In my family, holidays always meant that we were going to be spending the night in Kansas City–an hour’s drive from home. It meant mah jongg for my parents. For me and my sister, it meant party time: meeting up with a group of kids I only knew through mah jongg, spending long days at the mall, camping out indoors on sleeping bags, staying up late, watching TV and playing games with pretty much free rein until 2 a.m.

My parents were part of a mah jongg circle which would meet at various homes on weekends and school holidays whenever possible. Sometimes it felt like we did this three weekends a month. I remember doing it when I was six years old; I remember actually being told to put off my homework so that I could go when I was a rebellious 14. “The parents,” as we kids collectively called them, would convene anywhere from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. and play for at least 12 hours straight. We might spend the entire day at the mall together, get picked up, and run wild until we dropped from exhaustion. Our parents were unable to control us because they were all in the game, which usually took place in the basement. We’d take a break, of course, for dinner. For Thanksgiving and Christmas this meant a huge spread with turkey and some traditional American items, along with fish, rice, won tons and numerous Chinese-style dishes. Or maybe takeout on more common occasions. It was a buffet, because there were usually at least 20-30 people in the house and some of them wanted to get back to playing mah jongg. Then, anywhere from 2 to 8 a.m., the parents would finally break up their gathering and take their groggy children home.

I really enjoyed these unorthodox holidays. I liked the other kids who would come, a usual group of regulars sometimes enlivened by newcomers. We’d play cops and robbers, and hide and seek, and terrorize the neighborhood with snowball fights or cap guns–all pretty much unsupervised. They couldn’t stop us from watching “Fantasy Island” or “Friday Fright Night” or having Pac Man contests on the Atari 800 all night long. We caught “Blade Runner” on HBO at someone’s house way before we were ready for it. We wrote essays for fun on a Mary Cassatt painting in one home, because we thought the little girls’ eyes followed us everywhere. We played outdoor games, indoor games, sat in basements through tornado warnings, exchanged “Star Wars” cards, played board games, split into factions and had War marathons–you name a childhood pasttime, I’m sure we did it. Whatever sides we all took against one another, we actually all got on pretty well, except for one or two epic battles. In some ways we were almost more than friends because of these crazy bonding weekend experiences. We were family.

I know my holidays, growing up, didn’t happen like this every year. Some Christmases we had brunch at the Holidome, or a Chinese restaurant; sometimes we probably did other things. But when I think of childhood holidays, this is what I remember.

Helen, 34, Glenview, USA

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