The holidays are generally a time of traditions. Many of them are simple and represent a continuation of the past. Others are painful and diminishing. Each life is a history lesson written against the background of traditions. So many of our life’s important traditions revolve around the time period between Thanksgiving and Christmas. I spent the Christmas weekend with a family that reminded me of some of the traditions that have been my life.
I grew up in a large family. I was the oldest boy of six boys and four sisters. My father was a school principal and my mother kept the house and the kids fed, and safe as possible and secure. Thanksgiving and Christmas were good times in the family. At Thanksgiving we all would pile in the station wagon and drive to San Francisco. There we would visit my father’s sister and her daughter Joyce. Joyce was one of my best friends. We would spend an hour or two there and then head down the San Francisco peninsula to my grandmother’s house. Early images were from a house near Candlestick park. Several stories tall, it was an old row house with a dark and scary basement and a small backyard. I remember the stairs, and the kitchen. Many of my memories were about the food. My grandfather would sit at the table and drink a cup of coffee made in a percolator pot on the stove. He would always spill some into his saucer and would finish by drinking the spilled coffee out of the saucer. At Thanksgiving, the smell of the turkey roasting was overwhelming. My grandmother would be bustling around in the kitchen and the kitchen table would be laden with food. There was always a Jell-o salad mold with celery, nuts and apples in it. Pies: pumpkin and mincemeat. One aunt always brought some pasta like a lasagna. The cousins would all arrive, increasing in number until by 1963 there were 27 first cousins. My aunts and uncles would greet each other with hugs and kisses and the kids would run off to play. In the late 1950’s my grandfather bought a new house in Burlingame and with all the room and yard and the canyon behind it, Thanksgiving was a time of exploration. The weather was usually nice. It was time for eating and laughing and watching the uncles play poker and the aunts sit and gossip. The cousins fended for themselves.
Christmas on the other hand was quite different. Christmas was celebrated in our house. Decorations went up both inside and out. There was a wire strung from the living room to the dining room near the ceiling. My mother hung old family ornaments from the wire from one end of the room to the other. Plywood Christmas figures were attached to the roof. In the early 1950’s my father would carve linoleum blocks into our Christmas card and print them on a hand press. I remember the smell of the ink. We always bought a Christmas tree smelling of pine and Christmas and decorated it with hand-made ornaments; construction paper chains glued together, strings of popcorn, glass balls and little angels, and lots of lights. Some of the lights were long skinny ones that when they warmed up bubbled sort of like a Lava-lamp which came much later. The biggest tree we could put in that place of honor in the front room was about 6 feet tall. But the final tree topper almost always touched the ceiling.
Our tradition on Christmas Eve was to go out to dinner at the Riverview Restaurant sitting on a wharf overlooking the San Joaquin River Delta. While we ate, boats would pass with lights strung on the masts and we would eat seafood. Sometimes if it was Friday I would get to eat Cioppino (a seafood stew like bouillabaisse), in a large wooden bowl, sopping up the soup with great sourdough French bread. It was only served on Fridays. After dinner we would drive around Antioch looking at the Christmas light displays. And eventually we would end up at the home of one of my Father’s teachers. She was Greek, lived with her parents and her mother made the most amazing cookies I have ever tasted. Food memories.
We would head home and to bed so Santa could come and leave the presents under the tree. I sometimes tried to stay awake to catch him, but that only resulted in me falling asleep in the clothes hamper or some other strange place. Expectations were always modest regarding presents but there were always enough to make us happy and rarely did we feel that we didn’t get what we wanted. Sometimes my Dad would make pancakes, or fried corn meal mush with syrup. It was always a nice morning. Then we would be off to San Francisco again. Dressed in our Christmas clothes we would again visit my father’s sister and Joyce. Then head for my grandmother’s house for another visit with the cousins and a big feast. It was Thanksgiving all over again only this time we all got presents from my grandparents.
These traditions sort of ended for me when I graduated from high school and went into the Coast Guard in 1963. Dinners at my grandmother’s house still went on for ten more years but the cousins were growing older and starting to have other interests. Age was taking its toll. My Grandfather was killed in an auto accident in 1967. And it really ended in 1976 when my grandmother past away.
However since I had experienced traditions I was ready to create some of my own. Married in 1966, our first Christmas tree was a juniper branch cut from a neighbor’s tree, decorated with aluminum foil ornaments. From that point forward, we always had a real tree at Christmas. That first Christmas eve we went out in a snowstorm to a Greek restaurant for dinner. I had my first glass of Ouzo. And as the storm intensified we found a cab to take us back to the apartment. It was a good Christmas with not much in the way of presents but a great deal of family.
Traditions. In 1972 our first son was born in December and that was year we started another tradition. On the tree went an ornament engraved with Galen’s name and the date 1972. Each year we would get a new ornament to add to the tree. When our second son Garth was born in 1974 on New Year’s Eve, we added another. We brought our children up with Christmas being a magical time and not just about presents. We would go out and see the Christmas lights like I used to as a child. From the late 1970’s through the early 1990’s I played Santa Claus for friends and others. I have written about that experience before. But it was one of my most significant traditions.
