House Party, Annual Christmas Eve Gathering Truly Celebrates the Season

By | October 28, 2015
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The author takes the mike while Porter Whitmire and Anna Ruby Whitmire play along.

When I was growing up in Spartanburg, I looked forward to Christmas Eve. I know most kids look forward to Christmas morning and that was cool too, but my grandparents would have a massive party every year on Christmas Eve. My dad had three sisters and they had friends over. All of my close family was there, as well as relatives I should have known but didn’t. There were friends of the family, like the guys that worked at the Monterrey down the road. (We ate there so much they were kind of like family.) And I’m pretty sure a few random strangers.

There was a crockpot of meatballs, piles of Little Debbies, and the scotch flowed like wine. My aunt would have the music cranked upstairs. It might be southern rockers like Nantucket or Blackfoot, or dance stuff like Donna Summer or The Gap Band. Either way, it would be loud. In a side room downstairs would be a poker game. The highlight of the whole thing for me was the ridiculous amount of presents, which we ripped into all at once. Mountains of wrapping paper and ribbon shoved into the fire which erupted the living room with light and heat. I’ve been told that multi-colored sparks would shoot from the chimney.

Now my own family has a tradition of opening our doors to friends and family on Christmas Eve as well. We have a tiny house in North Main, but we clear the rooms and set up a spread on the dining room table. The scotch has been replaced with rosé and IPA. The meatballs and Little Debbies have been replaced with fancy cheese and crudités. But hopefully the same impossible magic permeates the house. Yes, it’s an alcohol-fueled getdown of a house party, but more than anything, it’s a celebration. It’s a special time where we recognize the richness of our lives; the amazing community of friends and neighbors and a sense of hope that, in a world full of suffering and injustice, all will be loved and healed. I happen to be a religious guy, but this type of love isn’t limited to any brand of belief or nonbelief, especially at this occasion. We all show up and appreciate each other and the gift of renewed spirit. Call it what you will.

As the party progresses, a holiday sing-along starts in the basement. We have drums, assorted instruments, microphones plugged into guitar amps and random noisemakers laying around. Land of the Misfit Toys turns to a scene of less tuneful Whovilleians. Some sing, some beat on tambourines and some just watch. It’s a joyful noise indeed. When the music fizzles, many of our guests start filing out, but then there are the ones who stay too long. (You know who you are!) We cue up Leprechauns’ Christmas Gold or some other B-rate holiday movie for the kids while the adults linger in the kitchen. Of course these are some of our best friends in the world but we will be cursing their names come morning. Any of the prepping duties for the big day, especially ones where assembly is required become agonizing after midnight with a buzz. By some Christmas miracle, everything comes together, and by the time New Years rolls around, the whole experience has become a fond memory.

Two staples on our Christmas Eve buffet are tomato aspic and ham biscuits. Tomato aspic is something my wife Helen brings from her family tradition. The best way to describe it is a savory tomato Jell-O. The first time our boys saw her make it, they were giddy with excitement and the look on their face when they tried it was of pure death. Like, “Why, Mother? I thought you loved us.” She says the standard topping is mayonnaise and she tops that with some pickled okra and paprika. It’s taken a more psychedelic turn of late and she’s piped guacamole on top in lieu of the mayo. We’ve wondered if you could put vodka in it and make like a bloody mary jello shot. Surely no kid in their right mind would actually eat one of these things, but figured the party was boozy enough.

My dad used to make ham biscuits for Christmas Eve and they were special. The ingredients were ham, cheese and dinner rolls from the supermarket but the secret ingredient was sweet and spicy mustard. They were pretty darn gourmet for Spartanburg 1984 and I loved them. It was a game changer when The Fresh Market opened up 30 or so years ago. The mustard aisle was exotic, bordering on obscene. This must have been part of dad’s inspiration.

My ham biscuits are a bit fussier, but no better. Scratch-made buttermilk biscuits, dry-cured ham (country ham or prosciutto or the like), farmhouse cheddar and homemade artichoke pickle. You could substitute any chopped pickle like chow-chow as long as it is mustard-based or you can just pick up one of those fancy jars of mustard from the store. If you can’t find a good farmhouse cheddar I might try stilton. These biscuits are supposed to be a flavor explosion.

Some see john as just a trophy husband, but he’s a busy guy around town. When he’s not shopping at Publix in his activewear or proselytizing at the corner of Mcbee and Main, you might find him playing in the rock band Excons.

Photo 1: The Byce holiday spread.
Photo 2: John’s biscuits include a little whole grain flour, for a wheaty flavor and darker-than-usual color. Helen’s aspic, festive with avocados and pickled okra.
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