Every family has them. Christmas traditions. (Or Holiday traditions if you prefer.)
Idiosyncratic traditions that are a twist on the traditional and unique to them.
My family is no different.
Every year my Mother decorates the house. We have stockings on the mantle, even though this coming year all three of her children will qualify for membership in AARP. Except the dogs. They have stockings but don’t qualify for AARP, not even in dog years. The nativity is up but a little worse for wear since my mother accidentally vacuumed up a wise man a few years ago. He’s now missing most of one hand and a few points from his crown.
In a place of honor is her village. Two sawhorses supporting an old door are placed in front of the sliding glass doors, draped with a sheet of fleece, ready for her to create her village. The three houses in the back are out of scale. They aren’t Dept. 56 Dicken’s Village houses. My Dad didn’t know Dickens from Wal*mart and bought a church and two houses for her that first year. Cheap knockoffs and too big. She didn’t care. She loved them. She’s added a few of the real Dept 56 ones each year, plus trees, people, walls, etc. They’re not all Dickens. Some are Heritage Village or Snow Village. But all are Dept. 56. I’ve given her benches, mailboxes, bridges and streetlights. My sister gave her a real pond last year to replace the piece of mirror she’s been using.
What most people will overlook when they view the village is the sniper. Yes, sniper. There is an olive green plastic soldier with a rifle on one of the village roofs. The house varies from year to year. He was originally placed there by my brother the second or third year she had the village. He giggled throughout the holidays and finally revealed his secret on Christmas day. The soldier was packed with the village that year and has become a part of the display every year since. We say he’s protecting the village. My brother now lives in Florida with his family. But when he calls he does ask about the soldier and my Mother truthfully reveals that yes, he’s still there.
My Dad didn’t want a tree this year. They had moved some furniture so my Mother could sit in a good chair after her back surgery. My Mother said if they didn’t get the furniture moved back by Tuesday, Dec. 22, no tree this year. So I arranged for my nephews to come over and move the furniture back. Then my Dad declared he didn’t want a tree. Too much trouble, he didn’t want to do it, only three days left, why spend money on a dead tree. My Mother said whatever you want she didn’t want to argue but I know she was disappointed. So I talked him into it. “As long as I don’t have to do anything, it’s no more than 3 feet tall and on sale.” We were back in 20 min. with a half price 3 ft tree. I was setting it up when he takes it outside to trim the bottom, put it in the stand, then he brings the lights he says he’s tested. (They still didn’t all work.) They watched me decorate while they watched NCIS. I finished in time for The Good Wife. My Mother loves it. My Dad says when he looks at the angel on the top of the tree he remembers the $726 he won in Vegas. (They bought the angel in Vegas with a small part of their winnings.)
We used to have a big tree. When I was little the house had a chapel ceiling and we’d have a ten foot tree. The star would almost brush the ceiling. The ceilings were eventually lowered to add a second floor and the tree has gotten smaller each year until it’s finally stabilized at a 3 footer, balanced on a table specially designated as the Christmas tree table. As the tree has shrunken, so has the space for ornaments. The sterling silver ornaments are packed in a safe place, as are all of the Hallmark ornaments. Even the Star Trek ornaments. Yes, the coveted very first Enterprise light and motion ornament. We all have one. My Mother bought four, one for each of us children and one for them. We all still have them. (And we’re keeping them.) They are safely packed away. The polka-dot balls too. And the big bells. Some of the special ornaments that made the cut are the tear drops, the pine cones, the vintage ones from the 40s given to them second hand when they first got married and a few newer additions, mostly elephants, cardinals and dog ornaments. The two Hallmark ornaments that remain on the tree are two dog ornaments with their dog’s picture in them. Some hand made felt beaded ornaments done by a friend of the family’s mother and some plastic angels sent from Germany by my Grandmother when I was little are also still there.
And the chocolate ball.
It’s not really a ball of chocolate. It’s a brown ball. My Mother hates it but understands my affection for it. I’m allowed to put it on the tree, but it must be around the back where she cannot see it from the couch. It is a relic of the giant trees of yesteryear and a time when trees had huge incandescent colored lights that burned so hot if your tree dried out they could set it on fire. They were basically chandelier bulbs in muted red, green, blue, white and orange. No yellow or purple. The chocolate ball used to be shiny red mercury glass, but one year it was hung so close to one of those bulbs that it was burned brown, like rich, dark chocolate. My Mother wanted to throw it away that year when the tree came down, but I rescued it. When twinkle lights came out those old strings were relegated to the eaves of the house, but when the local utility was giving out free LED strings to people who would trade in the old sets, the last of the old light strings was finally gone. But the chocolate ball remains. I see to it it’s on the tree every year.
If anything speaks to the uniqueness of a family’s celebrations it is the food. Recipes passed down through generations be they great grandma’s unique creation or something cut out of a magazine. The giving of cookies as a gift is a shared joy of this season. This year probably more so, with so many wallets bare, cooking is something with which we can be generous.
The variety of cookies coming from our kitchens has shrunk over the years. We used to divide, share and combine. I’d usually end up making triple recipes of Russian tea cakes, bourbon balls, marzipan, gingerbread people and no-bake bars. My sister’s contributions this year are reduced to toffee. Maybe. This year I went to my Mother’s house to help her with her baking. (She doesn’t like to get her hands sticky rolling balls, and her back still hurts when she stands too long.) This year she chose four: spritz, tea cakes, butterzueg and lebkuchen. I surprised her by making bourbon/rum balls too. She had all of the ingredients. She doesn’t like them, but my Dad does. I made them as a reward for him letting her have a tree this year. I also made a cream cheese pie for Christmas Day, because we didn’t get one for my Dad’s birthday this year (my sister used a different recipe). My Dad loves cream cheese pie and I’ve been craving it ever since we didn’t have it for his birthday.
This is the only time of year we make cut out cookies. My Mother has some cookie cutters that are older than I am. Like the ornaments, passed to her second hand from her sister when she first got married and still used. And of course, the family recipes requiring cookie cutters are only made at this time of year.
Never mess with the tried and true traditional family recipes.
One year my Mother and I decided to be more health conscious about the butterzueg. Instead of using lard, we’d use shortening. (This was before Crisco became the truly toxic Frankenfood that it is now.) They went together really well, rolled and cut nicely, in they went, out they came, they looked fabulous. And they were as hard as hockey pucks. The entire double batch went into the trash and we started over again after a quick trip to the store to buy lard. There may be some recipes in which you can substitute shortening for lard, but our traditional butterzueg is not one of them. Thank goodness lard will always be plentiful in our city due to the large portion of the population that cooks traditional Mexican food from scratch, lard being a requirement.
This year we did baptize a new cookie cutter.
You’d think I’d have learned from this experience, but I am going to mess with another family recipe : bourbon balls. They’re mostly cocoa, vanilla wafers and liquor. You can use rum or bourbon. But I’m thinking….kirsch. Because cherries and chocolate is so classic. How bad could they be?
Maybe I’ll be starting a new family tradition this year.
The experiment was a rousing success. I have dubbed them Kirsch Bombs. It’s the bourbon/rum ball recipe with the following substitutions: Use Kirsch instead of bourbon or rum and use Hershey’s Special Dark cocoa instead of the regular cocoa. Adults only.