For over thirty years, we have celebrated Christmas at my house with visiting family and friends. I love it, but at Christmas my control freak - a bit over-developed from parenting - goes manic. I have to be in charge of everything, and everything has to be right. Like many cooks, I want control of my own kitchen. But my need for control extends beyond that, and I can fuss and worry through the weeks leading up to Christmas, and the few days of house-guests, as if comfort, joy and world peace were all up to me.
The schedule might change from year to year depending on everybody’s arrival time, but generally we decorate the tree on Christmas Eve. Christmas dinner is either Christmas Eve, or the day after Christmas. With Doris and Luli’s help I prepare a big feast, and gather family and friends around the table. Late breakfast on Christmas morning is followed by a morning of oohing and aahing over opening presents, with single malt, aquavit, Calvados or other delicious sipping drink, Luli’s dundee cake, Don’s famous cookies, and whatever chocolates turn up in the gifting. The afternoon is for lying around, playing with new toys, reading new books, and a long walk. No need to prepare a feast after the morning orgy - we go to our beloved Chinese restaurant for Christmas supper.
Christmas dinner: turkey, stuffing, cranberry sauce, gravy, mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes, a green veg and salad, and three pies topped with whipped cream. Don and Doris contribute plenty of wine.
Breakfast? When I think of Christmas breakfast I drift into Italian, though I don’t speak the language - abondanza, mangiare, que piacere - and gesture con brio like an orchestra conductor. A feast of scrambled eggs and sausage, fresh grapefruit, home-squeezed orange juice, herbed mushrooms, bagels and lox, homemade muffins or coffee cake, a plate of fresh pineapple and strawberries, tomato salad, accompanied by coffee and of course, sipping liquor.
This year everything changed. Luli, my kitchen co-conspirator and conciliatrix, visited in October instead of making her annual Christmas trek. And at the last minute Joe had a essential meeting scheduled in South Africa. He would be gone for two weeks, returning December 22nd. All of a sudden I was on my own for Christmas preparations and Amanda’s Christmas break. I was NOT a happy camper. I’ve done children and Christmas alone and with a partner, and the latter is way better.
The first challenge was to gussy up Amanda’s Christmas break. Girls Place does wonderful programs for the school holidays, with lots of expeditions. link My friend Mary Anne and her daughter Ariel took her to the Little Match Girl ballet. But I wanted us to have special treats together. We went to the Hippodrome’s annual production of The Christmas Carol - I’d waited till she was ten because it’s scary - and went clothes-shopping. Alas, Amanda redirected her anger with absent Grandpa to available Grandma, so she was kind of a Scrooge-ette during these treats.
I had other cool ideas for fun, but she got the horrible bronchial thing that’s been going around Gainesville. Meanwhile my own rage simmered and became the blues, accompanied by shame that I was struggling so without Joe.
I had planned to buy the Christmas tree with Amanda, but she was so sick we had to postpone it. Six days before Christmas there were no trees anywhere. At Lowe’s they were taking down their big white tent and said they had no trees left. But I saw five in the corner, and bought the least miserable one. Many bare branches, many brown needles. After a few days in the living room, poisoned by Amanda’s scorn and disappointment, it looked even worse. I put it out on the deck, and bought a fake tree. Apparently you have to spend an awful lot to get a nice one; at $70, this one was very straggly. I threw up my hands and decided Joe would have to deal with it when he got home.
My son wasn’t coming. Leah couldn’t make it from New Orleans because her car was iffy. No friends were available for Christmas dinner. With the group so small, no Luli to help, and Joe only here at the last minute, I decided that I would simplify. We’d lighten up the food and add more walks. Don and Doris come from Connecticut and crave walks in our lovely winter weather.
