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Thursday December 16, 2004: Christmas tradition

        Last night I stood over my double boiler, stirring melted chocolate and recycling the pleasure of long-time memories. With the house decorated, Christmas letters and shopping completed, there is still plenty of time for the holiday baking and cooking. I am grateful there are no desperate late night sessions at the stove this year.

         I begin by dipping the traditional rum balls (I made these the night before) in a layer of semi-sweet chocolate. When the boys were all under five, I discovered little baby spoons, with long handles and narrow bowls, were perfect for balancing the dipped balls and transferring them to waxed paper. The spoons have become as much a tradition as the rum balls. Long after the baby toys and gadgets were sold or given away, these spoons remained, to be pulled out over and over at Christmas time; each year they become more of a connection to my children's earliest Christmases. (Lest anyone think I allowed my children to eat rum balls which have 150-proof rum in them, let me assure you I had a different recipe for the children in their younger years -- one with graham crackers, peanut butter, orange juice and dates.)

        Rum balls complete, there is still half a pan of melted chocolate left and I begin dipping dried apricots. Some years I double dip, with white chocolate covering half the length and when that cools, using a second dip of dark chocolate to cover half the width. It leaves half the dried fruit in dark chocolate, a quarter of the top showing plain apricot and a quarter showing white chocolate. Apricots placed to one side, I always finish by mixing in orange peel, rum-soaked raisins and toasted almond slivers to whatever remains of the melted chocolate, spooning that out in bite-size dollops.

         Tomorrow I will make up date bars, a recipe my grandmother always made at Christmas. My boys never met their great-grandmother; she died before they were born. I will make date bars for my father, because he grew up with this as one of his Christmas traditions. I will make them for myself -- because preparing the special pan my grandmother always used and cutting the bars in the same manner as my grandmother had done -- will bring back memories of her shuffling about her kitchen. Biting into the date bar (rolled in powdered sugar when cooled), will bring back memories of my grandmother's laugh and her careful explanation each year of how many steps were involved in preparing them just so. I will serve these date bars to my boys and tell them stories of their great-grandmother, and hope it will become a part of their Christmas tradition.

         Every year, especially when things get hectic, I question the need to make things from scratch. I could find Christmas candies and baked goods in stores. If I ever were to spend the holiday alone, I tell myself I could do quite nicely without sweets and starches. Yet, I know I'd miss the tradition. It's tradition that connects me to both the family that gathers now to celebrate the holiday, and to a more distant history. Is it a trick of memory that I have begun feeling so connected to past generations, that my awareness truly seems to embrace a family scattered across time and space? I remind myself that my mind might create an illusion of familial connection whenever it succeeds in holding memories of different time periods together.

         Yet I find a difference between saying "I am doing this because of tradition and because I enjoy remembering past events" and realizing an actual awareness of being connected. I am connected to family -- through chromosomes, through familial patterns of interactions, values and expectations. I have woven together memories and bonds of love until all of it becomes part of my identity as a person.

         Death is a thin veil. My family has a long history of reaching beyond that veil: there are loved ones who came back at the moment of their death to warn a spouse that things had gone terribly wrong; loved ones who 'passed over' and then came back weeks after death to give closure and release to guilt-ridden or grieving companions; long-departed relatives who appeared in the week prior to a family member's death, who remained invisible to all but the dying, patiently waiting to guide a family member into the next stage of existence.     

         Let the social scientists talk of traditions and rituals serving as a means to strengthen community and familial bonds in the present. I will use tradition to meld the past and present together, until my universe is filled with the richness of family, friends and the warmth of fond memories.

Posted on Thursday, December 16, 2004 at 06:02AM by Registered CommenterThe Skeptical Mystic | Comments1 Comment

Reader Comments (1)

Jan, I just wanted to thank you very much for linking to me and thus alerting me to the existence of YOUR blog, which I've been reading with a lot of interest. I'm looking forward to going through your archives and coming to know you better; it seems there's quite a lot that we share. And I'm inspired to make time for some christmas baking - I've been so busy this year I haven't done any, but like you, it's a special activity that connects me to the generations ebfore me, and I don't want to let it go entirely!
December 17, 2004 | Unregistered Commenterbeth

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