Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Apples and Thyme: Christmas Memories

When I was a very little girl, before my mother's illness invaded our lives, Christmas was a sweet time of year. My brother and I were the only children in the family at that time, and we were indulged by all the adults.

My family celebrated Christmas Eve at my grandmother's house. My aunt, along with her husband, my uncle and his girlfriend, and my mother, brother and I would arrive in our holiday best at g'ma's house for a meal of cold cuts, cheeses, cold potato and macaroni salads, ambrosia salad, baked beans, assorted rolls and pies--pumpkin, apple and blueberry. G'ma isn't one to cook, so the party was made up of store-bought foods and quick-fix dishes.

The beans were the only hot dish--that sounds strange to my ears now, but then it was a real treat, and we didn't know any better. And I remember watching g'ma as she made my favorite. The ambrosia salad was a magical mixture--a can of this, a can of that, a sprinkle of something else, stirring in something creamy, allowing me a little marshmallow or three as I watched expectantly for the delighfully fluffy salad to be ready.

Of course I was always very excited... after weeks of waiting, Christmas had finally come! And indulged we were--there was no waiting until after the meal for us. No, once the food was put out, we grabbed platefuls and headed into the living room in front of the decorated artificial tree in the corner and started handing out gifts. When everyone was surrounded by their wrapped boxes and half-nibbled plates of food, the mayhem began. Rip! Tear! Bits of paper flying everywhere with an intermittent, "Oh!" or "Wow!" Shouted thank-yous were hurled across the room to various gifters as the giftee immediately moved onto the next package to see what lay beneath the pretty paper and ribbon. And we ate, and played, and talked, and laughed, and ate some more.

We were allowed to stay up way past our bedtimes on Christmas Eve. My younger brother often fell asleep at g'ma's house, but I never did. I always wanted to be part of the action. It was one night when I could play with my aunt and uncles without a bedtime, and it was wonderful. The food was left out for hours for seconds, and thirds, then some dessert, and even another sandwich later if we wanted it.

We would go home around eleven or twelve o'clock for bed--but not before leaving a snack out for Santa. No simple plate of cookies at our house. No, we served something a little more sophisticated for Mr.Claus: plate of sliced cheese, and a glass of wine.

Christmas morning we awoke to a wild array of gifts from Santa, plus special candy tree decorations left by that jolly old elf. Gifts from Santa were never wrapped at our house--the man is far too busy for that, you know. But he did always spend some time putting together some special large gift so that we could get right to playing with it. I remember my kitchen set, complete with little pots and pans, and a sink, and some pretend food and plates. Back then they weren't made of molded plastic like they are now. In the 70s they were made of courrogated cardboard, carefully painted just so.

That must've really been a tedious toy to put together, because I remember Santa drank all the wine we left for him.

Much later on, I found out that my uncle would arrive at my mother's apartment after we were asleep to help her put together toys from Santa, decorate the tree with candy canes and foil-covered chocolate ornaments, and toast the sunrise on Christmas morn with a little wine and cheese.

Christmas day brought a more intimate meal at g'ma's house, since my aunt and uncle would attend holiday meals with in-laws and other friends. I was even allowed a little bit of wine in a glass for the occasion. It tasted horrible to my young palate, but I drank it anyway, because it was something grown-up to do on special occasions.

It was such a long time ago, and so much happened afterwards, that it's hard to really believe that was my own life. It's almost like it was something I'd seen on television. Future years were full of pain and difficulty after my mother became sick. And those are times I won't go into now, because this is a post about happy times. Times that I choose to remember now, instead of those other unhappy ones.

As an adult, I spent a number of years trying to capture that same holiday magic that I remember, but I never quite figured out how. I don't know why, really. Perhaps because there are no longer any children in my family. I have no neices or nephews, or children of my own. At any rate, Christmases no longer take on that special fascination for me. So I plan gifts and parties and meals, and try to keep myself busy. And I pray and worship and focus on the birth of my Savior instead of the commercialism that tries to pervade the season.

The Christmas traditions I now have include a Holiday Open House during the month of December, when friends and family drop by sometime on the specified date for a visit and a bite to eat. This year will also include a tree-trimming, which I have always wanted to do. It seems an intimate thing to share.

Mr.W and I enjoy a quiet Christmas Eve just the two of us, and we exchange gifts with each other privately. In years past when we lived in other cities we liked to go to a movie on Christmas Eve--but here in Central NY the movies are not open, so a dvd is often a stand-in.

Christmas Day is when we host the family meal mid-afternoon. I usually cook a ham with various sides--I keep this one simple. But one thing I always include is g'ma's ambrosia salad. Even after all these many years, Christmas just wouldn't be Christmas without it. It's one small way, year after year, I can celebrate my family the way it was, the way it should always have been.

Originally named Five Cup Salad, the original source of this recipe is unknown. It was a commonly-made concoction in the 70s, and is posted everywhere. One very clever blog that I just ran across has a gorgeous photo and identical recipe here. It must've been a widely-published recipe back in the day!

Ambrosia Salad

1 cup mini marshmallows
1 11-ounce can mandarin oranges, drained
1 cup canned crushed pineapple, drained
1 cup shredded sweetened coconut
1 cup sour cream

Combine all ingredients in a bowl. Refrigerate until ready to serve, or serve immediately.

This is my entry for this month's Apples & Thyme foodblogging event, co-hosted by Vanielje Kitchen and The Passionate Palate. See the roundup here.


african vanielje said...

what a beautiful post. It just shows that our strength is not in what has happened in our lives, but in what we choose to celebrate of it. I wish you and Mr W a peaceful and joy filled Christmas season, and we'll raise a quiet glass to you on Cristmas eve...enjoy

Mrs. W said...

Thank you, Inge. I love that life gives us those chances to make of it what we will.

Happy Christmas to you and yours.

Lulu said...

Truly, that was a beautiful post. And the ambrosia sounds so yummy! I hope that you have a wonderful Christmas this year, and are able to recapture some of that magic of times past.

Anonymous said...

"It was such a long time ago, and so much happened afterwards, that it's hard to really believe that was my own life. It's almost like it was something I'd seen on television."

That's beautifully written, and I completely understand. I'm in my twenties now, living with my parents for the time being. We have no children in our lives really, and it does make Christmas different.

But, like you, I try to remember the real reason for the season and celebrate in new ways. :)

Thanks for a wonderful reminder.

The Passionate Palate said...

OH, what a beautiful post, full of so many memories. You brought some things back to my mind that I had forgotten about (like being allowed a tiny bit of wine at the holidays!) Thank you so much for sharing and Merry Christmas to you.

Mrs. W said...

Thank you, Lulu, GG and Jeni. I hope you all have a lovely holiday season--one that will create some wonderful new memories for you and your families.

Paul said...

Hi Mrs W.
Thank you for sharing your wonderful Christmas memories with us. As a child, my family always spent Christmas eve at my Grandmother's place...the memories.... so many presents!!!


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