I was raised by custom; you could say I was custom-made. My parents were immigrants and at Christmas especially they clung to the familiar and comforting traditions of their youth. Food was front and center, with the whole of December given over to preparing traditional dishes.
First, with a strong arm, a great beating of eggs and strenuous stirring, Mom prepared her dense dark fruitcake. In the middle of the month, under Dad’s tutelage a tiny bottle of Hires Root Beer Extract was turned into gallons of delicious bottles of root beer that, during aging in a warm closet, often exploded. Somewhat later, meat for headcheese was boiled, chopped up and pressed in a dish weighed down on top by an old flatiron, after which it was carefully wrapped in cheesecloth and kept in the bottom of the fridge. Dad liked headcheese; us kids not so much. What we really liked was setting up the meat grinder and taking turns cranking out long coils of potato sausage or potatiskorv. Boiled, then cut in chunks and fried, korv was a staple of any proper Swedish smörgåsbord.
We young folks also enjoyed making Spritz cookies, squeezing green and pink dough through the cookie press and decorating the fancy shapes afterwards with icing and sprinkles.
I don’t make every dish of my childhood at Christmas—who would eat it all?—but I make a few special things, like Swedish brown beans seasoned simply with vinegar and brown sugar. For many years we held Open Houses in the Cove during December, every household serving up its own unique treats, and I always prepared Swedish brown beans… for the one or two people who always tried them.
I also made raised donuts, light and tender with a hint of nutmeg. Deep-frying on the day of a party was a challenge due to the clinging odor of hot oil. Will we ever have Open Houses in the Cove again? I sure hope so. My donuts are calling. Plus I miss walking up to a neighbour’s door, tapping politely, then walking right in.
At least one tradition is happening again: the Living Nativity. “This year is the last,” says Doreen. A light spectacle not to be missed, this community extravaganza reminds us that we are not alone… that in this darkest season, while we wait, hoping the sun has not forsaken us… we have each other. And we have Christmas lights. Ladders are out all over the country with brave souls climbing up to hook colored lights on every available branch and outcropping. Lighting up the night with color: what a lovely gesture.
I meant to write about the gannets that were spotted diving offshore, and the fourteen seals gamboling in the Cove at high tide. And mention that the herons are gone but we have more bald eagles than usual. Those things will have to wait for another time.
I hope you have many beloved customs in your life, and this special season finds you full of hope and joy, and in my case, Swedish brown beans.