A GUIDEPOST REPRINT: “Bringing Back Them Old Family Christmases,” 22 December 1972 (PART 1)

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Betty Sode
22 December 1972


Christmas at home – when home is still within national boundaries – will probably find the seasoned hostess wracking her brains for ways to bring some novelty and variety into the eternally unchanging round of holiday food and activities. But when “at home” is abroad, every detail of the boring old family routine shimmers with the elusive gleam of that unreachable dream. It isn’t only the big things of the Season – the omnipresent Santa Claus, Salvation Army bands, Beltsville Turkeys with real bread dressing, and mince pies; this craving for the minutia of the traditional menu can reach the point as in my own near unbelievable case of actually longing for the dish of mashed rutabagas (yes, rutabagas!) that inevitably sat on our Holiday table, splendidly ignored by everyone but my firmly traditionalist Mother. And I know more than one Transatlantic businessman who would not be welcomed home these days if he failed to deliver the overseas shopping list of cranberry sauce, sweet pickles and packaged mincemeat.

As with many apparently insignificant but emotionally charged subjects, family traditions or national holidays,  a little judicious pruning of the secondary growth reveals the true features to be something quite different than surface appearances would indicate. Think of the adolescent girl who laboriously and painstakingly copies the hairstyle and make-up of a famous Femme, and is crushed to find that the imitation of outward characteristics, however conscientious, has not converted her into a Sophia or a Brigitte. Similarly, a can of cranberry sauce is not going to conjure up the genuine spirit of Christmas – past, present, or future — alone and unaided. It’s nothing more than our habit of depending on conventional stage props to create the illusion of a reality that is actually generated by feelings, not foods.

What most of us want is the sense of a family together

I would be the last to deny that many a memory must be located in the stomach – I am one of those travelers who tend to identify places with what was eaten there! – but my point is that perhaps by trying to develop a little more of the atmosphere of those old-fashioned Christmases at home that we want to re-live, we would do more to recapture them than depending on the elements of a menu to do so. What most of us want is the sense of a family together, sharing in the meaning and merriment both of the holiday season.

So, Good Friends and Gentle Readers, what I have to suggest here are some family activities that may be a small step toward getting Christmas Dinner on the table but will be a giant step toward capturing something more of the Christmas Spirit. Remember that the emphasis here falls on the production itself and not on the product; forget the criticism, even constructive, and lather on the praise. Let the children invite friends, or ring in any unattached figures you know of on the holiday scene. Single adults usually have their own circle of friends to swing with, but what they often lack is contact with any family holiday activity.

Togetherness brings about the spirit of Christmas. So, welcome unstintingly those who seek the warmth of home and company.

Traditional holiday foods are primarily seasonal for obvious reasons, and only secondary exotic or special in honor of the occasion. There are few things more cheerfully characteristic of the fall months than the idea of the winter nut harvest. Nuts figure prominently in most holiday baking and sweetmeats, and are a consistently popular nibble with before or after-dinner drinks. Why not set aside one evening for family and friends to work towards all the shelling and blanching and toasting and chopping that pre-packaged foods deprive us of?

Nuts figure prominently in most holiday baking

I can remember a definite hierarchy of nut-cracking in my own childhood, and the smug sense of superiority as one progressed upwards in the allotment of duties. Shelling peanuts was strictly child’s play. Shelling almonds and slipping the hulls off the blanched nuts were pretty low-grade activities, too. Cracking walnuts was a definite step forward; there was always a keen competition to see who could produce the largest quantity of unbroken halves for decoration, and it was admitted that it took some degree of skill to keep fragments of shell out of the chopped nuts. Hazelnuts involved at least temporary possession of a hammer– a definite mark of superiority over nutcrackers, but the prestige ítem of the evening was always the limited supply of Brazil nuts in their ironclad shells. These, by unwritten but tacitly accepted law, were the province of the Head of the Household (the Father, in those days, I might clarify), and older brothers. The other work was done at the kitchen table, but Brazil nuts required much spreading of newspapers on the floor in a cleared space, and a special trip to the basement to bring up the Big Hammers. Pecans are certainly one of the most popular nutmeals now, but I have almost no recollection of them. This is perhaps just as well for Spain where they are scarce and of mediocre quality. But you can make up for this by adding piñones, the tiny sweet nuts of the pine cones, which you can gather yourself no farther away than the Casa de Campo in Madrid.

