day six :: guest post :: a christmas memory
Today’s post is from a very good friend of mine who does wonderful things in medicine, writing, and in life. Morgan is a corn-raised native Illinoisan recently taken to living off the California desert. She’s a chocoholic, hopeless nostalgic, coffee snob, dog lover, and board game connoisseur. As a type-B personality drawn to the wonderful but slightly type-A field of health care, she fills her free time with photography, blogging, and destroying my kitchen with either baking or crafting projects. Her type-A husband is of course delighted by this. You can find her at Morglopedia. Enjoy her beautiful writing, happy memories, and wonderful recipe!
A Christmas Memory
Imagine a morning in early November… A coming of winter morning more than twenty years ago. Consider the kitchen of a spreading old house in a country town. A woman with shorn white hair is standing at the kitchen window…she is small and sprightly, like a bantam hen. Her face is remarkable–tinted by the sun and wind, but it is delicate too, finely boned and her eyes are sherry colored and timid.
“Oh my,” she exclaims, her breath smoking the windowpane, “itʼs fruitcake weather! I knew it before I got out of bed,” she says, turning away from the window with a purposeful excitement in her eyes. “The courthouse bell sounded so cold and clear. Oh, Buddy, stop stuffing biscuit and fetch our buggy. Help me find my hat! Weʼve thirty cakes to bake!”
The opening lines cause me to curl up in myself and prepare for something beautiful.
If you have never heard of Truman Capoteʼs tale it would not surprise me. Itʼs a simple story really, and only partially a story of Christmas. It follows two friends marginalized from both the holidays and from the world—the orphan, too young to make his own choices waiting for “those who know best” to determine his fate, and the old woman, hunched by her frail body but rampant with a childlike joy at christmas time. If you get the chance to read it, donʼt miss the beautiful illustrations, or the stunning audio track.
My family was gifted this book more than 20 years ago, and for some reason we keep coming back to it. Every year it seemed, on some cold afternoon, mom would find it in the back of the coat closet or beneath piles of videos in the entertainment center. She would pop in the cassette tape and we would listen while doing chores or playing in the next room. And within minutes, we found ourselves all sitting around the boom box on the floor with a far off look in our eyes, drawn in completely against our will.
The story is as captivating as it is wistful—following the cherished traditions these poor and unlikely best friends share for the short years before they are separated. Fruitcakes made and delivered to every friend, stars cut from carefully saved paper, the pursuit and victory of the perfect tree and the best holly branches, and the old kitchen– the refuge from the world where the two friends ring in the season. The story seems to make tangible the beautiful vapor of meaningful celebration with those we love. It calls me to remember the fleeting moments in my past that carried so much weight and drew me closest to those I love. It makes me laugh and inevitably leaves me in tears–hoping against hope that the story would not end. It is a story of great beauty found in the simplest of places, and of the great void that comes with the loss of such innocent joy.
It reminds me that amidst the rush and glitz of the world, the truest celebrations still happen in quiet, in returning to something you love, in giving meaning to the seemingly insignificant, and most importantly in togetherness.
You donʼt have to know me well to discover what a nostalgic fool I can be. My husband is often bewildered, even 2 years into marriage, at the things I choose to make meaningful or the memories that can dissolve me into bittersweet tears. This season Iʼm sure he is bracing himself as we prepare to spend our first Christmas together in California, without our families at home in Illinois. Iʼm really genuinely excited to have Christmas alone for the first time—we get to choose everything from the Christmas brunch menu to the holiday get-togethers to the present-opening regulations. And these choices may well be the same traditions claimed (or rejected) by our children in the coming decades.
But this week, as I flipped through the pages of my dear old friend, this story that has carried me along through so many holiday seasons, I find myself dreaming of the past. As aware as I am of the pitfalls of sentimentality, I am also convinced that the most meaningful of seasons are connected to those which have come before. And I know first hand that there is joy in remembering and returning. In that spirit, and for the collection of my own “must haves” of the season, I am pleased to bring you–
Morgan’s Holiday Top Ten
(What makes Christmas to me–in no particular order)
#1– Christmas decorating on black Friday
There is no doubt, when it comes to Christmas tradition in my family, Black Friday is the most steeped in importance. The men in our house hint that it is so important that it dictates a nearly impossible and exhausting schedule that no sane person could follow. I say it’s awesome. I am a die-hard believer that not a single santa/fir tree/snowman decoration should enter my home until we have finished the turkey and giving thanks. But the next day is exclusively for choosing and trimming the tree (live not artificial…though we surrendered the tree farm experience for a visit to our friendly neighborhood hardware store which always manages to have the best trees anyway), decorating, Christmas music, making “turkey frame soup” from thanksgiving day leftovers, and on the best of years, laughing at Bing Crosby and the gang during the annual family showing of “White Christmas.”
#2– Advent Calendars
I have no idea who decided that fake chocolate in molds behind cardboard windows was symbolic of waiting for the coming of Christ, but I’m pretty OK with the fact that they did. My aunt always used to send us a calendar each year and we loved them. The best years were the ones where the calendar came late and we got to eat 4 days worth at once. On the more serious side, one of the things I appreciate about my upbringing is that my parents always celebrated the advent season with us…usually with a book of daily readings, sometimes exploring the meanings of the liturgical advent wreath and sometimes with other symbols we made or found each day and hung on the tree. Twinkles, gifts, and consumption of delicious food make the season fun, but there is nothing like the advent season to give it lasting meaning.
