SOME KIND OF CHRISTMAS FOOL

(The following, with some changes, was originally published in the Cookbook Collectors Exchange, in the Nov/Dec 1994 issue).

“When we were young, there were moments of such perfectly crystallized happiness that we stood stock still and silently promised ourselves that we would remember them always. And we did.” (From the “FOUR MIDWESTERN SISTERS’ CHRISTMAS BOOK”, published in 1991 by Holly Burkhalter, with Kathy Lockard, Karol Crospie and Ruth Bosley.)

“Christmas won’t be Christmas without any presents,” grumbled Jo, lying on the rug. (From “Little Women” by Louisa May Alcott.

This is the wonder of Christmas,
Sleigh bells and holly and snow,
Church chimes and mittens and pine cones,
Warmth from a fireside’s glow.
This is the wonder of Christmas,
Trinkets bedecking a tree,
Tinsel and strings of cranberries,
Children, all shouting with glee.
This is the wonder of Christmas,
Merriment, loving and caring,
This is the wonder of Christmas,
The happiness that comes from sharing.
This is the wonder of Christmas,
See the manger, there, under the tree,
With small statues symbolic of all that
The Christ child would want it to be.

-Sandra Lee Smith

Hobbies come in all shapes and sizes. I have various friends and acquaintances who enjoy hiking, horse-back riding, camping, and/or bowling. Some people collect stamps and call it a hobby, although to my mind, collecting something takes it out of the realm of hobbying and into the jurisdiction of collecting. Or perhaps the two are synonymous. I consulted my trusty friend, Webster, and was advised that “A hobby is something that a person likes to do or study in his spare time or avocation”. Another rare definition of hobby offered by Webster is “A subject that a person constantly talks about or returns to”. I like the latter definition; it describes how I feel about Christmas. Christmas is my hobby.

Back in medieval times, preparation for Christmas feasting began months in advance even though the common folk might only a few hours away from their duties, working for the upper classes and royalty Christmas celebrations would last two weeks, until the Feast of the Epiphany, on January 6th. It’s said that King Henry VIII of England raised revelry to a new high—few kinds could party as hearty as Henry.

Curiously, however, most historians agree that it’s very unlikely that Jesus Christ was actually born on December 25th. There is an interesting book titled “Christmas Feasts from History” by Lorna Sass, (published by the Metropolitan Museum of Art and Irena Chalmer’s Cookbooks, Inc. 1981), in which the first chapter is devoted entirely to the Roman Saturnalia Banquet. Ms. Sass quotes the poet, Virgil, (70-19 BC) who described the Saturnalia as a merry festival that was the traditional culmination of the ancient Roman year. “Named for Saturnus, the Roman god of seeds and sowing, the celebration probably began to commemorate the end of the autumn sowing season in southern Italy, a time of brief respite from the yearly round of farm chores, a time to pause and exchange good will with neighbors and friends..”

Saturnalia began around December 17 and all work was suspended for seven days…“Romans took to the streets with carnival-like abandon, shouting ‘To Saturnalia”. Slaves were free to do and say what they pleased and a mock king was chosen ruler. Characteristics of what was to become Christmas were already in evidence: halls festooned with laurel leaves, gifts exchanged—often little dolls made of clay or dough—and small wax tapers lit as protection against the hovering spirits of darkness…the week-long festival reached its peak on or about December 25, a day set aside for special reverence to the sun..”

Early church leaders often attempted to substitute a Christian holiday for a pagan one and it is thought that Christmas became the substitute for Saturnalia.

(Personally, I have often speculated that Jesus was born around in March—I think it’s plausible that He was a Pisces, the sign of the fish – for the fisher of men). In any event, the early church habit of substituting pagan holidays for Christian ones does not detract in the least from what it is that we are actually observing.

In medieval times, the court jester, or fool, was often called upon to entertain guests while they enjoyed their meal, along with tumblers and minstrels, and other paid entertainers. Maggie Black, in her book “THE MEDIEVAL COOKBOOK” tells is that “Entertainment was the main part of any feast, especially a great one, and at the end when the alms baskets were carried out to the poor, and the last Twelfth Night toast was drunk, it was to be hoped that one and all could say “that was a good feast. The year ahead will go well!”

Centuries later, I find that I am some other kind of Christmas fool. I’m not likely to wait until Thanksgiving or after to start thinking about Christmas. It’s on my mind all year long.

My childhood Christmases are cherished memories. It seems that our holiday season began with the Feast of St Nicholas, on December 6th. We hung stockings (usually long white stockings of my father’s) and the next day found them filled with walnuts and tangerines and hard candies…sometimes a little toy. I had my own tangerine tree in Arleta, where we lived for 19 years and tangerines always remind me of the Feast of St Nicholas (I don’t remember ever having tangerines at any other time of the year, when I was growing up).

Many years later I had all but forgotten our family observation of the Feast of St Nicholas, part of our Dutch heritage, until one year when my sons were something like 8,5, 2, and 1 years old and turning into unholy terrors as Christmas approached and television commercials assaulted their impressionable little minds with the wonders and glories of toys that every-kid-just-had-to-have. The momentum continued to grow until I was ready to disown all four of them, whose every sentence began with “I want—“. Then I remembered the Feast of St Nicholas. We reinstated the tradition of stockings being hung on December 5th and observed this tradition for many years after. It was something to tide the children over until Christmas finally arrived.

Snow flakes. Pine needles. My grandma’s diamond shaped walnut and sugar studded butter cookies*. Grandma’s homemade pumpkin strudel (with Filo dough made from scratch!); A Christmas tree glowing with bubble lights. Weeks of rehearsing Christmas carols at school, which took on new meaning when I joined the choir. As a small child, the shivering anticipation of being allowed, one a week, to put away pencils and books, while we made cards and calendars and “tie racks” out of construction paper, library paste and cardboard tubes. On Friday afternoons, song books were passed out to the students and we learned the words to “Jolly Old St Nicholas” and “Up on the House Top”, “Oh Little Town of Bethlehem” and “Silent Night”. At home, we bought sheet music and learned the words and music to “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer” and “Frosty the Snowman”. I sang “Rudolph” with two clowns at a Christmas party sponsored by my Grandma Beckman’s club that year.

We took piano lessons and flute and clarinet, and practiced our favorite Christmas songs until everyone in hearing range was tired of hearing them. When we tired of listening to each other, my mother would sit down at our old upright piano and play “Silver Bells” which was, I think the only Christmas song she knew how to play. (My mother never learned to read music; she played entirely “by ear” and was really quite good).

I will always remember the Christmas that my older brother gave me five brand-spanking new Nancy Drew books—the first books of my very own. Such bounty! The first book that my mother ever bought for me was, incidentally, “Little Women”, which I practically memorized from reading it so often.

One year my mother was terribly sick in the hospital—but came home long enough to spend Christmas with us.

We children ironed the wrinkles out of the previous year’s gift wrap; we ironed out old ribbons too. We made our own gift tags out of index cards and those little glue on stickers—the kind that never stuck to anything else. (I wouldn’t say that we were poor, exactly, but we certainly were frugal.)

We did all our own Christmas shopping—my two younger brothers and I, making a once-a-year shopping excursion to downtown Cincinnati where we prudently shopped for cards of bobby pins or lilac splash cologne—or handkerchiefs with our daddy’s initial on them, or one of our favorites, “Midnight in Paris” which came in a distinctive blue bottle that we loved. We managed to see all of the Department store Santas (as much motivated by free candy canes as the desire to cover all our bases since you never could e sure which one might be the REAL Santa.) We carefully guarded our meager pennies against potential shoplifters we had been warned about, and somehow bought presents for our parents, grandparents, siblings and dearest friends. Most incredibly, we usually managed to have some lunch at the Woolworth’s lunch counter—a grilled cheese sandwich with dill pickle slices, and a coca cola, split three ways—was, I think, about twenty-five cents. I should add, we did ALL of our shopping in Woolworth’s, Newberry’s and Kresge’s five and ten cent stores. They had the best “stuff”.

(Once, my childhood friend Carol confessed that she had always been jealous of me on those shopping trips.
“Me?” I exclaimed. “Whatever FOR?”
“Because,” she replied, “You could buy so much more with a dollar than anyone else”)

Over the years I have thought long and hard about those shopping trips which, incidentally, also cost us five cents bus fare to and from downtown Cincinnati. How did we manage to do it? I often think of loaves and fishes in the bible. That was the three Schmidt children shopping for Christmas presents for at least ten people, not counting anything for friends. We always, somehow, managed to have just enough. And, let me add – we didn’t have allowances or anything that frivolous in our lives. Every penny was a penny earned or money from cashing in pop bottles for the two cent refund.

We loved downtown Cincinnati during the holidays, the lights of Fountain Square, the “living crèche” in Garfield Park, all of the sidewalk Salvation Army Santas ringing their bells, and the gorgeous window displays in all of the department stores.

