Christmas Is: Memories!

It’s a thousand million things. Things that you haven’t thought about in years come floating back because you saw a twinkling light and heard a song at just the right moment. You smelled that beautiful aroma of a favorite dish baking in preparation for your Christmas dinner and scenes from a Christmas long ago suddenly take over your thoughts.

Christmas doesn’t end just because December 26th finally intrudes. Christmas is a presence available to us all year round. We just don’t often take advantage of it after the middle of January when we are neck deep in trying to survive the dark, cold, blustery days of endless winter.

I love hearing the stories about Christmas my wife shares with me. She grew up in a wonderful family of eight children, five sisters and two brothers. She was number 7. Her dad loved Christmas and worked hard to make each one special. He often had to work on Christmas Day so opening presents was postponed until he returned, which just made the day even more special because it lasted longer than just an explosion of presents in the morning. Her older brother and married sisters arrived throughout the day with their families. Everyone pitched in to make dinner which was served after her dad arrived from work.

On Christmas Eve, after the children went to bed, my wife’s dad filled a large bowl with fruit, nuts, and candy and put it on the dining room table. Each child had a stocking, which was their dad’s white cotton work socks. Each had an orange, hard candies, and chocolate creams. Her dad decorated the outside of their house with blue lights, his favorite.

My mother was the light of Christmas when I was growing up. She made everything special. In those days, baking the turkey was an all night event, literally. She used to simmer the giblets with celery leaves and onion on Christmas Eve, which made the entire house smell of turkey. It was my job to break the dried bread apart for the stuffing. She mixed the bread pieces with egg, onion, sage, thyme, rosemary, celery, pepper and salt, then literally stuffed the turkey. I guess people don’t do that anymore because it’s “dangerous”. It’s a wonder any of us are still alive. The turkey baked all night and on Christmas day we had an amazing dinner. To this day, I remember the taste and that the turkey was always dry. But that’s why there was lots of gravy, right?

We always had fresh cranberry relish. I helped with that too. I turned the crank on the grinder that clamped to the edge of the table while my mom fed cranberries, orange, and apple into the hopper. Juice always leaked all over the floor. I never liked the relish when I was a kid, but I make it now and I love it. Another irreplaceable dish was a green-jello-cottage cheese-pineapple-I-don’t-know-what-else salad. It was great. Then there was cranberry jello (different than cranberry relish, but necessary), sweet potatoes I never liked but love now, mashed potatoes and gravy, stuffing (that roasted INSIDE the turkey all night and we all lived), pickles, black olives (which we never had at any other time), and rolls.

Christmas dessert was different than any other holiday, even Easter. My mom made Christmas cookies that were decorated beautifully and tasted amazing. Never saw them again for a year. There were several kinds of pies including pecan, which I never liked, but I love now. Pecan pie is a food group on its own. Just looking at it can make you gain weight. Three minutes of looking at pecan pie is 275 calories. No kidding!

How do you pronounce pecan? One time I was having dinner at a restaurant with a friend who grew up in Russia. The waitress asked if we wanted dessert and I asked for pecan pie, properly pronounced “pee-can.” My friend looked at me in shock and with his heavy Russian accent said, “Pee can? I don’t want pee can. Pee can is what you use for bathroom!” We had a good laugh and the waitress thought we were crazy. I guess the right way to say it is “pa-kahn.” Whatever. I still say pee-can pie.

Would you agree that the best part of Christmas dinner is turkey sandwiches the next day? A couple slices of white meat, Miracle Whip, lots of pepper and salt, more Miracle Whip (and not that low-cal-sugar-free stuff, either.) Spread the Miracle Whip on like you’re frosting a cake. And white bread is best. You have to have white bread because whole wheat or nut loaf won’t stick to the roof of your mouth like a good white bread turkey sandwich will.

To go with your white bread turkey sandwich, cold stuffing, jello salad, and a bowl of microwave heated mashed potatoes and gravy, and finally some of that fresh cranberry relish my mom used to make will set you up right. And to go with all of that, you have to have Vernor’s. Not Canada Dry, not Sprite, not Sierra Mist. Vernor’s. And that’s that.

It wasn’t our tradition to have a huge load of guests for dinner. Grandparents, an aunt, uncle, and cousin. That’s it. Maybe it’s because we had a small dining room which was really just part of the kitchen. I only remember going to someone else’s house for Christmas dinner one time.

One of my favorite memories was getting Christmas candy at church every year. The Sunday before Christmas everyone received a small box of candy. They were always the same, hard candies with awful filling, ribbon candy, a few peanuts, and chocolate creams. The chocolate creams and peanuts were my favorite. I still don’t like those hard candies.

