The first time I went to Grandmother Zimmerman's house for Christmas Eve dinner, the last thing I was thinking about was food. My husband, Todd, and I had only been dating six months then. The annual gathering at his grandmother's farm was our first big holiday together.
To be honest, there were a lot of new experiences cluttering my mind that first Christmas. Todd is a fifth generation dairyman who's never worked anywhere but the family farm. I grew up in the very middle class suburbs of Montgomery County and hadn't spent too much time around cows, though I was an agriculture reporter when we met. Even after six months on a working dairy farm -- and I knew after the first few weeks that this is where I wanted to stay -- the reality of farm life hadn't quite set in.
That first Christmas Eve began like those I have spent since: In the barn, because the cows never take a holiday. I don't think I've ever seen my mother-in-law milk as fast as she does on Christmas Eve. Even my father-in-law, well known for doing things at his own measured pace, starts the work early this one special night of the year.
That first year it was all a one bucolic blur. One minute I wearing work clothes in the barn, cow tails swinging in time to the carols on the radio and my breath hanging in the chilly air; the next we were freshly showered and in Mom's van hurtling through the night toward Frederick.
When we pulled into the farm lane around 8: 30 p.m, light shone from nearly every window in Grandmother's big brick house. It was strangely quiet outside, the frosty silence broken only by the lowing of Uncle Kenny's cows.
Inside, the Zimmerman family Christmas was in full swing. We opened the back door and peeked around the corner into the cozy farmhouse kitchen, laughter and conversation spilling out to greet us. I knew that moment -- by the hearty hello's and the friendly smiles -- that I was home.
And so I've spent every Christmas Eve since with these people who officially became my family when Todd and I married in 1995. Grandmother hosts Christmas Eve dinner every year whether she wants to or not because that's the way everyone else in the family likes it. A few years ago she talked about letting my mother-in-law, Grace, have it, or moving it down the lane to her other daughter Beck's house.
But Uncle Kenny, her youngest son, told her he'd been coming to her house for the last 50 years and he wasn't changing his plans now and that put an end to that notion.
I think, really, that Grandmother couldn't go to a Christmas Eve gathering at anyone else's house -- even someone in the family. But at 86, I guess it's nice to know for sure that all your effort is appreciated.
Christmas Eve has always held a special place in Grandmother's heart, first and foremost, because of its religious significance. She's a devoted Lutheran who usually attends the early service on Christmas Even before the rest of us show up for supper. Christmas Eve is also her wedding anniversary. She and Granddaddy were married in the parsonage of a little country church on a snowy Christmas Eve in 1930 and Florence Mathews became Florence Zimmerman.
They raised four children on the farm in Feagaville, a tiny village outside Frederick. It was a hard life, but a good one. There never seemed to be much money in dairy farming, even back then, she says. But they always had milk and meat. Later, Uncle Kenny took over the cows and Uncle Joby raised hogs. Now he has geese and sometimes broilers. And Aunt Shirley has her laying hens, just like Mom, so eggs are always in supply.
Granddaddy passed away 20 years ago -- gone in a split second from a heart attack as he and Uncle Kenny were milking in the barn. Sometimes on Christmas Eve, Todd and I go stand at his grave in the church yard. And someone always brings him up during supper, memories drifting back to some funny story while Grandmother, who knew him best and loved him deepest, smiles with a tear in her eye.
The best part of our Christmas Eve gathering is that nearly everyone in the family turns up at some point during the evening. Grandmother has four children, eight grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren, along with the usual variety of spouses and special friends. Almost all of us live within an hour of Zimmandale Farm. And nearly everyone can find their way past the usual family squabbles and disagreements to come home on Christmas Eve.
If nothing else draws us in, Grandmother's cooking has a way of bringing us back. Her table is always so crowded with dishes of food you can hardly find a place to eat.