December 20, 2015 § 17 Comments
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 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.
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.
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.