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Monday, Dec. 24, 2001 - 5:34 p.m.

Christmas Eve

They say that the longest day of the year is June 22, the first day of summer.

I doubt that.

I think the longest day of the year is today, Christmas Eve, for everyone no matter how you look at it.

As kids, it's easily the longest day -- the waiting, the longing, looking at all those presents under the tree and the potential that lies inside each one. There's the empty stockings hanging by the fireplace or, as in my house where there is no fireplace, along the staircase. There's the thought of Santa Claus coming that night, of the number of presents beneath the tree magically increasing overnight. All of that makes for a long day.

Our Christmas Eve tradition for as long as I can remember has been to wake up in the morning -- early for a day off from school, usually around 8:30 a.m. -- and enjoy breakfast and gift exchanging with Sue, Bob, Matt and Christy, friends of ours for nearly as long as I've been alive. Matt was born two days after I was, and Christy came into this world two years later, merely two hours after my sister Jessica on Dec. 7. Matt and I have been friends ever since our mothers shared a hospital room on Dec. 7, 1978. I always looked forward to Christmas Eve because it meant a present from Matt, which was always one of my best presents, year in and year out.

As we got older, we occassionally told each other what we'd gotten for him, and for a few years, in high school and college, we'd basically tell the other what to get. A few years there, there were always a few CDs we'd want, and we'd pick one or two out that wouldn't be on any other lists -- those we gave to our mothers, for example -- and we'd know that would be the gift we'd open on Christmas Eve. There were even a few years during the run where I'd convince my mother to let Jess and myself open the presents we'd gotten for one another on Christmas Eve. It was a stretch of impatience on my part, an inability to save all the excitement for one day.

But every Christmas Eve, after Matt and his family left around 10 or 11 a.m., the house would go quiet. The world would stand still. One year, or two maybe, I'd run out on some last-minute errands, even going so far once as to immediately spend the music store gift certificate Matt had given me that afternoon. But for the most part, the afternoon of Dec. 24 was always spent wishing the day away. If Christmas Eve were a weekday, the choices on television would be limited -- mostly lousy daytime soaps and the like, since we didn't have cable. Weekends would provide a little more variety, particularly Sundays, with NFL football. But as a kid, I wasn't interested. I'd find anything I could to occupy my time and await the darkness. Napping was out of the question, because a nap would reserve my energy for later in the day, and there would be no way I'd be able to fall asleep if I was too excited and not tired at all.

When the afternoon finally burned out into night, then things began to happen. The Christmas carols on the radio sounded clearer, the excitement in my chest grew more intense. We'd have dinner, usually just something small with the family, and get ready for the 7 p.m. evening church service up the street. Most years, Grandma would be over, either to spend the night or to go back to her condo only to be picked up again the next morning. In later years, if she were to stay, it required the production of setting up her large oxygen tank so that she could sleep in Jess's room and still have hose enough to get around the house. On those nights that Grandma stayed, Jess slept on the floor in my room.

In the alternating years when Uncle Johnny, Aunt Barb and cousins Kate and Christine from Maine spent Thanksgiving in with grandparents in New Hampshire and Christmas here with us, they'd be here and help make Christmas Eve go by faster. We'd usually play games or watch Christmas cartoons or movies or maybe take a drive to the beach -- always one of mom's favorite wintertime activities, a walk along the sand, the cold wind snapping at our ears. But when the Maine gang was here, we'd have a little more fun, a few more distractions to keep our eyes off the clocks. As darkness came and dinner ended, we'd change into our church-going clothes and bundle up for the short walk up the street to the church, taking tiny white candles as we entered and settling into the cold wooden pews for 45 minutes (or so) of holiday hymns and carols and the reading of the Christmas story from the Bible, broken into parts separated by songs and read by different people, young and old.

After church, we'd pile into the car and drive off to Colts Neck, a country township full of horse farms and large estates 20 minutes away. One of the largest farms, Due Process Stables, decorated all its holly trees along Route 520 with white lights, and visitors were invited to turn into the complex and wind along the roads to view the other lights and holiday displays -- including the life-size manger scene with live animals -- set up on the property. That tradition ended years ago when the stable owner sold off most of his property and allowed it to be developed into a golf course.

When Jess and I got older, the Christmas Eve traditions expanded to allow for midnight church services. Either we'd return to Embury Methodist up the street, or drive into Rumson for the Catholic service (Dad's religion of choice) at Holy Cross. And for two Christmases in high school, I joined Heather and her family at the Presbyterian church on the hill in Red Bank.

But then, after the final services, after the midnight masses had spilled over into Christmas morning, it was time to come home and go to sleep. Finally. In my younger years, as I said, it was difficult to fall asleep, unable to curb my excitement over Christmas morning. And no matter how tired I finally became, no matter how late I stayed up, I'd always find myself waking up at 4 or 5 a.m., unable to wait any longer. But somehow, I usually did.

Even now, though, in my mid-20s, I find that Christmas Eve is the longest day of the year. With so many friends and others continuing their holiday traditions, there are no peers to hang out with, no one to pass the time with. In some ways, Christmas always seemed long because we'd find ourselves awaiting Dec. 26 when we could once again meet up with our friends and show off all our new things. But this afternoon, with time to myself, I lied down on the couch and wrapped myself in a blanket, hoping to fall asleep and pass the afternoon. Later, when Jess came down from her room, we watched National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation and reminded Mom that tonight, after church, TNT begins its 24 hours of A Christmas Story at 8 p.m., just in time for us to sit down to our lasagna dinner with the adventures of Ralphie in the background.

Now, sitting in my room, the darkness outside cut only by the lamp on my desk and the cat curled up on my bed, I hear the sound of the fire engine as it makes its way around Little Silver, delivering Santa and his toys to houses in the neighborhood. Mom's already left for church to practice with the bell choir, a very loose term for a group of women who practice one song once a week all year for two performances that will certainly draw laughter -- the Christmas Eve evening service and the Easter morning celebration.

But the day is almost gone, and I will have little trouble drifting off to sleep tonight, I am sure. I am grateful to have had the day off, actually, the first Christmas Eve I have not had to drive to the newspaper in three years. Last year I had Christmas off, as I do this year, and while I said it earlier in 2001 about this holiday season, I do not intend to have to wonder about my holiday work schedule come next season.

And next season, wow. I can't even begin to think about next Christmas, not that I'm wishing away this one. But it's hard to keep my excitement in check when the possibilities are so intriguing. To have the holidays off in 2002, to have nights off ... to be able to come home from work and enjoy dinner with Casey, to hang our stockings side-by-side, to get a tree, to enjoy shopping together and spending this day, this night, together.

Should it all work out that way, you can bet I won't be sitting here at the computer remembering past Christmases and discussing Christmas Eve as the longest day of the year. Should it all work out that way, I won't want Dec. 24, 2002, to end.

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