Christmas Eve, 1986. That was the big one. My family’s biggest Christmas party ever, with a houseful of rarely seen aunts and uncles, kids under every table, well-wishing passersby, one dog and two ferrets. It was insane.
One of my cousins filmed the highlights on our clunky Panasonic video camera. I found the tape just last night, after having spent the last 15 years believing it’d been tossed during a hasty springtime purge.
It’s awesome, but hard to watch. Five family members, including my father, are no longer with us. There are points when the camera catches a huddle of them together, like an eerie foreshadowing. Others are still around, though these days I only see them at weddings and funerals. Still others — friends of the family — have been out of our lives for so long that I can’t even remember their names.
But hey, any thirty-year-old home movie is gonna be a bittersweet watch.
Most of my siblings are now married with kids of their own, and given the enormous size of our combined families, it’s amazing that we still get together for Christmas. Personally, I think we’re as much honoring tradition as celebrating. “Crowded and chaotic” is all we ever knew of Christmas. If Christmas isn’t those things, somebody messed up.
Below are eight observations about our 1986 Christmas Eve party. (I’m leaving out the more family-oriented stuff, so apologies in advance for robbing you of my father’s sperm bank joke, which he told while frying calamari.)
#1: It was madness.
Tables stretched from one end of the dining room to the corner of the living room — basically the width of the whole house — and there still weren’t enough chairs for everyone. Some people ate on the couches. Other simply stood in corners.
The house was crawling with people, even in its darkest corners. At one point in the video, my cousin hosted a makeshift tour, going into each unlocked room on both floors. Even in an unfinished office tucked away downstairs, bodies were everywhere.
Christmas Eve was always that way, and I loved it. I loved that our usually-boring house suddenly teemed with life. I loved that there was action at every turn. I felt like we were partying in the center of the universe.
#2: We ate A LOT.
Well, I suppose that we eat even more at our present day Christmas Eve parties, but the process has been streamlined. People are assigned dishes, and everybody arrives with things that are already cooked. Those who now host the parties are super organized, and they’re the masters of stretching space.
Back then, it was chaos. My parents did 95% of the cooking, and since Christmas Eve in an Italian family mostly means fish, there wasn’t much that they could prep the day before. The kitchen was an enormous fire hazard, with frying pans and boiling pots sizzling and steaming not just on the stove, but on portable heaters that dotted the counters and kitchen table like props from a Frankenstein lab.
There weren’t nearly enough proper trays and serving plates for that much food, so my parents improvised. One dish was served on a well-worn cookie sheet. Another was in a ceramic bowl that I distinctly remember having Easter-themed trim.
Dinner went on for several hours. It never stopped being dinner, honestly. Even after midnight, someone would be grilling sausage, and a brave few would line up for that after eating twenty pounds’ worth of shellfish.
There’s barely a point in this video when you don’t hear “cooking sounds” in the background, because there was barely a point during Christmas Eve when someone wasn’t cooking.
#3: Our tree was so ‘80s.
Adhering to the standards of the time, we bought a big, beautiful tree, labored over the lights and ornaments, and then ruined the whole thing with fifteen boxes of tinsel.
By “ruined” I of course mean “made better.”
Also, is it just me, or has tinsel gotten shittier over the years? I’m sure you can still find good quality tinsel if good quality tinsel is something you’re willing to work for, but the stuff I see in today’s department stores just feels like torn-apart kiddy pom-poms. I remember our old tinsel being more, I don’t know, lacy?
(Or maybe it was exactly the same, and the real difference is that I was young enough for thin strips of plastic to seem impressive.)
That’s me. I was seven years old. I don’t know why I kept doing that thing with my tongue.
You’ll notice that I’m holding a gun. That’s no ordinary toy gun! It was one of the Photon “electronic phasers,” from Entertech.
If you’ve never heard of Photon, it was the same thing as Lazer Tag. Both brands debuted in 1986, not long before Christmas. That may explain my vice grip on the gun: Photon was white hot at the time, and I’m sure I felt many measures cooler by the association.
Actually, many of the partygoers were impressed with Photon. At various points in the tape, you see everyone from my younger cousins to very old men trying out the guns, shooting at each other with visible amazement over their invisible bullets. By 1986 standards, this was high technology!