When we got back home with our treasures, we smuggled everything upstairs to my bedroom where we engaged in a frenzy of wrapping. We often ended up at my grandmother’s on Christmas Eve day; eventually my father would arrive with his cousin – my godmother, Barbara, who I only saw during those holidays and always seemed to me to be something like a fairy godmother. We would pile into the car to go home; we would see the lit tree from the street—for we NEVER had a Christmas tree before Christmas—and seeing the brightly lit tree, framed by the living room window, we would just know that Christmas had arrived. We would rush through the front door only to be told by our mother that we had “just missed Santa—he just went out the back door” whereupon we rushed to the back door to try to catch a glimpse.

We’d open the presents handed out to us one at a time by my mother and later, if you could stay awake, you might be able to go to midnight mass with the adults.
What I remember most clearly about Christmas mass is the crèche—the statues of Mary, Joseph and the baby Jesus, finally uncovered (for they had been draped with cloths throughout Advent.)

There was singing and incense and the smell of wet coats and gloves—for it seems that it almost always started to snow on Christmas Eve. The choir sang “Silent Night” and “Adeste Fideles” and “Away in the Manger” – and IF the Baby Jesus was not actually born on December 25, it matters not a whit for we believed in Him and we believed in His birth.

Christmas Day—when I was a young child—usually found us having dinner at my paternal grandmother’s—it’s a wonder to me that in later years when she lived in the two front rooms of the first floor of her apartment house, she somehow managed to fit all of us—my parents, siblings, two aunts, two uncles and various cousins ALL into those two rooms. As soon as we had eaten, my Uncle Al gave us each a quarter for the movies—fifteen cents for admission, ten cents to spend—and then would drive us all to the movie theatre. (We thought Uncle Al was rich—handing all those quarters out so freely!) and by the time we got back, everything would be brought back to the table for a late supper. (While we were gone, the adults all played cards. You knew you were “of age” when you were allowed to join the adults playing cards).

So, is it any wonder that the love of Christmas spilled over into my adult life? That we, in my household, think about Christmas all year long—beginning with the after Christmas sales but gaining momentum around in May when the first strawberries and blackberries ripened and could be made into jams and preserves, cordials and jellies. By August, the first Black Mission figs were ripening on our trees and the grapes in my arbor were slowly turning purple. Around in October, pomegranates turned ruby red and could be converted into pomegranate jelly or a luscious liqueur. Pumpkins began to be displayed at produce stands (and now my youngest son and his son—my nine year old grandson, Ethan—have taken to growing their own pumpkins). From the pumpkins we made pumpkin bread and pumpkin butter.

We searched for just the right presents for everyone on our gift list, all through the year, and I discovered that Christmas shopping while on vacation in July could be a lot of fun, especially if you were doing it with a sister. We were all catalogue buffs and carried bundles of Christmassy mail order books all over the house, dropping thinly veiled hints in our wake. By September, some of my packages had to be wrapped and mailed to meet overseas deadlines—so September was never too soon to drag everything out of the Christmas closet and do an inventory. I make up lists. Extra rolls of film (I DO still take photographs using actual FILM). Sugar and flour and jars of molasses go onto my list. Lots of scotch tape! (and WHAT do you suppose people did before Scotch tape was invented?)

I remember one year—in the 1970s, I think—when the price of sugar skyrocketed to something like $5.00 for a 5-lb bag of granulated sugar—even as I write this, the price sounds astronomical (even though a FOUR pound bag of sugar, on sale, now, is about $2.50). I hardly baked a thing that year and it was a terrible disappointment. For years after, I stockpiled sugar months in asdvance to safeguard against it ever happening again.

Sometime in August, maybe as early as July, I would be digging through cookbooks and recipe files, pulling out the favorite cookie and candy and confection recipes. October is not too soon to start mixing cookie dough, If you have a freezer to store it in and you have a lot of favorite cookie recipes. Some cookies can be baked well in advance—the ones that thrive on aging in a tightly fitted tin or Tupperware container—the Springerle and Pfeffernusse and cut out gingerbread cookies and those decadent rum balls. I try to get all of the cookies made a few weeks before Christmas, so that I can make up gift baskets and fill tins with cookies for neighbors and friends—and nowadays my favorite post office clerks and our mail lady, my manicurist and our family mechanic.
When Christmas is getting close, THEN it’s time to make the delicate Spritz cookies, lemon Madelines, and Russian Tea Cakes.

