THE BLOG
12/16/2014 02:18 pm ET Updated Feb 15, 2015

'Ohana No Ka Oi: Our All-American-Non-Religious Christmas Ritual

'Ohana No Ka Oi --'Ohana, the best

My favorite day of the year is Christmas Eve. For as long as I can remember, my family has gathered the night before Christmas at my Aunt Bonnie and Uncle Stan's house in Gardena, a small-city in south central Los Angeles that borders Compton. My father's family immigrated from Japan to Hawaii sometime before the turn of the twentieth-century, so our cultural traditions, including the food we eat, the slang we use, and the clothes we wear, are a mélange of Hawaiian, Japanese, and American influences. The turkey usually sits next to the homemade tempura and spam rice balls. I love Christmas Eve because every year about forty of us from five generations gather in my Aunt's small house to celebrate our most important family ritual.

But we aren't family. Not in the strict definition of the term anyway. On any given year one will find the most intimate familial bonds: granddaughters and grandmothers, great-grandaughters and great-grandmothers, siblings and cousins. But there are always distant cousins, and pseudo-cousins, and friends, and friends of friends. My favorite is the group of octogenarian Japanese-Hawaiian men, my uncle's friends of fifty years, who sit in the backyard drinking beer, eating sashimi, and speaking deep pidgin English. Someone's "cousin" from Hawaii or childhood friend usually pops-in, and when they do they are welcomed into the fold with no hesitation. I can't remember a year without a new person.

We're also not simply Japanese-American. My wife and stepmom are Caucasian. My cousin's children are Mexican-American. My brothers and I are bi-racial. The life of the party, Jeff, isn't even part of the biological family. He's half-Hawaiian, half-Chinese. Neither this nor that, we are what I like to think is an All-American 'Ohana. 'Ohana is a Hawaiian word that means family but includes the distant relatives with whom one shares important things. In the past, this would mean resources such as land and crops. Today it means something different, at least to us, or at least to me. I'll come back to this in a minute.

The mix of all these traditions, histories, and families means the room is always full of stories. In fact, there are always more stories in the room than one could comprehend or tell. Before my step-grandfather died in 2006, he would tell me and my brothers stories of what it was like to have lived through Pearl Harbor as a Japanese family in Hawaii; how he enlisted in the service the day after the attack in order to fight for his country; how despite the heartbreak of fighting for a country whose mainland he'd never visited (America) against the island-country from which he came (Japan), it was never something he to think about. He would tell us that he was American, so he signed-up to defend America. There are stories of Japanese internment, of family in Hiroshima destroyed by the Bomb, of arriving in Los Angeles to start over in a tiny two-bedroom apartment that housed four generations, of interracial marriage, weddings, divorces, suicides, poverty, and wealth. I don't know all the stories. I know I can't know all the stories. That's not the point.

The point is that the coalescence of all the stories in the room each Christmas Eve reminds me what 'Ohana means. It doesn't mean family in the sense of biological relation or linear narrative. It means family in the sense of a group of people who have consciously tried and tried again to make their stories overlap with one another's. It means the intentional community of a group of immigrants, wayfarers, bi-racial children, neighbors, and friends pulled between cultures, wars, languages, and institutions who try each year to continue to impart meaning to the idea of family by writing each other into their respective stories. We are 'Ohana because we are relatives. We are relatives because we make the effort each year to bring our stories--our loves, losses, joys, sorrows--into relation with others who do the same.

This brings me to our ritual, one as fleeting as it is sacred. For over twenty-five years we have played a version of the White Elephant gift exchange many Americans play every Christmas. Each person brings a "gag" gift, and after numbers are doled out randomly, we pick in order. What makes the ritual so special is the level of involvement, joy, and fascination it garners from five generations of people, many who are only loosely related, if at all. No one talks about the ritual beforehand. Speaking of it at Thanksgiving is all but taboo. We never admit to looking forward to it. But, as soon as we seat ourselves in a set of concentric circles in my Aunt's tiny living room, the group transitions from small-talk and feasting to overwhelming amounts of laughter, friendly joking, and expectation when each of the forty or so people opens his or her gift. All of this is precipitated by the anticipation of who might open the 'Ohana's totem, what has become known as the Golf Caddy.

