Christmas is almost here! My son is nearly apoplectic with excitement and I'm more than a little overwhelmed with everything that I have to get done in the next two days. And then I read an essay like this one today from Ami McKay, author of the novel, The Birth House, and I realize it's time to take a step back. This essay reminds me so much about what is important about Christmas, and how having a mother who embraces it (as I do as well), enriches it in so many ways. My mother also gave me the gift of Christmas, and it's one I want to thank her for every day.
This is my second Christmas without my mother.
She died suddenly on a January morning after one last holiday season with our family. It was a shock. It was too soon. I wasn’t ready. When I went home for her funeral, I stood in my sister’s arms, in the kitchen of our childhood and cried like I’ve never cried before. It was a stop all the clocks moment, where the familiar contents of that room - the shining chrome stovetop, the set of songbird coffee mugs, the scalloped copper hood on the exhaust fan circa 1973, the battered countertop caddy bursting with wooden spoons, wire whisks and rubber spatulas – all seemed to say that it couldn’t be true, that any moment now our mother was going to walk through the door, put her hands on her hips and teasingly say, “Snap out of it, girls. There’s work to be done.”
In the sadness of the days that followed, reminders of her came to me like messengers from the past - some easy and kind, others unexpected, yet still comforting. While searching for a mixing bowl in my parents’ pantry, I discovered a Tupperware tub half full of cookies that she’d tucked away (as she’d always done in Christmases past) so she and Dad could have a sweet or two with their morning coffee after the kids and grandchildren had cleared out after New Years. Fumbling through a cupboard for a bottle of Tylenol, my fingers found the butter spotted envelope where Mom kept her collection of Christmas recipes.
She was the Queen of Christmas. She adored the sparkle and hopefulness of the season, sewing sweet dresses for her girls from velvet and lace, trimming the tree from top to bottom, carrying armfuls of poinsettias into the house.
I opened the envelope and shuffled through the pile of index cards. Seeing her handwriting reduced me to tears yet again. Aunt Cleo’s Lemon Squares (with a note: “these don’t store well, so make them last.”) Butter Cookies for my grandmother’s old metal cookie press – “don’t let go too brown.” And the long, involved instructions for making Lebkuchen, a recipe that had been passed down from her beloved grandmother. Attached to the recipe for the Lebkuchen was a list of eleven tips, (equal to the number of cups of flour required to make the cookies.) Tip number five warned, “Don’t make this on a day that you just cleaned the kitchen.”
Grandma Tilly’s Lebkuchen had helped me battle the terrible bouts of morning sickness that had accompanied both my pregnancies. The second time around, I hadn’t even told Mom I was expecting when she showed up at my house on a hot July day with a tin of the magical cookies. “I thought you might be needing these,” she’d said with a knowing smile.
This year I bought all the ingredients to make Tilly’s Lebkuken, (a task I’ve never tackled without Mom by my side.) I brought everything home from the store- the molasses, the raisins, the sugar, the flour, the lemon peel – and put it away in the cupboard. Then I stood there thinking, “What are you doing? You’re no Queen of Christmas.”
It was true. I could never hope to make Christmas like my mother did. Despite her love of all things Yuletide, I always preferred the shadows of the season. I cared for the ghosts in Dickens’ A Christmas Carol far more than Tiny Tim. I relished the part in the nativity story where the angel made the shepherds sore afraid. Even my favourite Christmas carol, “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel,” is in a minor key.
Mom knew this about me and never seemed to mind. She went on her merry way and simply said “to each her own.” I realize now, it was her joy in embracing the season that allowed me to revel in the dark.
As I look around my kitchen this morning I see it’s in no danger of having just been cleaned. It’s as good a day as any to give the Lebkuchen a try. Somehow Mom’s voice is pushing into my head, working to replace my doubts. “Snap out of it and roll up your sleeves. Bake the cookies or don’t – just make Christmas your own.”