Making Christmas Stew

I love watching the Christmas trees come to Gilbert’s Corner. Every year, the week before Thanksgiving, the Lowes set up their Fraser fir stand, with trees carefully nurtured on their family farm in North Carolina.

When we drove by yesterday, several cars were lined up, loading their selection for the year. I smiled as a little boy, so short he struggled to get into the back seat of his car, beamed with happiness at this historic moment in his short life.

I remember the excitement of “getting the tree”. My family would head off to the nearby Pound Ridge Nurseries, and select a beauty. Santa was always there, and even though my Swiss mother did not buy into this “silly American custom”” (of lying to your children?), I was humored, and allowed to get the candy cane. I furtively told Santa what I wanted, because if all my friends believed, there had to be something to it (Polar peer pressure).

Being in charge of making Christmas happen is a huge responsibility. One day, you realize how hard your parents worked at what seemed to “just happen”. I came to understand that in every family the “melting pot” concept is more like a stew. You have to bring family tradition together, but still keep certain clumps clear, as a nod to the past. I admire those who can bring the challenges of celebrating different religions together gracefully!

I love that every family has its own traditions, braiding together heritage and Christmases past. My mom was Swiss, and, in her family, grown ups decorated the tree behind closed doors. When the door swung open, there was the glory of the season. “Sami Chlaus” would come in the evening, and a feast, including ham and these amazing green beans, ensued. (I remember my grandmother slicing beans and then hanging them over a string in the attic to air dry them and preserve them. They are so good when cooked…extra pungent like sun-dried tomatoes. Its too humid here to preserve them that way, but some of my Swiss friends use a food drying machine. Maybe we’ll sell them at Gilbert’s Corner some day.)

My mom dropped some of her traditions when she married my Swedish father and they moved to the States. We got to pick out and decorate the tree (though no tinsel here! Only hand-painted wooden ornaments, white lights and maybe red shiny balls…). She lovingly succumbed to the Scandinavian scourge of Lutefisk. This, too, was a food item dried since other methods of preservation were lacking in early days, but give me the beans any day! Reconstituted cod has the look and feel of translucent jello, and a smell only a Swede would love. No one ate it, except my dad and my Godfather Arne. They smiled and nodded and pretended to like it, but it was surely more the fond memories of their own childhood holidays, and maybe the snaps that they enjoyed..

Yes, drinking aquavit and singing drinking songs is a large part of Scandinavian Christmas. Actually, it’s a large part of every Swedish holiday, and they have a lot of holidays. I decided to bring that festive lunacy into my children’s memory cells.

We have gotten our tree at Gilbert’s Corner for years now, as we live just a few miles down the road. We celebrate “Swedish Christmas” on Christmas Eve, and “American Christmas” on the 25th. That pleased my mother greatly when she was alive. I tried to do her Swiss-Swedish combo, starting with herring, moving into ham, green beans, beets, etc. The grand finale would be rice pudding. I realize now that her love of my father made our Christmas reflect his heritage more, than hers, but thats what you do for love.

I would carefully wrap the presents in different paper, so that the “from family” gifts that came out on Christmas Eve, would not be confused with the Santa gifts that magically appeared under the tree on Christmas morning. As a nod to my husband’s American Christmas traditions, I did the whole Santa thing…though I can remember thinking, as my mother must have, this entire country flat out lies to its children!

Christmas mornings are all Elgin. We joyously see what “Santa” brought. Now that my girls (10th generation on this soil) are older, I am thrilled not to have to continue the ruse of different paper, and forging the old man’s writing! But, don’t get me wrong, I adore Santa, leave him cookies, and “believe”. A Virginia medley of oyster stew and a big hearty breakfast (including “eggs in a basket” of bacon) follow.

About that oyster stew. My mother (who became increasingly critical with age…) and I both wretched internally at the thought of oysters floating around in warm milk. But, you know, 27 years into this marriage, I actually like it.

And thats what you do for love.

Please enjoy your own special intertwining of holiday tradition, whatever it is you celebrate! We hope you make Gilbert’s Corner Market part of your family history, too.