Christmas

blizzard.jpgOn December 24th, 1963, Philadelphia was hit with a rip-roaring blizzard.  I’ll never forget it.  By evening, the drifts were well past knee-high.  Snowflakes swirled in the halos of streetlights.  Driving anywhere was out of the question.  Wrapped up in coats, boots, gloves, hats and scarves, and loaded down with bags of presents, my girlfriend Bonnie, my mother and I set out on foot for Aunt Tilda’s house.  What would have been a 7-minute drive turned into an hour trek.   I remember laughing so hard we could hardly walk.  We knew we were crazy to be slogging through such a storm, but we were determined to reach our destination.  It was Christmas Eve, and Aunt Tilda had prepared the traditional Italian Feast of Seven Fishes.

Tilda’s house was decorated to the rafters.  Twinkling lights outlined every window.  Tiny red and green Christmas balls hung from each curtain ruffle.  Swags of tinsel garland draped the mirrors.  The huge tree was covered with hundreds of ornaments she had been collecting for decades.  At its top perched a gossamer angel.  And beneath its bedecked branches, nestled the white and gold 30-piece Nativity set that Tilda had stayed up into the wee hours painting on many a sweltering summer night.

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pickled-herring.jpgMy family, while I grew up in Iowa in the 1970's,  had no traditions save one.  For 364 dinner days of the year, it was my mother who performed culinary magic at home.  (Today her dinners would be heralded by food critics as tempura-style but back then it was just “frying floured foods in fat”.)   Her lipid of choice was Crisco but on Christmas Eve the can of Crisco was put away and my father took out the stew pots.

My father, who was a local politician,  positively beamed with pride at his singular culinary contribution for the year which was an appealing to no one constituency menu of homemade chili, homemade oyster stew, and store bought pickled herring.  He had taken shrapnel at the Battle of the Bulge in WWII and perhaps this affected his judgment but nevertheless he fancied himself a gourmand and this menu was his pride and joy.

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peanut butter fudgeThere's no better time of year to bless the ties that bind. Holidays are about traditions, and the very definition of tradition is "an inherited or customary pattern of thought, belief or action" --- those ideas and rituals, large and small, passed on from generation to generation.

For me, it just isn't Christmas without one good carol singing (in Atlanta, I like to go to jazz vespers at First Congregational Church downtown in early December), without my pink rabbit's foot dangling from a lower branch on my tree and without Mammaw's peanut butter fudge.

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duluth1.jpgNo one wants a face full of snow. But that’s what I had all too often growing up in those brutal Chicago winters. I always seemed to be in the middle of a blizzard walking against gale force winds – which is why I spent more time walking backwards than I did forward.

And no one wants to step into slush. But when I did, my mother would put my shoes in the oven. Usually about thirty minutes too long. My shoes would come out smoking and ruined, which was not unlike many of our family dinners.

And no one wants to be a poster child for static electricity. But the winter air was so dry that my hair repelled my brush, my pants clung to my socks, and touching anything would send enough voltage through me to light up Soldier Field.

Those were not a few of my favorite things. So when Christmas vacation would approach, I was pretty much champing at the bit to get out of Dodge.

But it never happened.

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hellodollietin.jpgSpending countless hours trapped in a cold, dimly lit basement -- that's what I remember about Christmas.

In fact, it's my favorite memory of Christmas. I don't remember gifts I gave or received (except for my pink Huffy bike in 1979), but I do remember making Christmas cookies with my mom, which we did together for 20 years. Each year, it was a massive project that began in the market, moved to the kitchen, and was completed in the basement.

After numerous trips to the grocery store to buy obscene amounts of flour, sugar, butter, eggs, and chocolate, we would bake for 4-5 days straight, making about 2,000 cookies (that is not hyperbole).

Everyone got a tray of our cookies, including the paper boy. It got to the point that people would make special requests of my mom: please put more biscotti or pignoli cookies on their tray.

My mom never complained; she had the patience of a saint. Even when I added baking soda instead of baking powder (which I did) or dropped eggs down the front of the refrigerator (did that too), she never yelled. She always said something like, "That's alright, honey. It can be cleaned up." Then we would start the recipe over again.

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