My family moved to America from Romania a few years before I was born. I grew up with either one or the other set of grandparents living with me. Most of my immediate family — my aunts and cousins — were still in Romania, so I didn't get to see them that often.
My family found an adopted extended family of other Romanians who lived in the same area as us. The adults were either distant cousins or friends from "back in the old country" or they were new friends they met along the way. The kids all basically grew up together. We even refer to each other as cousins, but we don't actually know who really is related and who isn't.
The best time of year was always Christmas Eve. Romanians typically celebrate the holiday on December 24 instead of on Christmas Day. My family almost always hosted our group's annual Christmas party. This involved upwards of 60 people piling into our house.
My favorite part of Christmas is the smell. My house always smells like cooked cabbage during Christmas. I know, that sounds gross, but trust me, it's the best smell ever. It's the smell of sarmale, which is meat wrapped in cabbage. I promise you, it's absolutely delicious, and it doesn't feel like Christmas without walking into my house and being slapped in the face with the overwhelming smell of this amazing food.
After the sarmales were cooked and the cookies were baked, my family would dress up and await all my "cousins." In the evening, everyone would pile into my house and have the best time.
The kids would play in my basement. We would play so hard that we would literally destroy my basement. Every year, my grandma would warn me not to let the kids down there because she was always the one who ended up cleaning up after us, and every year, we would trash the place. It was too fun not to.
After everyone was properly fed to a Romanian's standards, the doorbell would ring. Who would it be other than the one and only Santa Claus (and yes, by that I mean my grandpa or another male in the group dressed in a crappy costume that we had been using for years.)
There was one song — called "Moș Crăciun" aka Santa Claus — we would always sing as Santa walked in the door. Everyone knew the words, and everyone sang.
Santa would make his way into the living room and sit in one of the chairs. Then, the kids took turns reading poetry or singing songs. One of the grandmas would read a poem she wrote specifically for that year's Christmas, and my grandpa would start singing Romanian Christmas carols and wouldn't stop until the kids started complaining that they wanted presents.
Santa would then pass out presents, and we would sing what is essentially the reprise of Moș Crăciun as Santa left the house. We'd spend the rest of the night ripping open our presents and playing with everything we got.
As we got older, these parties started to die down. Santa would still come, but as the kids got older, the presents stopped saying "From Santa" on them and instead had the family name of whoever bought that particular gift card. Eventually, my family stopped hosting them, and then my parents moved.
I haven't been to one of these parties in a few years now, but they will always be some of my happiest memories from my childhood. No one knows how to do Christmas quite like a bunch of Romanians, and I'm thankful for my Romanian upbringing for giving me the best Christmases ever.