Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Christmas Trees and Sweet Potato Latkes

Aging brings limitations.

I say this because the traditions that I thought would never disappear now only exist as memories. As I suppose it is with most families, my family has aged and scattered across the nation because of pesky adult responsibilities pertaining to life. Still, I cling to the moments that have shaped my view of what the holiday season means for me, and I delight in retelling the stories to those who are willing to listen.

First, I would like to share the magic of the Christmas tree.  The hunt would begin in the morning on a Saturday or Sunday just after Thanksgiving. There were only four of us, but we would pile into the Blue Bomber, our 1973 Ford Bronco, and off we would go. We hit every Christmas tree lot in a 50 mile radius in search of the perfect tree, singing along with Tennessee Ernie Ford, Nat King Cole, Johnny Mathis, Emmylou Harris, Anne Murray, John Denver and the Muppets playing on the 8-track as loud as my mother would tolerate in-between lots.

“That one doesn’t have a good top for the angel. We can’t take that one because it’ll stick out too far into the living room. Will the nativity scene fit under that one? Too dry. Too tall. Too short. Too crooked. That one doesn’t have enough chutzpah. Did we get a Noble or a Douglas last year? Are we going to spend the extra money for a fresh wreath as well? That family got our tree. We could follow them home and take it by force. No wait, there it is. That’s the one. Where’s the kid that takes this to the front? NO! NO FLOCKING!”

By the time night fell, we were back at the first lot purchasing the first tree we discovered, or so was the generally the case. The tree never failed to grow three feet on the way home. My father would have to re-cut, re-drill, re-straighten, and re-shape the poor thing on our postage stamp of a front porch, usually in the rain. When I hit my growth spurt in high school, I became the measuring stick to which the tree was compared. It still didn’t matter. The tree grew three feet and my father would have to chop off a significant amount off the bottom of the tree.

Then the boys struggled with the lights while Mom made hot chocolate from scratch and microwaved the little bits of things on sticks for snack stuff while we decorated. Again, Tennessee Ernie Ford and Johnny Mathis echoed loudly through the house while we scrambled for our favorite pieces to hang on the tree. Oh there’s the paper plate and gold-glitter dove I made in preschool. It desperately needs a new coat of glitter. Careful with the macaroni bulb the brother made in elementary school. It sheds a piece or three of macaroni every year. The little rubber guys are older than dirt, but they have to be there also, as well as the partridges that are losing their tail feathers and the dime store nativity scene bulbs that we’ve had for even longer.

And we’d eat. And we’d sing. And we’d argue playfully about who is placing what where. We’d watch all the movies we’ve seen before: George C. Scott’s A Christmas Carol, The Lemon-Drop Kid, Fitzwilly, Donovan’s Reef, Miracle on 34th St (the old one, in black and white), The Bishop’s Wife, How the Grinch Stole Christmas and A Charlie Brown Christmas. It’s just not Christmas without any of that.

But a few years ago, my brother and his family migrated to Oklahoma, and I moved out and married, and my parents broke down and bought a fake tree.

From true Christmas tree magic however, the fake tree grew three feet by the time they got it home and my dad had to re-cut, re-drill, re-straighten and re-shape the poor thing on the postage stamp of the front porch in the rain. And the dove and macaroni bulb still shedding glitter and macaroni find their perches just below the angel. The movie marathon still takes place, happily, and returns me very quickly to each of my Christmas Pasts.

The potato latkes were relegated to traditional obscurity when my mother was told that she could no longer have potatoes. Up until then, however, we celebrated Hanukah too. “After all we are Christians, but Christ wasn’t,” my father would say. Of course, those of Jewish faith may have found our attempt as sacrilege but we always endeavored to represent the faith well. We’d light a candle of the menorah, say a prayer thanking Him for miracles great and small, and as we dug out the dreidels and the collection of pennies, Mom made potato and sweet potato latkes and served them with applesauce and sour cream. There is no better comfort food on a cold winter’s evening than sweet potato latkes hot from the griddle.

We still light the candle and say the prayer, but with all holidays, the absence of family and cherished friends makes the celebration bittersweet. The lack of latkes makes it a poignant tragedy.

When my friend Nemo introduced me to his significant other Karrie some time back, we became fast friends. Nemo and Karrie are two extremely intelligent and talented people who make up a critical part of my Zombie Apocalypse team. Karrie had a similar upbringing, but hers was a product of mixed faiths, her father a Methodist and her mother a Jew. Her parents are divorced now and subsequently remarried. When I spoke of my family traditions, she grinned.

“I have a latke story as well,” she said.

She was visiting her father and step-mother one Christmas season when they surprised her with a Chanukah celebration. “My step-mother thought it was impolite not to be sensitive to my religious diversity,” she explained. So she led a prayer and lit the candle and her step-mother made and served potato latkes.

“They were the best potato latkes I have ever had. The flavor was amazing,” she said, looking wistful at the recollection. Her step-mother was very proud, beaming from the compliment. She explained that she acquired the recipe from an on-line source but she thought it was a bit plain. So the decision was made to fry them in bacon grease.

“I didn’t have the heart to tell her about the ‘no pork’ rule,” Karrie said. “And I ate every one she put in front of me. Don’t tell my mother.”

I won’t. I promise. I’ve even changed your name in this post to help protect your identity.

So, as years pass and friends and family scatter on the far-winds, traditions evolve. Some are made richer through time, some disappear altogether. Some disastrous childhood memories are compounded by seasonal depression and amplified by the contrast of the joy of others. While aging has complicated my holiday season, I still feel incredibly blessed that I have memories I can cling to of Christmas past. My hope this year as in all years will be that everyone can know at least one happy holiday with family and friends, traditions dying in one household are renewed in another, and that Peace on Earth and Goodwill Towards Men is not a just fairy tale, but a way of life.

Happy Chanukah!
Happy Solstice!
Happy Christmas!

With love and good tidings throughout the coming years.

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