Two lesbians, a man with Down's syndrome and a Jewish couple walk into a Chinese restaurant on Christmas Eve. Sounds like the setup to a joke, yes? Nope. This is my family, doing what we've done for a decade.
Separated by differing philosophies, as well as locations, we have no other tradition. I don't know who got the idea to spend Dec. 24 eating egg rolls and mu shu pork at a Chinese restaurant in Ventura. Doesn't matter. Regardless of what political and social arguments have ensued during the year, we all drive or fly in to go to the restaurant and the big round table by the fish tank.
This month, my husband sent me an e-card that read, "Let's celebrate the birth of Jesus by going out for Chinese food." Apparently, the tradition isn't exclusive to us. I wonder about those other families who celebrate the night before Christmas around a rotating tray of chow mein and egg foo yong. Do they too understand the importance of breaking fortune cookies with kin who sometimes feel akin to aliens?
Over 10 years, our table has gotten complicated. My mothers and my disabled brother have always been there. My grandmothers too, until they passed away.
My husband and I adopted a Costa Rican girl. My sister converted to Judaism, married, had a child, then divorced. Two years ago, she had to work on Dec. 24.
"You're coming to dinner, right?" I asked her ex-husband.
"Melissa," he said, "I wouldn't miss it."
His answer surprised me. He's a conservative Republican. Some of us are flaming liberals. Some are Jewish, some Buddhist, some atheist. At the table, we avoid politics and religion. Thankfully, after the kids arrived, we could talk about them, as well as the food. But I have wondered why we all keep showing up.
Some years I've sworn not to return — the evening my sister and I surreptitiously picked up the check and our moms got angry and bawled us out. Another night, a booth full of leather-clad bikers glared at my mothers holding hands, at my brother grinning into his beer. "Maybe we could find a more inclusive restaurant," I suggested.
But then I remember the night we sang Christmas carols with the waiter, another night when both toddlers had wet pants and my sister and I, weary and clutching our mai tais, delegated diaper duty to the men who carted the kids to the parking lot and changed them side by side in a bizarre tailgating potty party.
It's memories like these that keep our clan together. We replay them at the table, sweetly.
Still, I didn't fully realize what the dinner meant to me until I missed one. Last year, my husband and daughter and I were living in Costa Rica. On Dec. 24, I thought of my family at the Chinese restaurant and wept. "It doesn't feel like Christmas," I wailed.
So, this holiday, we'll be back in Ventura with our family around the big table. We're all wildly dissimilar in our lifestyles and beliefs. No matter. Once a year, we set aside our agendas and embody the spirit of the season with its messages of love, peace and egg rolls.
Melissa Hart, author of the memoir "Gringa: A Contradictory Girlhood," teaches at the University of Oregon's school of journalism and communication.