I love [almost] everything about the Christmas season. I say almost, because it would really be a bit much to claim that I *love* Christmas shopping in any kind of mall at any point between Thanksgiving and the New Year. I hate crowds, I suffer from a bit of holy-crap-get-me-out-of-here shopping mall claustrophobia, and I have a fear of being on the receiving end of other people’s parking lot road rage. So I don’t much like malls at Christmastime. I can just barely handle the mobs that descend upon my favorite grocery store during the month of December, but as it is in pursuit of food, I rise to the occasion and shop at dawn with the early risers.
When procuring food, I shop with the planning and precision of a wartime general. I have detailed lists organized by aisle. I must shop efficiently, and I must not forget anything, because holiday cooking and baking is my jam. This is my favorite time of year to be kitchen-bound. Come Christmastime, I pull out old family recipes, thumb through my cookbooks for new ideas, crank the Christmas music, and go to town. There are few things that make me happier.
The close relationship between food and social history has come up often in my posts. Being a humanities scholar trained in socio-cultural methods and phenomenology — meaning, basically, the philosophy of experience — I am always thinking about how our experiences shape who we are. Actually, I am always thinking. Full stop. It’s hard for me to turn off my brain. Add seven years of grad school, and my poor husband rarely gets a break from my social commentary. I am incapable of watching television or movies without offering a running critical reading. I try to control it. But I just can’t. My beloved had to “enjoy” the final Harry Potter movies with me sputtering on endlessly about JK Rowling’s thinly veiled references to Nazis and the Catholic Church. Even our Christmas music collection cannot escape the wrath of my non-stop critique. We have at least five versions of “Baby it’s Cold Outside” on our playlist. It’s a delightful holiday ditty. I call it the “Date Rape Song.” That’s what it is, after all. When they start singing about “just one cigarette more,” that’s 1950’s lyric code for “we just had sex.” The fifties were a more demure time, and the sexual innuendos were similarly subtle. The song goes like this: she says she has to leave, he convinces her to stay, convinces her to have one more drink, they smoke, then she asks to borrow his comb to fix her messy hair. You tell me what’s happening there. The moral of the story: No means no, unless it means maybe, which can mean yes, so just keep pestering her until she gives in. Now that’s a Christmastime life lesson to cherish. If you’re headed for a frat house. I have one version of the song that features Frank Sinatra and multiple women singing the female part all together. Figure that one out. On the flip side, my favorite variation on this theme is the version by She & Him, where Zooey Deschanel sings the part traditionally voiced by the male, and a guy sings the part traditionally voiced by the female. The feminist in me cheers this role reversal as the woman becomes the sexual aggressor.
I realize I used the words “Nazi” and “rape” in that last paragraph. And I’m supposed to be blogging on the joy and love of Christmas. You still with me? I’ll get back on my train of thought presently.
So: the relationship between food and social history.
For me, Christmas is a particularly powerful vehicle for memory. Not all moments of our lives remain with us in crystal clarity. Most become a blurry wash of days, weeks, and years past. But I find that Christmas experiences and traditions remain bright and vivid, likely due to the joy that accompanies them. I remember, as a little girl, being so excited to get home from church on Christmas Eve I might have bubbled up out of my skin if I were capable of actual effervescence. I could hardly contain myself, because every year, Santa called my house. He talked to me, and my brother, and my sister. He asked if we’d been good all year, and kind to one another. He asked if we listened to our Mom and Dad. He sometimes said he heard that we didn’t always clean our rooms, or that we argued with each other. I don’t recall if he ever asked what we wanted for Christmas. It wasn’t that kind of conversation (and what parent wants their child to announce some heretofore unmentioned wish at the eleventh hour on Christmas Eve?). The phone call was about the fun and magic of chatting with the Big Guy on his big night. Rudolph always made noise in the background, and Santa scolded him, “Be quiet there Rudolph! Ho, ho, ho! He’s making an awful racket! Make sure you leave him a carrot, won’t you?” “Oh yes, Santa, I will,” I replied, wide-eyed and breathless. I ran to my mother, “Rudolph wants a carrot! Santa says to leave him a carrot!” That Santa sounded like a slightly more gruff version of my beloved Grandpa only made it more obvious that it was, in fact, Santa Claus on the phone. Who else would he sound like?
After the phone call, and in the midst of a family-style finger-foods feast (hello, alliteration), my siblings and I headed into the basement one by one to sit at the high counter and wrap presents with our Dad. He was famous for shopping at the last minute on Christmas Eve. I may have gotten some of his intelligence, all of his eyebrows, and a hefty dose of his wry sense of humor, but thankfully I didn’t get his penchant for seat-of-the-pants Christmas prep. Instead, I got my Mom’s ability to plan, list, and execute. I could have also used her tidy eyebrows. But again, my train of thought meanders.
Being last minute, Dad made a tradition out of getting us to help him wrap Mom’s presents. It was also time for my siblings and I to wrap our gifts to each other. I’ll never forget the year my sister did all of her “shopping” on her own for the first time ever. She bought our gifts at the church holiday rummage sale. In other words, she got a bunch of other people’s junk. And she was thrilled. She was probably no more than four years old. She always went downstairs first to wrap her gifts. When I went downstairs after her, Dad told me that my sister had picked out gifts for us all, and she was really excited about them. “It might not be something you would want,” my wise Daddy explained, “but your sister is so excited about it, you need to make sure you are excited, too, because we don’t want to hurt her feelings. She put a lot of thought into these gifts, and that’s what matters.” He was really saying: Please learn to be a gracious and kind person who puts other people’s feelings ahead of your own.
I opened a pink porcelain boot on Christmas morning. It was a bit shocking. It would have been at home in an octogenarian’s living room with ruffled curtains and fourteen cats. I wasn’t quite sure what to make of it, but boy did I ever act delighted. And I was, really, because I knew how hard my sister had worked to find that gift. Her adorable little face beamed up at me. And for my part, it wasn’t fake gratitude. It wasn’t an act. I displayed the hideous little boot in my bedroom until the day we moved out of that house when I was 19. I loved it. I cherished it. And that early lesson on how to receive a gift not only sticks with me to this day, it has shaped who I am. At Christmas, people often talk about it being better to give than to receive. But the grace and graciousness of receiving a gift is perhaps the most important part of the season. That’s why, when he called, Santa didn’t ask us what we wanted for Christmas. It’s not about wanting things. It’s about the love that happens in the space between people when gifts are given and received. It’s really the gift of learning to think about others, to be concerned about their feelings, their joy, their happiness. It’s about doing what we can, once a year, to create for them a bit of that joy. Sure, my sister could have given me some chintzy jewelry or over-the-top doll I was totally sure I wanted, even needed, in my six-year-old world. But I would never appreciate or remember those things like I do that pink porcelain boot.
This is what the Christmas kitchen is about for me. Making joy. Creating and gifting love. Remembering holiday seasons past, and bringing the joy of those days into the present. That’s what Christmas traditions are. They’re for performing the acts, big and small, that make us who we are. That’s why I’ll make cookies, pepperoni and sauce (more on that later), a giant antipasto tray, bubble loaf (also, later), and every conceivable treat or goodie any of my family might request. Because I know who I am when I roll out sugar cookie dough, or pile pepperoni into my slow cooker. And when my family eats those cookies and consumes three and four helpings of those pepperonis, we all join in that magic thing called “tradition” that makes the season so special.