By Tiana Leonard
Christmas has always loomed large in our family. Although we’re all secular humanists, there are many Christmas traditions. My 47 year old daughter and I have actually been together for every one of her Christmases. I jokingly told her she would have to marry an orphan so as not to break the string. Her solution has been to stay single. Our other children and grandchildren have been slightly less faithful but there are generally 12 or 13 around the table for both Christmas Eve and Christmas dinner. Other families celebrate one or the other. Not ours. If there is a chance to eat and drink too much, we’ll take it.
I had started this tradition of togetherness by celebrating almost all of my Christmases at the family farm in Peterborough, New Hampshire. The exceptions were in the early years of my first marriage when we were on the west coast. I found having to celebrate Christmas amid the malls and parking lots of southern California an extreme form of torture. I liked the snowy slopes, ice hockey on the pond and cutting down our own tree.
One of my earliest memories is of my mother preparing for Christmas. She was reared in a Mennonite household in southern Russia and faithfully followed the recipes of her German mother. The aroma from the Springerle, Sandkuchen and Lebkuchen was intoxicating. In Russia there were always lighted candles on the tree so some one had to be ready with a bucket of water to prevent disaster. My mother was never happy with American colored lights and after many years found a Swedish maker of electric candles. She bought four sets but today only two sets survive. Every year we gingerly unpack the lights, expecting that this may be the last time they will light. Although they are undoubtedly beautiful, the candles are quite difficult to arrange and attach to the tree so there may not be mass mourning when they disappear.
Another tradition is the cookie tree. This tradition started in the winter of 1963, when we were temporarily living in Peterborough trying to save money while my husband finished his second novel. Our son Andrew was one and a half and a nonverbal bundle of energy. We had been completely devastated by Kennedy’s assassination and I was looking for a way to raise our spirits. I was captivated by a Swedish cookie tree pictured on the cooking page of the New York Times. Thin, decorated, ginger cookies called Pepparkakor hung on a wooden tree made of dowels.
This Christmas I went through the baking and hanging ritual by myself for the first time in 50 years. On Friday I made the dough and put it in the refrigerator. Saturday morning I put Bach’s Christmas oratorio on the cd player, rolled out the dough and cut shapes with cookie cutters. The energy of the music is always necessary to keep me going through the dozens of cookies.
Baking is a treacherous process because there is a paper thin line between being too soft to withstand hanging and too burnt to eat. It is also important to remember to make a hole in each cookie so that they will be ready to hang. After the cookies cool they are frosted and decorated with colored sprinkles. Red and green for the Santas, orange and blue for the gators, silver for the stars, and so on. Creative children and grandchildren take elaborate pains. After the frosting has dried, needle and thread are needed to make the loops. Then comes the hardest step. Actually hanging the cookies on the tree. This step requires immense care and concentration as well as dexterity and an aesthetic sense. After my second marriage it became my new husband’s job. He complained mightily even though I think he was pleased by the compliments the tree always received at our caroling party.
The caroling party tradition was also started by my mother. She would have friends and people from my father’s office over for mulled wine and cookies and they would sing carols around the piano. When we were in California, I asked my parents to send out my piano, and we started our own caroling party. I found a recipe for Swedish Glögg in Craig Claiborne’s New York Times cookbook and it became our new tradition. Prunes, raisins, almonds, cardamom seeds, cloves and orange peel are heated with a gallon of red wine and a fifth of vodka, soaked over night and then warmed on a hot tray the next afternoon. This aroma is really intoxicating. It is my favorite part of Christmas.
We’ve had the caroling party in Brighton Mass, New York City and Florida. The centerpiece is always the cookie tree, and as my daughter has become a more ambitious cook, I have come to rely on her for the salmon plate, pate and cheese puffs. We also count on the half Stilton sent by my Uncle John in New Hampshire.
The date for the caroling party is always difficult to set because it must accommodate the grandchildren arriving from California and Pennsylvania and the Gainesville friends who are leaving to visit family in Georgia and Alabama. Our children all left Gainesville for college and they are now scattered around the country. Their high school friends were more loyal Gators and most of them still work in town. Andrew reunites with his friends to sing the solo parts in We Three Kings of Orient Are, and every one sings Good King Wenceslaus, sometimes with the women taking the male part. We sing Carol of the Russian Children and Adeste Fideles in Latin because the whole crew was in Latin club with the legendary Mrs. Hodges. Eventually we make our way through the entire caroling book. Fortunately we have 40 copies. Many of the attendees are of course more interested in talking and catching up than in singing so it is always a battle to be heard above the crowd.
Now that I am in New York, my baby grand takes up so much space in the living room that there is not much room for carolers. And anyway the grandchildren are not coming here for Christmas. Instead, three of the four children and five of the seven grandchildren will gather in Berkeley this Friday to celebrate Christmas four days early. Andrew is buying his first Christmas tree. I’m bringing some baked but undecorated cookies so the younger grandchildren can decorate a few. We’ll have our traditional three ducks Friday evening, waffles and presents Saturday morning and standing rib roast Saturday night. We will gather around the piano and sing a few carols. But there probably won’t be time for Glögg.
Last weekend I searched the web to see if there was a ready made wooden tree that I could ship to Berkeley so that the cookie tree tradition could continue. I didn’t find anything satisfactory but I did stumble on a revelatory new method for hanging the cookies. Instead of the laborious needle and thread technique, you just press an ornament hanger into the cookie before baking. I was stunned. It was so obvious but never in all the 50 years had it ever occurred to any of us that there might be a better way. It is so hard to think outside the box.
I had already baked the cookies but I walked down Broadway and found a hardware store that stocked attractive green ornament hangers in two sizes. It was amazingly easy to hook the hangers into the cookies and then hook the cookies over the dowel branches. I wondered what my husband would have thought.