I love Christmas. My earliest memories are Christmas celebrations at my older sister’s house. Our grandmother cooked for an army. I learned to make rolls from scratch while sitting in the kitchen with her. Gumbo was usually on the menu and as far as I can remember everything was scrumptious except the family traditional oyster stuffing. I still don’t like oysters. Our grandmother got older, as we all do and I took over the job as chief holiday chef. I couldn’t wait to do away with the oysters in the stuffing.
My nuclear family, mom, dad, me and my two offspring moved into a duplex apartment with enough space to host the growing family dinner. By then my oldest niece had married but didn’t really cook. My youngest niece barely boiled water. My two budding gourmet chefs, daughter and son, joined me in days of preparing for the big holiday dinners. The roll recipe was handed down as tradition dictated.
One of our favorite and funniest memories was the yummy dessert that evolved from a failed attempt to make a giant snowball cake by baking cake batter in two large stainless bowls. The plan was to put the two halves together with chocolate ganache; cover the entire thing with vanilla frosting and dust with coconut. It baked for nearly six hours but never got done in the center. Four hours until dinner and we had no dessert. Folks this was like a scene from the television show “Chopped”. A quick look in the freezer revealed some vanilla ice cream. We salvaged some of the cake that was cooked; mixed it into the ice cream and some rum, stuffed it back into the bowls and then into the freezer. A couple of hours later it got covered in meringue and coconut. After dinner we prayed while we ran it under the broiler. Voila, baked Alaska! Who’d a thought it? This did not become a Christmas tradition, our nerves couldn’t take it.
A few years later my parents and I bought a Victorian gray stone in Bronzeville. The four story house turned into a Christmas decoration extravaganza. I scoured the warehouses at the end of the season where the professionals buy store decorations. I gleefully stashed my treasure trove until the following year. I started hauling boxes out of the basement after Thanksgiving turkey was history. The result was three floors of stair railing covered in evergreen garland and tiny white lights, a traditionally adorned live eight foot tree in the main parlor (that tradition ended when our insurance agent stopped by and told us about house fires resulting from live trees), willow branches covered with Italian lights in the living room windows, six mantelpieces each decorated in different themes, angels, porcelain harlequin dolls (the dolls became a traditional gift to me from my daughter) and a dessert table with 3 foot tall elves as a centerpiece. All this palaver culminated in the Christmas Eve open house, an appetizer and dessert profusion.
The Christmas Eve open house meant dozens of desserts. We added trifle as the new dessert tradition. My son was outnumbered by women in the family so became the very best custard maker by decree of female vote. He actually turned out to be the best. It must have been all those years of practice. My daughter did the bouche de Noel. Our house became THE place to be among friends and family for Christmas Eve. It was a tradition we treasured.
My father passed spring of 1986. Christmas dinner for our core family of about sixteen substituted for the Christmas Eve celebration. My daughter married and she and husband traveled from Boston to join us for Christmas holidays. Though there was no indication that my mother was ill, somehow my daughter and I felt the need for one more Christmas extravaganza. We unearthed all the boxes of decorations, decked the halls, walls, mantelpieces and baked and cooked for days. My son was back on trifle custard duty. The living room windows were once again filled with willow branches aglow with mini white lights. The house was once again THE place to be. That was my mother’s last Christmas. She passed the following spring.
The following Thanksgiving I didn’t unpack the decorations. The willow branches were left bare though visible in the living room windows. I don’t think I planned to decorate at all that year until something much unexpected happened. A gentleman I didn’t recognize rang the doorbell. I peered through the slightly opened door. “Yes”, I asked “may I help you”. He had a rather shy and almost sad smile on his face. He answered, “I wondered where the lights are you put in the window? My family looks for them at Christmas time every year when we pass your house.” I had never thought about it before but those lights had been in our windows for over twenty years. The willow branches and lights were the longest standing tradition in my family and in some way a tradition for another family as well. I assured him the lights would be glowing before the sun set on Christmas Eve.
We no longer live in the big Victorian house at 3564 but the willow branches glow evenings year round in our apartment. It is tradition.