Eggnog, sauerkraut and cookies: feeding the ghosts of Christmas past
Every year, my mother would put a large dish of it on the sideboard along with the carved turkey and stuffing and cranberry sauce for Christmas dinner, and each of us would be obliged to have a small portion as a way of showing respect to my father’s mother, her sister, Florence, and their childhood friend Edwina, three ancient ladies of German descent.
My mother hated Germans, not so much because of the war, but because of her mother-in-law. At best, their relations were strained. At worst, they flared into open combat. At least as open as life in a 1950s St. Louis suburb would allow. Which looked a good bit more like the subterfuge that characterized the years of the Cold War.
The root of the conflict lay in the fact that they were a great deal alike in temperament. Both had strong opinions about how things ought to be, and neither was shy about expressing those opinions.
Christmas being what it is, one makes an effort to be of good will, and my mother’s goodwill gesture toward Grandmother each year was sauerkraut.
There was always a lot left over. Sauerkraut, that is.
Aunt Edwina survived my grandmother and Aunt Florence by a good many years, so each Christmas, my mother continued to serve sauerkraut. One year, my mother passed around the sauerkraut dish for second helpings, though it was clear than no one had had a first.
“Aunt Edwina,” she said, leaning over.
“No thanks,” said Aunt Edwina, “I’ve never much cared for it myself.”
I could almost read my mother’s mind: if Edwina had never liked it, then what about Aunt Florence and Grandmother? All that goodwill sauerkraut for naught.
It’s got to be the nastiest liquid on earth. I never could abide it — a waste of perfectly good bourbon. Of course not everyone agrees, and since it’s a Christmas tradition, it filled the cut-crystal punch bowl on Christmas Eve and then again on Christmas morning. My mother loved serving it to her mother-in-law and our maiden aunts, all teetotalers. After three cups or so, the old ladies would start giggling, without any clear notion of what was funny.
And my mother would grin, triumphant.
The good bourbon (Jim Beam, Old Grand-Dad, or Jack Daniel's) was prominently on display, and everyone’s first highball was poured from that, but as my mother went around to freshen everybody’s drink, she’d carry the glasses out to the kitchen and pour from the bottle of 905, a more generic brand produced by the local liquor store by the same name.
Speaking of bourbon, another Christmas treat that turned my stomach was fruitcake, the second nastiest thing in the world after eggnog. To think of the two together is almost more than I can bear. But, once again, to many it is the very essence of Christmas — heavy, dense, full of candied fruit and highly alcoholic. It was always a gift. From Mrs. Weintraub next door, I think. And so it was also showcased, and after a few hearty souls had a thin slice or two, most of it went the route of the left over sauerkraut.
Candy canes and oranges
They appeared in my Christmas stocking, and both were disappointments simply because they weren’t chocolate. Even so, I remember how exotic oranges seemed. I’m not sure why, but we never had any sort of fresh fruit around, except bananas — orange juice came from frozen concentrate. Oranges on Christmas morning were intriguing because I had to peel them, they sprayed a fine mist that tickled my nose, and they didn’t come out of a can. In the 1950s, that was sort of unusual. At least in our house.
In fact I don’t think I actually encountered an orange on a tree until I was well into my 40s on a trip to California, and — I kid you not — my first thought was: Californians are so weird, they hang ornaments in their trees in summertime.
Santa’s milk and cookies
I can’t for the life of me remember actually putting them out for Santa. It may have been one of those traditions that my family dispensed with before I was born. I was the youngest of four. I do, however, remember, my distress one year that Santa couldn’t possibly come because St. Louis almost never had any snow at Christmas-time. My father took pains to explain to me that for the southern route, Santa used a helicopter.
I was skeptical.
“How does he land it on a sloping roof?” I asked.
“The same way he lands his sleigh up north,” said my father.
“What about the reindeer?” I asked.
“Oh they’re helping to pull. Remember there’s a load of presents. And they know the route better than Santa himself,” my father assured me.
Everybody got the sense that year that I had outgrown Santa, and the next year, Santa didn’t drop in on Christmas Eve to have a glass of Christmas cheer. (The fact that Santa drank eggnog was a mark against him in my book.) True, the two previous years, I’d had a pretty good idea who was behind the fake belly and white beard, especially the year it was my older brother, but I had played along like the good sport I was always trying to be.
I can’t remember how old I was that year, but I was bereft and was working my way into a fit of tears. Whereupon my father snuck upstairs, put on one of my sister’s red winter coats, managed to stick some cotton balls on his face, and came back down.
“Ho! Ho! Ho!” he roared.
“Boo! Hoo! Hoo!!” I roared louder, not to be consoled by cheap tricks.
All these years later, I think: if only I’d had the presence of mind to soften, just a little. I was, in fact, too old for Santa, but I wanted the grown-ups to keep up the illusion, so I could act like I was playing along.
If only I had appreciated the apology inherent in my father’s ridiculous get-up that night.
If only I’d been willing, even for a moment, to believe in make-believe.