Among all the visions and emotions twinkling in my heart, two glow steadily brighter – Christmas baking and trimming the Christmas tree.
These activities, tangential to the occasion, inspire in me the deepest joy. Both activities have remained traditions in my life, for all my years – even accomplished in modest fashion during our year living aboard our little sailboat. Both baking and trimming taught me patience and perseverance, the joy in sharing even the smallest things.
Baking comes first in my Christmas duo. As girls, my sister and I were set the tasks of shelling nuts and sifting flour, commencing the baking season early in December. Mom would begin her baking with fruitcake and plum pudding preparations, also the cookie doughs that needed to “rest” before they could be coaxed into balls or rolled-out with a beautifully incised rolling pin.
For most of December there were baking projects in various stages of completion tucked away under linen towels and in specially saved tins where they were allowed to rest and rise. And while the yeast, flour and eggs worked their magic, Mom would begin the creation of the simple cookies – lemon bars and brownies, double-chocolate, thumb-print and cut-out cookies. (Mom had perhaps 50 whimsical cookie cutters from which we chose our favorites.) As batches were finished, my sister and I would pack them, between layers of waxed paper, in tins we’d tuck away in the unheated “back room” to await guests.
When friends and relatives paid their calls, my sister and I would leap into action, choosing from among Mom’s pretty plates then plucking cookies from their tins, arranging the cookies, then bearing them in to the table where Mom served coffee and cookies to our visitors.
What fun it was to set out these pretty and delicious treats, to see our guests laughing and munching our cookies, to hear the compliments and laughter as Mom and the-ladies exchanged observations on the cookie recipes and baking tips.
Cookie baking is still a tradition I enjoy and one I love to share with others, friends young and old. While we may not go to the same lengths as Mom’s baking schedule, it’s fun, no matter how simple the baking project. And, the cookies always taste delicious, frosted and trimmed by the sticky fingers of those we love.
Trimming the Christmas tree is another tradition I cherish. The tree must be fresh – more or less. And the lights must be plentiful. I remember the family trip to the “Christmas tree farm” where Mom would stand back as Daddy and his girls searched for the perfect tree – fat and not-too-tall. Daddy struggled each year wedging the tree into our metal stand. The process was always fraught with tension as Daddy wrestled the flailing spruce or fir branches.
Once the tree was more-or-less stabilized, Daddy jammed the strings of lights into place on the branches’ tips. Fuzzy, black cords held lights the size of small carrots, and those bulbs grew hot quickly. The weight of the lights and the heat they gave off caused branches to droop, and if we too quickly commenced decorating, we’d hear ornaments crash or roll off the tree onto the carpet as the tree “settled.”
Now, our lights are tiny, twinkling and cool. The ornaments still roll onto the floor – but now we blame our cats when Santas or snowmen fall, kerplunk, on the hardwood floor. As the days pass, he fragrance of evergreen fills the house, and shedding needles settle onto the carpet.
Four, large boxes contain my memories of Christmas trees past, of broken ornaments, odd ribbons and stray strands of tinsel. Most precious, however, are the memories that waft from among the baubles and cardboard. Here are the sparkling ornaments with beads and ribbon made by my mother and Aunt Irma. Here are Grandma’s crocheted snowflakes and the paper chains and Christmas trees fashioned by young friends – now grown into men and women with traditions of their own. The pink angel I stitched together in third grade takes her place, as does Aunt Helen’s needlepoint angel. Finally, my flock of birds of glass and feathers and straw settle themselves on the branches – and our tree is complete. Always, some ornaments must be left behind in their boxes to await another Christmas.
Why have these two activities taken on such gravity for me – the very soul and spirit of Christmas? Perhaps both cookie baking and tree trimming are the perfect blend of giving and receiving. And, as I think about it, I needn’t tease out which part is the giving and which the receiving – rather, they are woven into a whole, joyful cloth.
I suspect for each of us there are these perfect customs, rituals, activities – those which allow us to give and receive pleasure in equal measure. It is the spirit of my baking and tree trimming and how the “gifts” – cookies and festive decorations, are shared that fill my heart.
I am reminded of my favorite Quaker adage, “Let your life speak.” Or, as Daddy always said, “Actions speak louder than words.”
Merry Christmas,and may your New Year be filled with
random kindness and senseless acts of beauty, dear reader.
Let us all honor our favorite things.