The set was an early Christmas gift for my older brother, who lived in a dorm at the time. It became mine when he “forgot” to take it back with him. (“Forgot” being in quotes because I hid the guns to ensure that.)
#5: My bedroom was weird.
My bedroom was actually two tiny rooms. The first was the one seen here, which was only arguably large enough for its little bed and poorly-maintained fish tank. Beyond the wood-paneled wall was another room of the same size, which is where I kept all of my toys, video games and “fun stuff.”
The second room was formerly my sister’s, before a larger room opened up. As older siblings moved out, those left behind continually upgraded bedrooms. Old walls came down and new walls went up on a seemingly weekly basis. My father, an architect who liked to build, never saw a room that he couldn’t quarter.
My cousin tried to get into the second room for videotaping purposes, but I wouldn’t let him open the door. (I guess because I was seven, and seven-year-olds are spiteful.) I’d like to beat the shit out of Little Matt for that one, because I was this close to having a video archive of every toy I owned in ‘86. Damn!
(Though you can at least see one big brand toy in my “proper” bedroom. That pink centipede doll on my shelf was from Lotsa-Lotsa-Leggggggs, a line of plush arthropods with way too many feet.)
#6: THE BIG 3.
Remember when all of the top sodas were available in three-liter bottles? Back in the mid ‘80s, that was a big thing, complete with dedicated ad campaigns and even a vague Ghostbusters tie-in.
It was only recently pointed out to me that companies no longer do this, barring a few generic brands that only sell soda if it’s bright red and named after fireworks.
I guess I can understand why the hype faded. As I recall, the full bottles were enormously clumsy, too heavy to hold in place and too thick to get a good grip on. A least, that’s how they felt in my then-tiny hands. Course, spilling soda was a small price for those awesome oversized caps that practically doubled as snack bowls.
#7: Hi Sandy!
That’s Sandy. She died in… 1992, maybe? Something like that. When I think about Sandy now, I picture her in her twilight years, when she was kinda bloated and always panting. It’s weird to see Sandy in her relative youth, when she was trim and alert and not at all beaten down from six years of people food.
Also note those gorgeous wood-paneled walls. I love those, and I hate that they’ve gone out of style. We’d all be so much happier if we felt like we lived in moose lodges from old sitcoms.
I always got to open one gift early, and in 1986, it was Tendril, one of the giant monster figures from Inhumanoids. The figure is huge by anyone’s standards, but to a little kid, he seemed positively gargantuan.
Tendril is seen several times throughout the video, usually with me trying to insinuate him into the action as if he were just another guest.
This proved to be a fatal mistake. A relative was acting as my mother’s second-in-command, and she was having a really bad day. After I insisted once too often than Tendril be allowed to sit in the seat next to me — hardly a reasonable request given how crowded the house was — she lost her temper, grabbed my buddy and flung him across the room.
It’s a miracle that Tendril didn’t crack some stray cousin’s skull, but he sure did a number on his own. Tendril’s head came clean off, and for the next hour or so, it was the worst Christmas ever.
Only after being promised a new Tendril — which I actually did get, just a week or so after Christmas — did I calm down. In truth, I was more upset over being yelled at. To a kid, there’s just nothing worse than being yelled at by someone else’s mother. Time slows to a crawl and the whole world looks fuzzy. And you can’t even revenge pout later.
My cousin stopped recording at around 1 AM. By then, the presents had been exchanged, the guests were starting to leave, and my late grandparents were still arguing over the specific number of times they’d been to California.
After spending six hours running around with my cousins, I doubt that even Christmas adrenaline could’ve staved off sleep. I awoke to the Coleco ALF doll under the tree, which quickly replaced Headless Tendril as my new best friend.
I’d still call it my favorite Christmas ever. If I could relive any day of my life, Christmas Eve, 1986 would be a strong contender. Tendril, battery-operated phasers, and the occasional waft of sambuca coming from my father’s side of the table. Bad sweaters and big hair. Giant bottles of Pepsi. My family, before we were all so gray and busy.
Oh, and also this weird mask that I totally forgot I had: