It’s been a few months since I have posted something on my blog–and normally, this time of the year, I would be bombarding you with holiday preparations and recipes. The following explains why I have been absent, and what I am thinking about Christmas this year.
The first occasion in my life in which a Christmas was not so jolly occurred sometime in the 1940s. I don’t remember the year, only that my mother had been sick and in the hospital for quite some time. But, she came home for Christmas and wrapped presents from her bed on the second floor. Shortly after Christmas, she had to return to the hospital. I think she had a blood transfusion for a miscarriage which in turn led to a bad bout with hepatitis. We were too young to understand the gravity of the illness—Santa still came but I have no idea to what lengths my mother went making it happen. There wasn’t an internet or 800 numbers to dial and order from a catalog.
The first Christmas I was married, in 1958, my husband became sick and our Christmas was subdued, with him in bed recovering. We still had a little tree and I bought plaster of Paris nativity figurines at Newberry’s, downtown in Cincinnati, where I worked. I think the little figurines cost about 15 or 25 cent each and I still have all of them. Even so, I began my annual tradition of baking cookies in 1958. I didn’t have many recipes but I did have a Betty Crocker cookbook that had been a wedding present when we married on December 6.
That first Betty Crocker cookbook of mine offered a full page illustration of ten different kinds of festive cookies one could bake, including Lebkuchen and Spritz (which I didn’t learn how to make until years later, when I obtained a cookie press). But there were recipes for Moravian Ginger cookies, Thumbprint cookies and Bon Bon cookies, all of which I still make, 60 years later. I also had, in 1958, a booklet titled Better Baking which was distributed free to students in cooking classes by the Home Economics Department at Procter & Gamble, whose home office was (and still is) in Cincinnati. From Better Baking I learned how to make cutout sugar cookie and Brownies and old fashioned ice box cookies, now elevated to “refrigerator cookie” status. Still, it was Christmas and it was a beginning.
In 1961 we drove across country to California and so spent our Christmas that year living in a duplex in Burbank, California. I know we didn’t have much money – but I had confiscated, from my mother in law’s basement, a box of old ornaments that were to be the nucleus of a collection of ornaments and Christmas decorations that has grown to mammoth proportions. I remember we shopped at Sears for toys for our 1 year old son, and managed to buy quite a few playthings for twenty dollars! There were several Fisher Price toys, such as a snoopy dog pull toy. By now I had acquired baking pans and a few more cookbooks, including a church cookbook my father bought from a co worker at Formica, for $1.00. It was the 50th Anniversary Cookbook of the Women’s Guild Matthew’s United Church of Christ and in it was a Rich Butter Cookie recipe that could be used to make four variations of cookies, Black Walnut cookies and Pfeffernuesse, a traditional German Christmas cookie. We gave gifts of cookies to friends and neighbors, wherever we lived, regardless of how well off (or more accurately how poor) we were. A few years later—after returning to Ohio and then making a December trip back to California with a three year old son and a 4 month old baby boy (which I shudder to think about, driving across country in the dead of winter). We managed to rent a nice 2-bedroom apartment in Toluca Lake just before Christmas—which found us without any furniture, but we did have a stove and a refrigerator. I baked cookies and made pots of coffee and we invited all of our California friends to join us. We all sat on the living room floor, drinking coffee and eating cookies!
Shortly after the New Year 1964, we spent our tax refund money on some living room and bedroom furniture. By 1965 we were renting a small house in North Hollywood and what I remember most about Christmas that year is that I spent hours staying up half the night decorating hundreds and hundreds of cut out sugar cookies with butter cream frosting. When I got up the next morning, I discovered that my five year old son, Michael, had eaten all the frosting off of all the cookies. So maybe we didn’t give cookies out as gifts that year.
The year I knew my marriage was collapsing, 1984, my brother Bill and his wife and three little girls flew to California to spend the holidays with us. It was an anxious period—I hadn’t yet realized that the marriage was lost; in retrospect, whenever I look at photographs taken that Christmas, I can see how withdrawn my husband was. The following March, 1985, we finally separated.
Christmas 1985, one of my sons, Chris, and I flew to Ohio on Christmas day and spent the holiday in the comfort of family and friends. We stayed with Bill and his wife and daughters, played in the snow, and went horseback riding on New Year’s Day. It was a bittersweet Christmas. I am always happy to be home in Ohio, with family and friends. Christmas has always been such a special holiday in my family—but by then I had taken the initiative and filed for divorce. I had rented a little house in Van Nuys and we had a good family get together with my sons and their significant others on Christmas Eve, before flying to Cincinnati.
