Whenever we spend the holidays with my relatives in northern California, we eat Dungeness crab on Christmas Eve. I can’t remember when the tradition was started, but when Brandon and I got together, I introduced him to it. He was still mostly a vegetarian then, and he’d never tasted crab, but he was curious about it – enough to grab a couple of crab legs and, however awkwardly, get himself around them. He took to it fast. This year, we spent Christmas in Seattle, on our own, and we decided to continue the Christmas Eve crab tradition, since Washington is the state that gave Dungeness crab its name. It felt fitting. Plus, Brandon announced, he had a plan: he would catch our crabs himself.

I told my mother about this plan a few weeks ago, when she came to visit for a long weekend. Molly, she breathed, that’s SO romaaaaaantic. I agreed. But I also knew that, because neither Brandon nor I had crabbed before, there was a decent chance that we would come home with nothing. Or that we would fall out of the boat while trying to lower down the traps, die of hypothermia, sink to the bottom of the ocean, be eaten by vengeful crabs, and never come home at all.

That was when I suggested that Brandon drop a line to our friend Renee, who’s a seasoned crabber, to see if she might be up for a Christmas Eve outing.

Renee checked the tide tables, and last Saturday, around noon, we met her and her dad Jim at the boat launch at Port Susan. We pushed off. The water was rough, and Jim bobbed and weaved, putting bait in the traps.

Renee ate a faceful of water.

But one at a time, they got the traps in, feeding the ropes down down down, until they felt them settle on the bottom.

Once the traps were down, there was nothing to do but wait.

We tied up on a strip of beach where Alice could run, and while Brandon and I arranged some life preservers-slash-seat cushions along a wet log, Renee produced a Thermos of delicata squash-and-leek soup, a bottle of prosecco, paper cups, and a dozen salted chocolate cookies.

(For the record, I will never again leave home without Renee.)

When the soup was gone and the prosecco was gone and Alice had run approximately four dozen laps of our log, it was time to check the traps.

Sunset was due to come at 4:22 that day. We hurried.

When you bring in a crab, the first thing to do is to check its sex, and then return any females to the water. Then you check the size of your remaining haul: to be kept legally, a Dungeness crab must be at least 6 ¼ inches across. This one was a runt.

If you want to geek out about the nuts and bolts of recreational crabbing, or go crabbing someday in Washington State, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife website is the place for you. Also, note: there will be a lot of seagulls, and if you have any uneaten bait left when you haul in the traps and head back to shore, THEY WILL WANT TO EAT IT.

Unless a bald eagle makes a sudden, swooping appearance on the horizon, and then the gulls will unanimously decide, Oh, ha ha! Silly us! She can have it! And flee.

I’ve never had a better Christmas Eve.

We caught only two crabs that met the legal size limits, and Renee and Jim insisted that we take them. After we left, they went to a grocery store to get some for themselves. Another year, I hope, we can make it up to them. Maybe in 2012.

Happy New Year, friends.

P.S. Our friend Becky Selengut made a fantastic video about how to cook and clean a Dungeness crab. It’s a great resource.