Sunday, December 6, 2009

Holiday Baking (part 1 - by Margaret Ullrich)

I don't know about you, but as far as I'm concerned, there are 2 questions no one should ever ask a woman. The first is "How old are you?"

The second is "Have you done your holiday baking?"

Holiday baking has been with us an awfully long time. Did you know that ginger was popular in Greece 5,000 years ago? The Egyptians were eating gingerbread when the great pyramid of Cheops was new. I wonder what their gingerbread men looked like.

Holiday baking can be a problem for immigrants. My parents and I arrived in America in 1950. Christmas had been a religious celebration in Malta. Traditional desserts were simple - cookies, fruit and custard. For the holidays, we had cassata: the custard was spread on a sponge cake. Whoopee. If my Sicilian cousins were visiting, Pop picked up some cannoli. Our cookies were dull - the big thrill with an anise biscotti was seeing how much milk it could suck up before breaking in half and falling into your glass of milk. It was like eating the sinking Titanic.

I knew my German classmates ended their meals with more oomph. At church and school gatherings, their mothers brought the most delicious homemade cookies I'd ever tasted. And they were gorgeous. The cookies, I mean. Since Ma wasn't in the race - she brought the coffee - I was free to sample and praise every cookie. The mothers beamed. My friends thought I was nuttier than the cookies.

My husband is third generation American - half Swedish and half German. To paraphrase the biblical story of Ruth, I believed, "What thou eatest, I will eat... thy cookies shall be my cookies..."

Well, you get the picture. Thanks to the movie The Sound of Music, I had a master plan for our first Christmas: sitting beneath a huge tree, singing Edelweiss and happily munching fancy cookies, my favorite things. Ethnic things.

The ethnic bit nearly ended my marriage.

There's an old German saying: That which really tastes oft us trouble makes. That should've warned me. It didn't.

I studied German and Swedish Christmas customs. A good wife gets up at 4:00 a.m. to mix her cookies. No sunlight should land on the dough or disaster would befall the household. The good wife hoped there'd be a crescent moon to bring good luck to her baking. No kidding. Without that sliver of light she could get killed, stumbling around in the dark like that.

For our first December thirteenth as a married couple, I decided that I was going to create an authentic Swedish Saint Lucia Day.

According to tradition, buns and coffee were served between 3:00 and 4:00 a.m. by the eldest daughter, who was dressed as the Lucia Queen. Since we didn't have children, I, as an eldest daughter, became the first Maltese Lucia Queen. Ever.

I stitched up a long white robe and tied shining red balls to our Advent wreath. I memorized the traditional poem. I made a batch of cinnamon buns.

Finally, it was 3:00 a.m. Clad in white, carrying a tray and balancing the wreath with bouncing balls and flaming candles on my head, I shuffled slowly to our bed. I was a walking cherries jubilee. Hovering over Paul, I chanted: "O'er earth that sun forgot, Dark shadows linger... "

Hmmph... No answer. The Lucia Queen required an audience. Creating my own liturgy, I ad libbed. "Wake up, Paul."

Still no answer. I set the tray down, gave him a push and repeated: "O'er earth that sun forgot, Dark shadows linger... Damn it, wake up."

He snorted, turned and faced me. It took him a while to focus. Okay... back to the chant. I started softly, building to a truly impressive booming voice.

"O'er earth that sun forgot,
Dark shadows linger.
Then on our threshold stands,
White clad in candlelight
Santa Lucia, Santa Lucia."

He looked. He blinked. He screamed.

He said something that no one should ever say to a Lucia Queen.

Part 2

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