Mathis—you name it. A favorite was always Maurice Chevalier singing "Jolly Old St. Nicholas." We sang along, sometimes my sister played her guitar, and we ate onion dip, sweet-and-sour meatballs, cheese biscuits, chocolate-covered cherries, and fruitcake. The cake was homemade when my grandmother was still able to make it—an exotic Japanese version that she soaked in Manischewitz wine (the only alcohol in her kitchen). Later, we had the kind of fruitcake that various clubs sold door-to-door, which came shaped like a brick.

The real gift that night was that the adults didn't monitor us as they often did. Or I should say most of the grown-ups. The exception was my Great-Aunt Claudia, who always took it upon herself to boss us around. She often wore a red dress on Christmas Eve with lipstick to match, and there was always a cigarette burning between her lips or fingers as she told us how we needed to be seen and not heard; how we'd better not touch that banana pudding until it was time; and how she was going to tell our parents that we weren't listening and obeying her. My grandmother usually sided with us, saying that Claudia acted like a child herself and that there was no one who knew more about raising children than someone who didn't have any.

Great-Aunt Claudia, with her bright red smile, was always the life of the party.
Courtesy of Jill McCorkle

My sister, cousins, and I spent a lot of time crawling around under the tree while deciding which gift to open. It needed to hold us over until early the next morning. The local radio station announced where Santa's sleigh had been spotted (usually nearby), and our parents used the information to hurry us to bed, faint jingle bells (perhaps Dad's tie?) and Claudia's exasperated "It's about time" in our wake.

The years blur—people added and people lost; braces, glasses, miniskirts, wide ties, graying temples—and then, in no time at all, my grandmother is seated in a wheelchair with a tiny tabletop tree, and Claudia wears polyester pants and a wig that Great-Uncle Bob pretends to pull off her head. Her red lipstick is long forgotten, but the cigarette is still present.

There are songs sung, like "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" and "Silent Night." My Uncle Joe, who's a Gene Autry fan, always requests "Rudolf, the Red-Nosed Reindeer," and Claudia always wants "White Christmas" because it makes her cry (but not enough that she forgets to monitor the children). There are meatballs and banana pudding in the kitchen, so she stands guard. "Sandy Claws won't come if you do that," she says. "And I'll tell your mother. I just heard a bell too. Do you hear me?"

Jill McCorkle is the author of six novels and four story collections. She lives in Hillsborough, North Carolina.