The Joys Of Christmas
The Joys of Christmas
Betty loves to bake all kinds of dainty bars and little fruitcakes, even though she doesn't eat many sweets. Betty is 79 and lives alone. Her son died young when his fishing boat sank off the rugged Alaskan coast that those of us who live here so love, and her husband passed away in his own bed three years ago. But Betty still loves Christmas, which may be why she has become the holiday cookie fairy for our family and a few others in the neighborhood. The cookies she packs in paper doilies and red-and-green gift tins are hand-delivered with a big smile. They're rich and old-fashioned, the varieties she remembers from her New England girlhood. I'm grateful for their spicy ginger-and-clove great-aunt–like presence on my counter. Fancy baking has always been a challenge for an oatmeal-raisin gal like me.
But I do make two sour cream coffeecakes each Christmas Eve—one for our family, one for our neighbors down the road. That recipe is my tradition. My baking is on a much smaller scale than Betty's, but it helps me understand why she enjoys it. That coffeecake is always the most appreciated present I give. I've eaten that same coffeecake on Christmas morning my whole life. It was my grandmother's recipe, my mother baked it for us when I was a child, and I've fed it to my kids ever since they were young. When I bake it, I'm not sad that my grandmother and mother are gone; rather, the smells and tastes are so comforting, I feel them very near.
Whenever Betty mixes more batter she must recall Christmases past too, and the way her eager little boy stuck a finger in a bowl or how her husband picked through the cooling assortment, stockpiling his favorites. Now Betty knows which treats her neighbor's children and spouses prefer. That has got to be a comfort, too. From something old and good has come something new and nice.
I feel just that way about the early Christmas gift my father sent me this fall. He mailed me my mother's golf clubs so I could try them out before the snow fell. He had them regripped and bought a new bag that's more backpacker-style than country club. Our rustic nine-hole golf course is, too. Rubber boots are required and dogs are welcome. You're more likely to be startled by a bear than a bright pink polo shirt.
When my father sent me the clubs, he wrote a note about the bittersweet feeling of parting with my mother's possessions. He said he was pleased I wanted to learn a game she loved, and that the old clubs in his basement had found a good home. These secondhand clubs offer a kind of balance to the old and new—from my father's thoughtfulness, to the promise of games next summer with my friends, to those memories of my mother that come back each time I swing one. I don't mean just the way she and her mother and my aunt strode silently around the course. Instead, I see her finishing the New York Times crossword puzzle in ink before her second cup of coffee and recall the letters she wrote me once a week from the time I went to college until she got email.
I love those clubs for everything they represent. But my very favorite Christmas gifts are still the handcolored plastic plates with holiday scenes and "Merry Christmas" greetings that my children made when they were young. From the time they were in kindergarten through sixth grade, they each made a plate.
When I look at the childish letters and pictures on those now-faded plates, I can still see a little boy and four little girls, handing us the "surprise" gifts with proud gap-toothed smiles. I can also close my eyes and see them all in footie pajamas in our bedroom, begging us to get up at 4 a.m. on Christmas morning. Then, I wished I could sleep in. Now that I can, I sometimes wish I couldn't.
Our oldest daughter, now a 28-year-old fourth-grade teacher living 90 miles away in Juneau, made the funniest plate when she was in fifth grade. It's a split scene with a snowman on one side and a tropical island on the other. "Hint, Hint" is all it says.
My husband and I have been looking at that plate now for 17 years. (He eats lunch on a Christmas plate every day. In this I suppose he's a bit like the good Scrooge at the end ofA Christmas Carol, "keeping" Christmas all year long.)
Neither of us likes change. When we built our house, the first question we answered was where to put the Christmas tree. But when it appeared that it might be a quieter holiday this year, and that all five of our just-about-grown kids might not come home (our youngest is 21, there are several significant others, one toddling grandchild who doesn't know about Santa Claus yet, and another one on the way), we decided to change. Maybe we don't need a tree. Or even snow. What matters most is spending time with our children. So we're finally heeding that message on my daughter's plate. We're skipping all the stuff of the holiday and taking a family trip to Mexico. (What Alaskan-grown kid wouldn't want to do that? Or winterbound mom, for that matter?)
Just like Betty's cookies, and the memories of my mother's golf clubs, we're saving the best part of the past and recycling it to fit our present. And with luck, I'll carry home two Mexican pottery "Christmas" plates without breaking them—one to add to our collection, and one for Betty.
Video: The Joys of Christmas
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