Posts Tagged ‘Christmas’

People just don’t understand fruitcake. This time of year, when the fruitcake jokes begin making the rounds, I cringe. Every summer when I drive through Claxton, Georgia, the “Fruitcake Capital of the World,” I shake my head in disgust. I’ve considered stopping and setting these well meaning but ill informed people straight. I hardly call those white bricks of sugar, filled with stomach-turning green and red things, fruitcake. I make fruitcake. Real fruitcake.

I got started after receiving an inheritance from my great-grandfather. Grandad made it to 97, outliving three wives and a series of “housekeepers.” He wasn’t quite as bad as Henry VIII. He didn’t behead his wives, but he worried the first two to death and divorced the third in a era when divorce was not quite respectable. It was also not respectable to live with a woman without the blessing of marriage, so Grandad had “housekeepers.”

Grandad was a handsome young man.

His wives were out of the picture by the time I entered the world, but I remember a few of the housekeepers. One had a daughter who had no arms. I remember visiting one day with my grandmother. The girl was washing dishes. I was too small to look into the sink and see just how she did it, but she stood on one leg, her other foot in the sink working in the sudsy water. She wore slip-on shoes so she could slide her feet out easily whenever she needed them for hands. I assume she went to a special school. Her mother told her to show Grandma the necklace her teacher had given her. The girl stood on one foot, lifted the other to her chest and held out the necklace, the same way you or I would with our hands.

Grandad’s house

Years later, Grandad had a housekeeper around his age named Nellie. She and Grandad would sit on the porch together or walk down the road hand in hand. Once Nellie asked me about my family and was amazed that none of our many children had died. When she was young, she said, it wasn’t unusual for a family to lose several children. She told me about a sister who had died. “I really liked that sister.”

Then we moved to Florida. I visited the summer after Grandad died. Aunt Ora Mae was sorting through his effects and gave me a few of his things. Among them was a stained and tattered notebook filled with antique recipes, one of which was Sarah’s Fruitcake.

I have no idea who Sarah was. Apparently she was an acquaintance of whomever kept the recipe book. When I showed the book to Grandma, she didn’t recognize the handwriting, but she was sure it wasn’t my great-grandmother Rebecca’s. She surmised it had belonged to one of Grandad’s subsequent wives or one of the “housekeepers.”

I’m not sure what the standards of kitchen measurement were in those days, but Sarah’s instructions included “coffee” cups of this and that as well as “teaspoons” and “tablespoons” which I’m sure only approximated modern measures. In addition to raisins and other dried fruit, Sarah used citrons. I’m willing to bet they were actual home-preserved citrons, not those plastic green and red things which are passed off as fruitcake ingredients today.

That November, I made my first fruitcakes, shared them with family, and sent some to my grandparents. I used standard measuring cups and spoons and lots of dried fruits, no “citrons.” It was delicious.

I’ve made fruitcake every year since. I’ve modified and improved Sarah’s original recipe, but I still give her credit for what she shared with the unknown woman in Grandad’s life. Here’s the recipe I use now:

  1. Mix together 6 to 8 cups of dried fruit. Suggestions: raisins, golden raisins, diced figs and prunes, cranberries, currants, diced dates and apples, cherries, and pineapple. (I use canned pineapple, drained, of course.) Add 1 to 2 cups of broken pecans.
  2. Mix together and add to the fruit:

2/3 cup butter

1 cup honey (you can use raw sugar)

½ cup sour cream

3 beaten eggs

  1. Combine and add:

3 ½ cups flour (preferably whole wheat)

1 teaspoon baking soda

1 teaspoon cinnamon

1 teaspoon orange peel

½ teaspoon salt

½ teaspoon nutmeg

½ teaspoon cloves

To incorporate all these dry ingredients into the fruit mixture will be a test of strength, but it’s worth the effort. If the dough is too dry, add a little more sour cream.

  1. Line baking pans with parchment or waxed paper and fill 2/3 full. You can dress up the cakes with a line of pecan halves down the middle. Bake at 275 degrees until a toothpick come out clean.

I use 4 or 5 small loaf pans (7 ½  x 3 ¾). The number of pans needed depends on the volume of fruit and nuts. Cooking time varies by the size of pans. Cakes in small loaf pans take a little over an hour.