By now I had acquired quite a lot of Christmas ornaments, a collection of cookbooks, another collection of cookie cutters, some cookie jars—and a growing network of friends and penpals. I met Bob in 1986 and we began dating.
Two major incidents occurred in this past decade that involved my brother Bill and his wife. The first occurred in 2005, when his wife was struck by a speeding car just outside their property, as she was leading a strayed horse back to their yard. It was the Sunday after Thanksgiving. On Monday my brother called but was unable to speak. One of my nieces took the phone and told me what had happened. I said I would get there as soon as I could.
So, I spent two weeks in Northern Ohio in December, without having gotten any of our decorating done. I shopped online and took care of the many pets while my brother spent every spare minute at the hospital. My sister in law was severely injured and spent months in rehab. In Ohio, I cooked one dish meals and froze them so that Bill would have meals to fall back on after I left. We didn’t decorate for Christmas, that year – but when I arrived back home, Bob had put up a small artificial tree in the front yard, in our gazebo that I called my secret garden.
Two years later, just before Christmas, Bill and Su’s house burned down. You can’t imagine the magnitude of such an event unless you have experienced it, I think, or know someone who has suffered this kind of loss. Things you don’t even think about at first – like family photo albums. Everything gone except the clothes on their backs. Many family pets, including my niece Jenny’s two little dogs, were gone. Bill and his wife and daughter had been in the barn tending to the horses when the fire broke out. They lived in a remote area and by the time firefighters arrived, the house was fully engulfed. We couldn’t believe something so tragic could happen again to this family. And at Christmas! How could this ever happen in my family, to those of us who simply adore Christmas and baking cookies, giving gifts to everyone under the sun—celebrating the sheer joy of the birth of Christ. But then, no one ever said you had a get out of jail card that nothing bad would ever happen to you just because it happened to be Christmas.
And so, as I write this, my significant other Bob, with whom I have been for 25 years, is preparing to undergo chemotherapy and radiation for cancer of the esophagus. It is December 15. I would have foregone putting up the trees (before we moved to Quartz Hill, we put up as many as 8 trees at Christmas) but Bob insisted and managed to get the trees up and strung with lights. I did the rest. There is a big tree in the living room and a smaller one on the other side of the room that is filled just with lighthouse ornaments. We have three little kitchen-theme trees and a tree for cardinals, in memory of my sister Becky who died in 2004. This year we added a live pine tree that will be planted in the back yard next year.
I have baked cookies and made up gift baskets of jellies and jams; when my mail carrier dropped off two packages this morning, I gave her a basket of jellies. Everybody gets cookies–or jelly! But I am unable to do as much baking as I would normally, and have fallen back on what I call ‘cheater’ cookies – Pillsbury sugar cookie dough and the great Betty Crocker sugar cookie packages (just add butter and eggs) – you can do a lot of creative doctoring with these mixes. As far as I am concerned, they’re still homemade cookies.
Tonight my granddaughter came over and helped me finish decorating dozens of gingerbread boys that I made several weeks ago, before our lives became hectic with trips to doctors and other facilities for tests like Pet scans and Ct scans. No, Christmas doesn’t feel very jolly this year. Actually, I am feeling very sad. In Bob I found a soul mate who is as nutty about Christmas as I am—consequently, our collection of decorations has become so vast, you could probably decorate all the houses on my street with what we have collected in the past twenty five years. Every time anyone wanted to get rid of an old tree or a box of ornaments, they ended up in our possession. That’s why we could put up eight Christmas trees.
So, sometimes Christmas may not be very jolly. Sometimes tragedy strikes a family and it takes a while to get your bearings and recuperate. But I still have many wonderful memories of many wonderful Christmasses throughout our lives, some of which we celebrated with huge parties, one of which (1994) we have on video tape with a visit from Santa Claus.
Christmas comes whether you want it to, or not. That baby in Bethlehem came whether his parents were ready for Him or not. They must have been frightened, Mary and Joseph, about the uncertainty of their lives, especially when an angel appeared to Joseph telling him they must flee, to protect their infant son. So, even though I am not feeling very jolly about Christmas – I will try to stay focused on the true meaning of this holiday. And maybe next year will be better.
–Sandra Lee Smith