Twenty years ago last Christmas Eve my cousin Mike brought the seemingly unmemorable gag gift of a novelty golf caddy. It was a tacky object that none of would have wanted to display at home or work. However, among literally hundreds of other gifts opened over the years, the Golf Caddy became an object of 'Ohana-wide fascination. My (pseudo)-cousin Eddie opened the Golf Caddy the first time, and then re-wrapped it for the game the next year. When my aunt opened it, not only did uproarious s laughter ensue, but it instantly became a part of the ritual. Since then, there has been a strict rule that whoever opens the Golf Caddy must either come back the following year or make sure the Golf Caddy finds its way back to the ritual. For twenty years it was opened and re-opened, always to the indescribable joy of five generations of Americans laughing uncontrollably at its appearance. The one year it didn't show up resulted in the appearance of four or five pseudo-Golf Caddies the following year until it was found in a cousin's friend's garage. The Golf Caddy became the emblem of our 'Ohana's fragile sacrality--an enduring, yet seemingly arbitrary object that represented the importance of our non-religious Christmas gathering. That is, until last year.

Last year we all waited, as always, in breathless anticipation as to who might open the Golf Caddy. After thirty nine people had opened a gag gift, only two remained, yet the Golf Caddy hadn't appeared. This led to whispers that perhaps it was once again missing. I knew for certain, however, that it was present because I had taken it home the year prior and made sure to bring it back. My cousin Mike was the second-to-last to open. As he stepped up to the remaining two gifts, we all became very conscious of the fact that it was Mike who initially introduced the Golf Caddy, and thus it would be beyond hilarious if he were the one to open it on its twentieth year. After ten or so minutes of jokes from seven and eighty-seven year-old relatives alike, Mike indeed opened the Golf Caddy. We all laughed deeper and longer in that moment than we had all year. The type of laughter that makes you forget and remember at the same time; the type that suspends the sorrows of the past year and the worries of the one upcoming in a joyous in-between.

But then it happened. As Mike finally returned to take his place in the circle after ten minutes of raucous laughter, he lightly tapped the Golf Caddy on the back of the couch. It shattered. In seconds, the deepest laughter turned to nervous silence.

It seems we live in a time when our identities are constructed through networks of friends, loved ones, significant others, and acquaintances spread across the different chapters of our lives, which take place in different places and at different stages. Most of us have stopped telling grand narratives about our lives and instead are more apt to articulate something like a series of episodes. Perhaps most of us now tell collections of short-stories about ourselves, rather than one long epic.

Like the Golf Caddy, I'm sure this ritual won't continue forever. It will become a memorable short story in the various volumes told and re-told by everyone who participates. I don't know how long gathering of forty people from five generations will carry on. And that doesn't make it any less meaningful. In fact, it makes it more. I think we sometimes have the idea that if something doesn't carry on permanently then it is somehow less significant. We allow the difficulty of being human to convince us that certainty, straight lines, and above all permanence are what ensure our lives their meaning and significance.

I love Christmas Eve because the silly ritual surrounding the arbitrary totem reminds me that the significance of life-short-stories comes not from their inscription in a single narrative, but in the effort it takes to keep ensuring they overlap--relate--with those of others. I've thought quite a bit over the years about what makes Christmas Eve so special and what makes our "family" an 'Ohana. I've concluded that we're 'Ohana because we share our lives' short-stories with another in a way that makes them overlap at various points. We're American precisely because our 'Ohana provides none of us with a Grand Narrative in which to write our own stories. We are not a unified group whose history, habits, and ideals form a linear past, present, or future. Everyone in the room also has their own set of short stories, all gathered in an ever-changing volume containing their memories, experiences, loves, and meanings.

For me, 'Ohana is about the joyous in-between where our stories overlap with others' long enough and deep enough to help us continue to write our own, to help us reckon with the past and deal with the future. Far from a foundation, it is a set of relations that enables us to bring our stories, as short or as long as they may be, into a network of others. It's a reminder that our stories and relations are fragile and temporal. It's a reminder that certainty and finality aren't options. It's a reminder that togetherness, family, sharing--all those cliché things Christmas is supposed to be about--happen in the joyous between where we relate our stories to others' when it would have been much easier not to.