I wish you all a very Merry Christmas full of peace, health, joy and love.
Let's not forget favourite television specials and Christmas music.
And, of course, favourite foods.
For those who don't know the story, the Christmas carol Silent Night was written in the nineteenth century because of a problem.
In a small Austrian church the organ was broken and couldn't be repaired in time for the Christmas Eve Mass. So, in a couple of hours, Joseph Mohr and Franz Gruber created a simple song that could be played on the guitar. It was called the song from heaven.
On Christmas Eve in 1914, the German soldiers singing Silent Night brought a touch of humanity to World War l. The British soldiers responded with another carol, The First Noel. For a few hours, peace returned, thanks to music.
The first year I was on the CKUW radio show 2000 & Counting, Older and Wiser I prerecorded our two holiday shows. That year the holidays occurred on Tuesday, the day we usually broadcasted, and we wanted to be home.
I taped each person telling a story and their favourite Christmas carol recording.
The segments filled the two hours easily.
Normally we did our shows live and, as our listeners knew, we did make mistakes. With prerecording, we were able to edit out any mistakes. We sounded pretty good.
Maybe that's the problem with modern life.
We hear recordings and see shows that have had dozens of retakes.
Sometimes they show the bloopers.
It's pretty funny to see that even big stars make mistakes.
But, most of the time, all we only see a smoothly running show where everyone always says the right thing, the dinner is cooked to perfection and all problems are resolved with everybody hugging each other within a half an hour.
It can leave one feeling like he's been cheated or that he should try harder.
The first Christmas was a stinker. Being in a big city with no available rooms is not fun. Add to that Mary was about to have her first baby in a barn with just a carpenter there to help.
I don't think any Christmas has ever gone according to plan.
And maybe Christmas just isn't supposed to be perfect.
A first Christmas away from all that's familiar can be rough.
Our first married Christmas was a big change. Paul and I are originally from New York City. Tons of people. I came from a huge family. A first generation immigrant family. My parents and their siblings couldn't get enough of each other.
But, there we were in 1972, all alone in Surrey, British Columbia. The two of us in a basement apartment watching Perry Como's Christmas special. It was something from home for us. This was in the days before Skype. We hadn't seen our relatives for six months. When we watched Perry Como, it was good to know our folks were watching it, too. For an hour, we were all together.
Then we went to bed for a long winter's nap.
The next morning we awoke to the sound of our puppy playing.
He was happily yelping and splashing in water.
No, he wasn't in a basin or a tub.
Surrey in those days was very rural. There were open drainage ditches running along the lengths of the residential blocks. The ditch in front of our house had gotten plugged. The rain had soaked our lawn and was seeping through three walls of our apartment. We were rapidly being flooded.
We piled things onto our bed. The folks upstairs helped us carry everything else into their apartment. Within a half hour water covered about two feet of our first Christmas tree. We were safe and dry upstairs, sharing a cup of coffee.
Then we heard our phone ringing. My folks had said they would call on Christmas Day. If we didn't answer they phone, they would worry. This was in the days before cell phones. Our only phone was on the table in our apartment.
Our flooded apartment.
We braved the icy water and the risk of electrocution to answer the phone. We wished my folks a Merry Christmas. Keeping our teeth from chattering, we made small talk. No mention of of our apartment suddenly becoming a wading pool.
What would've been the point of worrying them?
Living in British Columbia is just a memory.
Perry Como's Christmas specials are just a memory.
My parents, also, are just a memory.
But thanks to memories, we can enjoy a Christmas from the past.
During the holidays people often feel a bit down.
If this is your first Christmas after a major change, be gentle with yourself.
In 2004 I wrote this story and read it on our CKUW radio show '2000 & Counting - Older & Wiser'.
For a while it was our annual tradition.
I got a few e mails asking if I could post the original story.
Here it is… Merry Christmas!
Change follows us from the cradle to the grave. When I was five years old I was hit with a megadose of change - I moved to another town, got a baby sister, got to go to kindergarten and got Santa Claus.
Five years earlier my parents and I had emigrated from Malta to New York and settled in Corona. We didn't have much choice. Five of Pop's brothers and sisters lived in Corona. So, we had to live in Corona, too.
Corona was a little slice of Italy on Long Island. The store clerks were bilingual: English and Italian. The grocery stores in Corona were stocked with Italian necessities. Almost everything in all the other stores had been imported from Italy.
Corona was where we learned how to be Americans.
