Christmas Memories

Our first Christmas was 47 years ago. We drove our SkiDoo into the woods near our cabin to choose a tree. Dean brought his chain saw and I brought my ideas of a 12 foot forest denizen. Even the roar of the snowmobile’s engine and the smell of its exhaust couldn’t muffle the holiday songs in my head. “Oh the weather outside is frightful….”

Memories of Christmases past flood my head. They lead me to thoughts of how much my life has changed and how those changes can be measured by a Christmas tree and decorations I chose.

Our first Christmas was 47 years ago. We drove our SkiDoo into the woods near our cabin to choose a tree. Dean brought his chain saw and I brought my ideas of a 12 foot forest denizen. Even the roar of the snowmobile’s engine and the smell of its exhaust couldn’t muffle the holiday songs in my head. “Oh the weather outside is frightful….”

And frightful was the look on the face of my husband of three months.

“Honey,” he said slowly and with insistent patience, “we have a two-seater car. How do you expect me to get that tree back to Minneapolis?”

After 30 minutes of crying, I acceded. “You just don’t want me to have a beautiful tree,” I whined.

“I’m more interested in a safe trip home,” he answered.

And of course, he was right. Besides, the two dozen red balls I’d bought would have looked sparse on that monster of a tree.

So, we sledded on and found something much more suitable and much more portable.

Two years later we celebrated Christmas with our two-month-old daughter. As a first grandchild, she was showered with pink dresses, pink socks, pink bows. But from a high school friend came a cherished present: a bright red onesie with matching booties. Those little foot warmers were the first ornaments to hang on our tree.

That was the same year we discovered the The Spouse’s severe allergies were triggered by fir tree mold. Time for an artificial tree. (Oh joy. But one does what one does, and a paper towel dipped in Pine Sol comes close to replicating the aroma of a real tree. Kind of.)

Jump ahead seven years when I became enamored of whole-house decorating. Even our loo had holiday decor and, of course, a pine scented candle.

My need for—and love of—over the top decorating continued well into my teaching years. I hung ornaments from my junior high students on our tree and on the wreath above the fireplace, the wreath in the kitchen, and the wreath in the living room. And always, that little red sock from our daughter’s first Christmas took place of honor.

Now I bake only three dozen cookies, most of which I bring to the baristas as our favorite coffee shop; we don’t need and shouldn’t eat all those calories. The house remains decor-free with the exception of a painting I did a few years ago.

We’ve had several artificial trees since then. Our current tree, and no doubt our last, is a three-foot, pre-lit lovely. I no long put ornaments on it, not even that little red sock. It’s made its way to our daughter’s tree…a live, tall, beauty. May it be as happy in its new home as I and The Spouse are in our old one. I’ve learned that I no longer have a desire to compete with Martha Stewart, and that memories of Christmases past are more than enough to fulfill my need to decorate.

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A Christmas Story

Sure enough, someone was under the tree setting up a train set. But something was very wrong. The guy under the tree was Dad.

Another rerun, just because I really like it…and because the new stuff I’m working on isn’t ready.

December of my sixth Christmas was filled with whisperings from older neighborhood kids that led me to question the existence of Santa. The night of December 24 put my doubts to rest. But in order to tell this story properly, I need to fill in a couple of details.

For many years my brother and I shared the only bedroom in a house so small that we set up our Christmas tree in the kitchen. My bed was at right angles to the door that looked into the kitchen, an important detail in the telling of this tale. Tommy and I had finally gone to bed with the usual Christmas eve jitters. Would he come? Would I get the bride doll I’d wanted? Would Tommy find a coveted electric train like the one that we had seen in the Dayton window? A train would be particularly special since so many of our family — Dad and Grandpa included — were firemen and engineers for the Soo Line.

Tommy and I talked and giggled late into the night until the final warning came from Mom: “If you kids don’t get to sleep there’ll be no Christmas!” And so we slept.

It must have been around 2:00 a.m. when I awoke to a noise in the kitchen. Now remember, I had a direct line of vision from my bed to that tree.

My memory now fades to shades of gray as I watch him on his knees. His arms are on the floor, his back is hunched. He reaches to place a caboose on a track…and he sobs.

I am six. I am disappointed. I am confused. I roll over and go back to sleep.

I learned the next morning that Soo Line management had called to tell my dad of his father’s sudden death of a heart attack on the steam engine Grandpa was driving that night. And that’s when I learned the truth about Santa. He lived in my dad, a man who would focus on making a little kid’s Christmas morning special despite the huge loss he had just undergone. I never did tell neighborhood kids that they were wro
ng. At six, I wouldn’t have known how. But even at six, it was enough that I knew.

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Thoughts While Making Bread

What would (my ancestors) have thought if they could see me throwing ingredients into an electric mixer, hitting the “on” button, grabbing a cup of coffee, and 10 minutes later, placing bread dough on the counter to rise?

This is another rerun. I first published it in December of 2008. It seems even more relevant today.

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I’d like to open this with the phrase, “I spent the morning making bread from scratch.” The truth of the matter, though, is that the bread making took me all of five minutes. My much-used copy of Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day by Jeff Hertzberg and Zoe Francois, my Cuisinart® and a well stocked cupboard will yield enough dough for me to bake four one-pound loaves of brioche over the next week or so. This is an excellent cookbook and I use it often. But it’s not where my thoughts roam when my need to create takes me to my kitchen.
Rather, my fantasies wander to those people who came before me…not necessarily my ancestors (although their images are there at the periphery of my imagination), but rather to all the folks who baked bread “back in the day.”
Willa Cather wrote so profoundly of women who endured brutal Midwestern winters in sod huts. What would they have thought if they could see me throwing ingredients into an electric mixer, hitting the “on” button, grabbing a cup of coffee, and 10 minutes later, placing bread dough on the counter to rise?
Let’s take the image further. I’ll be baking Christmas cookies later today. Ground walnuts? I’ll whirl a handful in my electric grinder. Flour on the floor? I’ll suck it up with my vacuum cleaner. Sticky pans and bowls? My dishwasher will take care of that mess.
I didn’t grow my own wheat to be processed into flour. I didn’t spend hours hand-churning butter. The foods I get to make today are the miracles of technological innovation, each new idea the result of a creative problem solver. I think about them and I give a nod of thanks to all those farmers and cooks and bakers and engineers who came before me, all those women and men who over the centuries who turned the creation of a meal into a creative endeavor.
And as I take out another pound of butter for those Christmas cookies I’ll make this afternoon, I think, too, about the growing numbers of people who don’t have access to a brioche or homemade cookies…who don’t even have access to the basics. I’ll make those cookies today, but I’ll forego the other four recipes I was planning. Neither my family nor I need all those calories, and if I forego them, I can place just that much more in the food shelf collection box.
Have I inspired you to do the same? I sure hope so.