Finding Christmas.

December 20, 2015 § 17 Comments

Walmart, 12/19/15

Weary shoppers leaned on the handles of their carts.

Searching for Christmas at a bargain price they filled their buggies with plastic and polyester but it was easy to see they knew what they had and that it wasn’t Christmas.

Christmas, the genuine article, is one part made-by-hand, and two parts memory.

Mildred's Pound CakeThis is Christmas: my family’s traditional holiday cake known simply as “Mildred’s.”

Mildred was a long-ago neighbor of my grandparents in Congers, New York.

I suspect the recipe came off a can of Crisco sometime in the thirties or forties, but to us the cake is hers, the recipe an unwavering part of our family’s Christmas celebrations.

I baked and shipped a couple of “Mildred’s” this week, late as always in the get-ready-for Christmas department and therefore paying, as always, an outrageous amount to ship Crisco, eggs, and flour.

And so it is Christmas—that pulse that runs through this time of year whether our celebration is religious or secular.

We are shoved and coerced and schooled on how to find Christmas by ads that encourage us to give diamonds and drones and the latest handheld devices.

For me finding Christmas is as simple as opening the annual can of Crisco and setting out eggs so they can come up to room temperature.

What else?

In my family the tree was decorated to the accompaniment of Cyril Ritchard (best known as Captain Hook) reading the unabridged Alice in Wonderland.

“Chapter 1…Down the Rabbit Hole,” his starchy voice would begin.

It took several LPs to read Alice in its entirety. We would usually get as far as, “Chapter 4…The Rabbit Sends in a Little Bill,” and the tree would be done.

We never reached the Lobster Quadrille or the Mad Tea Party but we could recite early passages of Alice almost verbatim along with the record as we hung the cardboard-and-cellophane Santa ornaments from our father’s youth along with the cheap or homemade ornaments my sister and I traded each year.

The heritage of both sides of our immigrant family was represented at Christmas. Year after year, my grandfather’s brothers, who still lived in Italy sent us figures for our manger scene.

We began with the essentials: Mary and Joseph (both leaning in) and the baby with arms spread in benediction.The next year brought the Magi in handsome gilded robes.

Year after year they came: shepherds, sheep, donkeys, cows, angels, until the adoring group began to crowd the felt-covered platform my grandfather had built for the holy gathering. (The manger is now displayed at my daughter’s house where my grandson can hold the figures as I did–and wonder who broke the edge of the shepherd’s hat.)

In honor of my father’s side of the family, there was the Swedish Christmas party where we drank glogg, a Swedish specialty set aflame before it was imbibed (the women admired the flames, the men yelled, “For Pete sake, put the lid on it and save the alcohol!).

We ate head cheese (well, some of us ate head cheese), and lutefisk, and baked beans that went by a name that sounded like “broona burna,” which I think meant “brown beans” and a hard yellow cheese that resembled soap.

A modern Swede who attended one of these gatherings found the foods distant and unfamiliar, declaring that no one in Sweden had eaten this stuff in about fifty years, but for us a Swedish Christmas was frozen in time and always accompanied by the “Yoopa” song, our favorite track on the “Christmas in Sweden” record.

What else?

Pancakes on Christmas morning. Stockings hung on the wrought iron stair rail. My father’s monthly contribution to “the Christmas fund.” My mother’s small brown notebook in which she kept lists of the presents she’d bought for each of us, hoping always to make the distribution fair. Socks and underwear wrapped as if they were presents. And later…celebrating Christmas aboard our floating home, “The Ever So Discreet,” being the parent at Christmas, the grandparent.

‘Tis the season to be spit-balled by demands to buy, buy, buy, but Christmas lives in our shared memories, not in the stuff we give and receive.

So, slow down. Enact the rituals of the season that are uniquely yours. Take a deep breath.

Christmas is the pause we need before we sweep the floor of the old year and invite the new one in.

Merry Christmas friends.

Note: Please add your family’s traditions–unless, of course you are baking, in which case keep stirring.

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§ 17 Responses to Finding Christmas.

  • Sue Cronkite says:

    I’ve been baking the same cake as Mildred for some years now, but never thought of it as a Christmas cake. My mother always made an elaborate fruitcake. She put grape juice in it. One year my Aunt Bivean and I conspired to substitute Mogen David wine in the grape juice bottle. My mother kept on and kept on exclaiming that this year’s fruitcake was the best she’d ever made.
    Now my Mom’s gone, my Aunt Bivean is gone, and I haven’t made a fruit cake in many years. The ingredients are too expensive to buy.We don’t grow our own pecans or hickory nuts any more. It’s too much work. There are a million excuses. I ought to make a fruit cake. But Christmas is almost here. Not enough time. Maybe next year.
    Have a good one.
    Sue

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  • KM Huber says:

    Just recently, my sister and I were reminiscing about Christmases past. She phoned after she found Mom’s recipe box. She wanted to know the origin of some of the recipes. It seems that cookies–cream cheese, spiced cherry bells, the ever popular sugar with colored icing– are our extended family Christmas tradition. Mom’s recipe box included the original recipe cards in the handwriting of her sisters, both with little or no formal education.

    Her sister Mary (fourth-grade education) was one of the finest letter writers I’ve ever known; her sister Caroline was a remarkably successful Avon lady with no formal education, I believe. But before either married or settled into life, the sisters owned and operated a bakery–it provided both of them a nest egg–they passed their recipes down to Mom, their baby sister. And now, those cookies, cakes, and even fruitcake live on through my sister, her children and grandchildren.