Try it. You’ll like it. And maybe next Christmas season, like me, you’ll cringe at those unkind “fruitcake” jokes.

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This was my first post when I started this weblog four years ago. I thought it was time to rewrite and republish it:

On Christmas night when I was a child, we would go to my grandparents’ house for supper with aunts, uncles, and cousins. Of course there’d be presents for all. I don’t know where she got this idea, but instead of labeling gifts with store-bought stickers, Grandma Masters used old Christmas cards.

When I became an adult and began exchanging Christmas cards, I continued Grandma’s tradition. The front face of a card is ideal for a large package. For small gifts, I use the tiny pictures on the back or cut pieces from cards. It’s nice to coordinate the card with the wrapping paper, such as a poinsettia card for paper with that pattern. A card may be a clue to the gift inside—labeling a box containing a doll with a card showing a little girl holding a doll. If the gift is opened at my house and the card not spoiled, it can be used again next year.

I keep a box of old Christmas cards for this purpose. Like most folks, I display new ones as they come in, but after the season is over, I put them in my box. It’s handy to have plenty of cards to choose from, and every year my collection grows. Some years I’ve had to graduate to a larger box.

I may have to find a bigger box.

I may have to find a bigger box.

My Christmas card collection has yielded an unforeseen delight. It has become a time capsule, going back many years. As I dig to the bottom, it’s like an archeological excavation, refreshing long forgotten memories. Most senders list their children, and I have a record, in reverse order, of the changes in their families. Children who have grown, moved out, and are no longer listed appear in earlier cards. Their names disappear again in cards sent before they were born. Some senders named my children individually and that list also grew and shrank over time, as some of my adult children moved out, and in, and out again.

Here are cards from nieces and nephews before they had children. Afterwards, they get too busy. I have a record of my former boss’ daughter growing up, in the photo cards he gave out every year. Since those are not suitable for labeling gifts, they collect in my box. Here is a card from a family I cannot recall. Perhaps one day something will nudge my memory. One is signed “your paper carrier” with only her first name. And one from my daughter-in-law before she married my son. Some people faithfully send cards every year and some are sporadic. One couple sent cards for seven years after they moved away, then silence. I never found out what became of them.

Like an archaeological record, the collection is incomplete. Many cards no longer exist as they have been used and discarded, and some lack the signature page, so their origin is forgotten. Here is one I will never use, from a dear friend who has passed away. Indeed, the deeper I dig, the more poignant they become. One card from my parents is also signed “Cookie Grandma”, in the last year of her life after my grandfather had passed. Another is signed only “Grandpa Masters” after Grandma Masters was no longer with us. There is one whose picture page was used long ago and only the message page remains, signed, “All our love, Grandma and Grandpa Masters”. I will keep this forever. It was the last I received from them before Grandma died.

Some of my relatives sent home-made cards so special that, although I may use them to label a gift, I will not throw them away even if they become wrinkled or torn. Of course, cards made by my grandchildren are sacred. Deep in the box are some my own children made when they were small. Scattered throughout are annual letters sent with or in lieu of cards. Someday I will go back and read them again.

What will happen to my Christmas Box of Memories after I am no longer able to enjoy it? Before then, I should put the cards into a scrapbook, making a history for succeeding generations. In the meantime, I continue to dig through the box every Christmas, looking for just the right card for a particular gift, being reminded of the past, and surprised by new discoveries.



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Almost all my life I have been fortunate to live in the country where wild trees are available for Christmas. The area I lived in as a child used to be dairy country. Once there must have been a dozen small dairy farms within a mile of our house. Through the years, one by one, they went out of business. Today, I doubt any remain in operation.

Back in the day when houses were heated with firewood, farmers maintained wood lots to ensure a steady source. My grandparents had more trees on their farm than many – havens for climbing grandchildren and shady places for the cows in summer. Most farmers seemed to begrudge the few square feet under trees where grass and crops would not grow and kept their pastures and hay fields cleared. Hence the importance of wood lots. When my father was a boy, he planted a corner of the farm in trees as a 4-H project. By the time I was old enough to play in the woods, his trees had attained some size, but young trees, just right for Christmas, grew from seeds they dropped.

