I don’t realize how rigid I have become, in my thinking, in my ways, in how I see, until I start to mess with tradition. It’s one thing to be flexible when it is my intent to cook a daily meal from what is there, or stay open to how a day might unfold in a magical way. But when I contemplate substituting brandy for anisette in my beloved family Christmas cookies, I actually feel panic. What if the cookies don’t taste the same? It is such a ritual, making the kurebies, the white sugar coated butter almond crescent cookies from my Albanian grandmother’s recipe. The irony is, the recipe calls for either anisette OR brandy. I have always used anisette, always. I always make these cookies on Christmas Eve for my father after he has arrived with my mother for the holidays. He always helps in some way, rolling dough into shape or simply just being a witness to this tradition that I imagine is the embodiment of Christmas magic for him as a child. Making Christmas for my mother and daughter has been in the joy of making stockings each year, creating context for the anticipation of unexpected pleasure in opening so many tiny wrapped things. For Ben it is setting the rhythm of family time spent together, the meals shared. He is a master of saying the blessings each year and we ritually clasp hands and wait for him to speak. He marks time by the events of family gathering. And by the end of this holiday, he will be talking about and counting the months until our annual summer vacation with all the cousins.
This year, everything is being done just a little bit differently.
The break with tradition of the past 20 years started with Thanksgiving. Instead of traveling to my parents, we simply stayed home. And we all had a really good Thanksgiving in our respective communities. It didn’t feel like a loss or a decision made in angst or even a permanent one. We simply had a lovely holiday, truly grateful for the space to feel something differently. On the strength of this bold move, we then decided to change the rhythm of time spent at Christmas so that my parents could attend their own community Christmas Eve service. Ben will spend Christmas Eve with his father this year. Everyone will arrive here Christmas Day instead of days before. There will be no Christmas morning sitting in a circle opening Santa stockings and gifts in the dawning light of the day in front of the ornament laden tree that I usually put up and decorate just days before. Space is being created for the celebration of something anticipatory and delightful in a different way and I am reluctantly finding my way to occupy it, uncomfortable with letting go of the rituals I have initiated all these years.
It feels like something lost, not waking to a houseful to delight on Christmas morning, so elemental and pure that the pain of its perceived loss actually has me here weeping as I write these words. How silly, when people are actually starving and homeless. I realize that letting go of the rigidity around traditions might be the little girl in me letting go of something she thought she needed all these years. Making Christmas has served me well. But in the end, it is the balance of giving and receiving that I really yearn for. When all the stuff is stripped away, it is the people and the love inside each one of them waiting to be discovered that is still there after all. In this, any new thing is possible. That will always be a cause for celebration.
There is a profusion of holly that lives outside at my front door. Huge bushes that are now so overgrown these past few years as to make a prickly passage out.
It is an invitation to prune and bring the dark green berry laden branches inside, considered sacred in Druid days even before Christianity, I could mix them with light, make new magic. After bringing in a basketful of holly cuttings I realized they would be poisonous for the dogs on the windowsills I want to decorate. So I had to let that image go too.
It is the solstice. On this shortest day of the year, I am led to celebrate with lots and lots of light. I give my awareness to this. Brain scrambling to figure out what to do with what I have, the white corded multi colored lights in the basement won’t do, I need green cords and little white lights. I don’t want to get in the car to go spend more money if I don’t have, receive a fleeting thought of a box in the garage, long forgotten. The strings of lights I used each year to light a tree outside! The box is just where my memory leads. Except it is not the old lights, but four brand new very long strings of brand new little white lights on green cords. It is a thrilling discovery! I don’t remember buying them or using them, but there they were, as if just waiting for my call. There is enough length to double and triple runs on the windowsills, more than making up for the loss of integrated holly now safely contained in a large basket,
and enough to fill my large picture window facing the street as a beacon of good cheer in the many dark hours of this time.
And when the lights get turned off, I will be treated to the sparkling display of diamond light from the icicles forming outside in the cold. Light even in the light.
This year I added lebkuchen** to my usual repertoire of cookies. I gave myself to the effort of making these thick chewy cookies weeks in advance of the holidays and now let my body receive the delicious rich spice of the softening unadorned confection each morning for breakfast. Plenty were decorated though, each with their distinctive candy heart,
and will await Christmas Day, to accompany the regulars, the kurebies, Swedish butter tarts, and chocolate glazed mostaccioli onto the dessert platter.
(adapted from recipe that appeared in Nov./Dec. 1994 issue of Eating Well
8-2/3 cups all purpose (unbleached organic) white flour
2-1/2 Tbsp. baking sofa
1 Tbsp. ground cloves
1 Tbsp. ground cinnamon
1 Tbsp. ground cardamom
2 cups ground almonds (I ground almond slices)
1/3 cup EACH candied citron and ginger, chopped fine
2 cups plus 3 Tbsp. honey
2 cups plus 3 Tbsp. unsulfered molasses
1/4 cup brandy
Confectioners sugar and/ chocolate for icing
Sift flour and spices together, twice, in a large bowl. Add almonds and candied peels.
Combine honey and molasses in saucepan and bring to gentle boil. Remove from heat.
Make well in center of flour mixture and slowly add hot honey mixture.
Gradually stir in brandy.
Cool to room temperature, stirring occasionally, about 30 minutes.
Divide dough into (3) portions, place each on a piece of plastic wrap, flatten to thick disc, wrap tightly and refrigerate overnight.
Preheat oven to 325 degrees, let dough stand out unwrapped to room temperature
Roll on liberally floured surface to 1/4″, cut 2-1/2-inch rounds and put on lightly greased baking sheet.
Bake 12-15 minutes, until bottoms are pale brown and tops are puffed.
Cool on racks.
Frost/decorate, or not (these lebkuchen are delicious just plain as is with coffee for breakfast). For sugar icing, mix confectioners sugar with whole milk or 1/2 &1/2 to desired consistency. For chocolate icing, melt 6 oz. semisweet chocolate, 2 oz. unsweetened chocolate, and 1/4 cup butter in double boiler and mix thoroughly. Best if spread.
Store in airtight containers, up to 3 months un-iced. They are a bit hard at first and soften in container.