Family & Friends

Comfort and Joy: The Magic of an Old-Fashioned Christmas Eve

Was I five or six? I don’t really remember.  What I do remember is that it was my first Christmas. I wasn’t sure at all what was happening, except that our Ukrainian/not-yet-American household was bustling in a different way.  We had already received our gifts on December 19, Saint Nicholas Day by the Julian calendar.  Saint Nicholas, in his long white robes, long beard, and covered head was, well, a saint.  The patron saint of sailors and children, those most likely to get lost.  My brother, sister, and I said our evening prayers together in the kitchen with my mom in front of the Icon that now keeps her company.  At the end of our prayers we had to sing to Saint Nicholas. A small song, it was mostly about love, helping our fellow man, and receiving the help of Saint Nicholas in return. There was no asking for gifts involved.

On the first Sunday in December we sat with Mom and wrote our letters to Saint Nicholas: a doll, a train set, Legos, and a book.  Always a book.  On December 19 we would find our gifts next to our pillows; we usually got pretty close to the few items we had asked for, along with an orange and a piece of good German chocolate in the shape of a pinecone or a star.  They were beautifully wrapped and we tried to unwrap the chocolate but keep the wrapper in shape—a daunting task for little excited hands.  They don’t make chocolate wrapped like that anymore. I was too young to know at the time, but the dispensing of gifts early on made Christmas a much more important religious holiday.

My mom started cooking and baking a week before Christmas. There was so much to do.  Christmas was steeped in tradition, and we Celebrate—with a capital C—on Christmas Eve.  Mom made a 12-course meal—one dish for each of the Apostles.  It was a meatless meal, as a reminder that all men are equal and not everyone is rich enough to afford meat.  You prepared and ate, if you will, off the bounty of the land.  It was on this Christmas that I was finally big enough to help in the kitchen.  It was a magical place—the smells, the steam from pots on the stove—and if I was very, very lucky I even got to taste.  It was here that I first experienced the joy of cooking.  Mom started with the baking, as that could keep for a few days. Honey bread made from dark buckwheat honey that she had brought home from the Catskills that summer.  It has been stored in the pantry for just this occasion.  I didn’t think that there could be anything better until she/we started making the walnut and hazelnut Viennese cakes.  The nuts were cracked, cleaned, roasted, and only then ground into flour by hand.  (I received my very own nut grinder for my 21st birthday.)  Mom whipped no fewer than three dozen eggs into shape, a dozen at a time, with sugar and vanilla, before mixing in the nut flour. No doors could be slammed as Mom did this important operation or the cake would fall.  I got to butter the cake pans, getting my hands all greasy—with permission!  I was too little to reach the sink, and just this once I was allowed to wipe my hands on my apron! I felt so adult.  Once Mom poured the batter into the cake pans, my sister and I got to lick the bowl.  It was heaven!

When my brother realized what was going on in the kitchen, he begged for the same.  And when it came time for the icing, all hands were on deck.  We watched with anticipation as she melted the chocolate in a double-boiler, beat in the eggs and sugar, and added a little rum for extra flavor, along with strong black coffee.  Yes, there was a fight over the bowl and the beaters.  I don’t know how my mom was able to keep all of us so happy.  But she did it. Next, “we” made a kalach—it’s similar to a challah, braided from three parts to represent the Holy Trinity. I got to sprinkle on the poppyseeds!

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