Back in the day – when my sons were growing up – we’d often make several dozen different kinds of cookies; they’d take them to school for their teachers, I’d take them to work for coworkers. We’d make fruitcake bars and peanut brittle, Mamie Eisenhower’s fudge, and English Toffee, and my favorite New Orleans pecan pralines, Sherried walnuts and my Aunt Annie’s Opera Creams, my sister’s Buckeye Balls, Truffles, Caramel Corn—and the family favorites; Kelly’s M&M party cookies, Chris’ oatmeal raisin, Michael’s Butter Cut Out Cookies

(*When Michael was five years old, I stayed up one night until about 4 am decorating each and every Butter Cut out cookie with frosting. I had them spread out to dry on every counter and table top. When I got up the next morning, Michael had eaten the frosting off every single cookie. I’m not sure what happened after that—but Michael told me years later that the sight of frosting on butter cookies made him feel slightly queasy.)

I believe it was that same year that Michael, then in kindergarten, questioned me persistently about reindeer.

“Mom,” he said “Can reindeer fly?”

“Hmm,” I hedged, “Well, I’ve always heard…certainly Santa’s reindeer—you know, Dasher and Dancer and then there’s Rudolph—why do you want to know, son?” to which he replied, matter-of-factly, leaving no room for doubt, “my TEACHER says they CAN’T!” and as anyone who has ever had a kindergartener knows, if teacher says they can’t, that’s the end of it.

When I was an 18 year old bride, in 1958, I clipped some cookie recipes out of a woman’s magazine and then into a 3-ring binder, and a tradition was born. Now, fifty-something years later, I have seven or eight 3-ring binders filled with JUST the cookie recipes, most clipped out of magazines. (I also began using those 3 ring binders for many other recipes as well—there are four or five just for my canning recipes—jellies, jams, chutneys, pickles, preserves, two for cakes, and so on. Now there are over 50 of those 3 ring binders stuffed with recipes.

We built our own memories, my children and I. We laughingly recall the year my husband & I stayed up until 4 am putting together a hot-wheels-type of racetrack that Michael, then about four years old, had dismantled by 5 am. There was the year that my girlfriend and I and our children made bread dough ornaments that didn’t quite turn out. We had bits of dough in our hair, clothing and all over the floor. (You may have discovered, as did we, that not everything turns out quite like the magazine illustrations, does it?)

One of my favorite stories involves my dear friend, Neva. She wanted to make a candyland house with me one year, such as I would make using a cardboard frame taped together to look like a cottage. Then I would liberally spread the exterior of the house with royal frosting and decorate it with small candies before the frosting dried. (Writing about how I made the candyland houses was one of the first articles I sold to Tower Press magazines). It would be some years before I worked up enough nerve to actually make a real gingerbread house. Anyway, Neva wanted to make a candyland house too – except for one thing – she wanted to make hers a castle. (it actually went with her house that looked somewhat like a miniature castle). No problem, I assured her. We could make a castle. I whipped up batch after batch of royal frosting, running around the house digging up cardboard tubes and digging through kitchen drawers for suitable accessories – while Neva, her daughter and my sons constructed and decorated a castle. It was truly an impressive work of art but I confess to being nonplussed when, some weeks later, the local Valley News ran a story (with photographs!) about Neva and her candyland castle, which – according to the newspaper story—was her “family tradition”.

One year when we lived in Florida, I was tearfully distraught trying to make one of our favorite Christmas cookies – like lace cookies, which wouldn’t harden, or stained glass cookies – that dripped away the stained glass part as they hung on a tree. I also set the oven on fire trying to make graham cracker houses (which we had made successfully in California) because the melted sugar wasn’t hardening. I had a vague notion that putting them into the oven would help them dry out. Instead, the melted sugar dropped all over the coils of the electric oven and caught fire.

Somewhere along the way I began collecting Christmas ornaments. Like Topsy, it just grew and grew, until the time came when we needed a second tree for all the ornaments. I began searching for ornaments where ever I went on vacation and more than once found a Christmas store. My favorite one is in Carmel California. The store is filled with year-round trees decorated with ornaments made by local artisans. Some of these are my absolute favorites.

One year my sister and I were there oohing and ahhing over the ornaments.

“Will you take a check?” I asked the owner.
“Of course,” she replied.

“Do you need to see some identification?” I asked.
“No,” she said, complacently, “Christmas people don’t cheat.”

These are some of my stories; if I thought long and hard I could come up with many more—but I want to tell you about some of my favorite Christmas cookbooks. As you know, I collect cookbooks – and possibly my favorite topic in my cookbook collection are the Christmas cookbooks – along with cookies. A few years ago, a friend set up a database for me and I managed to get all of the Christmas cookbooks logged on before we had to move. There are over 500 of them. But some are really FAVORITES—the cookbooks I turn to, year in and year out. If you need to get into the holiday mood, I guarantee that reading Christmas cookbooks will get you there. Maybe you can write to me and tell me about your favorite holiday recipes or your favorite Christmas cookbook!