When our children were young, one year my dear wife gave me a compact video camera for Christmas. I was so surprised! I still have all the video tapes and I plan to transfer them to digital format. The next Christmas I started a tradition that lasted until our boys went to college. I snuck into the kids’ rooms on Christmas Eve and taped them sleeping. I always videoed the Christmas decorations, the tree, the village, and the kids. Some of the tapes include my grandmother, who was in her nineties, sitting in a rocking chair wrapped up in blankets and a babushka.

When the boys came home from college for Christmas break I planned to video them again. They expected it and one of the boys set a booby trap in his room that scared the crap out of me.

I wish I could remember every single Christmas as our children were growing up. Thank God for pictures. We now have the joy of watching our children and their families making their own memories. We don’t make Christmas dinner anymore, we’re privileged to have our daughter and her family close by so we go to their house for Christmas. Oh we still make cranberry relish, jello, and coffee cake. But our kids host dinner. It’s always wonderful.

We now share our three boys and their families with their wives’ families. We’re happy for them, just sad for us when the in-between years come.

Christmas is three days away. It always comes and goes too fast. I have walked through the decoration displays at the stores as many times as I could. We’ve been to Bronner’s Christmas Wonderland twice, (and I hope to go again while our kids are home this week), we’ve driven to look at Christmas lights three times, we’re almost through our Christmas movie Advent calendar. We have found several great Christmas movies on Netflix and Amazon. The ongoing challenge is to make Christmas last, long, long after December 25th.

Merry Christmas to you and your family.

Christmas Is: Baking

Last year I made a terrible horrible mistake. And it seemed like such a good idea. Who doesn’t like Oreo cookies? We don’t have them all the time but when we do they don’t last long. I remember when I was in middle school I had a friend whose name happened to be Dale. I stayed overnight at his house a few times and his mom always placed a bowl of Oreo cookies on the table during breakfast. Breakfast! A bowl of Oreo cookies on the table right next to the box of Cheerios. I couldn’t believe it!

Well, what could be better than Oreo cookies dipped in white chocolate? Let me tell you, I now realize there are lots and lots of things better than Oreos dipped in white chocolate. They were nasty.

In fact, a few days after Christmas, out of sheer boredom and the realization that only two of the thirty-six white chocolate dipped Oreos had been eaten, I stood over the wastebasket with a knife and scraped all the white chocolate off the Oreos. Several of them didn’t survive the surgery and had to be eaten immediately.

For any who are upset already because I called this post “Christmas Is: Baking” instead of something about the spiritual implications of the season, relax.

Christmas is a lot of things to a lot of people, even the ones who despise the whole notion of decorating trees, hanging wreaths and lights, paying huge hangover credit card bills in January, and listening to endless renditions of Rudolf the Red Nose Reindeer on the radio. Whatever. Christmas is baking.

Think about it. Are there goodies that are baked at your house that you may not have at any other time? Would Christmas be the same to you if they were missing?

When I was growing up my mother made delicious pecan pies I didn’t like. They looked so good and everyone raved about them. It wasn’t until we lived in Texas many years later I suddenly discovered the delicious wonder that is pecan pie. It was Christmas, so there was pecan pie.

Coffee cake is another one. Coffee cake is a tradition in our family that began about the time the Lamberts arrived in America from Germany in the 1800s. The Stocktons were already here and when the two met, coffee cake was born and has been with us ever since. My coffee cake is better than my mother used to make, and that’s saying a bunch. If there is no coffee cake, it isn’t Christmas.

Christmas cookies! Hours are spent in the kitchen mixing, shaping, cutting, baking, and decorating amazing Christmas cookies. Frustration rears its ugly head when the cookie cutters have sharp corners that refuse to release the cookie dough and instead tear the creation apart.

I don’t understand the whole fascination with ginger-bread houses. Ginger snaps aren’t a favorite, the taste reminds me of a remedy we were forced to ingest when we didn’t feel well which always lead to losing our cookies, if you know what I mean. Lots of people love to decorate ginger-bread houses which most often end up looking something like an underinflated innertube.

Fruit cake! Has there ever been a more misguided name given to anything that is supposed to be edible? Fruit cake is like the Chia-Pet and Clapper. On December 26th every trace is gone. It’s like what happens to round-the-clock Christmas songs on the radio. At midnight on Christmas all vestiges of the season are replaced with the station’s money maker music. Fruit cake is the boat anchor that has finally made it’s way out of the lake and onto the dessert table. Fruit cake is mystery. No one knows where it comes from, who makes it, what’s in it. But it’s not Christmas if there’s no fruitcake.

Really, Christmas is not pies, coffee cake, decorated cookies, ginger bread houses or fruitcake. Christmas is baking which means there is time in the kitchen with members of the family we might not be with at any other time of the year.

Christmas is baking because we reconnect with so many thoughts and feelings of special things as delicious aromas fill the air.

Christmas is baking. It’s such a simple thing but works wonders of togetherness.