Thursday, December 20, 2007

BEST OF: Christmas is for sharing ... and cookies

For years, magazines have presented us with options for Christmas dinner. Turkey or roast beef, goose or ham? Or maybe something quirky and unusual?

The options seem endless, until you consider that, in many families, the Christmas menu is almost sacred. To change it would cause mass revolt, which wouldn’t be very festive.

Sometimes, however, the periodicals would focus less on Christmas Day, and try instead to convince us to change our Christmas Eve repast.

My grandmother “Ganny” and her maid Aino, from Finland, had that covered with tradition, too. Every year, they’d serve an elaborate adult-only Christmas Eve buffet. After the children were asleep, the grown-ups would nosh as they put up and decorated the 12-foot-tall tree and did everything else Santa’s helpers do.

Realize, however, that my grandmother didn’t work outside of the home, so she had time for such elaborate endeavors. Also, Aino did the drudge chores, like dusting, changing sheets, cooking the usual meals and washing dishes.

And, since all the holiday menus were cast in bronze, so to speak, Ganny didn’t even have to worry about complex menu planning. There was no pressure to change it just for the sake of change.

So, her gift shopping was complete by Dec. 15; her elaborate package wrapping done by the 20th. She had a wonderland of time to devote those incredible Christmas cookies, which were her specialties. (But I’m willing to bet Aino chopped the pecans and ground the almonds in those pre-Cuisinart days!)

For weeks, the house carried a warm smell of almonds and cinnamon, ginger and anise, brown sugar and butter.

It was paradise for us kids. Even now, all those aromas remind me of my childhood and Ganny.
Memories are the cornerstone of Christmas. Maybe that’s why holiday traditions are so important.

I remember tiptoeing down the long staircase and peeking behind the archway screen to see a huge, dazzling tree that hadn’t been there when I had gone to sleep the night before.

Youngsters were required to eat cereal and milk before we could dive into our pile of gifts. That quarter-cup of cornflakes made the biggest, most unmanageable bowl of breakfast you can imagine when the 5-year-old at the table didn’t want to be there at all.

After we’d dismantled the gift wrappings, we sat down to the official Christmas breakfast: scrambled eggs, Jones sausage links, fruit, orange juice and other appropriate beverages … and coffeecake.

Since we lived in New York, you’d assume that Ganny could have selected from Danish kringles, Italian panettones, German stollens and other classical Christmas coffeecakes.

She could have. But she didn’t.

Our homemade Christmas coffeecake always was a simple cinnamon-crumb cake that bears a striking resemblance to the one of the Bisquick box. And we loved it.

Ganny also managed to very neatly solve the Christmas turkey-ham-or-roast-beef dilemma. She simply invited SO many people to the dinner feast that she had to serve all three to have enough food for all.

Her dining table was extended to its fullest 14-foot length, and I do mean full. When anybody talks about the “holiday groaning board,” I know they mean my grandmother’s Christmas dinner table.

But, of all the traditions, the ones we loved best were about Christmas cookies. Making and decorating them. Giving them as gifts. And, of course, eating them.

Christmas was Springerle and macaroons, fruit bars, meringues, sprintz, mailanderli and speculaas. Thick ginger cookies and thin, crisp gingerbread men. It was sugar-cookie cutouts of trees and wreaths and Santa Claus, all decorated by loving hands. It was cookies made with walnuts and almonds, pecans and hazelnuts, candied peels and glace├ęd cherries and plenty of spices.

My favorite memories of my dignified, society-matron grandmother are of her laughing as she wielded her rolling pin over some sort of Christmas-cookie dough … wearing a dusting of powdered sugar on her nose and an apron bedecked with flour, butter and cinnamon.

I miss Ganny most of all at this time of year. She was the heart of Christmas. It was her season, the one time when her sophisticated lifestyle allowed her to be a kid again.

So, I do things her way. I wrap as she did, writing special, funny tags. I give gag gifts. The menus stay the same. I make the same cookies. And I share Christmas dinner with as many people as possible.

That way, it’s almost as if she’s still with me during the holiday season.

I guess that’s what Christmas traditions really are all about.

This column ran in December 1982 in The Tribune and The Cambrian.

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