Nonni's children, Betty and Angelo, had married two of Pop's siblings, Joe and Helen. So, Nonni was a double Grandma in my family. Since all my grandparents were in Malta, Nonni treated me as a grandchild, too.
Every Christmas Eve we gathered at Uncle Joe and Aunt Betty's home. A whole corner of their living room was filled with Nonni's manger scene. It was not just a shed with Mary, Joseph, three kings and one shepherd standing around Baby Jesus. Nonni had a complete village with houses, trees, hills, paths, ponds and animals. There were people walking around just minding their own business. Some of the figures were really old and we couldn't play with them. But each year Nonni added something new: a woman carrying a basket of eggs, a farmer carrying a head of cabbage, a man carrying a bundle of wood. Nonni’s manger scene was better than any store window on 5th Avenue in Manhattan.
Dinner was a feast. Fish was traditional - eel for the parents, bluefish for the children. There was also soup, pasta and vegetables, followed by ricotta pie, anise biscotti,pizzelle and cuccidati cookies, strufoli, creamy roasted chestnuts and torrone candy. My favourite was the huge golden mound of strufoli: tiny doughnut balls covered with honey and multi-coloured sprinkles. After dinner we played games and our parents talked until it was time to walk to the Midnight Mass at St. Leo's. After Mass we returned to Uncle Joe's for some panettone a holiday bread made with butter, raisins, almonds and citron.
Then Nonni would tell us to look at the manger scene for the surprise. The blessed Bambino, Baby Jesus, had suddenly appeared!
Christmas Eve was a wonderful night. But the big day for us children was January sixth. The night before we had hung our stockings and waited for La Befana to bring us toys.
For those unfamiliar with the story, La Befana was a little old lady who had been sweeping her house when the Wise Men knocked on her door. They were looking for Baby Jesus and asked La Befana for directions. They then invited La Befana to join them. The old woman refused, saying she had work to do.
When it was dark, a great light and angels appeared in the sky. La Befana realized that the Wise Men weren't kidding about somebody special being born that night. Broom in hand, La Befana tried to catch up with the Wise Men. She never found them or Baby Jesus. Every year she searches for Baby Jesus and leaves presents for good little boys and girls.
La Befana took care of me for four years. Then we moved to College Point so we could live closer to Lily Tulip where Pop worked. Then it was time for my sister to be born. While Ma was in the hospital I stayed with Aunt Betty, Uncle Joe and their daughters, Mary Ann and Carol Lynn. It was nice living in Corona again. The next day, Nonni diNoto took me to the local 5 and 10 and gave me a quarter.
"Buy for sister."
I didn't have any idea what a baby sister would want. I liked westerns, so I grabbed a toy gun.
"No. Buy a rattle."
A rattle? That sounded boring, but I bought a pink plastic rattle.
In those days children were not allowed to visit anyone in the hospital. When Aunt Betty visited Ma, she gave the rattle to my new sister. I waited outside the hospital and waved to the window of Ma's room. When Aunt Betty returned she had a gift from my new sister for me: three pieces of chocolate.
Well, wasn't that nice of her. Not as nice as a toy gun, but maybe that was all she could get from where she'd been.
After Rose was born we didn't go to Corona as often. It was easier to walk to the local church instead of driving to St. Leo's. I missed seeing my family.
That September I started kindergarten in St. Fidelis School. Some of the good sisters had wanted to travel and meet exotic heathens in far away places. Well, they almost got their wish. I was the first Maltese child they'd ever seen. College Point had been settled by Irish and German families. It was time for me to learn about America through their eyes.
As Christmas approached, the windows of the German bakeries were filled with the most beautiful cookies I'd ever seen. They were in all kinds of shapes: stars, angels, animals and wreaths. They were decorated with coconut, jam, icing and tiny silver balls. Some of my classmates brought in samples of their mothers' baking. I brought some biscotti. My friends were polite and tasted the dry, double-baked bread. Then we ate the lebkuchen, pfeffernuesse,zimtsterne, and jam filled spitzbuben. Thestollen reminded me of panettone.
I thought a German Christmas was delicious. I planned to eat German and Italian holiday food every Christmas for the rest of my life.
We helped Sister decorate the Christmas tree with sugar cookies which had been twisted into figure eights. Then Sister told us to gather around her. She was going to read us a story. Sister showed us the picture of Santa Claus and his eight reindeer. My friends were delighted.
I was confused.
