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Celebrating the Family : Time Together Seems to Be the Most Coveted Gift of All

There’ll be no racing into the living room on Christmas morning for the Kemp family of Laguna Beach.

Tradition dictates that everyone lines up, youngest to oldest, at the door before taking a mad dash at the presents stacked under the tree. That’s the Kemps’ way of protecting their young, even though each of the little ones--never the adults!--gets to open a gift on Christmas Eve.

And tradition ensures that Betty Kemp will whip lasagna out of the freezer this morning and serve it up with a tossed salad and garlic bread tonight. Turkey and the trimmings are reserved for Christmas Day.

“Lasagna is something I can cook up and freeze ahead of time,” explains Betty, wife of Tom Kemp (brother of Jack Kemp, U.S. secretary of housing and urban development). “We always have it--makes life much easier.”

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As always, there’ll be ice cream for dessert tonight, along with carols played on the piano by the Kemps’ daughter, Anne Hummel, and a theatrical reading of “The Night Before Christmas” by her husband, Rob. (“He used to be a radio announcer in St. Louis,” Betty says. “Wonderful voice.”) Before the evening ends, Tom Kemp Jr. will have engaged his grandmother, Fern Benson, in a serious game of Scrabble. And, providing one of his grandchildren doesn’t want to take a stab at it, Tom Kemp will say grace.

So go the holiday traditions of one of Orange County’s leading families. “Of course, the most traditional thing of all is that we’re together,” Betty says.

Dorothy Bendetti of Emerald Bay agrees. “Our family wouldn’t miss Christmas Eve,” says the woman who arranged the social whirl that surrounded the opening of the Nixon Library in Yorba Linda. “A son is coming all the way from Vancouver. For us, it’s so special no one would miss it for the world.”

Dorothy and Donald Bendetti’s celebration begins with salmon and champagne and a family gift exchange.

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“We all sit around and open gifts and it’s bedlam,” says Dorothy. Afterward, the family dines formally on prime rib and the trimmings. “Turkey is reserved for Christmas Day,” she says.

Before bedtime, Donald whips up his scrumptious Tom and Jerry drinks. “And then, we’ll all retire. We have to get up early for church,” Dorothy says.

One of Dorothy’s favorite traditions is the way she trims her tree. “I put all of the homemade ornaments at the bottom so the little ones can touch them and learn about them. And I put the fancy ones at the top of the tree.”

On Christmas morning, Donald starts a “big fire in the fireplace,” she says. “And we all sit together and have coffee and muffins while we open our Christmas stockings.”

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The most traditional thing about Mary and James Roosevelt’s Christmas Eve is that they celebrate it two days early.

“I always do Christmas on Dec. 22,” Mary says, “because I hate to cook on Christmas Day.”

It all started years ago when Mary traveled a lot as a young career woman. “I would come back to England for Christmas and our family would stay in a wonderful old inn in the heart of the English countryside,” she says. There, she would dine on grand hotel fare.

“When Jim and I got married, the last thing I wanted to do on Christmas was grow up,” she says, laughing. “I’d never cooked a turkey, so I just skated around it. I’ve always been entertained on Christmas Day.”

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But on Dec. 22, Mary--who has long since learned the art of bird roasting--pulls out the stops for Jim and their daughter, Becky. “I do a turkey dinner right down to Christmas pudding with hard sauce,” she says. On Christmas, the Roosevelts will step out. “We’re having dinner with our good friends, Barbara and Bill Ficker,” she says.

Leaving town for the holidays is becoming traditional for UC Irvine Chancellor Jack Peltason and his wife, Suzanne. The couple plan to be with their two daughters and three of their grandchildren in St. Louis on Christmas Eve.

“We’ve visited our daughter there for the last three years,” says Suzanne.

The night before Christmas, the Peltasons will dine on ham with their family and then go to church. “We love a Christmas Eve service,” Suzanne says. Jack Peltason calls the celebration with his loved ones, “a quiet and wonderful time that gives significance to the rest of the year.”

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Former astronaut Buzz Aldrin and his wife, Lois, hole up in their Sun Valley condo on Christmas Eve to watch the torch parade on the snow-covered slopes.

“It’s absolutely gorgeous,” says Lois. “Skiers race down the mountain holding flaming torches. And there are beautiful fireworks. It’s Sun Valley’s way of heralding the birth of Christ.”

On Christmas Day, the couple will ski. “It’s a big deal--tradition in the valley to ski on Christmas,” says Lois, adding that billionaire Donald Bren “is always on Sun Valley’s slopes that day.”

For Orange County Supervisor Thomas F. Riley and his wife, Emma Jane, Christmas Eve marks a tradition more than 50 years old.

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“We go to midnight Mass and then we have a chicken-salad supper before opening our presents,” Emma Jane says. “That’s an old Riley family tradition.

She loved the tradition from the start, Emma Jane says. “I was studying voice when I met Tom and I loved singing at midnight Mass. I have a particular sentiment attached to it because one Christmas Eve I was lucky enough to sing for the troops at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. It was the Christmas before World War II was declared. I’ll never forget singing ‘O Holy Night’ with a Marine officer who had one of the most beautiful voices you’ve ever heard.”


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