Christmas Tree II
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Christmas (Eve) Past



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"Christmas Eve was a night of song that wrapped itself about you like
a shawl. But it warmed more than your body. It warmed your heart...
filled it, too, with melody that would last forever."

Bess Streeter Aldrich (Song of Years)

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 A View of a Christmas Tree Through a Window
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Nowitz, Richard
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Christmas Past
December 2001

Did you perchance watch “Holiday at Pops” on A & E last night? If so,
there is an excellent chance that your spirits were uplifted immeasurably,
as mine were. If not, I am happy to report that you will have another opportunity. It will be aired again next Friday evening, 21 December
2001, at 9:00 pm CST. I dare you to even think, “Bah, humbug,” after
watching this holiday extravaganza! What a remarkable orchestra, the
Boston Pops. Conductor Keith Lockhart is nothing short of phenomenal!
Not only is his musical expertise beyond reproach, but his energy and enthusiasm are extraordinary as well. And contagious. I am grateful.

Part of what made this joyful evening so noteworthy was the fact that it
took place in Boston, one of the cities hardest hit by the tragic events of September 11. It was heartwarming and extremely encouraging to watch
the Boston audience relax, smile, laugh, celebrate. Our spirit cannot be
broken. United we stand.

The evening got off to a vigorously jovial beginning with the Chieftains,
always enjoyable. For nostalgic reasons, however, I must admit my favorite
offering of the evening was the orchestra’s rendition of highlights from Gian
Carlo Menotti’s Christmas classic, “Amahl and the Night Visitors”. This
thoroughly delightful opera evokes Christmas memories for me like nothing
else on earth. And, I must admit, I was somewhat taken aback to hear Mr.
Lockhart announce that the orchestra was playing excerpts from “Amahl”
in honor of its 50th anniversary (it premiered in 1951, the first opera ever
to be commissioned for television). Good grief. Could it be that we are
growing old? How time flies…

Christmas past is past. But not altogether. Tonight, Christmas Eves past
were as real to me as yesterday. And, somehow, even more real and alive
to me, more vivid, than last Christmas Eve, or the one before that. For me,
and perhaps for many of you, Christmas Eve is what it is all about anyway.
It has always been much more important to me than Christmas Day itself.
Our family tradition dictates the opening of gifts on Christmas morning,
which I much prefer. Part of the allure of Christmas Eve is the mystery,
the magic. The anticipation. This is how it used to be…

Picture, if you will, a large house with a huge Christmas wreath on the
front door. An older house, a house with character and memories. A house with candles in all the windows facing the street, with luminarias lining the walkway. It says, “Come in, relax, enjoy. You are welcome here.”

The door opens, you are greeted warmly both by your hostess and by the familiar and evocative holiday aromas of citrus fruits, cinnamon and cloves, evergreen, vanilla. There is warmth here. Love. Inescapable, undeniable.
And music.
Music to soothe your soul. Amahl and the Night Visitors. It is,
after all, Christmas Eve. Tradition. Our rituals are meant to soothe us, to
reassure us, to alleviate our anxiety. My sons could count on Amahl on
Christmas Eve, just as surely as day follows night.

There is candlelight everywhere. Absolutely everywhere. The house is
aglow with the warm splendor of it. Tiny white lights on the Christmas
tree, decorated with ornaments collected over the years. Our favorites
are from Georgetown, from New Orleans, from Germany and Austria. Poinsettias, angels, and candles galore are placed discreetly. A beautiful
ceramic nativity scene adorns the mantelpiece. The large living room
opens into a formal dining room, which flows into the breakfast room,
which flows into the cheerful blue and white kitchen. Dear God, how
I loved that house! And there is food everywhere. Of course.

When we were at our full complement (by that I mean the four of us, plus parents, aunt and uncle, close circle of dearest friends, extended family)
there was a large meal on Christmas Eve as well as the Christmas Feast
on the day itself. Because of the fact that it could be prepared in advance,
I would bake a ham and a huge batch of Potatoes, Onions and Mushrooms
au Gratin
. And smothered cabbage, maybe a fruit salad. Very informal on Christmas Eve. Folks knew to come on in, to help themselves, to mingle.
And they knew, beyond doubt, that there would be Old Dominion Pound
to munch on, and who knows how many kinds of cookies. Daiquiri
and Bourbon Yummies some years.  Mamie Eisenhower’s Fudge
for sure, and maybe even my grandmother’s Divinity. Depending. Gigi’s French Apple Pie was a given.  And my favorite cherry pie, if I got around
to it. Mincemeat if we were lucky. Not to mention the very best fruitcake
in the whole wide world (a story in itself!)

