Christmas party memories are so much better than the gifts and food: Column

Ceason Ranson
Ranson Ritings

I’ve told you my favorite Christmas tradition is decorating the Christmas tree, but I don’t think I’ve ever told you my second favorite Christmas tradition: the Ranson family Christmas Eve party.

One of our oldest family traditions, the Ranson Christmas Eve party, started about the time I was born. I’ve never asked, but I think it came about because my parents had finally moved into their new home, an open-concept A-frame cabin (my parents were pro open-concept way before HGTV told everyone that was a thing), which was perfectly suited for a party: lots of open space for people to hang out, a big counter top to load down with party foods, and two important parts of any Christmas party — a wood-burning fireplace that needed tending throughout the party (so the men had an activity to keep them busy) and a giant Christmas tree, perfect for stacking presents around.

Even a decade later, when my parents got around to finishing the second floor of the house, we’d nearly always gather in that large upstairs room, drinks in hand, balancing plates of food in our laps, while the Ranson brothers held court together. My dad used to joke that five Ranson brothers in the same room was usually four Ransons too many, but at Christmas, it was a welcome, rare sight, especially when my Grandma Kate was still alive. Didn’t matter where she sat, on the couch or in an easy chair: Wherever Grandma Kate was, that was the queen’s seat, and we made sure to pay our respects with hugs and kisses.

I remember fondly those parties, all of us together, because that’s when I saw most clearly the dynamics of my family. My grandma, who was the queen, and we knew it. Uncle Larry, the smart eldest brother, who always looked entertained by his younger siblings’ antics. Uncle Gapper, the good-natured story-teller. Uncle TL, the joking life of the party. Uncle Chuck, the thoughtful one with the good local gossip. And my dad, the baby, who often just seemed to be in permanent Jane Goodall-observation mode, trying to figure out how he ended up a member of our subset of the species. And surrounding them, the wives and kids, the audience, trying to get the occasional word in edgewise, but mostly happy just to eat and laugh at the Ranson Boys Show.

You know my mom is not a cook; she can cook, but chooses not to. If given her choice, she’s a snacker — likes lots of little things for variety. So the Ranson family party was her time to shine.

When I think back to the number of hot appetizers she turned out using only one oven and maybe a crock pot, it boggles the mind. Now granted, most of these dishes were heat and serve, but ask anyone who has ever tried to figure out how you bake bite-size spinach quiches at 300 degrees alongside Tostino pizza rolls at 425 degrees, and you realize that cooking multiple appetizers at once, even frozen ones, and keeping them hot before the party starts, is not a skill everyone has (and the answer to that question is: put your oven at 400 and keep an eye on everything you put in it, and promise yourself that one day you’ll get double ovens. Also, lots of aluminum foil wrapped tightly around your platters).

But the party food she was most famous for, and still is, is her ham rolls, which again, I have to take everyone’s word on because again, I don’t eat ham. I have, however, been sent on many a reconnaissance mission for the ingredients, which are dead simple: softened Philadelphia cream cheese, ham slices from the regular lunch meat section (don’t try this with deli ham — you need that precise, manufactured lunch meat thickness), and dried chives (or green onions, but we prefer chives). Mix the cream cheese and chives together, spread that mix thinly on one side of all your ham slices, then starting from the short end, roll each slice up. Done.

We cut them in half for ease of eating, and you could probably cut them into fourths if you wanted, but only do that if you desperately need your party trays to look fuller. Your family deserves at least half a ham roll.

And ham rolls travel well on a Christmas platter covered with Saran Wrap, which is good, because we have moved Ranson family Christmas to other houses besides my own over the years. It was a nice change of pace. I particularly liked the year we went to my Uncle Chuck’s house in town because they had the world’s coolest basement, with a pool table and Nintendo and loud music, and we kids could make all the noise we could and be as obnoxious as we wanted and no one batted an eye. Mostly.

See, that was also the year that my Uncle TL, always one for a practical joke, told my easily swayed 4-year-old brother that he was not only supposed to jump on Uncle Chuck’s bed, he should sing out as loud as he could while he jumped a phrase that Uncle TL wanted us all to live by, “We don’t take no …” (I’ll let you fill in the gap). Just imagine being at a perfectly good family party, everyone chit-chatting nicely and the kids running around happily, only to have the noise slowly drop to nothing as the sweet voice of a 4-year-old sang out expletives over the sound of creaking bed springs. That may have been the last time Uncle Chuck and Aunt Betsy ever let us have the party at their house, at least until Colton got too old to jump on beds and learned we don’t repeat all the things Uncle TL tells us to say.

I even hosted the party one year when I was living down the road from my parents. It was a warm December, a lot like this year’s has been. It had rained and the road was horribly muddy and rutted out by my parents house, so my dad asked if we could have the party at my place. I agreed, and down he and Mom came, loaded with frozen foods, ham rolls, and drinks. And before long, my little house was filled with Ransons, and it got hot. Not hot enough to turn on the AC, but between the oven and the family (not to mention all the hot air blowing from their stories), it was warm enough to warrant opening windows and the back sliding doors.

Before I tell you the rest of this story, I need to tell you that this was the year my dad thought he was going to go back to his 4H roots and raise farm animals. Now many a person has told me about being in 4H with my dad, but not one person has ever told me about him ever having raised any animals (as far as I can tell, all he raised during his time in 4H was Cain and counselor’s blood pressure). But we had fields and fences and a racoon-proof feed box, so Bo went out and got himself two sheep, Journey and Foreigner, and three mini-goats, one of which was named Styx (because I had a naming theme going) and one named Norman (because Colton never met a naming theme he didn’t love ruining). And the goats acted all right for the most part, but the sheep …

So the house was finally cooling down, and everyone was enjoying themselves in the front living room. Dad and I were on the other side of the living room wall in the kitchen, mixing drinks and getting sausage balls out of the oven (my main contribution to every party) when just as pretty as you please, we see Journey and Foreigner poke their fluffy heads in the open sliding door, glance around, then walk right inside my house. “Ceason,” Dad whispered fiercely, “don’t say a word! You just grab one by the neck and I’ll get one, and we’ll get them back outside before anyone sees them and panics!”

Fun fact about me: Grabbing sheep by the neck and removing them without anyone noticing is not in my skill set.

No sooner had I reached out for Journey to grab her, than she bleated and took off down the hall, alerting every Ranson to the presence of two sheep in the house. The ones who weren’t screaming did their best to shield my good carpet from sheep hooves by blocking the entrances to the living room, while the ones who weren’t screaming or blocking the living room went on with whatever story they were telling like this was an every-party occurrence. And Dad and I managed to convince (read: finally grabbed them around the necks) Journey and Foreigner that they needed to party somewhere else that night (read: pushed them out through the open garage door and all the way back on the other side of the fence). Y’all, you can’t buy memories like that.

And maybe that’s why I can’t remember one present I ever received at any of those parties, although I received many: The memories of presents that didn’t matter have been pushed aside for the memories that did. Like reading Cousin Scott’s letter from Iraq when he was serving overseas during the Gulf War over Christmas. Watching a tiny baby Colton, dressed like an elf, meet Santa (while Uncle Gapper was mysteriously missing for an hour) for the first time in our living room. Taking one of my top-five favorite photos ever of my dad, uncles, and grandma in front of our fireplace, one of the few mother-with-all-her-sons photos they’ve ever taken.

Yeah, Christmas parties with presents and food are nice, but the memories? Best party favors ever.