Fondue.

Few things in this life match the splendor that comes with the creaminess, the richness, the overall deliciousness of melted cheese. And if I’m being honest with myself, my fondest holiday memories start with fondue.

Well, the fondue and what the fondue represented.

This past fall, my aunt and uncle celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary. Their daughter, my cousin, held a special get-together in their honor. As part of the festivities, she asked all the guests if they’d take a moment to share a few words about what made her parents special. It came as no surprise that roughly 80-90% of those who spoke mentioned fondue.

Starting with me.

The party usually took place a week or two before Christmas. For me, this party always represented the true beginning of the holiday season. Up to this point the decorations, the trees, the lights, it mattered little because I had already been inundated with the commercialization of Christmas since October. But once this Saturday night came around the spark ignited. I was all in.

For as far back as I could remember, my aunt and uncle had always hosted the fondue party. And it wasn’t necessarily a family event. It was an everyone event. Family. Friends. Family of friends. Friends of friends. Neighbors of family and friends. It marked one of the few times a year I knew everyone I cared about would do their best to attend. No one ever wanted to miss it.

Unless this was your first time and you were trying to be polite, you didn’t need to ring the bell. You just opened up the black double doors and walked in. Once you entered the single-story home, there were a few things you noticed immediately. First, there was the mountain of shoes stacked in the entry way. It sent a clear message: Relax. Get comfortable. Enjoy yourself. You’re home.

The second thing you noticed was the noise – namely, the loud chorus of voices coming at you from all directions. Familiar ones. Not-so-familiar ones. Often, the voices were accompanied by laughter. That’s how you knew you were in the right place. People were always laughing.

The third thing was the smell. Specifically the sweet aroma of cinnamon and hot apple cider which you would find brewing in a large pot on the stove. My whole family lived in Southern California. While it never once snowed during December, that smell always reminded me it was supposed to be winter.

You had a choice. You could turn left and head directly into the kitchen where my mother, aunts, and cousins were laboring over the food. You could warm yourself with a cup of that cider then backtrack into the family room. You could crack open some nuts from a bowl sitting on the coffee table that looked as if someone had just hiked into a redwood forest, chopped down a tree, sanded the body, lacquered it, and shipped it fresh to my aunt’s house. You could take a seat on the couch next to one of my uncles and watch whatever sporting event they chose to pop on the screen. Talk some football. Indulge in some M&M’s. Or you could head straight into the living room.

The kitchen and the living room. Those were the hubs. But while the kitchen was for preparing the food, the living room was for eating the food. So that’s where most of the fun was had. What made this fondue party different from our other family functions was its casualness. That’s not to say our other family functions were ever formal. Far from it. But the specific way my aunt set up her living room to accommodate her guests gave you a clue as to what made this party so special.

Walk into the living room and you’d find one long table sitting atop the plush white carpet. Except that this table was only about two feet above the floor. For all I know it may not have been a table at all. It could have been just a line of cardboard boxes pushed together like a centipede with table cloths draped over them. And no chairs. No chairs because the point was to sit and stretch out on that plush white carpet. It coincided with the theme of the night: Relax. Get Comfortable. Enjoy yourself. You’re home.

Once you pulled up your piece of the carpet you were greeted with at least two pots of warming fondue. Melted cheesy goodness. Litter your paper plate with as much crusty sourdough or French bread as you could pile, grab a toothpick, and go to work. Make sure to save some space for the cold cut sandwiches, my mom’s red and green Jell-O stars, some pasta salad, some other delights, and of course, more fondue.

Sit in front of the fireplace. Have a good conversation with a relative you haven’t seen in a while. Play a game of Pictionary with the cousins. Laugh. Eat. Be merry. When it was time to leave you’d to be so stuffed you’d have trouble carting all your new Christmas gifts to the car.

I had friends who would fret over the holidays because they didn’t want to see their extended family. I could never understand it. I cherished those moments. I was one of the lucky ones. I would invite my disillusioned companions over for the fondue party in part because I wanted to show them the light. Not all family holiday get-togethers were clichéd and miserable. In fact, mine were pretty great. And I knew once they showed up to my aunt’s house, they would understand. They would come to agree. By night’s end, they could return to their family with the knowledge that they were always welcomed back to ours.  Open arms and all.

By the time I graduated college, the fondue parties had started to dwindle. At that point too many of us were spread out too far. It became a large burden for my aunt and uncle to continue playing host. Too large, in fact. And because this party was part of their identity, I don’t think anyone felt right about trying to pick up the torch. Eventually, the inevitable happened. The fondue party became a thing of the past. Part of my childhood went with it.

I think about the fondue parties every holiday season. How important it was for me growing up. How it helped me define the concept of family. It pains me a little that my kids won’t ever get to experience that specific occasion. But we’re working on creating our own family holiday traditions. Annual routines that will hopefully mean as much to them as my aunt and uncle’s party meant to me.

No fondue, though. We tried that last year. Baby Girl wasn’t a fan. Which kind of blew my mind because, after all, few things in life match the splendor that comes with the creaminess, the richness, the overall deliciousness of melted cheese.

But you knew that already.

Copyright 2016 Damien Alameda. All Rights Reserved.

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