A writer reflects on a holiday tradition with humble beginnings that’s grown and flourished — and in some ways, remained the same.
by Ilina Ewen
In 1996, I was recently divorced and staying put for Christmas — no in-laws to visit, no family in town. And, truth be told, I felt like a failure and was too ashamed to go home for the holidays. I found myself alone in a one-bedroom apartment with outdated carpeting, a lousy view of a parking lot and a tired kitchen.
I’d married young and never lived alone, so this was my first taste of independence, as well as my first taste of real loneliness. The weather outside was frightful (it was December in Minneapolis), but there was still something festive in the air among the shop window lights.
So I made a conscious decision not to wallow: I bought Neil Diamond’s The Christmas Album CD, hauled up a tree, cobbled together some decorations and bought herringbone crystal cocktail glasses. Instead of throwing a pity party, I threw a Christmas Eve party for myself and a few fellow holiday “orphans.”
This year marks the 25th year of that party (alas, we lost two years to Covid). I got remarried in 2000, and the tradition carried on as part of our new life together. What started as a slightly awkward gathering of misfits has evolved to become a beloved (and slightly boisterous) family tradition.
The party has followed us across all the places we’ve called home over the years: Madison, Wisconsin; Chicago, Illinois; and three homes in Raleigh in the two-plus decades we’ve lived here.
We host the party as a come-as-you-are open house, offering a feast that features local delicacies. (We have been known to drive over an hour to Garland to pick up barbecue and bacon jam from Matt Register’s Southern Smoke.) There’s a tower of to-go boxes at the ready for guests to take home leftovers. We’ve experimented with a champagne bar and whiskey bar, both big hits.
These days, the Ewen Christmas Eve Soirée often includes more than 100 guests — neighbors, friends, colleagues and anyone they want to bring along.
It’s a multigenerational sight to behold. Guests who first arrived as squirming babies with bottles, mystified by twinkling lights, are now young adults, old enough to uncork bottles and pay their own taxes.
My sons’ friends inquire about Christmas Eve so they can work their plans around the party hours. Their families are invited too, and it’s been a lovely way to meet their parents, such a challenge after the elementary-school years.
New friends join us with young children; they play with the LEGOs and Playmobil sets I cannot bring myself to donate. (There’s something about Christmas that brings out the little kid in our big kids — we often spot them cross-legged on the ground with LEGOs, too.)
The passing of time means we have also mourned friends who have passed. Each year, there seems to be someone special gone from the table as we juggle these sandwich generation years. But it’s always a wonderful sentiment when a friend comes to the Christmas Eve party for the first time after losing a loved one and thanks us for always including them.
Many years ago, after sifting through a mantel full of wine bottles and hostess gifts, my husband Todd said, “We don’t need all this. Why don’t we ask our friends to donate something instead?” And so a new tradition was born: in lieu of a host gift, we ask guests to support the Diaper Bank.
Now, the weeks leading up to the party means an almost daily delivery of diapers and wipes. We literally fill my husband’s home office with these much-needed supplies; the season is a time for giving, and it did, after all, start with the birth of a baby.
This year marks our first holiday season as true empty nesters, so the prep will be on our shoulders as we eagerly anticipate our sons coming home from the University of Wisconsin and the University of Oregon.
Our older son, Carter, almost missed the party last year due to a combination of a late exam, bad weather and a spate of air travel nightmares.
We all had our phones and laptops hard at work, refreshing apps and clicking away at keyboards to find a way to get him home. We managed to get Carter rerouted to Charlotte, to which my husband drove in the wee hours to pick him up.
After a power nap and scrounging for party-ready clothes (his lost luggage arrived five days later), Carter opened the door to our first guests of the evening. This year, we are asking Santa for a better final-exam schedule.
Remarkably, we have very few photos of 25 years of parties. I take it as a testament to the spirit of the gathering, a rare time people don’t stare at a phone in hand. Instead, we have stories: Once, the whole toilet paper holder was ripped off the powder room wall (no one ever did ‘fess up), and there was the time kids were using wrapping-paper tubes as light sabers and, in the tussle, ended up busting a giant hole in the playroom wall.
The lonely young woman I was in 1996 could have never imagined the abundance that would come in the 25 Christmas Eves after.
Each year, as we toss off our shoes and start the massive cleanup, we marvel at seeing people we adore coming together, laughing until our cheeks hurt and having conversations that offer new perspectives. And I still have those cocktail glasses.
This article originally appeared in the December 2023 issue of WALTER magazine.