Feature: Texans look to Christmas for family, food, presents

December 27, 2015 10:23 am 

HOUSTON, Dec. 25 — For many in Texas, the second-largest state in the United States, as throughout the Western world, Christmas Day has become more of a family celebration than a religious holiday.

That's true for the religion's believers and nonbelievers alike, said Elizabeth Chisholm, a non-Christian who loves the gathering of family members and all the trimmings and spirit that personify the Christmas season.

Chisholm, 46, a former public relations official, said she really can't always afford to go all out even for Christmas. That's because she pays for her necessities and Houston apartment from monthly U.S. government checks issued to her due to an arthritic condition that prevents her from full-time employment.

She saves dollars in the months leading up to Christmas. That money goes for presents and ingredients for a home-made meal for the holiday's dinner table around which she and her two sisters, their husbands and a college-age nephew will sit.

"Every year on Christmas Eve or Christmas morning, we all go to one of my sister's and brother-in-law's homes, either in Houston or just outside of the city on a large tree farm. This year and last year, it's been the tree farm," said Chisholm.

"Present giving and receiving, and a big Christmas dinner, have been the ways our combined families have celebrated," she said.

The idea of not having presents for everyone is unthinkable to Chisholm, who regrets that her pocketbook can't extend to match the sometimes more lavish presents other members of the family annually bestow.

"I don't have a tree this year, or outside lighting, but I have my presents carefully wrapped and ready to be taken on my Christmas Eve drive to my sister's house," she said.

"They may not be as fancy, but I have purchased the gifts with each family member's personality and tastes in mind, and I think — I hope — they will be a big hit," she added.

When everybody is finally together on Christmas Day, they gather around a faux pine tree and Chisholm's nephew distributes the presents and Christmas cards underneath its decorated branches.

"Our gifts range from clothing or jewelry to cookwear, hard-back books or electronic readers to the latest in other technologies," she said.

"I love opening presents, and I always like and need everything I get — my family picks well for me. But it's just as much fun, maybe more fun, to watch the people I love open presents I picked out for them. That split second that registers on their faces when they first know what it is," she added.

After the boxes and wrapping has been disposed of, it's time to munch on black olives, artichoke dip and crackers and other snacks before sitting down to the big meal of the year.

"My brothers-in-law always roast and carve the turkey and ham or beef, and the sisters make the other dishes, always a salad, mashed potatoes and brown gravy, a casserole or two and plenty of cheese cake, cookies, pies and other deserts to choose from," she said.

"After the meal, we put on a traditional Christmas movie, or the latest action-adventure movie that's been released from theaters," Chisholm said.

"But because of the late Christmas Eve night and the heavy meal Christmas day, some of us don't make it all the way through the film before we fall asleep in our chairs," she added.

In addition to a floor-to-ceiling Christmas tree, the family of Guillermo Villasmil, 35, a Houston bartender originally from Venezuela, makes a big deal of Christmas with his wife, professional house cleaner Aydee Velez, and their 8-year-old son Dylan.

"We celebrate with the family from here and family who fly in from Venezuela," said Villasmil.

"We will go to Aydee's sister's house in Katy (Texas), open the gifts, on Christmas Eve and, in a little bit of a twist, we cook Venezuelan food along with the traditional American food," he said.

About 10 of Velez's family, including Villasmil and Dylan, gather the same night with more than 10 friends of the family, for the family gift giving and friends' gift exchange, Velez said.

"We have dinner, dancing and fireworks," Villasmil said. "We have music from Venezuela, then it's time for the three of us to come back home — we get back here late — and get the milk and cookies ready for Santa Claus."

"Whenever I wake up, I open my presents from Santa and from my parents and play with the things I got," said Dylan, a third-grader. "There are bites out of the Oreos and the milk is gone, and that's exciting. I like that a lot."

He said he usually gets what he wants because he writes to Santa every year before Christmas, outlining his wishes.

"This year, I wanted an Android tablet and a Nerf gun with fake, plastic foam bullets," Dylan said.

When Dylan's presents are almost a year old, he donates those still in good condition to an orphanage in Venezuela.

"They don't have like real parents, there are so many of them that they can't get something they want, the toys they want, for Christmas," Dylan said. "By giving my toys to the orphans, it makes them happy. And that makes me happy."

Dylan said there is an aspect of the holiday he enjoys even more than the presents and food.

Glenda Johnson, 66, a retired airline personnel director without children, continues what was a tradition at Christmas time for her and her late husband, Ron Johnson.

"I leave home in Houston and go to see my family in Missouri," she said.

"There's 22 of us as a group ranging in age from 1 to 84. The little kids are waiting for Santa to come on Christmas morning, so the adults have our Christmas holiday at my sister's house on Christmas Eve for the last 12 years. Before that, it was my mother's house — the big meal, turkey and ham, normal Christmas fare," she said.

As a Christian, she said she would like to think it's the religious component that makes this holiday special. She agreed with Chisholm that getting together with family is what's most important.

"It's about being with the ones you love and celebrating together," Chisholm said. (PNA/Xinhua)

SCS/RSM

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