The first change was to lighten up the food. Five Cornish game hens marinated in olive oil, lemon, and rosemary as they thawed. I sauteed beautiful green chard with bright red stems in olive oil and garlic, while Doris was happily in charge of cooking up the brown rice with red peppers and onions. I’d planned a plate of tomato salad - Don and Doris annually rave over our Florida tomatoes - but to my dismay my tomato grower stayed home from the Saturday Farmers’ Market. So in the end the main course was reduced from eight dishes to three.
No wrestling still frozen giblets out of a turkey. No guess work on timing - four, four and a half, five hours till the turkey is done? - and last minute gravy-making. Game hens take barely an hour, pan juices are no trouble at all, and the gluttonous girl in me is as thrilled as Amanda at having a whole bird to myself. Dessert remained excessive, but preparation was easy. Not my two pies - pumpkin seasoned with tangerine zest, pecan with dark rum or maple - and Luli’s winter fruit and berry pie. But Mrs. Smith’s frozen apple pie, though a bit heavy on the cinnamon, was perfectly fine, and her cherry pie was bliss.
Breakfast would be grapefruit, eggs and sausages. Though for days I waffled (waffles? no, too much) over whether I shouldn’t at least make my low-fat blueberry coffee cake, I held fast to simplicity, and asked Joe to buy a pecan coffee ring at Publix. We had coffee and Amarula - a cream liqueur made from the berries of the marula tree, which grows in the miombo woodlands of Southern Africa. Every one loved it but me, and Amanda loved the label about the majestic elephants who feast on the marula fruit. I stuck to Calvados.
Next, I let go of gift-control. When Joe was a child, he and his four brothers each found a laundry basket of presents under the tree, and tore into them all at once. When I was a child, we distributed all the gifts and then, starting with the youngest (always me), we opened them. Over the years I experimented with various approaches to accommodate Doris’ desire for the oohing and aahing and sharing and thanks, and Joe’s increasingly itchy need to be done with the interminable ritual, which went on for hours. This year I asked him to consult with Doris and devise a plan. They did. Amanda distributed the gifts and we opened them one by one, Joe too generous and kind and fond of Doris to deprive her, and probably pleased that I’d let go of one more thing. It didn’t hurt that with fewer people, there were fewer gifts, and of course he had the Amarula.
I couldn’t entirely squelch my Mom-in-Charge, so I turned her attention from food and ritual to planning great walks.
On Christmas Eve, we took a picnic to Kanapaha Botanical Gardens. The weather was lovely, warm and overcast. We walked the labyrinth, Amanda leaping over the low hedges and startling the lizards. Then we took the long walk to the herb garden, sink holes, bamboo grove, lake, hummingbird garden, cactus garden and finally to the broad porch of Summer House, where we rocked and ate our picnic.
Joe had stayed behind to rest after his trip from Capetown. While resting, he solved the Christmas tree problem. He returned the costly, scraggly tree to Lowe’s, shook down and brought inside the brown and balding fir, found its best angle, and wrapped the lights inside, close to the trunk, where they illuminated rather than hid the ornaments. Like every Christmas tree, it was our loveliest ever.
On Christmas day, after opening presents, I wanted a chance for Amanda try out her new skateboard, the gift she’d been yearning for. The Gainesville-Hawthorne Rails to Trails was just the ticket - paved, and perfect for walkers, bikers, scooters. The trail to Hawthorne is hilly and curvy, so we took the route past Evergreen Cemetery and she began to master balancing, turning, and stopping.
Finally, there was the obligatory trip to the Alachua Sink on Paynes Prairie. Everyone was out in force for the post-Christmas walk: Gainesville natives, visiting families, turkey vultures, limpkins, moorhens, herons of all types, egrets and of course, the alligators, seeking the afternoon sun after a chilly morning. They were huge and numerous. Amanda bet we’d see 25, Joe bet more than. Joe won.
This was such a happy, non-frenzied Christmas. I missed some of the abondanza. But the only missing elements I’d restore are Luli, Joe's daughter Leah, and my son Eric. Maybe I am finally learning to let go.