By: Mark Reamer
The big day is nearly here. The decorations have been up a while. Hopefully the shopping is all done, or nearly done. The chaos, conniving, convulsions, and upheaval to the hum-drum of normal, daily life are nearing their culmination in a burst of sound and color. The choirs will sing on earth, as in heaven, with the voice of exultant children, and brightly colored paper will litter the floor reflecting light cast from a multitude of hues. When the chaos subsides we will gather, one to the other, in body or in spirit, to break bread, take nourishment and pass the peace of fellowship and family, reinforcing those ties that bind us one to the other in continuation and remembrance of that Divine plan.
Food is always a major part of the Christmas celebration. The Christmas meal is as big a part of the holiday as any other tradition that has developed. During the Christmas season there are foods available that are found only at this time of the year. Things that are loved by all, or most anyway, but it would be odd to see or enjoy them at any other time. The treats are probably the most prevalent. What other time of the year would you ever expect to see or eat fruit cake? True it might not be everybody’s personal favorite and some may swear that they absolutely hate it. I suspect those that hate it have only tasted the cheap ones that have been sitting on a store shelf since Halloween and have never experienced a really top of the line fruitcake or their delicious German cousin Stollen (my personal favorite). Be that as it may, the treats that are found everywhere are as distinctive of the season as the tree, or nativity scene. Peanut Brittle, chocolate dipped candy canes, macaroons, popcorn balls, dipped pretzels and reindeer food (the colorful cousin of puppy chow), can be found at any gathering whether in private homes or in the workplace. This doesn’t even begin to cover the various offerings of the cookie family which are far too numerous to mention.
There are even drinks that are unique to the Christmas season. Eggnog in its various forms can be found on store shelves usually only during this season. You can make your own of course and many have their own cherished recipes handed down or developed over the years. These can be found in both virgin and high octane blends depending on the nature of the gathering and guests. If using the high octane make sure grandma doesn’t leave the gathering unescorted or at the very least make sure that she keeps a sharp eye out for any high velocity reindeer. While eggnog may be the most established beverage of the season (that will be mentioned here anyway) who doesn’t enjoy a cup of hot cocoa with a candy cane in it as a swizzle stick? There’s something wrong with you if you don’t, just gonna say it.
All of these goodies are omnipresent throughout the season. All are good. All recall cherished memories of days and loved ones gone ahead. None outshine the focus of the holiday meal itself though. It is one of the most important meals of the year and is often, for better or worse, remembered and talked about for years to come.
There isn’t any one dish that is universal. A lot of it depends on your ghosts of Christmases past and where you’re from. Each region seems to have its predominant side and main as well as dessert. If you are from Utah or Georgia green bean casserole may be a must have. If from Kansas (like me) it wouldn’t be Christmas dinner without the mashed potatoes topped with homemade noodles. Cranberry sauce might be a must if you hail from Massachusetts (no turkey required). Maybe your personal favorite is the sweet potato casserole with marshmallows.
The main course isn’t a given either. Unlike Thanksgiving, which is the turkey holiday, the main course of the Christmas board varies greatly. In many places from Maine to Alaska a Prime Rib roast is the most popular focus of the feast. In others, like Montana, Wyoming, or Nebraska a Rib Eye Steak cooked just right might be just the thing that makes the meal. I hear that in Texas they like to deep fry a turkey, after putting the local volunteer fire department on standby of course. I understand that they like something called Kalua pork in Hawaii. I’ve never had that, but it sounds good. Elsewhere it may be ham, or even that perennial fowl of legend and song, the Christmas goose which gets cooked.
By all means don’t forget the desserts! Pumpkin pie, pecan pie, mince meat pie and cheesecake or bread pudding. I understand that Flan is pretty popular in many parts of the southwest. Of course everybody is too full to eat dessert after the meal, at least right away unless it’s Jello. There’s always room for Jello. Give it an hour or so to settle though and a big piece of pie with a generous dollop of whipped cream on top is just the right highlight and finishes out the meal just like the star on top finishes out the tree.
We all have our own traditions. Some are regional. Some are unique to our family. Some are faithfully handed down generation after generation, their origins lost in the mists of time. Some get discontinued. Fruit used to be a big Christmas thing when I was a kid. Everybody gave fruit baskets. Selling boxes of fruit from Texas every December was probably our biggest fund-raisers in FFA. Fruit was hard to come by in the winter back then. “Out of season” was the term. If you’re under 50 you’re probably not familiar with the situation. At one time most fruit you found on your store shelves was grown by local producers. That fruit was only available when it was in season. Stores were mostly locally owned then by someone living in your hometown. They were small businesses and didn’t have the clout or the resources to have fruit shipped from exotic locales by ship or air in the dead of winter. Consequently, if some enterprising broker was able to deal for some during the winter and deliver it to the stores before it rotted it cost an arm and a leg. Citrus held up the best, but it was still pricey because it was the only fruit available. Given its scarcity and cost it’s not hard to understand how the fruit basket became a valued Christmas tradition. In our age of global commerce and fruit filling store shelves twelve months out of the year though, it’s also understandable that that tradition has largely disappeared.
I understand that my Grandpa had a Christmas tradition that ended with him that I never got to experience. He grew produce; tomatoes, sweet corn, watermelon, anything he thought stores would buy. According to family legend, toward the end of the watermelon season, he would take several watermelons and paint them thoroughly with wax and then bury them in straw until Christmas Eve. He would then crack the wax and cut the melons and they would be just as good as the day he picked them. I came along too late, but I wish I would have had the opportunity to see it for myself.
Regardless or what you enjoy for your meal this Christmas, whether a recipe handed down through the generations or a new experiment, I hope you enjoy it in a spirit of thanks and peace with those you love and who love you. If you have those few things, there’s no greater gift you could have been given either this Christmas or any other.