Moan for the Holidays 

Making the best in the season of the stressed

Taking a stand on Christmas Eve

When I was ten, I was Queen of the World. I was one of the fastest runners on all the teams at school, I excelled in my classes, and my friends and I moved through life like an impenetrable pack. My hormones hadn’t kicked in yet, so there was really nothing to muddle my confidence.

That feeling soon vanished. My mother told my sisters and me that she and our father were getting divorced. They still loved us, and their separation had nothing whatsoever to do with us. They would still be friends. Everything would be as it had been, there would just be two homes instead of one. As her words fell away, all the little bits of loneliness I’d ever felt collected into one space deep inside me. A hollow place I couldn’t even think to name. Certainly, the Queen of the World had no such place in her body.

That night, I found my father in the study; it was the only time I ever saw him cry. Ever since, whenever I think I have disappointed him, I can’t help but picture the way he had turned his neck away and curled his long surgeon hands around the arms of the Morris chair.

It wasn’t until Christmas break of my freshman year in college that I finally felt the implications of my parents’ divorce. Sure, I knew something was different, and very wrong, but I was a kid. Confusion and sadness and shame get shoved in boxes until you have the mental equipment to deal with them. That year, I arrived home to my mother’s apartment a few days before my sisters. I was bubbling over with news of college and boys and my position as arts editor on the school paper. I had my mother to myself and I reveled in the warmth of her attention. It has been our tradition—my mother’s and mine, as the youngest—to buy the Christmas tree together. Every year, we would go to Winslow’s tree farm and every year, we would play the same game. I would go to the most expensive row where the trees stood high enough to puncture a star or two and my mother would go to the $5 row where the trees as much as whistled “A Charlie Brown Christmas.” We would end up somewhere near the middle with a sweet tree perfect for us.

That year, we chose an especially small one. Money was tight and a tree is a tree, especially when you aren’t 10 anymore. We placed it in the tree stand we had had when our family was still whole, one of those green and red metal numbers with the arms that screw in to fit the trunk of the tree. Those stands come in different sizes though, like bras. To make the metal arms reach far enough to fit this tree, we had to put a few blocks of wood around the trunk.

The following night, I made my way on the subway from Brookline to Boston to dine with my father and his wife and little daughter. They live in a swanky brownstone on Beacon Hill and the difference between where we lived with my mother and where my father lived with his other family was invariably pointed out in some passive-aggressive way, especially by my stepmother. Their tree was, of course, fairy tale material. It stood huge and dense, the angel-embellished tip almost scratching the paint off the ceiling. After dinner, when my father grabbed his keys to drive me home, he asked if I would ring my mother and see if she wouldn’t mind if we switched Christmas tree stands. The stand they had was too small for their tree. It was the one my stepmother had had as a single woman and they had never gotten around to buying a bigger one. Despite myself, I phoned. My mother said she didn’t mind at all, and in truth, she probably couldn’t have cared less. But I minded. I minded a lot.

When we arrived at my mother’s apartment, all the lights were out. She was in bed. I realized my father had never been inside the apartment before. It was our home with our mother. Not his world. He had no right to come in. But the door opened and we crept in. Like thieves. Carefully, my father lifted up our little tree and I exchanged the stands—large for small.

From the apartment, I watched my father stride toward his car, our family’s Christmas tree stand tucked under his arm. I turned on the tree lights and lay on the floor in the dark watching the little colored dots reflected on the window glass.

by Victoria Tilney McDonough Oy! Tannenbaum—Ghosts of Jewish Christmases past

Another Christmas. Oh, joy. The one day of the year, as Bart Simpson once put it, “when people of all faiths come together to worship Jesus Christ.” Bubbalah, I kid! It’s humor that’s allowed my people to survive 5,000 years of inquisitions, pogroms, Nazism, McCarthyism and Christmas carol Musak.

I grew up on Long Island’s “Nawth Shaw,” where the local demographic was equal parts Jewish, Irish and Italian, which meant that when the holidays rolled around, we posed the question thusly: “So, whadda you, Jewish or Catholic?” Protestant? Yeah, we’d heard of them. A tiny minority group, like Eskimos and Pacific Islanders, right? When a girl on my school bus announced one year that she was a Unitarian, I stared blankly and said, “Uh, huh. So…Whadda you, Jewish or Catholic?”