There was no thought of buying a Christmas tree. We went to the woodlot and cut one of suitable size. A variety were available: pine, spruce, fir, and hemlock. As my brothers and I grew big enough, we would harvest the tree without adult assistance.

One year sticks out in my mind. I must have been twelve or thirteen. Grandma and Grandpa Masters lived over the hill in Finch Hollow. Grandpa hunted in the woods behind their house. That year he spotted several perfect trees on their property and offered us one. We had hiked cross-lots to their place in summer and thought it would be no problem to haul a tree over the hill on a sled.

But this was winter and snow was knee deep. We got over the hill OK and up to Grandpa’s woods where we selected our tree, cut it, and tied it on the sled. We warmed up in Grandma’s kitchen, sipping hot cocoa, before we pulled the sled down through the hollow and tackled the big hill. Wading through grass and brush in summer is one thing. Struggling through snow tangled in grass and brush is another. Cold as we were, asking for help was out of the question as we could not lose face. Besides, we were a good distance from any road and no one had snowmobiles. We made it over the hill and through the fields to our house, tree and all,  frozen to the bone, but proud. And happy once we warmed up and put on dry clothes.

Our first Christmas in Florida, we lived in the Ocala National Forest where sand pines grow. Not as nice as fir or spruce, nevertheless, with their short needles and dense growth, the young ones make suitable Christmas trees.

Then I grew up and moved on. Today I live in pine flatwoods, too wet for sand pines but host to other varieties: long leaf, loblolly, and slash pine. While these grow into beautiful adult trees, they have long needles and their branch whorls are at least a foot apart. The saplings look like Charlie Brown Christmas trees, but when dressed in lights, ornaments, and tinsel, they are as pretty as any store-bought.

A few years when I had the money, I bought fragrant fir trees from a lot at a friend’s church. After they went out of the Christmas trees business, I resumed cutting trees from my woods or a neighbor’s. Occasionally we had cedar trees. They are very pretty with dense foliage to rival any spruce, but the branches are prickly. You almost need gloves to decorate them or your hands end up looking like you’ve been picking blackberries.

This year, my son Joel and his family spent Christmas with me. Did the children want me to buy a tree? No. The Spirit of Christmas Trees Past spoke to them. They remembered previous Christmas times when they accompanied me to find a tree. It was fun. It was tradition. That was what they wanted.

I was so busy with holiday preparations, Joel took the children out to the abandoned pasture behind my house. They were gone a long time, tromping through marsh and blackberry brambles, but fortunately no snow. They brought back the perfect tree. Almost perfect. One side had few branches, so we set it against the wall. The children helped me trim it, and I believe it is the prettiest Christmas tree I’ve ever had.

Is it the commercialization of Christmas that drives us back to old practices that have little place in modern life? What practical purpose does a Christmas tree serve? Besides the time and expense, I’m required to rearrange furniture to make room for a place to pile gifts. A table would do as well. Boxes of ornaments are hauled from the attic and hung on the tree. Not to mention the mess, tinsel and pine needles all over the floor. After Christmas, everything must be undone and put away. And why cut a living tree? A tree-hugger like myself should shun the practice, but I have never been drawn to artificial trees.

If only a fresh tree will do, I can afford to buy a pretty, well shaped fir which was grown for this purpose and whose scent is unequaled. But like my grandchildren, I am drawn to the woods this time of year, to bear the cold and brambles, to harvest a tree and bring it into my home. It has meaning beyond the large decoration crowding my living room. It is a connection with the Earth, with my roots. It keeps me centered and gives life a meaning that cannot be expressed in words.

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Every year, the commercial Christmas season seems to distend earlier into autumn. This year, stores set out Christmas decorations before Halloween and soon broadcast Christmas music.

Bah! Humbug! Even store employees agreed.

I remember Grandma Rogers, one of the nicest people I’ve ever known, saying, “I’m going to join the Jehovah’s Witnesses”. This seemed so out of character. She was no Scrooge, but grew up in a family of modest means and reared her children during the Great Depression. The increasing commercialization of Christmas must have grated on her. Now I understand. I find myself making the same threat.

But TODAY is the day after Thanksgiving. The Spirit of Christmas beckons. Don’t worry, you won’t find me at the mall, or even a convenience store. I may or may not glance through the stack of catalogs that have cluttered my mailbox for weeks, but I will start making lists. After almost two months of Scrooge, it is time to welcome Christmas.