I had never heard any of this before. Santa was supposed to slide down a chimney and land in a fireplace. We didn't have a fireplace. We had a huge, oil-burning furnace in the basement. Ma hung our stockings, along with all the other wet laundry, on a clothesline near the furnace. It made awful noises and had fire in it. If Santa landed in it he'd fry like a strufoli. That would end Christmas forever. I didn't think Santa would take such a risk for a total stranger. The lovely cookies felt like lead in my stomach.
Sister talked about Santa checking his list of good little girls and boys. Santa had a list? I knew we were on the Registered Aliens list. Every January the TV reminded Ma to fill out green cards so we wouldn't go to jail or Malta. How could I get on Santa's list? Could Santa get my name from the Alien list? Did I need to fill out another card?
The afternoon went from bad to worse. Sister told us we could put our letters to Santa in the special mailbox in the classroom. A letter? What language did Santa speak? He'd never heard from me. I wasn't on his list. What could I say?
"Hi, you don't know me, but I'd like some toys." I'd never written a letter to La Befana. She just gave me toys. Would Santa shoot La Befana if she came to College Point? Oh, boy… I was in big trouble.
In kindergarten we learned about God the Father, about how we should pray to Him and tell Him what we needed. I didn't need another Father. I figured if my Pop was always busy working, this guy who took care of everything in the whole wide world would really never have time for me.
I needed a Grandma.
The next time we went to Corona I told Nonni about Santa Claus and that he was in charge of Christmas in College Point. Nonni listened patiently as I explained the rules.
She repeated the main points, "Santa Claus. A letter."
"I fix. I write letter to Befana. She give to Santa. No hard feelings. Christmas come."
I had my doubts. Nonni had never been to College Point. Maybe nobody ever had to change from La Befana to Santa Claus. Maybe Christmas was lost forever, like some of the packages we never got from Malta.
On Christmas Eve we all gathered at Uncle Joe and Aunt Betty's home in Corona. We had the Christmas Eve dinner. Then we went to St. Leo's for the Midnight Mass. Everything was familiar. Latin and Italian. Why couldn't we have stayed there?
When we were leaving the church I saw a pale cloud in the sky. It looked long and thin, with a sort of lump on one end. For a moment I thought it looked like Santa and his sleigh with eight tiny reindeer. I kept looking at that cloud. It followed us from the church to Uncle Joe's house, where we had panettone. When we left, the cloud was still there. I watched from the car. The cloud followed us from Corona to College Point.
I never noticed clouds before. Did clouds always follow people from one town to another? Was it really a cloud? Sister had told us that Santa had millions of helpers, tiny people called elves. Could it have been an elf picking up the letter from La Befana?
Christmas morning, Pop was eating breakfast while Ma was cleaning Rose. Ma sent me to the basement to get some dry diapers that were hanging by the furnace. Being a big sister wasn't much fun. I pulled down two diapers. Then I noticed some lumps by the furnace. I thought some clothes had fallen off the line. I walked toward the furnace.
You can season roasted chickpeas any way you like. Some suggestions:
Salt, garlic, and cayenne pepper
Creole or Cajun seasoning
Garlic, Parmesan cheese and rosemary
Sesame seeds and garlic
Cinnamon and sugar
Vegan bakers have discovered that the liquid from canned chickpeas can be used like egg whites, putting meringues back on their menus.
The meringues taste very sweet and are easy to make.
You can also eat the unbaked meringue, like marshmallow fluff.
the liquid has to be from canned, not home prepared, chickpeas.
Arrange the rack in the middle of the oven
Preheat oven to 400 degrees F
Drain in a strainer over a bowl, reserving the liquid (see Hints above)
One 15-ounce can garbanzo beans
Rinse the beans with water for a few seconds.
Shake and tap the strainer to get rid of excess water.
Lay a paper towel on a rimmed baking sheet, and spread the beans over it.
Use another paper towel to pat and absorb any water on the beans.
Place the beans in a bowl.
Drizzle over the beans
1 1/2 Tablespoons olive oil
Toss the beans around to coat and season to taste.
Spread the chickpeas in a layer on a rimmed baking sheet.
Roast for 30 to 40 minutes, checking them occasionally to make sure that they do not burn.
The beans should be a deep golden brown and crunchy.
About the sky this week, thanks to the folks at The Farmers' Almanac…
December 20 – Last quarter Moon, 8:56 p.m. The Moon appears as a half Moon in the sky. One-half of the Moon is illuminated by direct sunlight while the illuminated part is decreasing, heading toward the New Moon (invisible) phase.
December 21 – The Winter Solstice, 5:44 a.m. The Sun reaches its farthest point south of the celestial equator so it’s the shortest day of the year in terms of sunrise to sunset. The good news is that the days will start getting longer from here!
