It is Christmas Eve day and the only thing of any consequence on my schedule is the traditional lunch with my wife, perhaps a movie, and then the early evening Choral Eucharist. No shopping, no last minute rushing around. And best of all, no work.
It wasn’t always that way.
Traditions are important. They are especially important for the holidays. Growing up, the Self family tradition was work—I helped my parents in their successful retail bakery in Tyler, Texas. Christmas was the busiest time of the year. Special orders poured in months ahead of Dec. 24th, and for days in advance, the bakery operated on a 24/7 basis to keep up with the demand.
Christmas Eve was a nonstop, frantic affair as customers lined up to collect their cakes, pies, bread, breakfast rolls, cookies, etc. For days in advance, my job was that of the “gofer”, to pick up lunch and dinner for the employees and to be sure there was plenty of coffee, that sort of thing. I also had to do my father’s last minute Christmas shopping for Mom. On Christmas Eve I would help the customers to their cars with their boxes and bags.
As I got older, I was promoted to chief pot washer and porter, an innocuous sounding title that, roughly translated, meant that I mopped floors, cleaned the equipment and took out the trash. I preferred the errand boy role much better. One year, I was the chief coconut cracker and shredder when my father got the wild idea to use fresh coconuts for the cakes. The normal coconut he used was top-of-the line, tried and true and adored by the customers. Best of all, it came in a plastic bag inside a box, not five large tow sacks filled with more coconuts than could be found on some tropical island. I am not sure what he was thinking when bought those coconuts, but I can report that I never cared much for coconut cake after that Christmas.
Later, when I mastered the cash register and the art of making change, I escaped the kitchen to retail, where I would serve customers.
Year after year, this was my life, my holiday tradition. Even in college, I would come home to help. To be honest, I could not imagine a holiday without working those long hours in the bakery, the wonderful smells and the loyal customers who made my parents business an essential part of their holiday season.
When I began my career as a news reporter and moved away to places like Lubbock, Texas and my native Houston, my bakery holiday work tradition ended. I had to work a few Christmas Eves for the newspapers, primarily the day shift, and a lot of Christmas nights, but it was not the same.
Then a funny thing happened. I got a job as a director of public relations at Hermann Hospital in Houston, and I had Christmas Eve off, completely off. It was the first year that I had nothing to do. I felt totally disconnected. I was certain there was something I should be doing, a gift I forgot to buy, or something I needed from the grocery store. My nervous energy and constant pacing finally earned me a polite invitation to get the hell out of the house—go for a run, go to the movies—anything but pace around like a caged cat.
Over the years, I gradually grew out of the Christmas Eve, no-work withdrawal. In 1990, when I returned to Tyler to work for East Texas Medical Regional Healthcare System, years after my parents had sold the bakery and retired, I had a brief flirtation with the “it’s Christmas Eve, I should be working” syndrome when I drove by the bakery, but it passed after several hours and several eggnogs.
So that brings me back to the present—lunch with my wife at Toulouse, a French bistro in the Knox-Henderson section of Dallas. Serge, the affable and very French-born Maitre d’, is at the front door greeting long-time customers fulfilling their own traditions. There will be wine and delicious food and perhaps a movie afterward before Choral Mass at the Church of the Incarnation in Uptown, Dallas.
Meanwhile, back in Tyler, the Village Bakery is probably as frantic as ever. It has become someone else’s holiday tradition. That was a great time in my life—a wonderful tradition—and I will always remember it fondly. But today, I think I will have another glass of wine with my roast chicken. Thanks Serge.
Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays.
© 2012 John Gregory Self
© 2020 John Gregory Self