I lived across the street from a rectory that housed two Catholic priests from the local church. Their live-in housekeeper was an elderly Mother Theresa-like character named Stephanie whose Slavic accent was thick as goulash. “Shtephanie,” who stood about four feet nothing in her peasant babushka, used to shuffle across the street and knock on our front door around the holidays, a basket of freshly laundered linens from the church altar under one arm. As the woman used enough starch that the linens could stand up under their own load-bearing capability, she would ask my mother, my sister or me to help her “tug the sheets.” To this day, it remains a mystery why this diminutive octogenarian would engage us in this tug o’ war ritual with the altar cloths: Smooth out the wrinkles? Test their tensile strength? See if we could pull her off her feet? Enigmatic though it was, in nasty weather we’d save her old frame the wear and tear and come over to the rectory ourselves.

During one visit when I was about seven or eight, I noticed among the priests’ otherwise austere living room décor a large and rather graphic depiction of Jesus nailed to the cross.

“Christ vas Jewish,” Stephanie informed me very matter-of-factly, as though a boy my age might derive some odd sense of pride from the impalement of one of his own. After that, I generally avoided the rectory, and I still associate the smell of laundry starch with priests.

Despite my less-than-auspicious introduction to Christianity, religion was never a sticking point among my friends. To us, Christmas and Chanukah were simply the yin and yang of the holiday season, a string of chili pepper lights along the rain gutters or a plug-in menorah with orange bulbs in the window. Or, in the universal language of gift wrap, the Red and Green vs. the Blue and White.

December holidays weren’t about religion. They were the winter games of Color War. (This ritual was revisited each spring with the Easter vs. Passover holiday grudge match. The Catholics switched to pastel colors, while we stuck with the blue and white. Sure, our food was better, but they have us licked on mascots.)

Each December in Hebrew school (the Jewish equivalent of Catholic catechism, only we spoil Sunday and Thursday afternoons) our principal—imagine a stern, humorless Alan Funt—would call an assembly to remind the temple youth of the importance of remaining vigilant against the trappings of Christmas.

“There is no such thing as a CHANUKAH BUSH!” he would declare loudly, accentuating the “Ch” velar fricative as though expectorating sputum were a holy mitzvah. Sure, Chanukah is the Festival of Light, but to hear him tell it, the act of hanging a string of flashing colored bulbs on a pine tree—even the blue and white colors of the home team—was the moral equivalent of nibbling communion wafers and calling them Passover matzoh. Exactly where in the New Testament Jesus says anything about tinsel, extension cords or alternating currents was never made clear.

What was clear to us young sons and daughters of the Covenant, however, was that, despite what the public schools were teaching us in social studies class, we were still living in a Christian country. Simply put, at Christmastime the separation of church and state would not assure us access to supermarkets, pizza parlors, 24-hour diners or thankfully, our public schools. Still, there was always one place of refuge open for every hungry Jew on Christmas Eve: the Chinese restaurant.

Christmas Eve at Chef Wong’s, the Szechwan Parlor or whichever Chinese restaurant was en vogue that month, was attended religiously by Long Island Jews. Inevitably, mom would run into members of her choir, dad would see someone from the temple brotherhood, and everyone compared notes on who got accepted to what Ivy League school and which Spielberg movie we were going to catch later that evening. Unlike much of Christendom, Long Island movie theatres stayed open on Christmas Eve. In the pre-HBO and video rental era, we needed some escape from local TV programming whose highlights included repeated showings of Miracle on 34th Street, midnight Mass from St. Patrick’s Cathedral and WPIX-TV’s18-hour marathon of a burning Yule log.

Christmas Day was fairly predictable. My Jewish buddies and I would pile into Bill Rosenblum’s ’71 Chevy Impala and find an open park where we’d play a few hours of “Jew Ball,” that is, touch football for those of us whose mothers would sooner put their heads in the oven than allow their sons to blow $3,000 worth of orthodontia playing tackle football on the high school team. Next, we’d pay a visit to the homes of our gentile brethren (or girlfriends) for some leftover manicotti, Italian Christmas cookies, Bailey’s Irish Cream and gift envy. If we were really lucky and Chanukah fell “late” that year—Jewish holidays tend to meander around the secular calendar like errant dreidels, falling either “early” or “late” but never “on time”—we could go home and open some presents ourselves and share in the one faith common to everyone in the neighborhood: unabashed American consumerism. by Ken Picard The spirits of the season

It’s called the season of cheer, peace on earth, good will to everyone, yada yada yada. It’s also the season with more self-generated drink recipes than any other–and is it any wonder?

How else is one supposed to maintain the requisite godawful level of cheeriness without slugging back a few every now and then? Besides, if ever there were a month to be hung over, January is it. Come to think of it, February bites too, so go ahead and tie one on that takes a full two months to unravel.

