It’s close to Christmas season, again. After my mother passed away, I didn’t have a desire to celebrate this. I found myself, instead, drawn to being a part of this annual ritual called Christmas, or Yule, or Solstice in a more personal way and didn’t give much thought to peace on earth and goodwill toward men, or angels on high, attended church, or watched for Santa.
I have rediscovered Christmas but in a different way. For me, Christmas is not about obligatory gift-giving. It’s about connecting with others from the heart. So, for many years now, I have given the gift I do best—good food. I cook my fingers to the bone and love every minute of it. I’m always filled with happiness when I see my friends stuffing themselves with my gift of tasty food to titillate their taste buds.
As a child, holidays in our house were mostly centered around food. First was New Year’s Eve—Champagne or sparkling cider and cookies, watching the Times Square ball drop at midnight. The next day, we all got up early, bundled on the couch with hot cocoa and cinnamon toast to watch the Rose Parade. Then came Easter—colored eggs and picnics. Then Independence Day—barbecue, and beer, and bright lights in the sky. The real guns came out on Halloween and the annual pumpkin and sugar bacchanal. From there we plunged on to Thanksgiving—turkey and all that goes with it to make sure it’s a gut-busting day. Finally, there was Christmas—a fresh, fragrant tree, decorated to light up anyone’s heart, brightly wrapped presents that we tore open with glee. A house full of the wonderful smells of a feast-in-the-making.
Even now, no matter whether we’re with others, or all alone, Thanksgiving is about eating. The compulsion to mark this day with a special meal is so strong in the American psyche that some of us have occasionally found ourselves in a not-to-be-named coffee shop that stays open 24/7, eating dry, rubbery turkey drowned in canned gravy and watery mashed potatoes. Oh, yum! The ghosts of the pilgrims would strike us dead if we ordered a hamburger. NO! Thanksgiving is about gorging ourselves silly with special food—good or bad. And, for some it’s also about football. Thankfully, this isn’t a tradition that runs in my family. We’re more about enjoying each other and maybe watching a movie or looking at the moon and stars.
For many Americans, though, when Thanksgiving is over for another year, they sit their gleefully bloated selves down and think about Christmas. Black Friday is the official opening day of the Christmas season. The frenzy starts. The craziness takes hold, and Americans move into the stream of chaos. It’s when the buy, buy, buy hormones kick in and shoppers spend like monkeys at a banana convention.
Even with leftovers from “Turkey day” collecting ice crystals in the freezer, Christmas lures us back into the frenzy. Gladly, I count myself among the minority of those who do not rush into the Christmas season like salmon spawning upstream. Christmas to me is a time to relax, enjoy the people I love.
So many people get and give gifts they don’t want and don’t need. Christmas gifts are often at best, sparkly moments in time. They can be memorable, but can be soon forgotten or put away to “regift” at a later time. The stress and pressure to shop, cook, decorate, be social, and pretend to be happy about it baffles me.
But food might be the only redemption of this holiday. A good meal can be wonderful, unforgettable, bringing warm fuzzy memories of good times. It can also be comical, or even tragic—everyone probably has a story—the turkey that caught fire, or Aunt Frieda’s salmonella-infested traditional casserole.
At the top of my list of the Christmases I would like to forget comes from when I was a young woman—single and all alone in my little apartment, eating a Swanson’s Turkey TV Dinner while watching It’s a Wonderful Life on my 10-inch black-and-white, blurry television. I did, however, add some cheap Champagne to the meal just to drown out the butt-ugly taste of the dinner.
Ah! Those were the days of daze and haze.
Second on my list is the once-tragic-now-comical Christmas when my mother, who was sinking into dementia and eternally angry and mean, decided that Christmas was her opportunity to ruin my day.
I had planned a pork roast for dinner. All the trimmings. All from scratch, lovingly offered to my family with heartfelt thanks for being in my life. Alas, at breakfast, my mother became so wicked-witch-of the-West horrid, that I slammed my fists on the table, threw my napkin in her face, and yelled something like, “I don’t have to effing stay here and take this.” I nabbed my husband, Allen, and we stormed out of the house.
It was a lovely day—sunny and warm. We took a drive in the country, talked, and enjoyed ourselves—until hunger set in. We wanted to find someplace to have Christmas dinner. Oh sure! We looked everywhere. No Denny’s in sight and only a Jack-in-the-Box fast food palace was open. Reluctantly, we went in. I ordered—not the usual burger and fries, but something off their more exotic menu. Big mistake. It was so bad that I don’t even remember what it was, and it made me ill.
So, tummies gurgling, we headed home. David, our live-in bestie, had cooked the pork roast. It was delicious. Mom was at her best—asleep. I spent the rest of the night warm and cozy with my wonderful hubby, Allen, and the brother-I-wish-I could’ve had, David.
One of the best Christmases ever was before Mother had become intolerable. That year, we celebrated the day after Christmas and invited some special people for home-made tamales that we had slaved over for a week, complete with salsas and sauces expertly crafted by Allen from the bountiful peppers in our garden. I also made flan and Sugar Plums. The porter, stout, and beer flowed and laughter rang through the house. After dinner, we watched an outrageously bad movie and enjoyed more fun and lively conversation.
Mostly, I have fond memories of Christmas. As a child, my mother made it wonderful. As an adult, I did my best to recreate that magical time, but now we don’t exchange gifts because it seems a bit silly. I cook for my family and perhaps a few friends, enjoying a quieter, more nostalgic time of closeness and love.
“Christmas isn’t a season. It’s a feeling.” – Edna Ferber
And Sugarplums danced in their Heads…
Makes about 2 dozen sugarplums
2 cups whole almonds, toasted, chopped fine
1/4 cup honey or 1/2 honey, half Agave Nectar
1 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1 cup dried apricots, finely chopped
1 cup dried figs or raisins, finely chopped
Combine honey or honey/agave with spices. Stir into chopped fruit and nuts. roll into balls. Roll in powdered sugar or almond flour.
Happy Holidays, Merry Christmas, Happy Solstice
What are some of your holiday memories?