#3– The Dickens Christmas village
My grandfather started collecting these miniature figurines and buildings over 20 years ago, and eventually passed the tradition to my mom and aunts. It is always a lot of work to create an entire village on the kitchen counter or the back of the piano, but we did it faithfully, and loved the soft glow and Christmas spirit they lent to the house during the winter months. Another benefit is that they are technically winter decorations, not just Christmas, so we could feel totally justified leaving them up till Febr…ok March. Once the Easter decor comes out they really have to go. Last Christmas Eve my grandfather gifted my sister and I (both newly weds) a few buildings and trees and figurines from his collection for our new homes. The next morning, he he died after a bizarre accident on his morning walk. Needless to say, I will cherish those special decorations in a fresh way this season.
I come from a musical family, so this one is not surprising…but I find it magical that this time of year the non-singers suddenly join in without much complaint. As kids we always did a big caroling party with our church or small group…usually to shut-in elderly people around town. I love handing out cookies to sweet ladies who send you home with more goodies than you brought. I love singing jingle bells with a set of shaken keys for accompaniment. I love raising my voice in the cold air with friends around me doing the same. The joy gets contagious.
#5– Holiday socks
Call me crazy, but I love crazy socks. They are better if they have some sort of pom- pom or jingle bell, or if they sing at you when you push a button. My favorite ones are super fuzzy and have snowflakes. And no, I do not like toe-socks. That was one of the greatest mistakes of the early 21st century…that and gaucho pants.
If you have never been to Decatur, Illinois on the first weekend in December, this one will be hard to explain. I grew up listening each year, and sang in the performance during my college years. For 2 hours that weekend over 2,000 will sit in silence and listen to the advent story told in song. It is a beautiful oasis of peace in the busy season, and the perfect way to welcome the great Story back into our hearts. I never feel the season is quite complete without its significance and its beauty.
#7–Egg nog by the tree on Christmas eve.
I dislike egg nog. Seriously. It’s too thick, too sweet, and honestly the word nog makes me cringe. But I drink it for one night, just because it feels right. Every year my folks let us stay up way past bedtime drinking something that would put us into a sugar rush, and I honor that tradition to this day. There is something elating about the smell of nutmeg floating on the cream…it helps me sing better, dream better, sleep better.
#8–Mom’s Ginger crinkle cookies
Hands down, no questions asked, these are my favorite holiday cookies. Ever. And believe me in my mom’s kitchen that is saying something. Not too sweet, tons of flavor, great with coffee or hot chocolate. Spicy, moist, rich…they are everything Christmas to me. Mom has been making them for years and they are greatly requested at our holiday parties…see the recipe below!
Like dear friends, they return to me once a year, and I love to see them again. My favorite ornaments are the ones that we hand-made out of paper bags, wire, and embroidery thread for a craft show during our most ambitious home-schooled years. We sold a lot of them, but we retained enough that they still embellish my parent’s tree almost 15 years later. My favorite ornament on my own tree was given to us for our first Christmas…we had S’mores as favors at our wedding, and someone found bride and groom marshmallow snowmen sitting on chocolate and a graham. I could not have designed a more adorable or perfect ornament for us.
#10–Christmas crafting projects
I come from a modest upbringing, and the thing that stands out to me about the holiday season both then and now is the huge list of folks I want to give a gift to and the short bank roll with which to do it. Invariably as kids this left us with one of two options: cut the list short, or get to work making free/cheap things into gifts. We almost always chose the latter…and Iʼm glad we did because it is so fun looking back at what we have created. There was the year we made angels out of cones of wallpaper with a wooden ball head and spanish moss hair. One year we made over 3 gallons of chai tea drink mix. Another year mom made patchwork quilt Christmas tree skirts and vests. I have yet to do anything that ambitious, but I did manage some kick-butt pinecone wreaths and snicker-doodle sugar scrub last year. The fact that my creative inspiration has yet to strike this year is terrifying…because sometime between now and December 23rd I know it is going to happen, and take over my free time and my kitchen for days on end.
I hope your preparations and holiday events go swimmingly, I hope you have the best party, the most home-decorator-approved tree, and the greatest gifts selected and carefully wrapped. I hope your house is pinterest worthy and your friends are amazed by how much you have this holiday thing together. But mostly, I hope you find time this busy month to count the things that have brought you to this season. Seek out moments of quiet and comfort to revisit them. Celebrate first in your hearts, and make a space for others to find the same peace and joy. Wishing you a blessed holiday season, littered with simple memories that will last a lifetime.
Momʼs Ginger Crinkles
2 1/4 c flour
2 tsp baking soda
1 tsp ground ginger
1 tsp ground cinnamon 1/2 tsp ground cloves
1 c packed brown sugar 3/4 c shortening
1/4 c molasses
1.Stir together first 5 ingredients and add 1/4 tsp salt.
2. Combine remaining ingredients and beat well.
3. Add dry ingredients to wet.
4. Form into 1” balls and roll in granulated sugar.
5. Place 2 “ apart on un-greased cookie sheet
6. Bake at 375 degrees for 8-10 minutes or until slightly crisp on edges.