Now, I’ve never felt the need to get all foo-foo with my booze, holiday season or not. I mean, if it ain’t broke, why fix it? Put a good beer and a shot of fine Irish whiskey in front of me, and that’s quality, 365 days a year. But in the interests of spirit-fueled mayhem, I’ve compiled a short list–one classic, one contemporary, and one genetically inherited–of the festive libations that define year-end boozing.

Old-Fashioned Eggnog

6 large eggs, separated

1 1/4 cups superfine sugar

1 cup dark rum

1 cup brandy

1/3 cup bourbon

1 1/2 quarts heavy cream

1 pint vanilla ice cream

Freshly grated nutmeg

In a large bowl, using a hand-held electric mixer at high speed, beat the egg yolks and the sugar until thick. Beat in the rum, brandy, and bourbon, then the cream.

In another large bowl, use same mixer at same speed (clean beaters) to beat the egg whites until soft peaks form. Stir into the eggnog. Cover tightly with plastic wrap and refrigerate until well chilled, at least four hours.

Transfer to a punch bowl. Using scissors, cut the container away from the ice cream, keeping the ice cream in one piece. Place ice cream in the eggnog. Grate the nutmeg over the eggnog and serve immediately.

New Wave Eggnog

4 cups half-and-half or milk

1 1/2 cups sugar

12 large egg yolks

1/2 cup dark rum

1/2 cup brandy

1/4 cup bourbon

2 cups heavy cream

1 pint high-quality vanilla ice cream

Freshly grated nutmeg

In a medium saucepan over medium heat, stir the half-and-half with the sugar until the sugar dissolves and the mixture is hot. In a medium bowl, whisk the egg yolks. Gradually whisk in some of the hot mixture. Return to saucepan and cook over low heat, stirring constantly, until the mixture is thick enough to coat a spoon (about 180 degrees), about three minutes. Strain into another medium bowl. Cool completely. Whisk in the rum, brandy, and bourbon. Cover and refrigerate until well chilled, at least four hours.

In a chilled medium bowl, beat the heavy bream until just stiff. Fold into the chilled custard. Pour into a punch bowl and add the ice cream. Grate the eggnog over the eggnog, and serve chilled.

Mama D’s Swedish Glogg

This last one is personally time-tested. As a child in a Swedish household that witnessed the effects of glogg year after year at the annual office Christmas party, I can attest to awesome firepower of this glorious concoction:

1 bottle aquavit (the paint-stripping liquor Swedes use to wash down lutefisk) or gin

2 bottles red burgundy

3/4 cup raisins

1/2 cup sugar

1 tbsp cardamom seeds

1 tsp whole cloves

3 sticks cinnamon

1 lemon peel

Pour half of the aquavit/gin and all the burgundy into a large saucepan. Add raisins and sugar. Tie spices in cheesecloth and drop in. Cover pan and bring slowly to boil. Reduce heat and simmer 30 minutes. Add remaining aquavit/gin. Remove from heat. Using long-handled ladle, pour hot into punch glasses. Serve with raisins and blanched almonds. Hide your valuables, and any women or children dear to your heart.

Fruit Cake Recipe

Here’s a good cake recipe for any Christmas. Cheers and happy cake drinking.

1 cup water

1 cup sugar

4 large eggs

2 cups dried fruit

1 teaspoon baking soda

1 teaspoon salt

1 cup brown sugar

lemon juice

nuts

1 gallon whiskey

Sample the whiskey to check for quality. Take a large bowl. Check the whiskey again to be sure it is of the highest quality. Pour one level cup and drink. Repeat.

Turn on the electric mixer; beat 1 cup butter in a large, fluffy bowl. Add 1 teaspoon sugar and beat again.

Make sure the whiskey is still OK. Cry another tup. Turn off mixer. Break 2 legs and add to the bowl and chuck in the cup of dried fruit. Mix on the turner.

If the fried druit gets stuck in the beaterers, pry it loose with a drewscriver.

Sample the whiskey to check for tonsisticity.

Next, sift 2 cups of salt. Or something. Who cares?

Check the whiskey. Now sift the lemon juice and strain your nuts.

Add one table. Spoon. Of sugar or something. Whatever you can find.

Grease the oven.

Turn the cake tin to 350 degrees. Don't forget to beat off the turner.

Throw the bowl out of the window.

Check the whiskey again.

Go to bed.

Who the hell likes fruitcake anyway?

by Nick Davis 

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