The Atheist Who Loved Christmas Eve

22 Dec

If it wasn’t for my aunt Sylvia, the wife of my mother’s brother and my first cousin Wendy, their daughter, my Christmas Eve memories would be much colder and bleaker, or worse nonexistent.  These two women organized the Christmas Eve parties I have fond memories of.

As a child, as long as I could remember my Christmas Eves were always the same.  My father would drive my mother, my brother, sister, and me to somewhere behind the Santa Monica Airport in Los Angeles, where my aunt and uncle’s family lived.

I remember walking the short distance from my parents’ car to my aunt and uncle’s home and feeling the dank air.  Entering their home was always a pleasure, feeling the coziness of their home on Christmas Eve.  Usually a 6-foot or taller Christmas tree, decorated in white or sometimes red, would grace one corner of the living room.  Under the tree, were numerous gifts for my aunt’s immediate family and small gifts for my brother, sister and me.  A fire would be burning in the fireplace.  Sometimes for what seemed like minutes, I would stare at the flames flickering.  I could smell the burning wood and scent of the tree.

The routine was always the same.  Sooner or later after arriving, the two families would eat dinner together, segregated—the adults at one table and the children at theirs.  Six children, three from my family and the three of my aunt and uncle, ate.  Wendy was my aunt and uncle’s middle child.

After dinner, youngest children got the honor of distributing the gifts to the people in the room.  Then the gifts were opened, in reverse order by age.  After the gifts were opened, the families entertained themselves with parlor games or reminiscing or my two female cousins would attempt to entertain by singing and dancing, with catcalls from the young males, particularly me.  My sister recently told me she remembers our aunt dressing up, wearing an ugly Santa Claus mask and chasing the youngsters around the house.

I attended these gatherings through high school–after high school, much less frequently.   Many years passed.  My father died; my mother, my aunt and uncle, my sister and her husband, and my cousin Wendy and her husband moved to Nevada.

By then, my cousin Wendy was teaching and had the responsibility of organizing the Christmas Eve parties.  After many years, My wife Marlene and I attended a couple more.

Wendy knew how to entertain and could match my quick wit.  Two favorite things of hers were giving gag gifts and singing karaoke.  Some of the gag gifts were re-gifted over and over.  I appreciated her low-brow humor.  Once somehow I got a gift of a toy brown cow that dispensed chocolate candy out of its rectum.  Then there was the karaoke.  My cousin made sure everyone participated in the karaoke round.  It was great fun.

My aunt and uncle lived until they were in their 90s.  They died seven years ago.  Then, my cousin died four years later.  Now I only have those memories of Christmas Eve.

Oh, I forgot.  My parents were Ashkenazi Jews.  My uncle called himself an agnostic and I’m the atheist.

I first wrote this personal essay for a journalism class I had at Long Beach City College.  I published it two years ago on my blog.  I’m republishing again this Christmas in remembrance of my first cousin, Wendy Gross-Aeillo.

Barry Saks may be reached at


3 Responses to “The Atheist Who Loved Christmas Eve”

  1. willfreeman555 Saturday, December 22, 2018 at 6:08 am #

    Great article- Merry Christmas, Barry.


  2. militaryfamiliesspeakout Sunday, December 23, 2018 at 9:17 am #

    Dear Barry- thanks for sending this. It brought back memories of my favorite aunt, but she wasn’t the least bit “low brow” unfortunately. Have a great holiday and hope you two make it to Venezuela. paz

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  3. elskipporoo Friday, January 11, 2019 at 12:56 pm #



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