Saturday, December 10, 2016

An Old Fashioned Christmas by Margaret Ullrich


I also wrote the following essay about Christmas traditions for our CKUW radio show ‘2000 & Counting’.
Over the years our listeners asked for some seasonal stories to be repeated.
They seemed to like being reminded that we were all in the same holiday boat, a communal ship which made us feel like we were all sinking fast.

Ah… Christmas shopping, holiday baking and holiday customs… 
Why do we do it?


I don't know about you, but 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.  

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

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 full of English pluck, 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 her maids do the work, yet her husband felt guilty about her workload. How did she get him to suffer like that?   

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.


Holiday baking has followed us into modern times. The 1970s was the decade of old time family television shows like The Waltons and memoir books. 
Have you ever browsed through a memoir book? It could make you weep. 
They reminded us of times like this...

Evenings when a cold blustery wind howled outside were perfect for sorting through recipes. They were cozy times. The children were sitting at the oak table helping Mama chop fruit and raisins. Papa was cracking and shelling nuts and crushing fresh spices in the grinder.

Isn't that sweet? Sentences like that convinced me that if we did things just like people did before television was invented, the world would be a kinder, gentler place.

We'll never know. Paul told me, in no uncertain terms, that he was too busy to grind nuts for a cake he didn't even want. 
Alright. Scratch Paul grinding his nuts. I bought ground nuts.

Step two... the batter had to be mixed. Back to that memoir...
When all the fruits were in, Grandmother called, 'Come, stir the batter!'
We all took turns giving it a stir - clockwise for good luck - and made a wish."

I made a batter, there in the fruits and called out, "Come, stir the batter!"

Carl pointed to the electric mixer sitting on the counter and said that he was staying on the eighth level of his computer game, The Temple of Ra. He also told me, in no uncertain terms, that he was too busy to stir batter for a cake he didn't even want.

I stirred the batter, clockwise.
Don't ask what I wished.


It's been downhill ever since. Do you know about the charming Swedish custom of hiding a whole almond in a serving bowl of rice pudding? The lucky person who finds the almond has to get married or do the dishes. Either my husband or my son - the fink never confessed - managed to swallow the almond every time.

I tried the German version - whoever finds the almond receives a marzipan pig. By then Paul and Carl had their own tradition: swallowing the almond. I felt so guilty looking at that poor rejected pig. 
I started my own tradition and ate him... along with the cake.


There's a Christmas carol that goes: "Christmas is coming, the goose is getting fat..."

Well, the goose isn't the only one.

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