December 20 – 23 – Nature’s annual holiday light show, the Ursid meteor showers, are at their peak. Visible from the north all night, these meteor showers generally produce anywhere from 5 to 15 meteors per hour at their peak (usually on the first full night of winter, Dec. 22). They are the dusty debris left behind in the orbit of Comet Tuttle. There have been a few occasions when the Ursids have surprised observers with a sudden outburst many times their normal hourly rate (over 100 per hour in 1945).
December 25 – The tiny waning crescent Moon will be at apogee, its farthest point from Earth in its orbit.
This was a holiday piece I wrote a few years ago for the CKUW radio show ‘2000 & Counting’ when we decided to chat about family holiday dinners.
Being politically correct - and politically sensitive - was just starting around the turn of the century.
It was and is still a part of menu planning.
The family that eats a holiday dinner together… can still be in for a whole lot of trouble.
My friend Muriel still hasn't recovered from last Christmas.
The poor dear had tried to please everybody. Solomon couldn't have pulled that off. Muriel was willing to go with the flow, but she was caught in a tsunami. Her husband Tom is a simple man with simple tastes. He just wanted a roasted bird with stuffing and cranberry sauce.
He should never have had children.
Their eldest daughter, Donna, keeps up with trends. Muriel had asked Donna to bring the appetizers. Muriel expected their traditional celery sticks with cream cheese, crackers and cheese cubes. Donna waltzed in with an oriental party pack and assorted seafood and chicken wing platters. Something for everyone. Uh, huh.
Tom backed off when he saw the egg rolls. "I don't like Chinese."
Donna said, "I got you BBQ chicken wings."
Ignoring her, Tom said, "They don't serve bread." He went to the kitchen for bread.
Then Betty arrived. Betty lives in a commune and supports the rights of everything and everybody… except those of the hostess. Betty always carried tofu because she never ate dairy products or anything with eyes or eggs. Muriel had prepared a nice salad for Betty. Not good enough.
"Were the pickers paid a decent wage?"
"The lettuce had a union label."
"I only eat organically grown food. Did they use manure."
"We had to scrub the carrots with bleach to get the E coli off."
Tom heard E coli and reached for another slice of bread.
Finally their son Bill arrived with his wife Carol and their children, Krystal and Jason. Bill and Carol had every allergy in the book. Bill also had high cholesterol and Carol had her waistline. They avoided the platters of appetizers and drank the water that they had brought.
Krystal, a tender-hearted child, burst into tears when she saw the chicken wings.
"Oh, those poor birdies. Do you know how they treat chickens, Grandma?"
Muriel figured the birds were better off than she was. They never had to make a holiday dinner for the family. But this was her granddaughter.
"Krystal, dear, these birdies lived in a happy place where they laughed and played and sang songs for a long, long time. Then one day they just went to sleep and woke up as chicken wings. They were so happy they jumped onto the barbecue."
Who says the next generation knows it all?
Tom heard Muriel's tale of the laughing, singing chickens with the kamikaze wings, figured she'd finally lost it, and ate more bread.
Ignored by his elders, Jason gobbled a fistful of seafood appetizers and started wheezing. Muriel packed away the appetizers before her children could start a food fight and led them to the main event.
The table looked like a sailboat regatta that had been designed by Martha Stewart. Every dish had a tiny flag listing all of the ingredients. Muriel did not want to have to call the paramedics again. Krystal cried when she saw the turkey.
When Betty reached for the potatoes, Bill said, "But they have eyes". Betty meant to kick her brother, but got her sister-in-law, Carol, who screamed and kicked back. Muriel yelled at her kids. The holiday dinner was just like always. Damn.
After everyone had eaten what they could, Muriel brought out a carafe of hot cranberry apple cider. This was her gift to herself. Seeing all the different coffees at the supermarket had made her go all whoozie. Whatever happened to plain old coffee, black or with cream? Muriel’s children didn't say a word while visions of cappuccinos, espressos and lattes danced in their heads.
Betty was in charge of the dessert. She had created something that was just what the doctor ordered. No eggs, no cream, no butter, and no taste.
Tom just saw a pumpkin pie and it looked fine. He helped himself to a slice, smiled and thought that Betty was returning to the food of her mother.
But, something tasted... off. Maybe a new spice?
"Betty, what's in this pie," he asked.
"Geez." Tom reached for the bread.
Jason had wheezed throughout the whole meal.
All in all, it had been just another family holiday get together.