Once again, ’tis the season. For going overboard, that is.
Unofficially it began a few months ago. Outside temperatures in our nation’s steamy capital still had us sweating. In some stores however, shopping meant going on polar expeditions within frigid and fanciful winter wonderlands while dressed ready to traipse through the tropics. Frosty the Snow Man, determined to “… be back again someday” could not have matched retailers’ efforts to push the holidays. After all, there were “Only 130 shopping days left ’til Christmas”.
The traditional kick-off to the season started with the Thanksgiving holiday in November. The Turkey was stuffed, roasted or fried, and with “fixins” and pumpkin pie presented along with liberal doses of football (this year it was decided that not one, not two, but three contests between major teams had to be fought on faux turf while families feasted). The fun –shop ’til the credit card is hacked, stuff-the-stockings, deck-the-halls, cars and dogs and the rest of the fa-la-la-la-la mania — will continue through Christmas and not end until New Year’s day dawns and many folks seek “hair of the dog” cures to deal with holiday over-indulgences.
Excess seems to be the keyword for the holidays. Houses, cars, dogs, food — all can fall victim to the overzealous. Front lawns are adorned with inflatable reindeer, penguins, Saint Nick and the odd pig or two, all wobbling in the wind, a bit like grand-pa when he’s had one too many spiked eggnogs.
Cars aren’t safe either. I’ve spotted quite a few with wreaths strapped to the hood while others, showing a hunter’s spirit, fasten antlers, if not the entire Rudolph, to their car.
On my walks I often feel like a kid standing in front of a toy store while I admire my neighbor’s decorations. It never fails that I don’t stumble on one, or a few, unique houses that manage to out-do the rest.
And each year I wait to hear a news reporter announce, “Helicopter pilot mistakes millions of lights twinkling on house for landing pad. News at 11.”
Fido, the family pooch, is not immune either. Max, the poor mutt in the story, “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” was made to wear antlers. I’m almost certain that most pets would prefer not to have to dress up just to strut their stuff in the local holiday parade.
Cooks and bakers aren’t exempt from being infected with the spirit of holiday excess; an over-dose on “sugar and spice” can come about as easily as licking clean one too many spoons of cookie dough.
I was born in the mid-fifties in a German village. As Lutheran Protestants we celebrated the period from Advent to Christmas in a simpler fashion, despite the fact that we lived near Nuernberg, the Christmas Market capital of the world, famous for Gluehwein, finger-sized Bratwurst smeared with tangy mustard and nestled on crisp, round buns, spiced and sugar-frosted Lebkuchen cookies and wrinkled Prune people decked out in costumes. Mom’s budget was tiny and left little room for gift giving but somehow , as if by magic, at Christmas the ingredients for baking appeared.
Home-baking is a centuries old tradition in Germany and so it was in my home. No matter how meager things were during the year, at Christmas Mom always managed to scrape up a special treat: Stollen, Apfelstrudel or a Poppy-seed roll, made entirely from scratch. I could barely contain my excitement when Mom baked, mainly because it meant having to fight my sister for the chance to lick the spoon and bowls.
Watching Mom was fascinating. When she made strudel she rolled, stretched and tugged the dough across our kitchen table, ending with a sheet as transparent and thin as parchment paper. I always wondered how she did it, how it was that there was not a hole anywhere. Invariably it was cold outside and snow had been on the ground since sometime in November. Inside our kitchen however it was warm, cozy and filled with the scents of yeast, butter, cinnamon, apples, candied fruit and raisins. I believe that it was in those moments with Mom that the first sparks ignited that made me want to bake.
I’ve been playing with dough for more than four decades. I became a Mom 30 years ago. While my son grew up I improved my baking skills, often turning him and his father into my taste-testing guinea pigs. Chocolate chip, sugar cookies and thumbprint cookies are perennial favorites.
Aaron, my son, was about 10 when a school project briefly lit a spark. With my help he transformed a chocolate cake into a castle, complete with a blue, candy-egg moat and lollipop flags. At Christmas my little elf and I went into overdrive mode.
That year we decided to give homemade cookies to friends and family. We bought colorful tins to fill. Aaron drew holiday tags to place on top of the cookies. Together we baked; the last batch — sugar cookies in traditional holiday shapes: stars, moons and gingerbread men.
Going through my collection of cookie cutters Aaron asked, “Can we make rabbits for Christmas?”
“I don’t see why not,” I replied.
Was it because we were drunk on sugar or faced with the dilemma of what to do with leftover scraps of dough, or was it because holidays mean excess or just plain madness? I don’t really remember. But I recall that, in the end, our Peter Rabbit packed a powerful pecker.
Martha Stewart would probably say, “It’s a good thing” to bake, especially with children.
But I’m pretty sure you won’t find that type of cookie in the stalls of Nuernberg’s Kristkindlmarkt.
May the simple joys of the season forever bring out the child in you.