Pecans are rare in Spain but the scarcty could be compensated with use of piñones, nuts from the pinecone . Spain is the world’s biggest producer of piñones. (Photo: piñones-bearing pine trees in the Casa de Campo, the erstwhile royal hunting ground, in Madrid)

The nutmeats can be used in any favorite récipes, some of which appear at the end of this article. Or they can be combined with another evening of chopping glaceed fruits for plum, puddings, mincemeat, or candies and cookies. With enough willing hands, you should be able to stir up a few extra to give to friends and neighbors. And children love mixing sticky masses and rolling little balls, as any harried mother can testify. The fringe benefit in this case is that with a Little supervision, you can get an edible result, and even a decorative one.

Another consistently successful activity is cookie-decorating night. This is literally the icing on the cake because the practiced Mother will have had generous quantities of plain sugar cookies baked during more peaceful moments. This evening is devoted to a simple confectioner’s sugar icing – lots of it – in as wide a variety of colors as you can mix up from the liquid food colorings that are now available here. Make a quick trip to the neighborhood candy store – not the chocolate bonbon type – and buy up all the tiny candies you can find, especially red or green, gum drops, anything that can be put to decorative use embedded in icing. One well-known supermercado is offering squares of a kind of home-made marshmallow which is great stuff for Santa’s beard and to feather angel wings.

Let the children — and the adults too — have their way with the Christmas decoration

Large plastic aprons are required dress for everyone. Set out a collection of reasonably dull table knives, flexible blades if possible, small stiff paint brushes for detail (much easier to manage than pastry tubes on the hands of the inexperienced and much more economical in icing consumption), and toothpicks as an all-purpose tool. You will also be wise to lay down several acres of wax paper. And then let the children have their way, adults as well. Santas with green beards and purple boots have a distinctive charm when produced by one’s own. And add a distinctly original note to holiday decorations. And who is to say that all Christmas trees have to be green? You may be surprised to see the intent seriousness with which even the littlest people tackle their decorating project – and I have known many an adult male profoundly immersed in the problem of getting cinnamon red hots to stick to reindeer harness.

You can capitalize on the cookies for tree decoration if you have had the foresight to punch a hole in the cookies just before or after baking them. Slip a piece of bright baby ribbon through, and attach a Christmas ornament hanger to the ribbon loop. I am personally fond of edible tree decorations for more than the obvious reasons. They give every member of the family a stronger sense of participating in Christmas, and not just passing through the season. They provide a friendly family competition in which the competitors are largely equally unskilled – mothers are restricted from participation as professionals. They are frankly colorful and decorative. There is no breakage problem, as the damage is usually eaten up before it can be cleaned away. And since they tend to be nibbled away by invisible forces during the holiday season, untrimming the tree requires a minimum of effort.

The possibilities of Christmas cookies as decoration are infinite

You can complement cookies as ornaments with popcorn chains or balls and there’s another evening. If you haven’t a corn popper, remember that the pioneers popped their corn on Mother’s Day by shaking a heavy skillet over a gas flame until the popping sounds died away and a faint odor of scorched corn kernels could be detected. As for making the chains – many’s the New Year I’ve gone into with a semi-eroded thumb from pushing darning needles through endless miles of popcorn chains for ceiling-high trees of staggering circumference when it came to garlanding them round and round! I think squashing up candied popcorn into balls to hang by a thread is a decided improvement. You can use up some of the shelled peanuts from that previous nutty evening here, too.

If the family circle is restricted to over-twenty-ones, don’t ignore the possibilities inherent in a mulled wine evening or punch party. Set out the basic ingredients and let everyone have a turn at peeling spirals of orange or lemon peel, at poking cloves into fruit slices, doling out butter to the hot-rum mugs, or the like. Try a real home-made Christmas – they’re still the best.

Ed’s note: In order not to tax the reader’s patience, this very interesting but lenghty article, originally published in one go, has been split in two parts. Please proceed to “Bringing Back Them Old Family Christmases,” PART 2.


Christmas family dinner/The Gang, CC BY2.0, Flickr. Cropped.
Guests welcome/Clear Lakes Alliance, CC BY2.0, Flickr. Cropped.
Nutcracker & walnuts/Monika, Pixabay. Flipped. Edited.
Piñones-bearing pinte trees, Casa de Campo/LBM1948, CC BY-SA4.0 via Wikimedia Commons
Christmas decoration and child/Elain Moore, CC BY2.0 via Flickr
Christmas cookies/Aine, CC BY-SA2.0, vignetted, via Flickr