I know I am not the only one who is missing gathering with friends this year. Getting together for a spur of the moment meal on a Saturday or out for a drink to celebrate in a cozy restaurant on Main Street that has been decorated and lit up for the holidays.
As the calendar moves closer to Christmas, I miss the festivities: the multiple school events, the hustle and bustle of shopping on the last weekend before Christmas: shopkeepers thanking customers with a "Happy Holidays!", even the obligatory work parties in a crowded bar where someone inevitably drinks too much and becomes the subject of gossip the next day around the water cooler. And I never thought I would ever say that I miss the annual Falmouth Christmas Parade. The long wait for Santa to finally arrive, stomping my cold feet in an effort to fend off frostbite, avoiding drinking hot chocolate to keep myself warm lest I need to use the bathroom and take off my multiple layers and the crowds pushing me off the edge of the sidewalk, into the street. I have to admit, I miss grumbling about that, too.
But of all the events leading up to Christmas Day, I probably miss Sheila's gingerbread house party the most. My friend Sheila bakes homemade gingerbread dough into walls and roof pieces for an entire week, every night after working all day and puts together an individual structure for each of her guests. The spicy, sweet houses are put on Christmas paper wrapped cardboard with a name card designating where each person will sit once placed on extra tables brought into Sheila's mom's kitchen. Not only is this process obviously laborious but the placement is as thoughtful as setting the table for an impressive dinner party so that the guests will all have lively conversation and ensure a fun time will be had by all.
A huge spread of candy, rivaling that of Willy Wonka's magical kingdom is spread out in the side room where partygoers choose and fill bowls full of candy canes, red and green M &M's, gumdrops and so many other confections they will use to decorate their soon to be masterpieces.
The frosting bags are my domain. I'm the type of guest who loves to have an "important" job. I station myself by the savory appetizers, the ones brought by the adults to offset the sugar high and absorb all the wine that the mom's need to drink during this wild (kids eating ridiculous amounts of candy!) afternoon. I fill and refill disposable pastry bags with canned frosting, that is stacked in a huge pyramid by the stove. A can of frosting and a bag of candy is the price of admission for a coveted seat at this event and most of us bring more than just one.
I fill multiple bags as a backup for when decorators begin to ask for more. Then I make my rounds, taking photos of the emerging works of art and demanding that my own children, "Look at me and SMILE!" as they lick frosting off their fingers and nibble from their bowls of candy. I am called back to my post as the artists begin to demand more "glue" to continue work on their elegant sugar mansions.
I am happy to spend much of the party in that space: facilitating the fun. And, I get to sample all the savory pot-luck delights. My favorite: Sheila's hot spinach and artichoke dip that she serves with Triscuit crackers every year. The crusty, gooey edges from it baking in the oven are what really get me. Sheila's recipe is perfect for a crowd- a piping hot centerpiece in the middle of an array of offerings from salsa and chips, carrot and celery crudite, basic cheese and crackers, etc. In my opinion, this hot appetizer is always the star of the show.
I devour a few crackers smothered with the spinach, artichoke and parmesan combination and wash it down with the rest of my glass of wine and then it's back to work. More requests for filled frosting bags! At this point, the demands for additional frosting are from the die-hard adults who are looking to finish their houses and drive home before dark. The kids have abandoned their work to run around the yard, sugar coursing through their veins. I can hear them yelling as they kick around the soccer ball, the sun setting off on the horizon. The table where they were sitting is now a war zone of candy and wrappers but their work is pretty impressive. Some houses are a bit more refined and some a little haphazard but all of the kids are proud of their gingerbread art and so happy to be together, shouting, laughing and eating way too much candy just a few days before Christmas.
Of course, this December, I am missing this party oh so much. I look back on the photos I have taken year after year. It's amazing how much the kids have grown up, how lucky we are to have these close friends. The other day, Declan emerged from his room, dragged himself away from his xbox game which he would much rather do than hang out with mom and her friends now that he is fourteen. So, I was surprised when he asked for a gingerbread house this year. "Because we can't go to Sheila's", he stated sadly. This is the kid who would eat a bowl full of M&M's, attach about three pieces of candy to the side of the house, then call it quits before he went outside for the rest of the party leaving me to finish decorating his gingerbread house so that he would have something to bring home. I was never quite sure how he felt about participating especially as he became a teenager, always acting awkward when we arrived and seemingly just going through the motions unlike Ava who couldn't wait to create a magical candy abode and giggle and hang out with her friends. But he must have a warm place in his heart for this annual occasion, even hanging out with his older sister and her pals, the little kids running around and the older ladies hunched over their creations. It is truly a party that celebrates creativity, camaraderie and CANDY.
I don't want to talk about "pivots" and "new normals" because I'm truly hoping that this year is a one-off, not to be repeated in any shape or form. I'm looking forward to gathering in a tight space, elbow to elbow, kids and adults laughing and munching candy (and adults drinking plenty of wine!). Sticky fingers and frosting all over the front of my favorite green sweater. We will build colossal gingerbread dwellings and I will devour an enormous amount of warm spinach and artichoke dip. Until then we continue to stay safe and warm while we dream of next year. We do our best to celebrate this holiday season minus some of our favorite traditions. The kids will decorate gingerbread at home and I will bake my own version of my dear friend's spinach and artichoke dip.
Warm Spinach and Artichoke Dip
2 tablespoons butter
3 garlic cloves, minced
1 small jalapeno, diced fine
1 can artichoke hearts, drained and chopped
5 oz. frozen spinach, thawed and squeezed dry
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon pepper
6 oz. cream cheese
2 tablespoons Hellman's Mayonnaise
1/2 cup (divided) grated parmesan cheese
Chips, Triscuits, for serving
Melt butter in an oven proof skillet on medium heat. Cook garlic cloves until softened. Add jalapeno, artichoke hearts, spinach, salt, pepper and cream cheese. Stir while cream cheese softens. Once all ingredients are incorporated and cream cheese has melted, add Hellman's Mayonnaise and 1/4 cup parmesan cheese. Mix to incorporate. Top mixture with remaining 1/4 cup parmesan cheese. Broil until dip is browned on top. Remove from oven and serve warm with chips, crackers, etc.