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Schmich: Finding meaning in Christmas no matter where it's celebrated

In the social squeeze called the holidays it's

In the social squeeze called the holidays it's helpful to remember: Things don't have to be normal to be good. Credit: Tribune Content Agency / Mark Weber

Last Christmas Day, my sister Gina and I went to her favorite coffee shop for dinner.

I mean coffee shop, not coffeehouse, the kind of place that's open 24 hours a day, serves as many free coffee refills as a truck driver can stomach, and takes no reservations.

It's a place that doesn't typically come to mind when you hear the words "Christmas dinner."

Gina lives in a midsize Oregon town that buttons up for Christmas as tightly as a person might zip up for a blizzard. It seems to operate on the assumption that normal people stay home on Christmas Day, idling the hours away in the cocoon of family.

I arrived at Gina's early on Christmas afternoon thinking that's what we'd do. We had an invitation to a relative's.

She announced she'd rather stay home alone.

What she meant, I deduced, wasn't that she wanted to be alone. She just didn't want to be in a crush of family members, surrounded by yammer about politics, jokes she didn't understand, discussions of movies she'd never see, stories of Christmases she doesn't remember even if she was there. She doesn't remember anything before the age of 10.

Gina, who has struggled all her life with variously diagnosed challenges, lived with our mother until she died three years ago, and they always spent Christmas together. Now I go to see her at Christmastime.

"What if we go out for dinner?" I said last Christmas Day.

She brightened. "That sounds good!"

But this was not Chicago. In all the town, there appeared to be only one place open, a coffee shop whose claim to glory, along with pie, is that it never, ever closes.

In the damp air, under the gray sky, we set off in my rental car, down an empty highway, toward the outskirts of town, past the auto parts shops, the thrift store, the tattoo parlor, Burger King and Burrito Boy, all closed.

Then there it was, a squat box next to a parking lot, neon sign shining. There was a line out the door. An hour wait. At 4 p.m.

Who were these people? Why weren't they home on Christmas Day?

"Every dysfunctional family in town," I joked.

"You mean like us?" Gina said. We laughed.

Crowds make Gina anxious, so we sat in the car while we waited for a seat, listening to Christmas music on the radio, watching people come and go.

An elderly man and woman, both on walkers. Single men. Solo dads with a kid or two. A couple of haggard but boisterous couples who looked like they'd been up all night and planned to be again. A few seemingly intact families.

I made up stories about them all.

The old folks, with their kids far away, who didn't want to eat Christmas dinner at the nursing home. The men whose families didn't want them. The divorced dads who had the kids for the afternoon. The hard partyers. The families in which mom refused to cook.

I didn't know their true stories any more than they knew mine and Gina's, but it was clear we all shared something. We weren't normal.

Normal people would be sacked out on a living room sofa, setting a table, slaving over mashed potatoes. Home for the holidays.

The size of this crowd made it clear, though, that there are a lot of not-normal people on Christmas, all of us looking for somewhere to go, and most everybody here, as best I could tell, was happy as anybody else on Christmas Day.

Finally, we got a booth, next to two middle-aged men in camouflage gear who were talking about hunting rifles.

The restaurant was bright and noisy. Our waitress was robust and cheerful in the style of Mrs. Claus. Gina ordered the honey-glazed ham "feast" and I nibbled.

"This was a good Christmas," she said afterward.

It was. We plan to do it again this year.

In the social squeeze called the holidays it's helpful to remember: Things don't have to be normal to be good.

Mary Schmich is a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist for the Chicago Tribune.