In my family the big gathering has always been on Christmas Eve, and fortunately our extended family all like each other, so getting together has always been very fun and drama-free. My grandma (and, later, my mom) oversaw a Christmas Eve party that wasn’t overly structured but still moved along. The menu started with pretty standard holiday items, but over time people added their own touches. My uncle makes a great bean dip, so that’s a tradition. Or stuffed shells, a favorite of my aunt. After a while the organizers switched the main course to Aurelio’s Pizza so they didn’t have to cook as much.

After dinner we’d get our presents from grandparents, aunts and uncles- we wouldn’t even have to wait until Christmas Day! – and then everyone would sing. My grandfather played piano accompaniment; later, my uncles would bring their guitars, and after that my brother and I took over as Christmas Eve musicians. There’s a lot to remember, so here’s a tip: at our house, if you’re playing “O Holy Night,” when you get to the lyric “fall on your knees,” you have to physically get down on your knees, while still playing.

At some point in the night we’d veer away from Christmas songs, because my dad would always insist on belting out “Won’t You Come Home Bill Bailey” – because he loved to sing it and my grandfather could play it – and then the Christmas Eve songbook started evolving along with the menu. Along with “Jingle Bells” and “Deck The Halls” you’d hear “Lyin’ Eyes” by Eagles. One year my uncle and I somehow did a medley of “I’m Waiting For The Man” and “Gloria” (the 60s hit, not the Gloria from “Angels We Have Heard On High”). We added “Folsom Prison Blues” because it was one of my oldest kid’s favorites. Now our Christmas Eve lyric books have sections like “Drug and Alcohol Songs.” (You mean your Christmas songbooks don’t?)

Even when I lived in New England and everyone else was in Illinois I’d call during the party just to stay in touch with everyone, or at least call my parents the next day to get the scoop on what went down. And I’d always think of the song “Christmas With You” by Johnny and June, because it really was nice, as the song says, to get together with my loved ones and get into the holiday spirit. When I moved back to the Midwest a few years ago one of the big draws was that I’d be able to bring own kids into this tradition, and it has been wonderful to surround them with love and food and jokes and presents and even “Drug and Alcohol Songs.” Until last year it would have been unthinkable for any of us within driving distance to miss out on December 24th. Maybe down the road a bit we’ll get back to that, but until then we’ve still got Johnny and June.