That fink, the ditzy receptionist, showed up looking like the Michelin Man. She was ready to march to Thompson if necessary. So were the three other women co-workers. The other wives - who all knew better - had begged off. I was alone with four career women who were full of the 'I am woman, hear me roar' career fever. While they talked shop I felt as welcome as a lump of coal in a Christmas stocking.
The Jewish co-workers - who I had hoped would keep the tree hunt frenzy within limits - had turned into lumberjacks. They were also ready to march to Thompson if necessary. After walking five minutes I couldn't feel my toes.
We hadn't even gotten out of the parking lot. I was doomed.
I didn't know it could get that cold.
We marched. Finally, someone approved of a tree. The men chopped. The tree crashed. The branches that hit the ground broke off the tree. I said the bare side could be placed against a wall. The heat from their glares should have restored my circulation. It didn't. We marched. Someone approved of another tree.
The men chopped. The tree crashed. It broke.
God, it was cold.
We were doomed to spend all day wandering like Flying Dutchmen on a quest to find the perfect unbreakable tree.
The lot was littered with other broken felled trees. Some trees had landed across their comrades in a criss cross pattern that looked like a cradle.
A cradle, something soft, something to receive and hold... hold it - something to catch a damn tree!
Nose drip and tears had frozen my mouth shut. If I'd had the equipment I would've written my idea in the snow. I slapped my face trying to restore circulation to my lower jaw. Finally my lips parted. I clutched Paul's arm.
"Cradle... tree... cradle," I mumbled and criss crossed my arms.
The women thought I was pregnant and wanted a homemade cradle.
Thank God, months of marriage and love had united Paul's mind to mine. Months of marriage had also taught us that Paul was no carpenter so he knew the homemade cradle idea was bunk. Paul caught on to my pantomime and told the others.
Someone approved of another tree. It would land on four broken trees.
The men chopped. The tree crashed. It survived. We marched.
Someone approved of another tree. It, too, survived.
Christmas was saved.
God, it was cold.
I didn't know it could get that cold.
Some fool was planning the next year's tree chopping expedition.
I didn't know I'd ever be stupid enough to be outdoors in that kind of cold.
I didn't know I'd been stupid enough to marry someone stupid enough to work with people stupid enough to be out in that kind of cold.
It was our first December in Winnipeg.
We had grown up in New York City. There people went to an empty parking lot
where the trees had magically appeared, like the ground beef at the local market.
No questions asked. No one wanted to get too personal with an ornament.
At the New York parking lot we'd browse, find a tree we liked and switch the price tag with the cheaper tree which no liked. Then we'd carry the tree to the clerk, who gave us the fish eye as he noticed the fullness of such a good find, sighed and took our money. The whole deal was done in ten minutes. Another Christmas had begun.
Apparently, that isn't good enough for Winnipeggers.
Oh, no, they have to get down and dirty with their holiday bushes.
I'll never forget how happy Paul was when he came home and told me we'd been invited to join a group of Winnipeggers for a real, old fashioned Christmas experience. If I'd had a clue I'd have realized that giving birth in a barn, unaided, would've been
an easier old fashioned Christmas experience.
We were going to chop down a real Christmas trees, just like our ancestors.
Well, my parents are from Malta, a sunny Mediterranean island. It just wasn't in my genes to know how to dress for a freezing, miserable, forced march through a blizzard-hit forest. The windchill - which I still didn't understand - was in the 'exposed skin can freeze in 2 minutes' range. That didn't sound good, so I said thanks, but no thanks.
Somehow Paul convinced me that his entire future career prospects, our unborn kids' college fund and our golden years would all go up in smoke if I didn't join the mighty tree hunt. His Jewish co-workers were going. Everybody, even that ditzy receptionist who always dressed like a showgirl wannabe with skirts up to there, was going.
My next goal was an authentic Swedish Saint Lucia Day for our first December 13.
According to one big fat book, a good Swedish wife got up at four a.m. to start tossing her cookies. God forbid any sunlight should shine on the dough or disaster would befall the household. Every hefty housefrau hoped a crescent moon was hovering on the horizon to bring good luck to the baking.
No kidding. Without that sliver of light she could get killed, stumbling around in the dark like that. I really thought that if I followed the customs, my baking would get better. I got up at four a.m. and baked.
Okay, I cheated. I used electric lights.
I stitched up a long white robe and tied shining red balls to our Advent wreath.
Then I ran into a slight problem. According to tradition, saffron buns and coffee were served between three and four a.m. by the eldest daughter, who was dressed as the Lucia Queen. We didn't have children and I couldn't borrow a neighbor's kid for that ungodly hour. I had to make some changes in the sacred customs. So, I became the first Maltese Lucia Queen in history. I memorized the traditional poem.
Then, when I saw how much saffron cost, I made another teeny change.
I made cinnamon buns. What harm could it do?
The days flew. It was December 13. I was clad in white, balancing the advent wreath with bouncing red balls and gleaming white candles upon my head.
Three a.m. Show Time!
I was a glowing, flaming cherries jubilee, clutching a tray laden with coffee and cinnamon buns and walking ever so slowly to our bed.
Hovering over Paul, I began chanting: "Night goes with silent steps..."
Hmmph. He was snoring.
No Swedish genes were making him wake up to behold his Lucia Queen.
