“The holidays” seem to start earlier every year. Before Halloween, you can see Christmas tree decorations and red and green M&Ms edging their way into the stores. My holidays now are generally quite non-traditional. We celebrate the Solstice with a yule log and sometimes a party. We do give gifts at Christmas, nothing elaborate, but still doing our part to help the economy. We have friends over for dinner and go to parties. I bake. And remember what the holidays were like when I was growing up on the South side of Chicago.
I don’t have the kind of holiday memories that you see on Christmas cards or on TV specials. No sleds, ice skates, magical encounters with Santa. Instead, we had the family gatherings of Americans not too far removed from the immigrants who landed at Ellis Island – we had big dinners, unpredictable relatives, drinking, and lots of cookies.
Before my paternal grandmother died when I was about 8, we spent Christmas Eve with her and the extended family. She lived with one of my dad’s sisters and we had a traditional Polish meal. “Busha,” my Polish grandmother, had never learned to speak English. She was old, had lots of ailments, and was not very mobile. I remember learning a few Polish words so that I could speak to her. She had big eyeglasses, always wore a bubushka, and was mean, according to her non-Polish daughter-in-law, my mother.
I remember the Christmas Eve dinner with a combination of queasiness and reverence. Many old world delacacies were served and we children had to eat at least a bite of everything before we could open our presents. A cruel torture for a picky eater like me. I remember overcooked fishy-smelling fish, potato-stuffed boiled pierogis (the only thing I liked) and a revolting mushroom soup I can still smell. Did it have chunks of potato floating in it, along with the rehydrated dried mushrooms? I think so. Before we could take part in this delicious (yeah right) feast, we were each given an index-card sized piece of oplatki, a square wafer that tasted like the communion you get at the Catholic church. Each person would travel around the room, saying “Merry Christmas” to everyon else, breaking off and eating pieces of each other’s oplatki. Of course, we kids didn’t like to eat the wafers either. One of my cousins was a master at angling and moving his wafer at just the right time so that the tiny piece you were trying to break off would be a big chunk.
Oplatki ritual completed and meal finsihed, we moved to the darkened living room, jammed with doily-covered furniture and religious knick-knacks, to open our gifts. And eat kolaches — apricot, cheese, prune, poppy seed, cherry. A tender fluffy flaky dough, moist filling, and powder sugar dusting, these were the best! Since I learned to bake from my mother and my Austrian grandmother, I never did learn the kolache. Maybe this year, I will try my hand at them.
When we returned home from dinner on Christmas Eve, it was likely that my maternal grandmother (who lived with us) would be watching the Christmas Mass at St. Peter’s basilica on TV. Usually, my aunt from the suburbs, my mom’s youngest sister, would have arrived by then too. My mom and her sister would drink some wine, smoke, and heckle my grandmother about the Latin Mass (“Domino Nabisco!” I can still hear my aunt saying to my mom, the two of them howling with laughter as my grandmother gave them the stink-eye for making fun of the Pope.). We would eat more cookies, this time the ones made by my mom, I would get to open one small gift, and then we would all head to bed.
But really, I want to talk to about the cookies. Both my grandmother and my mom loved to bake. I inherited this passion. I find something meditative, calming, comforting in taking out the ingredients, measuring, creaming, mixing, chopping nuts or chocolate, rolling, forming cookies, baking, taking hot cookies from their metal sheets and putting them onto cooling racks. At busy, sad, or chaotic periods in my life, I would always carve out the time needed to bake a batch of cookies or a tin of cupcakes. It would calm me, ground me, connect me to my roots. Absorb me and distract me from anything unpleasant.
But really, let’s get back to the cookies. My mom would bake for weeks before Christmas, putting the cookies into tins and storing them in the freezer in our basement. (Note: frozen cookies are very very good.) She would make 10 or even 20 different kinds, baking after work on weeknights and most of the day on weekends. My dad was on clean-up, keeping the mixing bowls and measuring cups clean so she could move from one batch to another in their tiny kitchen with its harvest gold appliances, wood paneled wainscoting, and carpeted floor. Some years, she would try new recipes that she had gotten from friends or cut out of the Sun-Times, but there were always the recurring favorites too.
There were the buttern horns, a recipe my mom had evidently wheedled out of a secretive family friend. These are not-very-sweet crescents of tender sour-cream pie-crust-like pastry rolled up with a filling of sugar, cinnamon and walnuts.
There were the thumb prints, balls of buttery brown sugar dough rolled into egg white and then minced walnuts, baked with a thumbprint of jam in the center. Melt in your mouth.
There was the spitz buben, another buttery dough pressed into a pan, coverd with jam, and then a lattice top of dough. Cut into bars, sprinkled with powered sugar.
There were the Reeses bars, a well-known recipe of melted butter, powdered sugar, peanut butter and graham cracker crumbs pressed into a pan and then topped with a layer of melted chocolate chips.
There were spritz cookies dough pushed through a cookie press to form stars and trees, then covered with sprinkles or colored sugar.
And a nutty buttery cookie that was formed into a crescent shape, the ends of which once baked, were dipped into melted chocolate and then into chocolate sprinkles.
And a vanilla dough that was divided into two — red and plain — and then twisted into candy cane shapes and baked.
A chocolate cookie with a dried sweet cherry pushed into the top.
Pecan snowballs rolled into powdered sugar.
Green wreaths made from cornflakes mixed with a blend of melted butter, marshmallows and food coloring, with cinnamon red-hots served as their ornaments.
You? You may have memories of snow falling on a church for midnight Mass or ice skating with mugs of hot cocoa, or sleigh rides and carolling. Me? I am happy with the memories of cookies, and of the bakers and eaters who have long since passed but who still share the holiday with me, in my kitchen.