It's already nearing the end of the first week of December and I don't even have so much as a wreath decorating my front door. The insanity of the holiday season has set in and I feel like I can't get out of my own way. Looking back to the time when I was the same age as my son is now, I don't remember how hectic it was at this time of year, only my eager anticipation for all things Christmas, my ten year old self still half believing in Santa Claus.
Once the Thanksgiving leftovers were all eaten, all I could think about was the exciting list of annual activities, the holiday sweets and presents, presents, presents! Beginning with the Christmas Parade on the first Sunday in December. My favorites, the Clydesdale horses, those majestic giants prancing down Main Street, brushed coats gleaming and adorned with bells. The rhythm sections of marching bands, the thumping base drum keeping time echoed through my entire body as the parade passed by.
On the following Sunday my brother, sister and I were summoned after church to decorate Grammy's tree. We unwrapped hand made decorations that Val and her sister's had made when they were children. There were elves created out of pine cones with pipe cleaners for arms and silly expressions drawn on their faces and other slowly disintegrating treasures. Best of all, Grammy loved tinsel on her tree (something that Val would never allow). We heaped tons of sparkling silver shred dripping from every branch. My younger brother, Ethan just clumped it on instead of daintily stringing it over the green needles to resemble icicles, as intended. My sister Karyn, the oldest and always the artist stepped in to fix the mess he created, spending what seemed like hours perfecting the decorations on the tree.
Most years, we never got our own tree up until just about Christmas Eve. "Fresh" trees were costly, potential fire hazards and the fake ones back then really looked fake. So, we waited until the last minute, often taking the scraggliest one on the lot as Val felt heartbroken for the saddest tree that may not find a home at Christmas. But by the time the tree made it into the metal stand, I had forgotten about all the other trees that may have had fuller branches or taller than this one with the missing boughs on one side. It was excited to decorate...er fight with my siblings over the ornaments, especially the old paper star, while gently placing them all on the tree as not to topple over the emaciated evergreen.
No sooner had we finished, then we had to hurry up and get dressed for church to attend the annual Christmas Pageant held in the early evening on Christmas Eve. High school girls dressed as angels in fashioned white sheets trimmed with silver garland circled around a tableau of the holy family including kids dressed as shepherds, wise men and Mary lovingly holding a doll as the baby Jesus. While the choir sang carols and Christmas hymns and our minister read the story of Jesus' birth, the Angels shed light on the whole scene with the candles they held, each one about a foot long. The flames providing the only soft light in the church that evening. A beautiful sight but a major issue for the fire department. I think the year my sister singed off her bangs at the end of the service was one of the last for real candlelight.
But never mind about Karyn's burnt hair, we had to head off to Grammy's for a Christmas Eve meal and our long anticipated presents! By that time, I'm sure my parents were completely exhausted, having done all the behind the scenes work of buying and wrapping gifts, budgeting the household funds to get at least one really special thing on our wish lists for each of us. My mother knowing in the back of her mind that once we got home late that evening, she would be filling stockings and placing gifts from Santa around our fireplace but not until all three of us were sound asleep as not to spoil our surprise. Not to mention the large meal she would prepare the next day after cleaning up all the wrapping paper and string and dealing with the adrenaline crash that makes kids tired and cranky for the rest of the day.
Submerged in all of my own personal madness as a parent now, I have no idea how Val managed to shop for gifts, get all of the holiday baking done and delivered, clean the house, continue to drive us here and there, wash the clothes and make sure we all ate dinner during the month of December. Even though I now have luxuries like Amazon Prime and the frozen food aisle at Stop and Shop to save me, I can barely keep ahead of it all, trying to create the magic of the holiday season for my own family. I never noticed if Val was overwhelmed or stressed, which I am sure she was. Perhaps, I could do the same for my kids, try to maintain a calm exterior and remember that this season of joy and excitement only comes but once a year.
Thankfully, I have a few holiday go-to DIY gifts that are easy to whip up at a moments notice and/or keep well in tightly closed containers for a week, or so. Here are some of my secrets to holiday
Cape Cod Cranberry Bark
(makes one pan)
2 12 oz. bags white chocolate chips
1 cup dried cranberries
zest from one orange
Heat oven to 250 degrees.
Line a rimmed baking sheet with parchment paper. Sprinkle white chocolate chips evenly over paper. Sprinkle dried cranberries over chips. Zest orange evenly over chips and cranberries. Place in oven for 5-7 minutes until white chocolate begins to soften. (The chips will look shiny). Remove from oven and immediately spread chips, cranberries and zest over parchment using an offset spatula or a butter knife. Chill until firm, about 30 minutes. Break into pieces and serve.
Will keep in an airtight container for up to 2 weeks.
Val's Spiced Nuts
(Makes 2 cups)
2 cups pecans (or any other unsalted nuts)
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
1 tablespoon sugar
1 teaspoon chili powder
1/2 teaspoon dried, crushed red pepper
1/4 teaspoon sea salt
Preheat oven to 325 degrees.
Toss pecans in melted butter. Combine sugar and remaining ingredients. Sprinkle over pecans and toss to coat. Spread on baking sheet and bake for 15 minutes. Mix nuts every five minutes during the baking process. Remove from oven and cool completely. Store in an airtight container for up to 1 week.
Dried Fruit Dipped in Chocolate
Use dehydrated or dried fruit of your choice. I like to dry slices of orange or use crystallized ginger that I buy at the supermarket.
Melt 6 oz of your favorite semi sweet chocolate and 2 teaspoons Crisco in a double boiler. Dip fruit into melted chocolate. Lay each piece of dipped fruit on a cookie sheet lined with wax or parchment paper. Allow to dry. Store in an airtight container for up to 1 week.