December 15, 1998
I know you're looking to me for leadership on the traditional turkey versus meatloaf for Christmas issue but I'm sorry to tell you, you're leaning on a weak reed. Oh, I know I talk a good fight. I've even been known to kick over a trace or two in my time. But when it comes to messing with the traditional trappings of Christmas, I'm sorry, babe, you're on your own.
I like traditional. I need traditional. Whatever else has gone awry in my life, I have to know that the twelve days of Christmas, bird droppings and lecherous lords notwithstanding, will proceed in their familiar order and substance.
I love the feeling of pleasant exhaustion that comes with knowing that every corner of our home as been spritzed and scrubbed clean, that every freezer and counter top has been covered with cookies and candies and cakes and kringles, and that every fourth person in the world has received a hand-written greeting from me and mine.
It tickles me to know that, though I may well have wiped out their entire inheritance in the doing, I have personally ensured the heart's dream of each member of my family.
And on Christmas Eve, it soothes my spirit to know that whatever occasions we have missed through the years, as many as possible will come together for our customary Danish feast. And those can't join us will be liberally toasted and well-remembered.
There will be rice porridge, with its single pale almond bringing luck and immediate gratification to its finder. There will be the Christmas bird, (invariably overdone, but invariably and stoutly declared my best, ever) with dressing and gravy, potatoes mashed creamy and smooth with extra cream and butter. There'll be hot red cabbage and the big bowl of pale gold turnips that never fails to beg the question: are they really turnips? Or are they rutabagas? And if they're rutabagas, are they also called "Swedes," in some parts of the country? No one has ever come to an agreement, but it has been part of Christmas dinner conversation for forty years. But turnips or rutabaga, there will be peas and carrots for those who like neither, and salads and pickles and hot rolls and cranberry sauce and....
After the bird and its accoutrements, the coffee-cum-Baileys (a more recent tradition) and vanillekranse and shortbread cookies, there will be the carols at the piano and THE TREE, not necessarily in that order, depending on the sweet patience of the younger members of the clan.
The next day, gifts having been opened and admired the previous evening, we'll rise for a late and leisurely breakfast followed by games and songs, a bit of sleighriding or skiing, the requisite jigsaw puzzle, an elaborate smorgasbord supper, more games and more food, until the cool of the evening will find us supine, comatose with pleasure and sated desire.
For me, that's Christmas and has been the same, more or less, for all my years (three-score an a few months for those of you who are keeping track; thirty-nine and holding for those who aren't.) It's familiar, it's custom, it's the touchstone that keeps me centered and sane.
Not that I haven't had my moments. Well, perhaps it was only one moment. Still.....
One year - I think it was in '76 - my Mom and Dad inexplicably decided to eschew their customary place in the center of our happy little gathering and spend Christmas in Alberta with my brother and sister and their families.
"But you always have Christmas with us," I protested, not far from tears at the thought of their desertion.
"Exactly," responded my father, raising a gently ironic eyebrow. "So what's your point?"
My wailing and gnashing of teeth could not persuade them to appreciate the sheer wantoness of their destructive decision. Calling out gay exhortations that we have a good Christmas and trilling snatches of old Danish songs of the season, my parents departed for points south and just a bit east, leaving us to our own devices.
Bleakly, I envisioned the rubble of a grandparentless Christmas. "It just won't be the same," I sniffed.
"It'll be okay, Ellen," Phil said, consolingly. "Different, but okay."
I seized on different.
"Hey, you're right. Different. Maybe we could make it real different...."
Fondue is different. Chunks of chicken and thick slices of salami and strips of sirloin... all a change from turkey, right? Some rock and roll on the stereo and saving THE TREE till morning, that was certainly a novel, if somewhat unpopular, variation on a theme, as was my idea of a jolly Christmas Eve spent playing Spoons, and poker.
All right! I told you that it was just a moment. And not a particularly good one. But it was memorable.
"Remember the year Mom made us miss Christmas?" asks a tactless member of the family. A loud chorus of groans assures me that I will not ever live down the Great Fondue Fiasco, and never again will any one person ever be allowed to make unilateral changes to the Christmas menu or the timing of THE TREE.
This is not to say that we never step outside the parameters of our annual celebration.
For one thing, our little core family has grown into a fairly unwieldly mass and it's much harder fitting all of us into one house, girdles and good will notwithstanding.
And going with the notwithstanding clause, you know, the part about the girdles and such, there are those of us that can't handle the guilt about the butter and gravy and the whipped cream, and the others who would absolutely love never having to look at another bowl of that $%^&# rice porridge!
so, inevitably, there are changes.
I still make up all the festive cookies and candies and cakes, enough to have kept Napoleon's ill-fated army on a sugar high that would have taken them all the way to Moscow AND back. The only difference is that instead of filling our freezer with the sugary confections, I fill up containers and send them home with indigent single family members. Phil laments the absence of shortbread in our lives.
"Try these brownies," I advise. "You'd never suspect that they're fat-free."
Some of us have to work on Christmas Eve day and that leaves other members of the family doing non-traditional things. For the past several years, Phil has had to baste the bird and though I'd hate to say it out loud, the past several turkeys have been just a tad more juicy, a little less stringy than those to which we'd grown resigned.
Hand-in-hand with the foregoing, post-prandial converation often finds Phil and the boys swapping recipes while the girls and I talk shop, a role reversal that delights my sense of ho-ho-ho.
One year, in keeping with my new self-image of career-woman-on-the-go, I even decided to abandon my slightly frumpy image of Mom-in-her- dress-and-apron. Chilkoot Woman, a shop that caters to Big Beautiful Broads as well as us chubby little softies, offered up a vivid holly-red pant suit. Smoothing the sleek satin down over my somewhat voluptuous contours, I test-drove it out of store.
I would have handled the startled exclamations and backward glances, even the low whistle of amazement. The deciding moment came when I yawned and a lady stuck two letters in my mouth!
"It's just not me, Donna," I told the nice lady in the store. "You got anything in a nice checked gingham?"
You see? A traditionalist to the core, never mind the juicy turkey, "light" whipped cream, and red-satin mailboxes.
On the other hand, if it's different that you truly want, I happened to overhear Toby giving Nick a recipe for meatloaf that was shaped like a cake with candy-stripped mashed potatoes for trim "to match the holiday," he added, enthusiastically.
Why don't you go ahead and try it? Who knows, it might even get to be a tradition.
Sure beats the heck out of a fondue!