Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Christmas in the Wilds

By R.J. Harlick

Do you have seasonal re-reads or re-watches?

Like Meredith, Christmas for me is all about tradition and I love it. It’s a constant in the fickle cycle of life. But unlike Meredith, this tradition doesn’t include the reading of Christmas themed books nor the watching of movies. But it does include plenty of other traditions.

For my husband and me, it starts with the tree, a real one of course.  With our log cabin surrounded by a forest of Christmas trees, we haven’t bought one in years. About a month before the big day, when the snow is still walkable, we search for the perfect spruce tree and mark it with red tape. The weekend before Christmas we trek out in snowshoes to retrieve that lucky tree usually buried under successive snow storms, which makes chopping it down a challenge. But my husband, now an expert in Christmas tree chopping, has it down to an art. The next challenge is to half-drag, half-carry the awkward and heavy tree back to our cabin through the deep snow with our two dogs stepping on our snowshoes.

I remember one particularly memorable year, when we were doing this during a blizzard. We arrived home ready to collapse only to discover the power had gone out. And so it remained for several days, putting our Christmas celebrations in jeopardy. For that is another tradition. Our cabin has been host to our family Christmases since before my sisters’ kids were born. All have reached their twenties, with one or two entering their third decade. On this particular Christmas, with our cabin filled with their laughter and mirth, we were trying to figure out how to cook the twenty pound turkey on the barbeque, when miraculously the power came back on and saved dinner…and our backsides. A useless electric water pump had us trekking out into the cold and snow to use the outdoor facilities.

We never put the tree up until everyone has arrived, usually the 23rd, and after it has dripped its
melting snow onto the basement floor. We play Christmas music, drink wine, sometimes mulled wine, and decorate the tree with decorations that span our lifetimes. I still have the decoration my grandmother made for my very first Christmas tree. Each ornament, string of beads, strand of tinsel or shimmer of icicles has a story to tell; like the glass balls bought in Moscow during our posting to the Soviet Union or the purple icicles picked up at Harrods during a pre-Christmas business trip to London or the glass beads that date back to my husband’s childhood Christmas trees. Once the tree is shimmering and glittering in its full Christmas glory we stand around and say “It’s the best Christmas tree ever.”

Even though all the kids are now adults, we still get up early on Christmas Day, turn on all the Christmas lights, inside and out, play Christmas music loudly to ensure everyone is awake, make pots of tea and coffee and begin the great Christmas unwrapping. Needless to say the piles of gifts are flowing out from under the tree.

Christmas day meals are also special. Growing up, the main treat, apart from the turkey, was the escargots dripping in garlic butter that my father used to make for lunch.  Now we have an enormous breakfast of eggs, bacon, smoked salmon and pancakes dripping in maple syrup, cooked by one of the nephews.

And of course the turkey dinner. I don’t think the menu has varied since I was growing up, though over the years there have been variations on the stuffing and the dessert. Lots of turkey with crispy
skin, mashed potatoes with sour cream, squash and beans, all smothered in gravy, with homemade cranberry sauce. My mouth waters just writing about it. For many years I would make pies made from my special homemade mincemeat laced with liberal amounts of brandy. But the kids never liked it. Part of our tradition was to listen to their ‘Oh no, not again’s and watch their faces wince as they sampled a taste. But for the last couple of years, after the last batch ran out I haven’t bothered. I am still searching for another traditional dessert.

Although the number has gone up and down over the years, we are usually about twelve sitting around the festive table, snapping our Christmas crackers, laughing at the wimpy jokes, and sporting the colourful paper hats, at least some of us do. Others refuse to wear them, insisting they are silly. My husband carves the turkey and I dish out the veggies. Because we are such a crowd, by the time the last people are served, the first are anxious for seconds.

After dinner, various libations appear, from very old single malts and cognacs to vintage ports. Often cigars are enjoyed in the freezing cold of the porch. While most of the time we are flaked out on the
sofas and chairs, digesting the enormous meal, there have been occasions when the music has roused us to dancing. Once we even had a raucous conga line threading its way through the living room and kitchen.

But as with anything, traditions evolve with time and life’s passages. This year with above normal temperatures bringing in rain instead of snow, it promises to be a very green Christmas…unless by some miracle we get an unforeseen snow storm. The nieces and nephews have all grown up with some bringing significant others into their lives. There is even a baby on the way. So I expect the make up of our future family gatherings will change as some of us head off to other destinations to start their own Christmas traditions. This year, we will be fewer in number as one of my sisters and her family will be spending it in the Canadian Rockies with their daughter who is working out there. We’re going to miss them.

I imagine like us you have your Christmas and other holiday traditions that have evolved over the years. It’s what helps make this time of year so special, that and families, for this is a time of year for families.

I wish you all a very Merry Christmas and a Happy Holiday. Take care until we meet again in the new year.


Paul D. Marks said...

Fun stuff, RJ. And definitely a Christmas miracle with the power coming back on just when it did. ;)

Meredith Cole said...

Wonderful memories, RJ! Although we don't get much snow down here in Virginia (so there's none to melt on the floor... Sniff), my parents always cut down their own Christmas tree as well. A very fun tradition!

Cathy Ace said...

Super piece! here's wishing you a Merry Christmas - even if it is green!

Anonymous said...

Nancy R in Ottawa - Memorable Christmas traditions indeed! As for desserts ...... we have always celebrated with authentic English Plum Pudding, flaming with brandy, as it is carried to the table. My mother (now almost 93) still makes it every year from an old family recipe handed down from her grandmother.

RJ Harlick said...

Nancy, I grew up with plum pudding for Christmas, made each year by my English grandmother. It was delicious. Sadly it was one of those bits of knowledge, like so many others, that we never thought to retrieve from her before she passed on. Enjoy this year's pudding.