If That’s a Lemon-Vodka Slushy, I’m In the Right Place

Christmas-celebrating families all have their ways of making merry. My family does Christmas fun. Long ago we abandoned our traditional Christmas Eve beef and venison fondue in favor of foods that don’t require Sterno flames or a snake pit of electric cords to cook meat in vats of boiling oil.

Having fondue for dinner was a cool tradition when I was growing up, though. The meal was slow, as fondues are, so there was talk across the table at a leisurely pace. Plus my mom made killer home-made skin-on fries and we got to drink ginger ale with maraschino cherries plopped in the glass. The flames under the fondue pots doubled as festive lighting. And aside from that one time when my baby sister had convulsions right in the middle of dinner (unrelated to eating oil-soaked red meat, sugar-bomb soda and cancer-causing bites of red dye pretending to be fruit), which necessitated a dashing-through-the-snowy-Minnesota-night trip to the emergency room before we even got to dessert, those holiday meals were excellent.

A modern day Christmas Eve with my family is more like a party and the meal changes every year. Mostly we cook up a bunch of appetizers and snacks and lay out a big buffet of great food. My mom’s contribution to the party is lemon-vodka slushies. God bless her. The slushy mix comes to the party in 5 quart pails and stays frozen out on the back porch. It’s my husband Brian’s job to scoop the lemon-vodka slushy mix into glasses. It’s my job to add a bit more vodka to the drinks when requested. My niece Erin makes Christmas cookies with her friend, and there are platters of those. Every year I think, “No thanks, I don’t really like sugar cookies,” and then I find my hand reaching for a third one. Last year we had a Mexican fiesta, Minnesota-style. A couple of people grumbled about that as being a little too far outside tradition, but my nieces work hard to put the party on and they don’t take lip off anyone. I’m all for the food change-up. I’m all for being grateful that other people are making food that I get to eat. Christmas stockings

Sometime in mid-afternoon on Christmas Eve, family members begin to drift in to Erin’s sister Erica’s home. Her place is family central these days. Not everyone shows up; there is inevitably someone who is not talking to someone else at the time. That happens in families and it used to be a real drag on those of us who were ready to make our holiday spirits bright. But as the years go by we realize that not having the drama around the holiday trumps worrying about people not getting along. Besides, you can’t make other people like you and want to spend time with you, even if they are family. Sometimes good friends join the party and they are pretty much family too, the difference being they could choose to go celebrate somewhere else if they wanted to. But they don’t; they come to our party and we love that.

We used to exchange gifts but now we just watch the newest generation of little kids open theirs. Choosing Christmas gifts is overwhelming for some people. I just spent months giving away or selling half the stuff we owned in order to have a smaller, simpler footprint so I don’t want any gift that I can’t eat, drink, read or watch in a dark theatre.

Over the years I have traveled from as far away as Istanbul, Bangkok and a Caribbean island to get to my family’s Christmas Eve gathering. Never once did I think it wasn’t worth the time, money or hassle to make it there. I always had a good time. And now that my nieces and nephews are adults I enjoy it even more. The kids in both my family and Brian’s family turned out to be pretty cool people. They are smart, funny, and good conversationalists.

I am going to miss this year’s family Christmas party and I am a little sad about that. Brian and I moved across the country to Austin from Portland a couple of months ago, so we are still settling in. Also, we have not found good dog care yet that doesn’t involve puppy prison cells, and driving 1200 miles with two large dogs is less festive than it sounds, trust me. There have been other Christmases when I was traveling somewhere in the world and could not be there, but as I get older and my folks get older, I try to make my absences occur less often.

This year Brian and I are going to throw ourselves a Christmas Eve fondue, just for old times’ sake. We’re using broth instead of oil, and filet mignon instead of venison. I have a good bottle of red wine set aside. We will have a leisurely, conversational meal, and if the weather stays nice we might sit out on the patio and drink more wine while the dogs chew on their new Christmas bones. At some point we will skype with both of our families while they celebrate far away.

I’m sure my family would love it if I could be there in Minnesota. Why not? I’m fun and interesting, I always pitch in to help, I don’t whine and I keep my personal drama to a level low enough so that no one has to even think about dialing 911. I bring Brian. Everybody loves him, so bringing him is like showing up with presents for them all. Also, he is the designated lemon-vodka slushy scooper, so he’s indispensable. Except this year.

This Christmas Eve someone in my family will step up and attempt to fill Brian’s shoes and keep filling those glasses with lemon-vodka slushies. I pray that someone will remember to bring that extra bottle of vodka, because my mom makes them light enough to drink all night.

Barbara Gabriel

Writer. Day Stealer. Chronic Traveler. Raised along Highway 61 in Minnesota, I ran away to sea & messed about in boats. I curse like a sailor and love travel, food, most people, and a well-fitting pair of boots. I try to combine those any chance I can.


  1. I always love your writing, but, this one really touched me. Brought to mind exactly how precious family is and how precious we are to each other. Have a lovely dinner with Brian and your dogs. Actually sounds perfect.

  2. Thanks for telling about your family traditions. I love the lemon-slushy vodka. My family had many traditions at Christmas and some of the family still hold the annual Christmas party, but I don’t go now. It is five hours away. A long way to go for one night. Sounds like Brian is like my Barry. My family loved him. Isn’t it great to have a husband your family loves? I know that is not true for many people. Your plans for Christmas sound good – just you and Brian and the dogs. I hope you are happy in Austin and that this year brings you all you wish for.

  3. Thank you so much for sharing your Christmas traditions! Would love your Mom’s slushie recipe!! You have become one of my favorite writers! I love reading what you have written and look forward to the next!
    I hope you and Brian enjoyed your quiet Christmas Eve with Gracie and Scout! Much love and Merry Christmas!!

  4. Simply Fantastic!

    • I loved this story so much. I come from a family of 11 and my husband from a family of 10. Talk about a Big Fat Irish Catholic/German Lutheran Wedding (dare I say war)! We grew up 20 miles from each other so we made Christmas at my parents on Christmas Eve and his parents on Christmas Day. It was perfect! We had oyster stew, ham, cheesy hashbrown potatoes, white rats for Christmas gifts for our sons, even a dead parakeet (poor thing), candles burning wrapping paper, drama, tears, Christmas programs at church, you name it, we had it. For everyone reading this, make it home for your next Christmas.

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