"A lovely thing about Christmas is that it's compulsory, like a thunderstorm, and we all go through it together." --Garrison Keillor
Each year on Christmas day, my family back home gets together, gobbles down a huge brunch and then sprawls out on couches till the worst of their digestive grief passes.
Next comes the exchanging of presents, and even though last year it started turning an eerie shade of black, my cousin Patti and her brother Dave will once again pass the same fruitcake back and forth, as they've done for years - disguising it in countless creative ways (you might say it's the "ultimate" in recycling!). Ahhh-traditions!
Endless shopping, shimmering-ly wrapped gifts, songs of a swaddled savior, stacks of sweet snacks, swarms of spiteful siblings, endless displays of holiday who-ha, and a month's worth of holiday shin-digs far too plentiful to attend, can bring every last nerve to a frazzle. When you feel overwhelmed, stop for a minute (if you can), take a deep breath, and think about holidays past...and if you're lucky enough to have them, let recollections of forgotten silly traditions, ridiculous rituals and any warm memories flood to the surface.
When the season's pressures get to me, I whip up some of my best Yuletide thoughts. One of my fav's includes a late night as a "tweener" spent with my mom, when just she and I decorated the entire tree. We waited until my dad left for his usual midnight shift at the steel mill and my older brother, John, and twin sister, Mags, were sound asleep. With our shaky old wooden ladder positioned below the attic door we carefully lowered the branches and trunk of our un-assembled fake wire and wood Christmas tree. We'd quietly set it up in the living room, and then we unloaded box after box of tissue-wrapped ornaments and decorations...funny toy characters that spoke of the 60s, hokey plastic elves, figurines of the nativity, miles of vivid electric lights, handmade candles in jelly jars with arrangements of artificial flocked foliage, and, the piéce de resistance, my mom's treasured faded mercury glass ornaments and strings of glass beads brought with her when she and her family immigrated from Holland.
We stayed up till dawn eating the Christmas cookie rejects, and listening to holiday tunes by Henry Mancini and Herb Alpert and his Tijuana Brass playing whisper-soft on the record player, while debating the placement of each ornament until all of the boxes were emptied and our home, like millions of others, was temporarily transformed into a gaudy-multi-colored-holiday-wonderland.
But my favorite Christmas memory is one that has stayed with me all these years and still makes me laugh: Though my mom wasn't the best cook on the planet (my sister will disagree with me on this one), boy could she bake! So at Christmas time, while the fruitcake and eggnog may have come from the store, come hell or high water, cookies by the dozens were always homemade: walnut-chocolate-chip, peanut-butter, sugar, oatmeal-raisin, pecan-sandies, lemon bars and, once she could trust Mags and I to do more than just put our thumbprints on those cookies, we got to hand-decorate gingerbread men.
Annually, our kitchen would become bake-central with mom's arsenal of metal cookie sheets and glass pans. The floury-fog, the smell of butter, chocolate, ginger, vanilla, cinnamon, and nutmeg and the clutter of sweeteners, extracts, eggs, homemade jellies and jams, candied fruit and colorful sugars created the perfect distraction from the mile-high stack of dirtied bowls, greasy spatulas, and gooey electric-mixer-beater do-dads that she kept piling in the sink, so as not to distract from the day's baking adventures that lay ahead.
Starting early, Mom did the mixing and the baking, and though still half asleep, Mags and I were the gingerbread artists. We were presented with wobbly cookie sheets filled with "naked" cookie-men. We dressed the uniform shapes till each was one-of-a-kind, and then lined tray after tray anywhere we could find --unfilled counter space, the unused refrigerator top, and any unoccupied chair in proud anticipation of our creations being magically transformed into edible delights by just a few minutes in the heat of mom's oven.
While still groggy and in need of a breather I sat down...on an unsuspecting, unbaked tray of fully decorated ginger-dudes.
Uh-huh. That's right. Even though it was 35 years ago, I can still clearly remember the feeling of those soft, semi-moist doughboys oozing into the seat of my favorite pajamas. Trying to act nonchalant, I quietly pealed them off my backside one by one. I can still remember that feeling of gloom, because I had trashed the unbaked gems we'd just worked so hard on. But all my attempts at "coolness" soon turned into an awkward 10-year-old's humiliation.
Try as she might, mom could never completely remove those psychedelic stains, and what remained were the permanent imprints of those sugary multi-colored silhouetted Gingerbread men on the tush of my favorite PJs, which I refused to let her throw away. Ironically, however, what had started out as an embarrassing mishap oddly turned into a year-long flamboyant and giggly reminder of Christmas and the recollection of my mom and sister every time I saw the troop of red, green, yellow and blue men marching across the butt-side of my pajamas.
That cookie-catastrophe taught me a lesson. Some spots aren't worth removing and a calamity can sometimes become a brilliant memory that you hold onto for life.
Christmas can easily become blurred into a "twister of imposed joy," for which the commercialized season has become so well known. So this year, if things go wrong or get hectic, try to remember that the opposite of disorder and commotion is "peace" -- which is the true meaning of the celebration, after all.
This holiday season, let's all be mindful to offer to others care, kindness, tolerance, and charity. But you might also consider offering up your favorite Christmas memory to those you love -- it can be a more valuable present than anything you can gift wrap. And every time you see a gingerbread man, I hope you'll smile and think of the ones once plastered to my derriere so many Christmases ago.
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