Tuesday, December 23, 2014

The Spirits of Christmas Past

For all practical purposes, I spent my entire childhood in a single home in the western suburbs of Chicago. My family moved into that house a month before I turned four and I have only the sketchiest of memories from before then.

While my recollections associated with that house are rich and varied, today it seems appropriate to narrow my attention to Christmas there, about which I have memories that are rich and varied enough.

The house was a two-story split-level. All the upstairs was given over to bedrooms and bathrooms. Downstairs, the primary living area was a square ring of kitchen, dining room, living room, and hall. Three steps below that was a secondary ring comprised of less public spaces: laundry room, half bath, furnace room, den, and playroom.

The "official" start of the Christmas season at our house was when my mother unpacked the Twelve Days of Christmas ornaments and installed them on the paneling above the living room fireplace. These were colored paper constructions of a partridge, turtle dove, French hen, calling bird, golden rings, goose on a nest, swan, milking maid, dancing lady, leaping lord, piper, and drummer. My mother had handcrafted these yuletide decorations following patterns she found in Ladies Home Journal (or its socioeconomic equivalent—you know Martha Stewart would have been all over this but it was before her time). 

Next, Mom pressed into service the myriad glittering and multicolored Christmas cards we received, turning them into a seasonal frieze taped along the front facing of the valence lighting in the living room. Eventually, of course—somewhere in the vicinity of solstice—we'd buy a tree (always a long-needled Scotch pine), installing it in the corner of the living (right beneath the twelfth drummer).

Gradually, presents would start accumulating under the tree. One of the cherished games among us children was hiding and searching for a small paper mache brown owl (about an inch or so tall) that had been rescued from the packaging for a long-forgotten gift to become a favorite homemade tree ornament that was damn hard to find amidst the many lights and shiny objects on the tree.

My favorite time of all though was Christmas Eve, when the bulk of the presents made their way to the tree. The ritual that evolved at my house involved sequestering the den as Santa's Workshop, such that by eight or nine pm you had to have an appointment to go in there. The 3'x5' table had been cleared of mundane household detritus and given over to scissors; tubes of wrapping paper; boxes of ribbons, bows, and name tags; and Scotch tape in unlimited rolls.

My unflappable mother would be nursing a highball of watered scotch (carefully consumed at a leisurely rate: high enough to maintain holiday cheer yet low enough to avoid dropping any balls when it came to choreographing the dawn raid on the present horde, followed by holiday feasting), and we'd negotiate den times through her, acting in the capacity of the Workshop's majordomo.

In my teen years I liked to take one of the last shifts (circa 2 am), where I relished gathering up my stash of goodies and entering the inner sanctum of the Workshop. There I got to select the wrapping paper for each gift (curling my own ribbons), and trying to concoct word play and obscure references for the name tags. For that night only, wrap music meant Burl Ives.

Christmas morning was always a blur of flying paper and excited voices. While it was mostly a free-for-all when all us kids were under 10, it became more civilized as we grew older and were able to understand the nuance of deferred gratification—where it was OK to open presents one at a time and we could all appreciate the giving, even when it was neither from us nor to us.

I remember Christmas breakfast featuring homemade coffee cake laden with a cinnamon and brown sugar topping—the perfect foil to strong coffee with half and half. The dinner menu would vary over the years. While turkey was a popular choice, it might as well be ham with pineapple rings and hot mustard sauce (Coleman's mixed with a dab of water and honey), or roast beef with Aunt Hennie's red currant jelly. 

I think my favorite Christmas dessert is plum pudding with rum sauce and hard sauce (Hennie, take another bow). This traditional English recipe features: a) a steamed pudding with lots of fruit; b) a sweet roux laced with rum and/or bourbon, poured warm over the pudding; and c) butter with all the powdered sugar mixed into it that your wrist and forearm can stand, served cold. When consuming this delectable you can virtually feel your fillings dissolve in the sugar.

This year Ma'ikwe will cook a ham, and there's just enough time to get the ingredients for plum pudding. While it may not be possible to go home again in all ways, we can nonetheless embrace rituals that invoke memories that bridge the rose-colored days of our youth to loved ones today. 

Merry Christmas to all.

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