This holiday embodies a magic unrelated to material things and goes beyond the joy of giving. Remember the Christmas Truce of 1914? During World War I, Allied and German soldiers in the trenches spontaneously stopped fighting, sang Christmas carols, and crossed battle lines to exchange fellowship, food, and souvenirs. Unsanctioned by their superiors, this event will long be remembered as a triumph, however brief, of love over hate.

The magic of Christmas survives adversity. In 1989, we had an ice storm.  On December 22nd, my children and I visited my parents in Scrambletown, planning to spend one night. My parents didn’t know that my sister Lorraine, a missionary in Africa, was coming home for Christmas.  She arrived with the freezing rain and snow.  Our parents were surprised and overjoyed and no one minded the bitter cold.

 But we cold not get home. The Ocala National Forest is a veritable island, surrounded on two sides by the Ocklawaha River and the St. Johns River on a third. The bridges were iced and closed. The only way out was south through Lake County, but weather conditions made travel inadvisable. Our northern friends may scoff, but they do not want to share icy roads with Floridians. We are a menace.

Sunshine melted the ice and I drove home Christmas Eve. Patches of frost remained on shady areas of roadway, but we arrived safely. We came home to no electricity or heat. Water left in a jar was frozen and my houseplants were history. However, our spirits were not chilled. With a gas stove, we could cook. Somehow I procured a kerosene heater. We survived and celebrated a very happy Christmas.

 Of course, Christmas cannot overcome all misfortune. A neighbor of my parents was killed one Christmas Eve riding home on a mini-bike intended for his children. These things happen. Lesser troubles occur. When I was about eleven, some of my brothers and sisters came down with measles and my mother had to stay home with them while the rest of us visited our grandparents on Christmas. The last year of my marriage, I was heartbroken when my spouse neglected to give me a gift. But my children’s generosity buoyed my spirits.

Christmas brings anxiety. As a parent, I always worried I wasn’t doing enough for my children. Then one year, when my oldest boy was about five, he remarked that he got too many presents. I used to have a recurring dream, that it was Christmas Eve and I did not have gifts for some of my loved ones. After a few years, the dream ceased to bother me. Then one year the dream did not come! I worried that I would actually forget someone.

Most of my memories of Christmas are happy. As a child, we would wake at 3:00 am and find our stockings filled. Santa must have come by at 2:30. One Christmas we woke to a living room full of child-size wicker chairs, one for each of us. I still wonder how Santa managed that.  One season we tried to peek into what our parents had bought us. That ruined our fun and we never did it again. Before we moved to Florida, Christmas lasted all day. We ate breakfast at home and opened presents. Then we went to Grandma Rogers’ for dinner and more gifts. For supper, we went to Grandma Masters’ for aunts, uncles, cousins, and even more presents.

Maybe that’s why I still try to make Christmas last all day. My children were allowed to get their stockings when they woke up, but they were not to open presents until Mama had a cup of coffee. Even then, my preference was to limit it to one gift before breakfast, which of course drove the kids nuts.

Occasionally, we went to the Christmas Eve service at church, but I prefer to spend that night at home. Before my children grew up and moved away, we had a tradition of snacking on hors d’oeuvres and wrapping gifts until bedtime. Last year, my daughter-in-law’s gift was to take me to the Christmas Eve matinee at the Alhambra Dinner Theatre in Jacksonville. The food was delicious and  “White Christmas” brought me to tears. Although the cast faced an evening performance, their spirits were high and some took time to chat with us afterwards and sign autographs for my granddaughter.

The magic didn’t end there. We stopped at the riverfront on the way home and enjoyed the scenery and the cool but pleasant evening. A handful of other pedestrians and bicyclists were abroad. Total strangers, we greeted one another with, “Merry Christmas!”

Today, after I post this, I will start my lists: cards, gifts, cookies, fruitcakes, and groceries. I will retrieve decorations from the attic and stick plastic poinsettias in my houseplants. That makes them happy. In a few weeks I will search the woods for a suitable tree.

Today is the day after Thanksgiving.  Scrooge has been visited by his ghosts. It is now the time to look forward to Christmas.

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