Woman@Heart

Musings on Life, Love and Lefovers

Archive for the category “christmas”

Whose Home for the Holidays?

Ah love. It starts out innocently enough. You say yes to dinner and a movie. He brings flowers and chocolates. There are romantic walks on the beach. And before you know it, you’re married. The days of staring lovingly into each other’s eyes are replaced with scanning the food section for bargains and listening for the sound of the shower turning off, so you can take your turn.

You’re occupied with many challenges as the two of you begin a life together. So many decisions to make: Cable or satellite? Pepperoni or sausage? Over-easy or scrambled? Foreign or domestic?

Days, weeks, months pass. Miscellaneous facts are gingerly revealed: He likes Brussels sprouts. She thinks birthday cake is a breakfast food. Both of you have trouble staying awake for the 10 o’clock news. Deals are reluctantly made: He agrees to read the sports section until she’s finished with the front page. She’ll watch Entourage if he’ll sit through reruns of The Office. Then, your newly formed family of two becomes three, four and maybe even five.

In my case, over eight quick years, the duo of Nick + Claire expanded into a quintet that included Shawn, Jake and Seth. Of course, more questions arise, more choices need to be made. Cloth or disposable diapers? Public or private school? Soccer or taekwondo? As fledgling parents, we made it through these either/ors while learning about raising sons. shutterstock_11570470

But every November the same question arose; one that never seemed to have an easy answer. Where are we spending Thanksgiving and Christmas this year? At your parents’ place or mine?

This guilt-inducing query is best avoided when you’re dating. Discuss religion, how you’ll vote in the next primary, which pro football team you’ll cheer for, but tiptoe around this explosive topic.

Like lots of young couples, we tried to appease everyone by attempting to be in two places at one time. We’d go to my mom’s house for an early dinner and his folks’ place for dessert. Playing beat-the-clock when Thanksgiving Day is limited to 24 hours is tough. The same is true of Christmas Day. There’s not enough time to enjoy the holiday if you’re spending most of it crisscrossing the county. We’d barely taste a forkful of candied yams and cranberry stuffing at my mom’s table before we were loading ourselves back into the car.

I can still hear the voice of a 6-year-old Jake yelling from the backseat as we drove to our next stop: “There goes the pumpkin pies.” In our haste to be on time, the desserts had been set down but not secured. They slid aimlessly across the van floor and slammed into the back of the front passenger seat, making a gooey-looking burnt sienna splash across the cloth upholstery.

Scurrying from house to house was how we spent the next several Thanksgivings and Christmases. Inwardly I wanted to mount a stay-at-home-for-the-holidays coup. The thought of packing up three kids, two car seats, a green bean casserole, and sundry other items had lost its appeal. Maybe I had spent too many Christmas Eves staying up until 2 a.m. helping Nick put together a 350-piece something whose box has innocently cautioned: “some assembly required.”

Exhausted toward the end of one of these marathon holiday events, I collapsed on the couch where other similarly fatigued parents grouped. My brother-in-law, Leo sitting nearby listened as I lamented the craziness of the season. He smiled and nodded knowingly. His family had just spent their day under similar circumstances. “Next year, why don’t we move our get-together to the day after Christmas?” he proposed to no one in particular. A huge sigh swept through the room, followed by cheers of relief. “Why hadn’t we thought of this before?” asked a sister-in-law. “Where does it say that we have to scrunch everything into one 24-hour day?”

The meaningful parts of our celebration would be the same; they would just occur a day later. Pop-pop would still be the center of attention as he donned his Santa hat to pass out gifts. The grandkids would wait wide-eyed to hear their name called before eagerly opening their presents. The overabundance of sugar cookies, popcorn balls and fudge would get a second chance to find a welcome palate.shutterstock_525751432

A once stress-filled, jammed-packed ritual was forever transformed into an extended familyfest. Leisurely, all of us kids-at-heart could delight in the blessings that come when you’re part of a large family, minus the harried disposition. No one would have to keep an eye on the clock, poised to rush out the door for another gathering. As a bonus, we all got an extra day to anticipate the fun.

The years have passed since we could look forward to sipping a cup of Nana’s hot apple cider, gobbling a scoop of Sitie’s pistachio fluff or listening to Uncle George regale us  with stories, while we laughed as though hearing his tales for the first time.

It’s the sweetest memories that last. And isn’t that really the best part of the holidays.

