Sunday, December 26, 2010

Sweet and Salty Christmas Reflections: The Origin of our Traditions

Most people have some sort of holiday tradition this time of year, whether Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, or name that holiday. My family's traditions are Christian, but are probably as much unlike other Christian traditions are they are like them. Our celebration has changed throughout the years to incorporate new family members, like my husband, and our children, the family of the mother of our son's children, and our baby grandchildren. Sometimes tradition changes manifest themselves as a "work around" other people's celebrations. Sometimes we create them to accommodate an individual's beloved personality traits (Daniel) or ineptitude or exhaustion (me). But, their core pretty much remains the same or has for the last 25 years.

Here are some of my favorite Christmas traditions and the people who inspired them:

1. We always open presents on Christmas Eve, after dinner, in the glow of candles and a lit and decorated tree. The origin of this tradition is my mother's Swedish family, originally from Sunne in Varmland, Sweden, later from the farming town of Gray's River, WA where they ultimately settled. They would decorate the tree on Christmas Eve, eat a late dinner and receive Santa, replete with presents, after midnight. The children might have slept all afternoon, but the women were up for days preparing the Christmas fest. Those poor women. They were sturdier than I.

We've adapted this a bit-- no Santa, no late tree trimming, no staying up past midnight to open presents, but the evening tradition lives on. My husband came from a morning-present-opening-family, so adapting to the Christmas eve celebrations leaves him a bit wanting. However, having Daniel, who was physically unable to "wait" for anything, helped chauffer this day-early tradition along, and now that we have grandchildren who celebrate on Christmas morning with their mother, the celebration timing is settled. We did add opening presents in stockings on Christmas morning, to bring a little of my husband's traditions to share. I confess that this hasn't amounted to much these past years, as the stockings are generally filled with an abundance of Chap Stick (long story, having to do with husband's families' very dry lips and him having initiated our small children into same habit years ago) and not much else, which isn't very inspiring. I vow to do better next year.


2. We always eat the same sugary and salty foods every Christmas. I'm not sure why. I just remember that we have always had cranberry salad, pumpkin pie, stuffing with giblets, green beans, carrots, and mustard sauce.

For the fresh cranberry salad-- my mother grinds the cranberries and for days adds and readds sugar to the mix, and then, finally, tops the confection off with nuts and whipping cream. I picture blond women performing this same ritual all over Sweden, maybe outside in the snow using their ice-skate blades as knives, almost like I see Italian women of old stomping grapes for wine, but the Italians labor in nicer weather. Fortunately, we generally have use of a Cuisinart (that has apparently imploded this year) so the chopping is manageable. This year it died and my mother struggled with various mutilating utensils, like our blender and that little handheld chopper you see on informericals, neither of which seemed to serve very well. There is a fine line between chopping and mashing. You can tell what we will get her for an early Christmas present next year.

We also have mom's pumpkin pie, a unique version that incorporates fresh spices, like cinnamon and ginger. My dad always said it was the best pumpkin pie ever, which clinched that tradition. My poor mother used to despair in the making of it until she found the pre-made and pre-rolled Pillsbury piecrust in her grocer's dairy case. That stuff is magic and it tastes good. It also makes my mother happy and calmer for the holidays. I used to consider writing Mr. Pillsbury a letter of thanks for saving our family holidays and may still do so.

I have taken over Win and Oz's sweet potato roll, which has to have a bit of orange juice, butter, milk, brown sugar and nuts (in Oregon it was Walnuts, here in LA it's Pecans) in it. It used to be carefully placed in a wreath shaped tin and baked. However, Win and my mother were the only two individuals on the planet who could get the contents out, in the right presentation, without gouges and ill placed nuts and onto the Lenox china plate for the Christmas dinner table (the secret is in buttering and flouring the tin beforehand, and then placing it in the refrigerator to chill before baking, or so they say). I admit I am a miserable failure at this, but mine still tastes good, and sometimes I vary the recipe; this year I added baked apples. That sort of makes up for the lack of presentation. Or that's what I say anyway. The truth is my kids just want me to quit putting fruit in their food.

Daniel usually does my Aunt Eileen's fresh green beans with onions, bacon, celery and a bit of tart barbeque sauce because Aunt Eileen is gone and he has been dubbed, "the bacon fryer." Richard was supposed to take over dad's stuffing because dad's gone, and Rich loves internal organy things and he doesn't have a cooking job (he wraps presents). And James was supposed to be the orange carrot man, just because; although I wouldn't care what vegetable he cooked as long as it was a vegetable. This year I did it all myself -- but I somehow missed fixing the stuffing. I think I'll make a run to the store tonight and pick up the fixings to have with whatever leftovers are "left" "over" (aren't there supposed to be leftovers? All we have now is a bit of sweet potato and ham).

Finally, we have Honey Baked Ham because my mother adores it. Either mom or I make Aunt Lucy's mustard sauce (the tartest sauce you can have without it being 100% vinegar) so that I can eat it (the ham). We've all but given up on cooking for Thanksgiving -- we order out, and that's when I get my turkey, otherwise I suppose I'd cook one of those for Christmas too.

Just so you know-- children-- the recipes for all our traditional dishes are stuck inside various pages of the Fanny Farmer Cookbook in the pantry, next to all of the other cookbooks on the bottom shelf. I think the outside back cover is coming off but you will be able to identify it by the white and yellow crosshatched design that remains still adhered to some of it. Some recipes may also be in the cookbook that my Cousin Shari made for me when dad and I first got married. It's the spiral notebook, whiteish cover, with the little celophane holders for the recipes. Some recipes are jammed behind others. The mustard sauce may not be written down: just remember equal parts of everything, except for the sugar, which is doubled.


3.  Someone always takes mom to Episcopal Mass, "the midnight one," which isn't even at Midnight anymore as it's at 4:00 in the afternoon and 10:00 o'clock at night. James and I took mom to latter one this year. Mom never stays to the conclusion of the service after the Mass -- she skips out early -- which to be honest, is the wiley card up her sleeve she uses to entice the children to go with her ("we won't stay long...").

This is not a lament really, but the service didn't even seem like one of the traditional Episcopalian ones I used to know, as we only knealt once. We stood most of the time singing ourselves through the hymnal. One thing's a constant: I continue to pitch my voice up into the rafters, which probably embarasses James, but oh well, feel God's presence, and thank him for my family and friends and another year to spend with those that are still here.

What else?

We always say we're not buying presents except for the little kids, because we've spent way too much money on so and so throughout the year; but we always buy for everyone and we always overspend. We are weak and sentimental. We always fight a little bit at some point during the day or night and someone always says, "Can you give me a break!? It's Christmas!"  Rich and my mother are the cleaneruppers (Rich mostly the paper, mom mostly the china). Sometimes things get lost (like a gift card this year). But, it is the one time a year when I can be sure that we will rise above it all.

Merry Christmas!

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