Christmas Revisited

My mom Loo-oved Christmas! Going all out, she began her Christmas baking in November. First came the dark fruit cake that soaked in brandied cotton cloth for a month. Later, all the different varieties of cookies and Christmas Stollen* would follow in December. When my mother moved to DC, she gave it all up.

I am not a baker but I tried to keep up some traditions especially when the kids were young. Year after year, the gestures, the decorations, the cooking and the baking would gradually get distilled and simplified. The only tradition that was somehow created here under my own roof, was the cookie decorating sessions. I would make the ginger bread cookie dough, roll, cut, bake and store. Then, once everyone was gathered, I’d make the royal icing, color it with natural food dyes and let everyone go to work.

My home is the meeting place for mother, siblings, family and sometimes in-laws. But Christmas happens late in our household: a direct result of a retail job that exhausted me year after year and totally sucked the joy out the holidays. I drag my feet and lack enthusiasm. Our family preparations for Christmas are just more work. We find ourselves, the last people in a darkened lot, scurrying around for the “perfect” tree, while attendants turn off lights and pack up for the year.

Christmas Eve menu is (vaguely) discussed to accommodate the vegans and the meat eaters, the traditionalist, the liberals and the rebels.  Shopping happens last minute. It involves multiple family members, young and old, tagging along for the experience of frenetic holiday shopping and to haggle over who should foot the bill.

Cookie decorating takes place hours before dinner, while putting up the tree. It’s a mad rush to make it all happen. We gather some friends and neighbors to add to the mix. Our dinner is thrown together haphazardly and chaotically—Martha Stewart would die! My mother would be somewhat disapproving— calling us “crazy”.

But we manage and we PARTY! The evening itself is an improvisational act: a mishmash of a Hawaiian luau with leis, African music, Christmas crackers, paper hats and crowns, pork tenderloin and tuna steaks. Don’t ask. A hodgepodge of people, food and drink, music and conversation. It couldn’t be more eclectic and off the wall if we tried!

My mother passed away two Christmases ago. We spent that Xmas week sadly at the hospital by her side or huddled together at home around the dining table quietly staring at a thousand-piece puzzle, trying to make conversation. Downing the drinks, we waited for a better prognosis, but the inevitable came as a shock, despite of our high hopes for a miracle.

Xmas 2015 was avoided: my husband, our two daughters and I spent five days in Tulum for a change of scene, only to come back with a bad case of food poisoning.

This year, we give Christmas another try. We begin a new cycle, by reopening the circle of life.  With my parents gone I have a mission to accomplish: our family spirit of togetherness and generosity, the care and the love we inherited must live on… and so must the baking. It began two weeks ago. It helps that I no longer have my retail job.

I considered attempting my mother’s delicious fruitcake, but it didn’t take long to nix that thought. Sorry mom! I made tiny stars and gingerbread men, some “undecorated”—for the children to do their thing. I also made Pfeffernusse, German spice cookies, inspired by my aunt Mona’s that would arrive every year by post, until, she too, could not bake any longer. I made my own candied lemon peel. I couldn’t bear to use any store-bought lemon peel with sulphur dioxide and other added junk. And although the recipe recommends freshly ground spices, there was no chance in a million that I would grind cinnamon bark and whole cloves—I do not have an electric spice grinder. I draw the line at black pepper and perhaps cardamom. For nutmeg, I use a micro plane but that is it. The rest of my spices come already ground in a jar.

I am contemplating making Chewy Molasses Cookies which I tried at a holiday party last week. The recipe is from Bon Appetit. Maybe, I should wait for my sister and my baking-loving daughter to arrive. Perhaps they will enjoy the experience of bonding over cookie-making. I think my job is almost done, the baking I have accomplished so far is probably sufficient. Delegating is a good thing. It channels guilt, teaches others responsibility and definitely relieves me from stress.

No matter how hard I try to make things right, I expect the inevitable emotional effervescence of my family to bubble over with its dysfunctions, its insecurities and anxieties, like it has at times in the past. But many of our elders are gone and we will miss them always. This year is the beginning of a new dynamic. I brace myself not knowing what to expect. Come what may…. Bring it on.

One thing’s for certain, I made some cookies and next year I will get better at it. The best is yet to come. I will keep you posted.

I highly recommend the Chewy Molasses cookies. If it’s not too late, try them both. The ingredients are almost the same which makes for a more economical use of ingredients. Here are the links:

The recipe for the Pfeffernusse is from an old Saveur
Bon Appetit’s Chewy Molasses Cookies
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*Stollen: German Christmas bread.