My mother almost always did homemade presents, sewn or knit. She and my Aunt Elizabeth had a competition going for crafty decorations, Christmas and otherwise. One year they made dozens of sets between them of Wise Men made from cone-shaped industrial thread spools, scrap fabric, and old jewelry. There were wreaths, swags, dried arrangements, mostly from found materials, not made in China from a big box craft store. For a year or two there were “snow” candles, covered with paraffin snow whipped with a hand mixer.
Starting before I was born, my mother made dozens of kinds of candies, cookies, and fruitcake each year at Christmas. These were carefully arranged on painted tin trays or in tin boxes. When the cooking and baking, started before Thanksgiving with the fruitcakes, was done, the dining table became an assembly line for filling the trays and tins. My mother’s fellow teachers and the church choir all got one, and one Christmas Eve we would drive around town distributing them to friends, relatives, and shut-ins.
I had been married only one Christmas when my parents were killed in a car wreck. I inherited the recipes, and the idea that Christmas was made by all this special food. We lived far away, and didn’t have as many co-workers, choir members, shut-ins, and friends and relatives handy. We did pack up tins and travel with them on our holiday trips to West Virginia and North Carolina, but that didn’t use up nearly enough. The Hungarian Christmas cookies alone make 12 dozen, and somehow cutting the recipe, which says to mix them in a dishpan (a mixing bowl not being large enough), seemed against tradition. So we started having a Christmas Open House, usually a Sunday or two before Christmas. I had also inherited my mother’s Fostoria crystal punch bowl and cups (and Robert had come with an inherited set of his own) and various matching cake plates, platters and trays, so they needed to be used occasionally. Robert is half Norwegian, where there is a tradition of gløgg, and so we have always served mulled wine, and mulled cranberry juice for the non-alcohol drinkers.
We skipped the last few years for various reasons, and I discovered that yes, indeed, it is still Christmas without a single cookie. This year we had one for our new neighbors and friends, and our newly-close relatives, the day after Christmas. After discussion, we decided just to do the few things that at least one of us loves: Julekage, which my husband always makes from his grandmother’s recipe, the Hungarian Christmas cookies, sand tarts, and springerle. Our son and daughter wanted to add ginger snaps, and Robert wanted sugar cookies to revisit his family tradition and use the cookie cutters we have collected. And we made a big batch of party mix, which I then eat for lunch long after the holidays.
Everyone agreed that the sugarplum strawberries, a 1960s Good Housekeeping recipe, were fun to make, cute to look at, but ultimately disgusting. (If you are interested, Google for “coconut strawberries” – there are videos.)