As the years went by, the actual physical events at the holidays changed a little. We ate Thanksgiving at our house. On Christmas Eve we exchanged ornaments with each other and added these to our collections and hung them on the tree. On Christmas morning, I would make beignets and coffee, and we would let the kids open their presents. After the exchange of gifts, we would get dressed and drive to my mother’s house for Christmas gift giving and a meal not unlike what my grandmother used to create. My mother always gave us cookies. Hundreds of cookies. Sometimes the entire family would be there; sometimes not. As the years went by the sometimes not was a more frequent scenario.
So those are some of my holiday traditions and what they meant to me. In the last few years I have lost some of these family events that were such a large part of my life. My wife of 39 years was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer at Christmas in 2004, and died shortly thereafter. Christmas after that was quite a bit different. The kids still came over for their gifts bringing their families with them. Beignets were still fried and covered with powdered sugar. Ornaments were still exchanged on Christmas Eve. But it seemed that the traditions I had grown up with were disappearing as the kids developed their own. Maybe that is how it should be.
It is sad that so many people grow up with few, if any holiday traditions. Christmas is NOT just another day. It is a day that should be joyful, not ignored. It is a day of giving and being with family and not just one where the TV is on. It is not just any other day. The tree is lit all day, and there is candy on the coffee table. The Christmas dinner is being prepared by those who do it out of love not out of duty. It is family, and colored lights, and the smell of roasting turkey, and cinnamon. It is warmth and security and yes, traditions.
This Christmas I remembered that there were traditions in my life. And I still appreciated them. Merry Christmas everyone.
Here are a couple of recipes to enliven the Christmas season.
2 tbs Olive oil
2 tsp grated lemon peel
1 Tbs Lemon juice
6 oz Goat cheese (room temperature)
2-3 cloves of fresh garlic
12 slices prosciutto (thicker) cut in half
½ C fig preserves
Mix oil, lemon zest, and lemon juice and set aside. Mix goat cheese and minced garlic in a small bowl and set aside.
On a ½ slice of prosciutto, spread a layer of goat cheese, then a thin layer of fig preserves, then a couple of leaves of rucola. Drizzle with a bit of the lemon vinaigrette and season to taste with pepper. Roll the prosciutto around the filling and place on a serving platter. Garnish with chopped parsley.
8 1/2"-thick slices good French or Italian artisan bread
Extra-virgin olive oil
1 garlic clove
1/2 cup mascarpone
1 6 1/2oz. jar marinated artichoke hearts
2 tbsp. finely chopped chives
2 oz. Parmigiano-Reggiano, shaved thin with a peeler
Freshly ground black pepper, to taste
Prepare a medium-hot charcoal fire in a grill or using a stove-top grill set to medium-high. Grill bread slices until both sides are golden brown with slightly charred crusts, 4–5 minutes. While hot, rub bread with garlic. Drizzle the bread with oil.
Slather 1 tbsp. of the mascarpone on top of each toasted slice. Top mascarpone with artichoke hearts, chives, parmesan, and pepper. Drizzle with more oil, if you like.
Check for seasoning on the artichoke hearts. Add a bit of vinegar or possibly some salt. They are often a bit bland in the jars.
This is a thick luscious dessert that has never failed to get raves from guests. Use various liquors to achieve different flavors. The amount of cheese dictates the size of the dessert. Keeps well for several days in the refrigerator.
Mascarpone cheese (Italian cream cheese) 8-16 ounces
Cream cheese 8-16 ounces
Cream 1 pint
Sugar ½ cup
Lemon zest ½ tsp
Liquor: Use about 2 oz (Grand Marnier, brandy, coffee liquor, Amaretto, Limoncello, chocolate liquor)
Chocolate: bittersweet 70%, 2-4 oz chopped medium
Almond biscotti: 2 cups crushed
Place cream cheese and mascarpone in a bowl and mix with either a stand mixer or a hand mixer for 4-5 minutes until it is very smooth. Add 2 oz of the liquor of choice (I normally use Grand Marnier and chocolate liquors). Try to use complementing flavors and try not to use too much. Add 1/2 cup of sugar and the lemon zest and continue to mix. In another bowl beat the cream with a couple tablespoons of sugar and a teaspoon of vanilla extract until it reaches a medium stiff peak. Add half of the cream to the cheese mixture and mix thoroughly. Continue to whip cream to stiff peaks. Take the cheese mixture off the mixer and fold in the remaining cream gently.
Prepare the serving dish: Using a 13x9 inch casserole dish, place the crushed biscotti in the bottom of the dish (reserve about ¼ cup for the top). Sprinkle a bit of Grand Marnier or another liquor over the biscotti if you wish. Pour the cheese mixture onto the biscotti and smooth the top. Sprinkle with the chopped chocolate and the reserved crushed biscotti. Cover with plastic wrap and place in the refrigerator overnight. Serve in 3-4” squares.