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A Simpler, Kinder Christmas

No one confuses me with Martha Stewart. I wish someone would. But when any of my friends wants to create holiday centerpieces using bark, berries and spray-painted soda can holders, I’m not the first phone call they make. I know who they do call–women who turn a sprig of rosemary, three candles and a leftover Cool Whip bowl into a sight to behold. Through my green-tinged brown eyes, I admire those ladies. I barely grit my teeth when I receive their handmade holiday card and note how everyone in the family photo– even the dog–looks fabulous.

I don’t know where I was when elegance, artistry and style were being handed out. I must have been standing in the make-magic-out-of-mushroom-soup line. It’s not that I don’t admire creativity in others. Just the opposite. I’m the first one to offer a flattering comment. I’ll ask the neighborhood artisan what inspired her to place 50 floating candles in the backyard birdbath at the Fourth of July barbecue. I’m not the least bit jealous. I’m realistic. I know that if I re-created the same thing, I’d end up with 49 wet candles and a bird on fire. 

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Still I try. I want my family to have cozy, pleasant memories of their childhood Christmases. When they were young, I envisioned my three sons, Shawn, Jake and Seth, contently huddled around our hearth, stringing popcorn and hanging ornaments. Our joyful voices would be singing all the verses to the 12 Days of Christmas or taking turns reading the Polar Express.

Of course, this  never happened. A more likely scenario: they boys were in the driveway, playing basketball and discussing the Chargers’ playoff possibilities and how their fantasy teams were doing  while I hung stockings over the fireplace.

Nevertheless,  as a mom, and now a grandmother, I’m always looking for crafty, memory-making activities that bring a loving family together. That’s why an ever-growing pile of easy-to-make holiday craft instructions inhabits a corner of my TV room. There are piles of pages I’ve collected from numerous issues of Family Circle, Better Homes & Gardens  and Good Housekeeping. The only thing larger than this stack is my intention to actually make one of these projects, one of these years with Windley, my granddaughter.

My talents don’t excel in the cooking and baking department, either. Whenever I got stuck roasting the big bird, my first step was callingl my sister, Sadye (the former Home Ec teacher), pleading for a quick lesson in stuffing preparation and a refresher on how to truss a turkey. Now that call goes to Sweet Sue, who has been instrumental in my recent mashed potato success. Windley will soon learn that her Sitie’s gingerbread houses, complete with gumdrops and licorice, come from a kit.

The fact that I’m artistically impaired hasn’t diminished my passion for the holidays. My well-worn DVDs of It’s a Wonderful Life and Miracle on 34th Street were cued up and ready to go by December 1. I’ll watch Frosty the Snowman holding a fresh box of Kleenex, because I always cry when Frosty melts.

Luckily, Christmas is not a season reserved exclusively for the creative. It’s also for the spiritual, the trusting and the sensitive. It’s for the tranquil, the disorganized and the easy-going. So, I’ve made peace with the fact that my home –complete with the artificial scents of pine and peppermint wafting through my kitchen — will never be a model for a Norman Rockwell-esque illustration. My somewhat tilted tree, decorated mostly with kindergarten art projects and my mother’s ornaments, won’t be featured in the Christmas issue of House Beautiful. And it’s OK.

I’m committing myself to a simpler, kinder Christmas; changing my attitude to embrace a gentler spirit of the season. One that doesn’t have me tracking super sales that started before the sun came up. Yes,  my cranberries come from a can instead of from the farmers’ market and I haven’t mailed all my packages by December 17.  Christmas isn’t intended to be a test of stress, but instead an awareness of our blessings. That’s why  I smile as I search for a mall parking spot.  I overcome the urge to elbow the lady reaching over me for a free sample in Costco.

Christmas is about enjoying the moments, whether they come with linen napkins and fine China or paper towels and Styrofoam plates. The holidays are for being with family and friends. A time to honor your faith and reaffirm your beliefs. Thank goodness for this pause in the hustle and bustle of life, this gentle reminder to recall past Christmases, savor the present and ponder what the future might bring.

As mothers, we hope our children will reminisce about what Christmas was like at home when they were small. That their holiday memories are filled with a magic and delight that brought satisfied smiles to their faces. My three sons are grown now and have begun their own Christmas customs and I’m filled with a new joy watching as their traditions unfold.

I eagerly anticipate the day when Shawn tells his now his ten-month-old daughter what Christmas morning was like when he was little. I hope that conversation includes a glimmer in his eye as he recalls leaving carrots for Santa’s reindeer or the excitement of choosing one gift to open on Christmas Eve. 