The evocative holiday aromas could be attributed to our traditional Spiced Tea. And Glühwein, of course. Hot Buttered Rum. Not to mention an abundance of eggnog. Depending on how many were gathering that year,
there may have been sausage balls or shrimp dip to accompany these
festive libations. But you could count on my grandmother's Cheese Straws.
For sure. Tradition. The quintessential Southern party fare. I find I have 8
variations on this theme in my files. I used to use a cookie press fitted with
the star tip for these delicacies, but the dough can also be formed into small
balls for baking. Small world. I ran across a recipe on the web recently that
is virtually identical to the one my mother used to make:

1 cup (2 sticks, 1/2 pound) butter
2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
2 cups grated sharp Cheddar cheese
1 cup chopped toasted pecans
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper, or to taste

Mix all ingredients well and [with immaculately clean hands!] form into
small balls about 3/4 inch in diameter.  Flatten the balls somewhat, place
them on a baking sheet and bake in a preheated 350-degree F oven for
15 minutes. Transfer to paper towels to cool.

Or.  If you prefer something a tad more sophisticated:


Pepper Cheese Straws
Food and Wine Archives

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2 cups flour [all-purpose]
1/2 cup whole wheat flour
1 1/2 sticks cold unsalted butter,
cut into small pieces
1/2 pound cold cream cheese
5 tablespoons ice water
2 large eggs, lightly beaten
1 tablespoon milk or cream
1 to 2 teaspoons crushed red pepper
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 tablespoon assorted seeds
(sesame, poppy, or dill)
1/4 cup freshly grated Parmesan or Romano

In a food processor, process flours with 1 1/4 teaspoons salt until blended.  Add butter and cream cheese and pulse until mixture resembles coarse meal.  With the machine on, add ice water and pulse just until dough forms a ball. Halve the dough and flatten each piece into a square. Wrap each square in
wax paper and refrigerate until firm, at least 30 minutes.
Preheat oven to 375 degrees F.  Line 2 baking sheets with parchment
paper. On a lightly floured surface, roll out 1 square to a 16-by-14-inch rectangle about 1/8 inch thick.  Arrange a short end toward you and trim
the edges so that they're straight.
In a bowl, beat the eggs with the milk or cream. Brush the dough with
half the egg wash. Sprinkle with 1/2 teaspoon salt, half the crushed red
pepper and black pepper, seeds and cheese. Using a pastry wheel cut
dough lengthwise into 1/2-inch strips. Twist the ends of each strip in
opposite directions to shape the straws, then transfer them to the pre-
pared baking sheets, arranging them about 1/2 inch apart. Bake about
25 minutes or until golden brown. Transfer to a rack and let cool.
Repeat process with remaining dough and other ingredients.


 Believe me, you cannot eat just one.  Or even three…

Think I’d better do some baking tomorrow. How about you? And I
can hardly wait to go to midnight mass.
My cup runneth over...

   Be well, stay safe, and express your love for each other. God bless us
every one. Have yourself a merry little Christmas.
And until next time, remember,

"May you have the gladness of Christmas which is hope;
The spirit of Christmas which is peace;
The heart of Christmas which is love

~ Ada V. Hendricks


Featured Archive Recipes:
Christmas with All the Trimmings
Christmas Candy Collection
Christmas Cookie Collection
Christmas Eggnog Collection
Christmas Goodies


"It seems to me that our three basic needs, for food and security and love,
are so mixed and mingled and entwined that we cannot straightly think
of one without the others. So it happens that when I write of hunger, I
am really writing about love and the hunger for it, and warmth and the
love of it and the hunger for it… and then the warmth and richness and
fine reality of hunger satisfied… and it is all one."

~ M.F.K. Fisher, The Art of Eating icon icon



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