MARI KATHERINE RAFTOPOULOS

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MARI KATHERINE RAFTOPOULOS

Mari Katherine Raftopoulos: The winter blues

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Ornament by ornament, my mother undresses the Christmas tree. The ornament of a pair of baby slippers that reads "Mari Katherine's first Christmas" gets harder to put away each year for my mother.

Because each year the ornament gets older and so do I. Light by light, my father takes the house away from the spotlight; only a porch light illuminates it now. Bite by bite, the leftovers are eaten.

And only the memory and stories are left of the holidays.

The tree is bare now and no longer holds the spirit it used to. A spirit that brought me home from San Diego, where lights adorn palm trees and stockings hang by chimneys that have never been used. Where I can't bear to listen to Christmas carols as I cruise toward the ocean sunset, because it doesn't feel right.

But here, at home, it feels right.

It is the day after New Year's and we joke about how our house is like a revolving door, where people file in an out as if it was Macy's. Family and friends come to talk, eat or get their jacket they forgot the night before, only to stay for a cup of coffee.

Then they leave.

Some might not return until next Christmas, with a new boyfriend, a new job or a new problem.

Others might choose a different tradition.

I can feel it coming, the winter blues and the tingly feeling of standing under the mistletoe is replaced with an emptiness, a yearning to go back to Christmas Day. I search for a cure. Maybe a vitamin, or a hot cup of cocoa. None of them work.

Then I trace back the past two weeks in my digital camera, laughing at the photo of me bringing in 2008 with a new dance move. The next picture brings just as much happiness. It is a picture of a guest and I from my New Year's Eve party.

And by guest I mean boy. For those of you who don't know, bringing a special someone to the annual New Year's Eve Greek party is like feeding a pack of wolves, or watching an episode of "Survivor," or like an impossible game show where the contestant can never win.

So I asked a boy to come, so what?

You know those quizzes you find in Teen People or Cosmopolitan that read, "Is he right for you?" And you read the results before you take the quiz because A) you want to cheat and B) in the back of your mind you know he isn't.

You can't cheat in this quiz because it is more like a final exam. My cousin ambiguously named our New Year's Eve exam, "Can he hang in Craig?"

I have seen many good men fail the test and many mediocre men mistake the chicken dance for the Kalamatiano (a Greek folk dance). So, I delayed the arrival with my special guest with 14 coats of mascara, a warm-up dance routine in the hallway and a 15-minute power nap.

To help calm my nerves, my brother reminded me that after this revealing the family would ask about my special guest and our status every single year until I was married.

No pressure.

So the introductions began and handshakes were replaced with yia yia (grandmother in Greek) cheek kisses and papou (Grandfather in Greek) hugs.

That's when it all made sense.

It wasn't about the boy, it was about the tradition that each year a family member would bring a special guest to be interrogated and examined.

And asked traditional questions such as these:

• What is your financial statement?

• What do your parents do?

• What do you want to do when you graduate?

And many more grown-men questions because it is a tradition.

But after all we are family.

After one spilled drink, one midnight kiss and one last dance, the test was complete.

Right there on that dance floor is where the character of my Greek family lies. As a family, we have the same song stuck our heads. We have the same two-step. We have the same background. We are family.

So the question is, can he hang?

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