Traditions Take Two


What goes around, comes around. Isn’t that the saying? While my country is receiving a healthy dose of past bad decisions come back to haunt it, I’ve concluded that the ghosts of Christmas past also employ this karmic trickery during the holiday season. For many years, they didn’t find me at home, but this year was a different story, of course.

In my childhood family, Christmas traditions were enforced with a rigid (very Germanic) iron fist. There was always a real tree no matter how prickly, crooked and infested, draped with tangled strings of burnt-out lights carelessly thrown into a box the previous January, the ponderous Christmas stollen made with pounds of butter festooned by labor-intensive slivered almonds boiled from their skins, the unlightable plum pudding that everyone hated unless you buried it in hard sauce, my mother’s exhausted bad mood Christmas morning from staying up all night wrapping gifts, and the tense, awkwardly polite visits to estranged relatives on Christmas day.

After we were married, my husband and I had to agonize over whose family to visit for Christmas, keeping New Year’s celebrations to ourselves, thankfully. When our daughter came along, however, the pressure to travel increased considerably. Following a disastrous holiday trip where all three of us spent most of Christmas holed up in a guest bedroom with the flu, I made the decision to stay put and start new traditions, for all of our sakes and sanity. Out went the obligatory stollen and rock-hard pudding, the dragging of the child (and adults) away from their new toys to uncomfortable visits with relatives, the long road trips under threat of bad weather. In came the fake white tree with non-traditional ornaments, alcohol-infused morning coffees, a Christmas Day outing to the movie theater, and our own list of alternative holiday music.

As empty-nesters we even abandoned our rented apartment for inns at state parks, where we adorned the hotel rooms with our own decorations, watched Christmas DVDs and indulged in homemade snacks while leaving the real cooking to the professionals. Our holiday activities consisted of walks along park trails and daytrips to little towns and local shops. Recently, we’ve spent Christmases with my daughter, since she loves the Christmas traditions that are special to her, including a Christmas Eve brunch at her favorite cafe and watching the grand-cat rip through his presents on Christmas morning.

This year, it was time, yet again, to start new traditions. I suspect that a lot of families came to the same conclusion. We are lucky to be together as a family, while many are grieving the absence of loved ones and homes right now.  Since the future is more uncertain than ever, we were determined to make the most of it without needing Scrooge’s nocturnal wake-up call. We’re back to being homeowners, with a tabletop artificial tree in a traditional green color, hung with ornaments from our childhoods as well as purchases over the years. There’s a Christmas puzzle continuously in the works, a diverse holiday music list playing on bluetooth, the streaming of old holiday shows or cheesy Christmas romances, and an occasional neighborhood stroll to see the lights and decorations. We’ve even expanded our holiday season with a special dinner at home now for Winter Solstice with lots of candlelight. My husband purchased an advent calendar that is a chest of drawers which he fills with tiny treats and gifts, plus a slip of paper with a holiday activity that the receiver can do. We look forward to continuing this new tradition with new and old gifts for the drawers.

With so many gluten-free flours and dairy-free options available, I even brought back the almond sugar cookies I loved to decorate and eat as a kid. On Christmas Eve my daughter and I cut out new shapes while listening to holiday tunes. Once again I can sip on a delicious (spiked) dairy-free eggnog, indulge in dairy-free caramels and take a big bite into turkey sandwiches plump with gluten-free stuffing. Maybe the taste and appearance aren’t quite the same as what I remember, but I’ll gladly trade the old unhealthy holiday ghosts dripping with guilt and obligation for newer spirits full of wholesome pleasures more in line with who I am and want to be.

My hope for you, dear reader, at the end of such a cataclysmic year, is that you find new traditions in the rubble of our old lives that bring you joy in the dark days to come.

Love Is . . .

Day 25: Love is . . .

Love is . . . always present, no matter where you are. Merry Christmas to all who celebrate it, and happy Full Cold Moon to everyone!

I’ve decided to participate in Susannah Conway’s December Reflections  photo prompts again this year. During this hectic and stressful season, won’t you join me in mindful reflection from life’s photographic window seats and contemplative comments that provide refuge from the madness.

The Downsizing Dozen: Dwindling Decorations

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Have to admit that I anticipated the annual dragging out of the old Christmas boxes with some trepidation this year. Why? For the last ten years, we have known exactly where all the decorations would be placed–snowmen chilling on the fireplace mantle with the stockings, lights of the correct length wrapped around our breakfast nook railing, tree positioned front and center in the living-room window bay. Now all bets were off when faced with the alien (and rather compact) landscape of our new apartment.

At least the ever-important tree placement was easy. There was clearly only one spot in the apartment that would work, by the door to our balcony, where we had strung our remaining outdoor lights for a show of holiday spirit among the drab units surrounding us. The tree is actually one that my daughter bought last year, and one that she is willing to share with her miserly parents. (Actually, we have no idea what sort of ornament-hanging structure we really want when she moves out.)