All of these small details make up the wonder and peace of Christmas. My mother’s laugh and the blending aromas of sugar cookies, pine needles and baked ham, that’s where Christmas lives in my memory. It’s a sure bet Shawn and my beautiful daughter-in-law, Lisa, won’t be recapping for Windley the first time they tasted my candied yams . It is possible, though, that I’ll get a shout out for my Chex Mix.

 

 

From the Kitchen of…

It’s not fancy. It uses five ingredients, and you won’t find it in the Joy of Cooking. Still, “Aunt Sadye’s Mac & Cheese” is the #1 most requested meal in my home. I’ve served it over and over since my sister, Sadye, first shared it with me years ago. It had been her son, Thomas’s favorite dinner. I know the recipe by heart, yet I pull out the card — tattered and oil-stained — and read the directions written in her hand.

maccheeseEager to help a young bride on the road to becoming a good cook, my sis had tucked a blank recipe card inside each invitation to my bridal shower. Along with dishtowels, waffle irons and food processors, guests supplied me with their family’s treasured recipes. I keep this personalized cookbook-in-a-can on a shelf near my stove in the Favorite Recipe file Sadye also supplied. Some recipes I’ve mastered: Chocolate Refrigerator Cake (Sara), Meat Loaf (Carole), Hummus (Mom), Stew (Melissa), Refried Beans (Cara), Chinese Chicken Salad (Sue). Some I haven’t: Cioppino (Mary), Chicken Kiev (Laura).

During the hustle and bustle of a normal week — when the goal is nutritious, plentiful and fast — I turn to online recipe sites to expand my menu options. Quick dinners like spaghetti chicken, sloppy joes and taquito casserole satisfy the hunger pangs of my husband Nick, and any of my kids who may be loitering around the house at dinnertime. Over the years, a few of those meals-in-minutes made it into our family’s food hall-of-fame recipe file.

sadyecookingAt the start of the holiday season, I comb through my handpicked collection searching for Christmas cookie ideas. Maybe this year I’ll try Jane’s Chewy Rolo Cookie Bars or Elena’s Snickerdoodles. I reacquaint myself with the secret ingredients in Sweet Sue Potatoes. Since my Mom always added an extra clove or two (or three) to her hummus recipe, I make sure I have extra cloves in my refrigerator.

I pull out the Chex Party Mix recipe, knowing that disappointed faces would multiply if bowls of the crunchy stuff didn’t dot the end tables and countertops of my home in the days leading up to Christmas. The recipe, hastily cut from a cereal box, now boasts scribbled additions, critiques and requests (flaming hot Cheetos for Seth, Bugles for Lisa and less wheat Chex for Rachel). This year, my great-niece and able assistant, Britton, wants to add M&Ms to the concoction. 

Right after Thanksgiving, my shopping list fills with items purchased only once a year (garlic bagel chips, pistachio pudding, red food dye, sugar cookie dough) to prepare the dishes my family eagerly anticipates and expects as part of the Christmas season’s menu. It’s not that my family is overly attached to macaroni noodles and cheddar cheese or green beans and crunchy onions. It’s the aromas, the textures and the flavors of the holidays they anticipate and savor–the ones that don’t feel or mean the same in March or September. Whether we’re curled up on the couch watching “Miracle on 34th Street” or gathered around the dinning room table giving thanks, our taste buds savor the cuisine, but our hearts crave the memories.

These are the moments when cooks are preparing more than sustenance. Eating is more than nourishment. Secrets are handed down mother to daughter, sister to sister, friend to friend. Complicated meals that we don’t find time to prepare on a lazy summer day, are the focus of December afternoons. Families gather to assemble tamales using Grandma’s traditional recipe. Batches of breakfast strata are whipped up effortlessly.

For many holiday seasons, the womenfolk in my family scheduled an annual baklawa-making event at my niece Denise’s home. (The Greeks call this decadent dessert baklava.) We would spend hours chopping pistachios, tediously hand-brushing paper-thin phyllo dough and gingerly layering the nut, sugar and cinnamon mixture in between the flaky folds. By the time honey is poured over the diamond-shaped slices and trays of the rich pastry are popped into the oven, generous helpings of laughter, wisdom and love have been exchanged.

With a little effort, homespun recipes transform into a gourmet diary, a family food history. All the shopping, the measuring, the secret ingredients are recorded on 3×5 index cards, that begin From the Kitchen of… and end with …serves 4-6. They’re handwritten by sitie, a special aunt, a niece, a brother, a godmother, a long-time friend. This tried-and true formula ultimately combines to satisfy hearts as well as tummies.

Maybe I’ll make a memory tonight, starting with Mom’s hummus. Hope I have enough garlic.

 

 

 

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