    Growing up, our Christmas was much less about presents–much-needed close were wrapped up and put under the tree–Mom splurged on Christmas Eve hors d’oeuvres (living in Wyoming, it was the only time we had shrimp cocktail), peanut butter balls covered in chocolate, and all those cookies/cinnamon rolls etc. that once were the goods offered in a bakery window. To this day, my siblings and I have fond memories of Christmas Eve, the only time we had hors d’oeuvres.

    Merry Christmas Adrian,
    Karen

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  • craig reeder says:

    Loved the line “socks and underwear wrapped as if they were presents”! That would have fit in strangely well with my family’s bizarrely joyous “counting of the presents” with intense competition to see who would have the highest number of gifts, with the prize often going to the youngest. But “socks and underwear wrapped as if they were presents” would not have gone unchallenged as a sinister and illicit strategy to rig the game.

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  • Carol Noble says:

    MERRY CHRISTMAS . . .

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  • carolyn says:

    The tradition of husband and daughter buying the tree just before Christmas Eve is very hard to accomplish here in Tallahassee, where folks buy trees at the beginning of December (or so it seems) and we had to call around to find who still has trees on the 20th (Home Depot still had about 60 left…). Having moved so many times made many different customs, such as in the Netherlands we bought the small rooted tree from the flower sellers near the Hillegom (90 degree turn) bridge for a ridiculously low price, which we then planted out after 3 Kings Day (and returning 10 years later, 6 of 7 still alive, and the one planted in front was now taller than the 3 story house), Also from the Netherlands are the small wooden tree decorations of Sinterklass, Zwart Piet, ice sleighs, saints and skating figures. From the Dominican Republic we have the wicker pig (these animals were sold along the roads in many forms in the month before the holidays) on the front porch year-round now. From Puerto RIco, there was the custom of ‘ASALTO’ where groups singing Christmas carols would come to your house and assault you with song, then you had to invite them in for a song (which no longer occurs, except in memory). In the Bahamas, we had a ficus for the Christmas tree. And on another track, in Haiti earlier this month, I lit a menorah with birthday cake candles, so I didn’t set off the hotel smoke alarm….

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  • This was written by Robyn Davis on FB. I hope she doesn’t mind that I have moved it here.

    Every Christmas, Great-Aunt Maude mailed Daddy a fruitcake, made in her rural Trenton, FL kitchen (with no hot-water heater, she had to boil water on the stove). Daddy would take an obligatory bite and declare it the best ever. We older kids learned don’t get sucked into that obligatory bite and laughed at siblings learning the ropes. Maude, bless her soul, never learned that fruitcake ain’t her forte.

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  • Appreciations for this sweet peek at how Christmas past flows into Christmas present.

    I’ll share just a tradition of several that I hold close to my heart.
    In my child days my dad went into the flatwoods just out our little red house’s kitchen door (walking past the coat-burning pot-bellied stove)
    & he brought back a little tree that he axed himself. In our second house, on a rural cul-de-sac of 11 homes, the ravine woods behind us was off limits so we went into the town & brought back a tree from his pal, the tree farmer who had them leaning on posts, strung under lights in his side yard.
    Today, we are fortunate to go just down the street + get our tree from our nice neighbor whose family still runs a tree farm in the mountains. He personally brings our tree down here (along with a full load of other fresh homegrown firs.)
    And so I can again sit in the morning dark, watching the magic of bubbles rising in the bubble lights, bubbles that echo the old glass bubble lights of my childhood.
    I’m with you Adrian, the ceremonies + the continuation of traditions are what I wrap up most, at Chrismtas.
    Our new tradition is that we gifit special folks with juicy Meyer lemons, from our tree in the side yard. Could never do that in New Jersey!

    my special best Christmas cheer to you + Ray, your family +
    Slow Dance Journal readers!

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  • ummm. that would be a coal-burning stove… not a coat-burning stove. we needed all the coats we could get 🙂

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  • Sheila Merlau says:

    A fussy phone left me unable to download any emails or videos so my new phone is just letting me into the treasures locked somewhere in a cyber world that I don’t understand.
    But I just got one of my favorite presents : this essay from you. I wish I could wrap it up for my children and grandchildren. Such wise words. I am imagining the beautiful figures from Italy. I have always had a special place in my heart for nativity sets and have collected quite a few from travels, gifts and hand me downs. When in Mexico I bought numerous incredible, inexpensive sets back to family far and near. The exquisite beauty and low prices created in me a longing to share the primitive beauty with everyone that I loved. I’m grateful that luggage wasn’t weighed in those days of enjoyable flying. I still marvel at the talent and time that it took for a good friend to crochet the nativity set for me. No broken shepherd hats for this child proof set. One of my first lessons as a grandmother came the Christmas our first four year old insisted on lining up all of the figures in Madeline style lines instead of the loving groups I had arranged. All of the figures in every creche scene were stoic lyrics marching with the Christmas child. I couldn’t dissuade her that first year, so I left her adoring lines in place, and by the next year when she was five she carefully arranged everyone in their traditional places. She patiently taught each one of the next five grandchildren the traditional placement. I kind of miss the lines.
    (PS. I thought you might share Mildred’s pound cake recipe with us. We received Aunt Besh’s poundcake until at age 90 she quit because it was too hard to find good boxes for shipping the cakes. I’d like to compare.)

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