Christmas Card Games

Tonight, we were at my in-laws’ house for their annual Christmas celebration. As long as I’ve known The Wife, they’ve always celebrated Christmas as a family on Christmas Eve, gift exchange and all. This year it seems like the mood was not as festive as in previous years. Maybe it was because The Wife’s brother, Tim, wasn’t there. (He’s such as depressing fellow, however, that I have my doubts about this, despite the fact that he’s family.) Neither of us was sure of why it was. Surprisingly, the thing that brought some of the Christmas spirit back was a simple late night card game.

When my family still lived in Puerto Rico, one of the things all of the kids in our neighborhood grew fond of was playing cards. Usually, card games happened whenever the power went out (which was somewhat often), or whenever it was raining and we couldn’t go out and play in the rain (usually because of lightning). They also occurred whenever we were under the care of someone’s grandparent and a set of dominoes was unavailable. For some reason, it seemed as if every grandparent was an expert at both of those games, cards and dominoes. Later on we figured out why: having decades of experience behind them, all grandparents were skilled cheaters, at least when it came to cards. It seems all grandparents all over the world have at least that much in common.

The game we most often played was a simple game called “War”. If you’re not familiar with it, here are the rules:

War can be played by as many people as you want with as many decks as you want. (The more decks you use, the longer the game will likely be.) It includes all the cards in a deck(s), including the Jokers, which are the highest-value cards, followed by the Aces, Kings, etc. To start, every player gets the same number of cards, face down. Each player then turns the top-most card of their personal deck over and compares it to everyone else’s. The player with the highest value card gets all the cards presented. If two or more players have the same value card (e.g.: two Kings), and those cards are the highest in value from all the players (i.e.: all other players present cards of lower value than Kings) those players have to wage war: each player lays down the top three cards from their deck, face down, then a fourth one face up. (While laying the cards down, the players should each say “I – De – Clare – WAR!”, with each syllable corresponding to the card being dropped.) The player with the highest card at this point gets all of the cards presented for this round, including both the face up and face down cards. (War confrontations are the only way you can really get someone else’s Jokers. A player with at least one Joker is never out of the game.) If another tie takes place, then the players wage war again in the same manner. The player who gets all the cards wins.

The reason we played “War” instead of “Go Fish”, “Crazy Eights” or “Speed” was because it was a simple game which usually lasted for a long time, and was somewhat difficult to cheat on. Mind you, we played the others as well, but dominoes aside, this one was the one game all of us, young and old alike, had in common.

Tonight, while at the Christmas Eve celebration over at The Wife’s parents’ house, the mood wasn’t exactly a particularly festive one. While the family was there chatting it up and laughing, it seemed as if the level of energy and feeling of camaraderie wasn’t what it used to be. I don’t know, maybe it was we were all a year older and just didn’t have as much energy as we had when we were young-uns in the long, long ago of last year. I sincerely doubt it, however. Instead, I think it was because — and this will sound a bit selfish — there really wasn’t any gift giving.

Last year, the family decided to have a “Random Santa” sort of thing, where each guy would bring a gift for a guy, and each lady would bring a gift for a lady. We then put all the gifts on a table and each guy would randomly pick a gift meant for a guy (not the one he brought), and each lady randomly picked a gift meant for a lady (not the one she brought). This worked out well because almost 20 people showed up last year, which offered a bit of variety.

This year, the family instead decided to have everyone buy US$20 in Florida Lottery tickets and put all the numbers in a pool. Officially, 16 people participated, which means that a total of 320 numbers were picked. If one of those 320 numbers wins, the plan is to split the jackpot (currently worth $14,000,000) 16 ways.

I don’t know, maybe it’s just me, but somehow this doesn’t exactly scream (or even whisper) of Christmas spirit to me. Then again, I don’t gamble, so what do I know, right?

In addition to the lack of gift giving, the number of beers that made their way from the fridge to the toilet via human bladders was also a mood killer, since a certain level of argumentation made its way into various conversations and turned a festive occasion into a mundane, almost every-day one. Finally, there was that whole overt attention to football games on the television, underscored by the usual betting pools, and the general lack of family activities, which — since there was no family gifting/unwrapping — were brought down from one last year to zero this year. Combined, these factors aided in the lack of a true Christmas spirit during this Christmas Eve celebration.

By 10:00 PM, everyone had left, save for The Wife and I (and her parents’, of course). After the rambunctious evening we could finally spend a few minutes enjoying the company of her parents. Both her mom and her dad are wonderful people, for the most part. Her mom I love because she’s always been on my side when it came to the relationship between The Wife and I (which I guess counts as an inter-ethnicity marriage, or some such thing). Despite the running joke involving mother-in-laws — that they always hate their child’s spouse — she and I get along very well. (I think its because she knows I like Polka.) Her dad I like because I can just be “one of the guys” with him. This despite the fact that he, for all purposes, forbade the marriage between The Wife and I, on the grounds that he should be marrying a “white guy” instead of a “Hispanic.” Needless to say, this racist leaning seems to have faded away, or at least been buried well enough for him and me to talk sports and… wait, does he talk about anything else? Maybe his friends. Well anyway, we now get along.

As the radio played some Christmas songs from one of the local country music stations, I suggested we play a game of cards. We had just finished putting away the leftover food from the party, and it looked as if we’d soon be watching television together, not really interacting with each other, and feeling just as empty inside. In their own “what the hell, might as well” sort of way, they agreed and we started up the game. In no time, all of us were laughing, chatting, and accusing each other of cheating (as per tradition, of course).

With the music playing in the background and all of us simply sitting there talking, it was clear that the spirit of Christmas finally started to show up. It wasn’t like we suddenly decided to start caroling across the neighborhood (this isn’t the type of neighborhood you do that in, if you get my drift), but for the first time all night, all of us were smiling and enjoying time together, instead of drinking to create an artificial high or silently watching their huge, 60″ television.

After about an hour, we finally decided to stop. By this time, both The Wife and her dad had been eliminated from the game, and only her mom and I were playing. I finally forfeited the game, since I could see I wasn’t the only one getting tired.

As luck would have it, the local CBS affiliate started to play the Midnight Mass being performed by Pope Benedict XVI from St. Peter’s Basilica. While I don’t consider myself a Catholic, I couldn’t resist watching this absolutely beautiful ceremony take place. Indeed, it was the best way to welcome Christmas I could have asked for, since the spiritual was finally unified with the secular, forming the magnificent in the way only those two can. We sat together and watched it for about 45 minutes before The Wife finally decided it was time to go. (Her mother’s sleepy nods were an indication that it was time for us to hightail it.)

We said our good byes in the usual brief manner and were then off to my parents’ place, where we expected to stay up wrapping presents for each other until about 3:00 AM, just to force ourselves to be up in 5 hours in order to open them, act excited, then go back to sleep. Still, on the way home, neither The Wife nor I could help but be amazed at how something as simple as a kid’s card game could turn a day which seemed like any other into Christmas Eve, and how it could so perfectly welcome Christmas day.

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