I like THE FRUGAL GOURMET CELEBRATES CHRISTMAS and MYSTIC SEAPORT’S CHRISTMAS MEMORIES COOKBOOK; There’s MARTHA STEWART’S CHRISTMAS, (with directions for creating a gingerbread mansion) and 365 WAYS TO PREPARE FOR CHRISTMAS. I like John Clancy’s CHRISTMAS COOKBOOK and A YANKEE CHRISTMAS by Sally Ryder Brady; ROSE’S CHRISTMAS COOKIES by Rose Levy Barenbaum, and my beloved LOS ANGELES TIMES BOOK OF CHRISTMAS ENTERTAINING by Dawn Navarro and Betsy Balsley. I love re-reading Mimi Sheraton’s VISIONS OF SUGARPLUMS and Virginia Pasley’s THE CHRISTMAS COOKIE BOOK (1949).

I need to mention the Farm Journal’s HOMEMADE COOKIES compiled by the Food Journal’s food editors and published in 1971—back when I didn’t have hundreds of cookbooks, this was my favorite go-to cookbook for baking Christmas cookies. (In fact, we collected all of the Farm Journal cookbooks back then. I think it was my penpal Penny who got me started on those).

Years ago, the Junior League of the City of Washington published a book titled THINK CHRISTMAS (originally published in 1970 but often reprinted); the Junior League must have done well with their first effort since in 1983, they published JOY OF CHRISTMAS, both filled with great holiday entertainment ideas. One of my well thumbed and spattered Christmas cookbooks is titled TWELVE DAYS OF CHRISTMAS, compiled in 1974 by the Junior Women’s Group Pioneer Museum up in Stockton, California. I no longer remember where or how I found my copy which was already well worn and spattered when I acquired it – I DO know I have been making their recipe for Spinach Delight for over thirty years. Another favorite is THE GREATER CINCINNATI CHRISTMAS COOKBOOK compiled by the Greater Cincinnati Citizens Council in 1984; my sister Becky learned about it and we both invited to submit recipes—we both sent in many of our favorite Christmas recipes, congratulating ourselves for finding a way to get them all in one book. Of course, one downside to all of this is that some of your favorite recipes have a tendency to change from year to year. In 1984 I was making Texas fruitcake and “five pounds of fudge” while in more recent years I find myself reaching for the recipes of my youth—the Lebkuchen and Springerle my grandmother would make, or those wafer-thin Moravian Ginger cookies and Pfeffernusse.

More up to date Christmas cookbooks that you may want to search for might include CHRISTMAS WITH PAULA DEEN, published in 2007 by Simon & Schuster, or The Goodhousekeeping little book THE GREAT CHRISTMAS COOKIE SWAP COOKBOOK, published in 2008 (and offering 60 large batch recipes to cook and share) or you might want to look for a Favorite Brand Name 100 BEST HOLIDAY COOKIES published in 2007 by Publications International—both of these cookbooks are well illustrated with hidden spiral binding so they will lay flat on your kitchen counter.

Personally, I don’t like having cookbooks in the kitchen so I usually copy the recipe on my printer and stick it on the refrigerator door when I am baking.
Another 2007 cookbook is SANTA’S NORTH POLE COOKBOOK by Jeff Guinn who also wrote THE AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF SANTA CLAUS, HOW MRS CLAUS SAVED CHRISTMAS and THE GREAT SANTA SEARCH.

These are a few of my favorite Christmas cookbooks—there are so many more! And amongst my treasures are pamphlets and leaflets published by the various gas companies in many different states—some of these were very well done and are so collectible!

And then there are all the gift-giving cookbooks and candy-making cookbooks!
But I see this post has grown very lengthy! However, before I close I wanted to let you know about previous “Christmassy” posts on my blog.

Look for –

Christmas is Right Around the Corner 9/13/09
Homemade Christmas Candies 9/20/09
Oh, Fudge! Making Christmas Candy 9/16/09
Make Mine Light – Fruitcake 10/1/09
It’s Christmas Cookie Time, posted 11/22/09
Christmas 2009 Cookies 12/31/09 (PHOTOS)
MEMORIES OF CHRISTMASES IN CINCINNATI (ARTICLE) 12/9/09
A Few of my Favorite Things, Part 2 Cookies 12/16/09
Christmas Memories 2010

Happy cooking and happy cookbook collecting—
Sandy

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3 responses to “SOME KIND OF CHRISTMAS FOOL

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