Well, after all that work, this 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 shove that nearly pushed him out of bed and repeated: "Night goes with silent steps... Damn it! Wake up!!"
He snorted, turned and faced me. It took him a while to focus.
Okay, finally, I, the Lucia Queen, was getting the respect I deserved.
I went back to chanting, my voice building to an impressive boom.
"Night goes with silent steps round house and cottage.
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.
I blamed the cinnamon. Maybe the Swedish mojo just doesn't work if one substitutes cinnamon for saffron. There could be a dark reason behind the choice of seasoning.
As far as I was concerned, the power unleashed by the cinnamon doomed my Christmas dreams.
Look, if my Ma can blame religion, I can blame spices.
As far as I'm concerned, there are two questions no one should ever ask a woman.
The first is "How old are you?"
The second is "Have you done your holiday baking yet?"
Why is it that, when the thermometer falls, we're supposed to bake?
Does the Queen whip up a fruitcake before writing her speech?
I don't think so.
I really admire women who can bake things that look good enough to keep, let alone eat. I'm what you might call 'cooking challenged'.
Now, don't get me wrong. I can cook some things. They just aren't pretty.
I've always been curious about holiday recipes. I've done some research.
Ginger was popular in Greece over 5000 years ago. The Egyptians were eating gingerbread when the great pyramid of Cheops was just a brick and a prayer.
A few years after Egypt's building boom, an English King and his hunting party got lost in a blizzard on Christmas Eve. Well, they were clever lads, so they threw everything they had - meat, flour, sugar, apples, ale and brandy - into a bag and cooked it. Wallah!! Plum pudding. The Iron Chef would've been proud.
On Christmas Day in 1666, Samuel Pepys wrote in his diary that he had risen earlier than his wife 'who was desirous to sleep having sat up till four this morning seeing her maids make mince pies.' I really admire Mrs. P. She just sat and watched the maids do the work, yet her husband felt guilty about her workload. How did she do it?
Some Christmas carols seem a little too focused on food. For example:
Now bring us some figgy pudding and a cup of good cheer!
We won't go until we get some, so bring it out here.
Those were somebody's friends? Somebody should've called the cops.
Traditional holiday baking is just fine if every woman stays in her own country and knows what to do. Baking on a level cookie sheet, so to speak.
But, it can be a problem for folks just off the boat.
My parents and I immigrated to New York in 1950. A few years later, when I was in school, I asked why we didn't have anything pretty to eat for Christmas.
My Ma told me that in Malta, Christmas was a religious celebration. The focus was on God becoming man, not on cookies.
Now, the Catholic Church has caused some problems in history, but it shouldn't take the rap for Maltese recipes. No, I'll bite the biscuit and admit that Maltese cooking is not in the same league with Italian or Chinese. Check the phone book in any city. There aren't any Maltese restaurants.
Maltese desserts are simple - fresh fruit and cheese with an occasional cookie. One Maltese cookie, the biskuttini tar rahal, could be described as hardened library paste with a hint of lemon and a dash of royal icing. A variation on the biskuttini cuts the sugar by half and replaces the royal icing with a sprinkling of sesame seeds.
Both cookies are wonderful teething rings.
Another favorite is the anise biscotti. The big thrill with a biscotti is seeing how much milk it can suck up before breaking in half and falling into your glass.
It's like eating the sinking Titanic.
For the holidays, we borrow from the Sicilians and make kannoli tar-rikotta (ricotta in a fried pastry tube) or a qassata (vanilla custard shmeared over a sponge cake).
How lame is that?
I knew my German friends ended their meals with more oomph.
Our parish, St. Fidelis, was a cookie heaven. The most amazing homemade cookies were brought to every church and school function by my friends' Moms. They were rich and gorgeous - the cookies, I mean. They were loaded with spices, fruits, nuts and jams. They were covered with thick layers of frosting and all sorts of sprinkles.
When my Ma saw the competition she admitted defeat and took over the job of bringing coffee. I was free to eat whatever caught my eye.
While I gushed, my friends' Moms all beamed.
My friends thought I was nuttier than the cookies.
My husband is a third generation American - half Swedish and half German.
Okay, I was marrying into the Cookie Big Leagues.
I thought, along with the change of name, I'd return from my honeymoon a
changed woman able to make cookies with a capital C.
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 just knew
we'd celebrate Christmas a la von Trapp: sitting beneath a huge, glowing tree,
singing Edelweiss and munching beautiful cookies, my favorite things.
There's an old German saying: That which really tastes oft us trouble makes.
Now, there's truth in advertising.
Clear as a bell, they were warning me to not even go there.
If I'd had half a brain I'd have just thrown in the mixing bowl and placed a
huge order at the local German bakery for a deluxe assorted cookie platter,
with some stollen on the side.
Nope, I didn't take the hint. I studied every German and Swedish cookbook I could find. The biggest surprise was that there were other days that had to be celebrated. Okay, I thought, practice makes perfect.
Maybe it's like opening a Broadway show in Boston.
I learned about their holiday customs.
The first Advent biggie was December 6. St. Nicholas' Day. That called for small presents in Paul's shoes and some hot chocolate and buns for breakfast. No problem. The morning went without a hitch.
Huzzah!! One day I'd bake cookies that looked like jewels!