Friday, December 23, 2011

The Ghosts of Christmas Past

Something old, something new.

Lee and I cooked homemade caramels yesterday afternoon.  Patiently I stirred , switching from left to right hand.  Periodically, Lee bent over to read the candy thermometer.  It smelled heavenly and burnt my finger when I scraped the spatula. Today the caramels were still in the glass pans, as smooth as troweled concrete and just as hard.   Except for a few fractures on the edges made by Lee's knife with the newly bent tip.  Drat!  What to do? Lee was loath to consign her 8x8 Pyrex to the trash; I hadn't planned to get her 8x8 Pyrex for Christmas!  We set the unyielding confection on a pan of boiling water to warm and finally peeled the now flexible candy and freed the pans.  Hurry!  A pizza cutter balked at rolling through the entire surface, but quick action with the poultry shears yielded shiny squares, promptly wrapped in waxed paper.  The candy looked great, but the wrapping pretty well screamed amateur.  Something new.

After that escapade, it was a relief to fall back upon the tried and true.  We experimented for several years with different sugar cookies before settling on a Harms' family recipe. With the help of Silpat, every tray of bells, candy canes, snowmen, and angels comes out perfectly. Those too hungry to wait for frosting now have to depend upon the fragility of reindeer horns, or Santa hats, or camel feet for their warm cookie fix.  From experience we bake one day and decorate the next, knowing from Christmases past that the fun factor drops like a stone as cookie baking and frosting enters into its third hour. Something old and familiar

Cookie frosting and sprinkling takes place after Ann gets off work and the kids are up from their naps.  Its Annie and Matt's anniversary, a memorable one with a zero at the end. On one of our zero anniversaries, I hauled mums somewhere northward in Iowa, listened to Clint Black on the radio and picked up a frozen shrimp cocktail at the HyVee in Shenandoah.  High times.  Ann and Matt take a similar tack, opting for a home cooked meal and basketball: in the midst of the Christmas season, they take a pass on the night out but celebrate nonetheless a momentous occasion: Josh's first steps.  Something new.

I made six loaves of apple bread this afternoon.  After frosting the cookies, my jeans threatened to stand by themselves.  Today I broke out the Hoe, Hoe, Hoe Christmas sweatshirt: I'll attempt to wash out the food coloring and powdered sugar and re-don my gay apparel once again on Christmas Eve.  The kids, gratifyingly, noted the trowels and carrots trimming the tree and the wellie clad scarecrow atop acting angelic.  Tomorrow I'll overdo on dairy, producing a cheeseball and cream cheese coffeecake or two.  Tradition!  Something old.

This past week I was happy to see my parent's little Manger scene laid out amid burgundy fabric and cedar branches even though they haven't trimmed a tree in years.  Much of our extended family will gather for wine and cheese and family prayer, reminding me of Grandpa and Grandma Hurst, who never attended this particular get together.  Annie was Grandma Nelson's first great-grand child to wed; I treasure the pictures from that ceremony and the memories of Christmas Eve visits to her home. After soup and crackers together to celebrate Grandpa H's Christmas Eve birthday and family communion at our candlelit church, we'd head north to the St. John's neighborhood. A burst of steam would escape the front door as we'd step in; the biggest pile of coats ever were flung willy nilly across her bed.  Every available corner, cushion and arm rest was occupied by some family member, local or just visiting.  Christmas Eve wasn't complete until we'd dropped by Bruce and Janice's commodious home to deliver apple bread, pick at the dainties laid out on the kitchen counter and pin our wishes on the Yule log smoldering in the huge hearth.  Happy ghosts of Christmases past.

Here's a Christmas Eve tradition new to you, I'll bet:  the annual Christmas Eve Hurst family greenhouse covering.  Yup, while other families are traveling, or finishing up their shopping, or wrapping presents or baking up a storm, this family tends to gather in the morning fog or frost to pull 30x100 or 22x100 sheets of 6 mil plastic over slippery metal frames.  Our early Christmas prayers are for calm winds; we are vocally grateful when blessed with a still morning.  There are worse ways to head into a holiday feast than to work up a decent sweat and complete a completely crucial task.  Family bonding anyone?  A tradition older than our greenhouse.

The blessings of togetherness will have to wait until New Year's this year.  The good news is a plethora of weddings beginning with Brett and Shelby's...ready made New Year's Eve party!!  The bad news is waiting for Ben and Kenzie to be in Tarkio.  More good news:  stretching out the days of celebration nearly to the lauded dozen of song and tradition.  Ample opportunity for a houseful of guests filling the table with conversation and the rooms with laughter.  Having company will make deconstructing the tree less melancholy. The New Year will be upon us with its unpredictable mix of ups and downs. We can consider ourselves fortunate: there are already a couple of celebrations built in.  With our family, church, jobs and friends, we are the lucky Mr. Magoo Ebenezer for us!  Our ghosts of Christmas past are loving ones and while we laugh over the dry Christmas when the cow fell into the well, or the cold Christmas with the power out, the inedible chocolate pies and the obnoxiously loud toys gifted and re-gifted to families with youngsters, out of sight but not out of mind are parents, grandparents and friends whose absence is most acute when we are most together.

How trite is the trope that Christmas is for children?  'Yet in the dark streets shineth the Everlasting Light'.  The Kids Korner kids donned white gloves for the finale of their program, then the audience oohed and aahed when the gym lights dimmed and the white gloves fluoresced under the blue light.  The music played 'Silent Night' and the children's gloves danced the lyrics in sign language.  But tears came to my eyes when I watched my grandchildren mouth the old familiar verse as they made the motions with grace surprising for four year olds.  Out of the mouths of babes. Something new.

I don't know which year in particular births this memory:  it is a crunchy Christmas Eve and we are on our way back from Grandma Nelson's.  It must be can only be this frigid with snow on the ground.  Besides, we are all five in the pickup so route B is hazardous.  This is before the days of crew cabs.  Lee would have been straddling the gear shift scrunched next to her dad with Annie squished in the middle sharing her seat belt.  Ben was on my lap with my two arms around him.The defrost roars in a vain attempt to keep up with all that breathing.  Back in those days, KMA's programming on Christmas Eve consisted of replays of various school Christmas concerts.  Orient-Maxwell, Carson-Macedonia, Red Oak, Clarinda, Lewis Central....fuzzy tapes of middling quality featuring soprano voices in carols familiar and foreign.  The kids were  sleepy and quiet.  Orion blazed brighter than the pickup lights.  The road was dark and silent but for our passing.  Our little family headed to its warm home and beds with thoughts of Bethlehem and the Babe in Mom and Dad's heads.  This night is imprinted on my heart.  It comes to mind every Christmas Eve as I turn down the fire and turn out the tree lights.  Something so old.  Come ye, Lord Jesus.

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