Sunday, December 24, 2017

Christmas Eve Daytona Beach Shores (2017)

For the past twenty-two years we've spent every Christmas except one in a place where the only white on the ground is the sand on the beach, places like the Mayan Riviera, Cancun, Puerto Vallarta, Domincan Republic, Antigua, Fort Lauderdale, Boca Raton, Hilton Head Island and now Daytona Beach Shores. Progressively the sojourns have extended from one-week all-inclusive jaunts to ten-day beachclub indulgences to three-week residential hotel vacations to six-month condominium winters. The early trips were purposively planned over the Christmas holiday as it was an opportune time to shut down my law practice.  There was never any business during that week.  Even if I stayed at the wheel (as on several occasions I had previously done) everybody else had evaporated. My lingering attendance was destined to be social only.

My mother made a great fuss about the entire family not being together at Christmas. But the practicality of a Christmas vacation quickly took root; and once the pattern was established I was wont to disturb it.  Naturally the magnetism of Christmas wore thin notwithstanding I had historically enjoyed buying and giving gifts, decorating the house with boughs and ornaments, entertaining, blazing fireplaces, glittering Christmas lights, the smell of all-spice and nutmeg, Dylan Thomas' "A Child's Christmas in Wales", getting drunk on Christmas Eve (and sometimes stumbling in the deep snow to midnight mass at St. Paul's Anglican Church), Christmas morning, Christmas dinner, plum pudding aflame in Cognac, mistletoe, the Messiah and Mantovani, Christmas cards, visting friends, etc.

My sister and her husband and their extended family continue many of those same traditions uninterrupted.  I understand for example that today about 32 of them rallied at my sister-in-law's place for a noontime feast which is to be succeeded this evening by a smaller gathering at my sister's house for escargots, Caesar salad, steak au poivre and red wine. The custom is however not without its unraveling.  Though my younger niece has swung in from California,  my elder niece has already flown to England for three weeks to be with her partner who is studying there. The familial boundaries are likely beginning to fray elsewhere too but the current strength of the gatherings speaks to the sustained enthusiasm for family congresses.

Meanwhile we have doggedly and less dramatically nurtured our own theme at Christmastime.  When I reflect upon what transpired on Christmas Eve in particular for the past twenty-two years nothing much stands out.  In fact the celebration is more spectacular for its lack of flair.  Once on Hilton Head Island we arrived late in the afternoon on Christmas Eve.  The Island was virtually shut down. For dinner we frequented what was one of very few restaurants open. When we arrived at the restaurant there was hardly anyone there and the staff were clearly already in celebratory mode.  We initially felt we were interrupting a private gathering. Realizing that formality was absurd we capitulated entirely to the staff and took what we were given.  As we had been driving for about seven hours previously that day the dry vodka martinis went down smoothly and it was then the work of a moment to consume the food we were given. It wasn't long before we poured ourselves into a cab and retired for the evening, long before Santa Claus arrived.  But the next day we awoke early and refreshed to the beachfront view of the Ocean.

At Boca Raton we were pressed once again to find a restaurant, that time on New Year's Eve. The preference there was distinctly for private assemblies; otherwise it was the main dining room.  We wanted something a bit less familial. The Beach Club (where we were staying) was part of the larger "pink hotel" on the mainland. We directed ourselves there and located a restaurant. When we enquired of the maître d' what was available we were again given the distinct impression that we were protracting the staff's own intended New Year's festivities. We were seated in a remote part of the restaurant apart from where the staff were congregating. It lent the feel of an exclusive lounge.  When we began ordering our meal however the staff cheerfully rose to the occasion. They could sense we were on a roll and they fully intended to be part of it (as indeed they ultimately were thanks to the "Christmas spirit").  We started with Grey Goose martinis and oysters on the half-shell. Then a bisque and Dry Sack. Along the way was a sorbet with something to wash that down. Thereafter it was lobster or filet mignon or both and certainly a bottle of Veuve Clicquot. I have no doubt dessert followed and Cognac afterwards.

Our visit to Antigua acquainted us with Terry and Phillip from England. They were a married couple about our age. We dined together and danced together. We also frequented the nude beach at the remote end of the resort paradoxically in order to afford ourselves more privacy.

As we aged the dedication to eating and drinking waned commensurately. In the Caribbean we chose instead to lunch instead of dine.  I recall vividly an open-air restaurant under a thatched roof immediately adjacent the crashing sea.  We began as usual with vodka martinis and fresh fish. As might be expected these midday indulgences were soporific in addition to having the effect of robbing the evening meal of its customary allure.  As a result the latter part of the day was spent in more modest consumption and retiring to the first-class lounge for pousse-cafés.  We did nonetheless have one especially memorable meal in Puerto Vallarta where the owners were Canadians.  The restaurant was a sublime wood and stone cavern with ornate Mexican furnishings and candles everywhere. We paced the meal so cleverly that the resulting effect was more of a "high" than a "drunk".  It was however a bit of a shock at the end of the meal to learn they did not accept credit cards. After a considerable challenge, no doubt exacerbated by the booze, we found an ATM in that Bohemian area of town.

Eventually our Christmas parties effectively stopped, as did our drinking. Now our standard for a good meal is fresh fish and oysters at a casual waterfront joint. Unwittingly I suspect we've actually become more discriminating. Though we have frequently joked about returning to the habit of drinking martinis it will never happen.  Some things like youth are best kept as memories.

So that is why today our preoccupation on Christmas Eve was nothing more outstanding than a visit to the fitness room for a 5-mile run and for me a 10-mile bicycle ride to Ponce Inlet. The evening meal was a veggie salad with fresh-squeezed lemon juice.

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