I believe we all owe it to ourselves to create Christmas traditions within our families. I also believe that we should recognize, honor, and whenever possible, taste the traditions of other families.
When I was a child, my parents had some very strong convictions about how Christmas should be presented to a child. In the first place, they insisted that their children experience the entire magic of the best holiday of the year. They went so far as to instruct Santa to stay away until after my brother and I had gone to bed and fallen asleep.
When we toddled off to our bedrooms on Christmas Eve, there wasn’t a single decoration in our home. Neighbors may have had their trees up and decorated for days or even weeks. We didn’t even have a tree. Surrounding houses may have had candles in the windows and lights strung across the top of the porches and wrapped around trees in the yard. Our home had none of that. Santa had not yet visited our family.
On Christmas morning, my brother and I came down the steps and saw the results of a miracle. A tree had appeared out of nowhere. It was beautifully decorated and sitting in the middle of a miniature village with an electric train running around it. The windows of our home were now festooned with candles and tinsel. Our stockings (mom’s old nylon hose) were stuffed full of fruits and nuts and small toys. And, of course, there were one or two nicely wrapped presents for each of us.
It was a truly wondrous display and it was just the beginning of an extraordinary day. The aroma of pumpkin and mincemeat pies baking in the oven would soon be replaced by the wonderful bouquet of roast turkey. Then the rest of the family would start arriving. I was the youngest of six children and my two sisters were married while I was still a toddler.
Occasionally my father would roast some chestnuts or my mother would make a suet pudding. Those were both remnants of long ago family traditions that came over from England with the family patriarch, Thomas Leeds. He arrived in America in 1677.
Almost every year, my father made eggnog. I had the pleasure of drinking it in its pure and natural state. The older family members thought it was better with a little bit of whiskey or rum added.
When I had grown and got married, I discovered that the traditions of other families were quite different. For one thing, some people actually exchange gifts before Santa makes his rounds. I still have difficulty with that. We anticipate Christmas for so long, what’s another few hours?
Another tradition that I did not grow up with was going to church either on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day. My parents hardly ever went to church although they did encourage me to do so.
For the last several years, I’ve gone out of my way to sample the Christmas traditions of other families. In this case, I am definitely referring to the gastronomic traditions.
About five years ago I decided to try the Cajun deep-fried turkey rather than the oven-roasted style. We haven’t cooked a turkey in the oven since. About two years ago I gave into a long held desire. Ever since I first saw the movie version of Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” I’ve wanted to try roasting a goose. It was delicious and has now become an annual part of our holiday cuisine.
I’ve also enjoyed cornbread dressing, oyster dressing, home-made mincemeat pie, Christmas pudding, and a wide variety of side dishes. In addition, I’ve discovered pasteurized eggs and have brought my father’s eggnog recipe out of the vault of family secrets. Come to think of it, I have tried it with a touch of spirits and can now understand why my father liked it that way.
My father left this earth almost thirty-five years ago and I’m still learning and understanding him more and more. My father worked many different jobs to support his wife and six children. I often think mom and dad should have planned their family better, but if they had, I might not be around.
My parents were married in the early 1920’s. My first sister was born in 1921. Sister number two was born in 1923. Twin boys joined the group in 1928. Then there was a long spell before my brother was born in 1942. I was born two years later. Thus, my parents were supporting at least one child from 1921 through 1966 – the year I graduated from college. That’s forty-five years of parenthood.
Dad was forced to drop out of school after the seventh grade. His father had died and his mother needed him to help support his brother and sister. After getting married, he worked in a variety of blue-collar jobs and finally retired at age sixty-nine. I recently learned that during the depression, he bought baby chicks through a mail order company and raised them in a coop he built underneath the back porch. In short, Dad did whatever he could to support us.
Dad’s final job was at a meat packing company. That was good for me because he was able to buy meat at cost and we ate pretty well. Of course Dad also brought home things that I couldn’t imagine eating. Blood pudding, kidneys, headcheese, and sweetbreads were part of his regular diet. Notice I said “his”. No one else in the family would go near that stuff.
Limburger cheese was another of his favorites. He used to eat another type of cheese that made Limburger smell pleasant. In fact, one time while he was eating it, I thought a baby had filled his diaper.
The really interesting fact is that over the years since Dad passed away, I’ve found myself picking up some of those same items at the store. I’ve astounded myself by enjoying them. I didn’t know what I was missing!
Maybe that’s why I’ve been going out of my way to experiment with other people’s traditional food. A year or so ago my bride and I ate at a Persian restaurant. We thoroughly enjoyed our dinner. When it came time for dessert, I told the waitress to bring us something she would enjoy. I also told her to not tell us what it was until after we had eaten it.
I would never have guessed that frozen rice noodles soaked in rose water could taste so delicious.
This Christmas season I hope to expand my knowledge of other people’s holiday traditions even further. There’s no telling what culinary delight is out there waiting for me. Perhaps I can find some Rocky Mountain oysters or shark fin soup. At this point, I’ll try anything once.