The other Christmas detritus was more problematic, however. As we unwrapped the holiday candy dish and the rather heavy stocking hangers, the snowpeople collection, bottle brush trees, my husband’s family nativity and 1950‘s ceramic bells in the shape of Christmas ladies, I was once again grateful that we had purged a good deal in the last couple of years, keeping all Christmas keepsakes down to two storage bins and an ornament box. Everything had to fit into the life raft of those boxes or be set loose upon the open seas at Goodwill.

Thank heavens for a lengthy bar area along the kitchen counter, a tabletop with enough space for the snowmen, and a bookshelf with a lack of books and plenty of parking places. We found just enough room for everything except a very large fiber optic angel, a string of lights and one pair of festive tealight holders. The added bonus is that we can sit in our living room and enjoy all the decorations without having to get up and walk into another room, like we had to do in our old house.

Much has changed in our lives, but some traditions live on in new digs without too many of the trappings. We toast our good fortune in relocating to a warm and comfortable nest with the annual spiked eggnog while our cat re-acquaints himself with the penguin tree skirt.

Happy holidays, my friends, and see you in 2015!

Once a month for the next twelve, I’ll feature another step in the downsizing journey that didn’t just begin when we sold our suburban house and moved to a small walk-up apartment in June of 2014. This shift to a simpler life has been years in the making, and I hope you’ll join me in my family’s quest to get down to basics. My inaugural post entitled Giving It All Away was featured in July, Make It Stick in August, Following Your Feet in September, Case of the Missing Mac in October, and Diminished Drumsticks in November.

The Herring and the Stollen

Letting Go #19

It’s holiday time, and my old nemesis, Tradition, enters by the backdoor on the coattails of Christmas goodies. Let me be clear: I am not a person who swoons over the days of yore. However, I grew up in a home where the ghosts of foodies past ruled. Still do. Not only have my parents set a holiday decorating standard that continues to dictate our lives in all its moth-eaten glory, but we are obliged to acknowledge and execute culinary Christmas rituals that require the skills of a four-star chef, and a good deal of chugging from the fruitcake brandy.

Take my grandmother’s holiday stollen recipe, which was pieced together from ancestral bards and my father’s gourmet taste buds. Every year, instead of the prancing and pawing of each reindeer hoof, I would come out of my sleep coma to hear the sounds of my mother in the kitchen, wrestling with fifty pounds of dough in the middle of the night.

Whether my forebears even had the means to buy that many eggs and slabs of butter is questionable, but the MYTH of the Great Stollen has been risen to a yeasty blob the size of a small child, studded with blanched almonds hand-shelled by peasants (me and my brother) and stuffed with untold quantities of candied fruit. After hours of baking and repeated poking with toothpicks, it looks like some kind of porcupine effigy.

Don’t get me wrong–it is tasty in all its buttery glory. Germans know what to do with their transfats. It’s just that when it came time for ME, as the only girl-child, to carry on the Great Stollen baking tradition, and I looked at the scroll with the hand-written ingredients list (measured in grams, mind you), I felt a sudden urge to undergo a sex-change operation. There was no way I could spend the days necessary kneading the dough and boiling the skins off the almonds I had hand-shelled (having no peasants available for this task), not to mention rounding up all the required food stuffs as rare as myrrh and frankincense.

And then there is the all-encompassing New Year’s Herring Salad, which was my ancestors’ odiferous vehicle for using up the leftover meats served over the holiday, the main idea being that herring will overpower pretty much anything you mix it with (used machine oil, sterno, paint). To this fish-meat mix is added chopped up hard-boiled eggs, apples, sweet pickles, mayo, and the beets which provide a festive pink glow. I am physically capable of making this mythical dish, but my problem is this: whole herrings may have been plentiful in the olden days, but are now a pain in the yuletide tush to find, except in the form of the pickled variety in little jars underneath the fish counter (if your grocery store even HAS a fish counter anymore).

Said salad is used as a rite of passage for new in-laws entering the family fold. My people stare with hawk-like intensity as the hapless newcomer timidly tastes the pile of pink stuff, watching for any warning signs of nose-wrinkling or regurgitation. I have to admit it’s pretty palatable–if you like herring. If you don’t–you might want to revisit that prenup. Trust me, this is only the tip of the iceberg involving tests of digestive fortitude (just ask my husband).

To my knowledge, my parents are the only ones who undertake these legendary food feats. No one else has the culinary cojones to spend hours picking out microscopic herring bones or proof that much yeast. Rest assured that their efforts attract relatives who will travel great distances just to sample these delicacies (and thank their lucky stars that they don’t have to make them).

Unfortunately, if left up to me, these famous family dishes have reached the end of the line, and will disappear into the mists of Avalon. Even as I write, I can feel the disappointment of my ancestors (or maybe annoyance that I can get out of it). Yep, call me the black sheep of the familial empire–or the red herring.

And don’t even get me started on the Plum Pudding from my mother’s side.