Tuesday, December 06, 2011

What's Not to Love about Christmas?

I love Christmas. This is not to say I am religious or even Christian. As a Unitarian Universalist, my relationship to Christ is not as Lord and Saviour, but rather as mentor and wise guide. I don't celebrate the birth of Christ as a religious event, but I love to join in on "Hark the Herald Angels Sing."

In part, my love of the trappings of Christmas is a reflection of my childhood, of every Christmas pageant I participated in at St. Mary's and Holy Family, the elementary schools I spent second through eighth grade attending. (By high school, at St. James, pageants had lost their inclusive nature and morphed into performances by the choir and band, leaving me behind in no uncertain terms.)

I sang religious Christmas carols at school and secular carols with the Girl Scouts on door-to-door caroling expeditions. Caroling, in the cold countries it developed in and the cold country I practiced it in, is quite a testament to the power of the season. Who decided that trudging through snow in bitter cold and sing at the neighbors' houses constituted fun? We used to get hot chocolate and cookies at the last house, but a lot of frosty toes and red noses preceded those treats.

And speaking of treats, how about the seemingly infinite variety of Christmas cookies? I grew up baking fancy cookies with my mother. We made marzipan cookies shaped like apples, pears, peas, strawberries, and oranges. We made thumbprint cookies with gumdrops pressed into their hot centers just before they came out of the oven. We made almond crescents, delicate, crisp cookies, moon-shaped and rolled in powdered sugar, which melted on your tongue when you bit into them. We made peanut blossoms, peanut butter cookies with a Hersey's kiss pressed into the center, a Reeses's peanut butter cup without the wrapping. We made cut-out sugar cookies, frosted and sprinkled to perfection. We made Spritz cookies, extruding them from a metal tube in the shapes of stars, Christmas trees, and wreaths.

Mother and I baked all these cookies and put them in tins, then into the freezer. And after the baking was finished for the day, we made chocolate chip cookies for the other kids, masking, in theory, the smells of the not-to-be-eaten Christmas cookies, thus protecting them from marauding. I say in theory because it didn't take a genius to know that Mother would be making Christmas cookies and it was certainly no secret that she froze them in tins in the big, basement chest freezer.

Years of filching from the freezer taught me, and I presume my siblings as well, to regard frozen cookies a delicacy. As an adult, I discovered the practicality of having tins of assorted, frozen cookies available for the unexpected guest or for an after dinner treat. Frozen cookies stayed fresh and thwarted the casual impulse to snack that can decimate a jar of cookies practically overnight.

The same principle applied to Girl Scout cookies, I found, which could be purchased in quantities and consumed over weeks instead of days. It astonished Michael the first time a stack of Girl Scout cookie boxes disappeared overnight. ("They're in the freezer!?!? Why are the Girl Scout cookies in the freezer?") I really wasn't hiding the cookies from him, simply storing them for later use. And if I was the only one who appreciated the sharp snap of biting into a frozen cookie, well, then, more power to me for having a broad skill set in cookie eating. (Adaptation being a human survival technique, it is true that all my loved ones eventually developed frozen cookie eating skills.)

Back to Christmas in all its glory. What isn't to love about it? On Christmas Eve, we opened gifts one at a time in order of age, piles and piles of gifts in a family of nine, and then attended midnight Mass. And on Christmas morning, we awoke to stockings stuffed with tangerines and apples, candy and other small treats, and gifts from Santa Claus. I love Christmas gifting and I love Santa Claus. He still visits my home, often bringing gifts that would be verboten from anyone else.

Michael understands that household appliances are not suitable gifts for a husband to get a wive, but Santa may gift the family with appliances all he wants. Parents may disapprove of the latest hot gift item, considering it over-rated, inappropriate, or just plain silly, but Santa can give such gifts regardless of their deficiencies. Santa even provides children with the sugar cereal and soda pop and candy their cruel parents deny them. Santa Claus is a powerful reason to love the Christmas season.

I haven't even started on Yule food. And where would I start? So much food, such lovely place settings, such fine, hand-crocheted tablecloths, a glass of champagne by every plate, even of the youngest child. We ate and ate on Christmas Eve afternoon and opened gifts when the dishes were all done, a great motivator to the women and girls working in the kitchen. Which is one Christmas tradition I haven't kept; everyone who eats helps clean up. No gender-based chores.

As a child, I only knew about the Christian celebrations that take place at that time of year. As I got older and met a more diverse group of people, I discovered Hanukkah, the Jewish celebration that coincides seasonally with Christmas. It has its own assortment of delicious foods, gifts, and rites, well worth investigating. I have had the pleasure of eating latkes, collecting gelt, and spinning dreidels. The idea of eight days of gifts is appealing, although my Jewish friends tell me that the gifts are not as elaborate and plentiful as in Christian celebrations.

I love Christmas. Saturday night I attended a Christmas party, the only one on my social calendar this year. I spent a charming evening at the home of a friend, surrounded by friends, eating delicious food prepared by friends, and drinking a variety of festive beverages. How much better could it get, the sharing and caring of the winter holidays? I may not be Christian, but I am Christmasian, and expect to be for the rest of my life.

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