Christmas has an appeal that transcends religion, faith, Santa Claus and even Walmart. Take me, for instance—I enter a church ready for the lightning bolt to smite me. Even yoga is a bit too spiritual for me. And yet, I embrace this Christian celebration with utter enthusiasm. Why? Because Christmas can be all things to all people. It is a holiday that anyone with affection for tradition—be it secular or not, family-style or holiday-orphaned—can sink their teeth into. What’s not to love?
Food is taken to new heights every Christmas season while also honoring every fond childhood memory: homemade fudge, divinity, ambrosia, fruit cakes, cheese straws, roasted chestnuts … and let’s not forget turkey and dressing, baked ham, oyster stuffing, mirliton dressing, cranberry sauce, cranberry anything. And oh, the Yule Tide toddies such as champagne, milk punch, hot buttered rum, eggnog, and even an ice cold Miller High Life at your local bar with friends! The libation that I associate with Christmas is simply Old Granddad Bourbon with Coca-Cola because that was what my Uncle Frank served me when I was old enough to partake. I still love recalling the feeling of everyone cramming into my aunt and uncle’s small, brightly lit kitchen, the sound of ice cubes being cracked loose from those aluminum freezer trays, and the smell of freshly baked cheese straws in the oven. With drinks freshened and plates full of holiday hors d’oeuvres, we would return to the living room with its metallic Christmas tree and Perry Como from the Zenith turntable. The mere smell of bourbon puts me right back in that house.
Food partners with the many holiday rituals that surround the season. Dining traditions range from elaborate Reveillon meals served upon the finest of china to pot luck buffets set up at our favorite neighborhood bars. Foods might range from turducken to seafood gumbo to burgers and beer shared with your best friend.
For some, holiday meals are bittersweet, with a church or community center providing perhaps a person’s only full-course meal in months. And while I personally find it disturbing that we suddenly remember the homeless and poor and throw ‘em a meal to assuage our guilt and often forget them the next day, I suspect that those having a hot meal with some degree of fanfare on Christmas are more focused on a respite from hunger (if only for a day) than our motives or guilt. Certainly there are many who tend to the poor year round, but the televised coverage of volunteers serving turkey and dressing on Thanksgiving and Christmas seems to be required viewing. Yet, do the lessons of need remain with us? Or do we forget until next Christmas?
Christmas should be an opportunity to give and to receive—not to go into debt and give rise to more box stores, but rather a time to think “out of the box” and be creative with gifts and to receive them with a “pay it forward” plan for the entire year. You know that homemade box of candy your neighbor made and gave to you in a little tin? Didn’t it just make your day? Well, don’t wait til next holiday season. Refill that box with something you’ve baked and surprise them with it after they come home from a long day at work. See some tasty wine on sale—buy a couple of extra bottles and welcome a new neighbor with one, or lift that friend who’s been down in the dumps with a bottle of cheer. Re-purpose your Christmas cards and turn ‘em into postcards to give some cheer year round (nothing like Christmas in July to cool you down). My dear friend Marinnette has a habit of giving “Happys” year round—these gifts might be a bag of cat food for a friend feeding strays or some of her homemade chili for a neighbor. Thrift stores are great places to shop for little “cheers.”
To return to my slights against the consumerism that empowers corporate retail (you just knew I couldn’t resist), let’s be clear that commercialism does dominate the holidays. And while shopping has sadly become synonymous with Christmas, it can be a way to help the economy and especially to give small businesses a tremendous leg up. Anyone who reads this column knows I have a vested interest in shopping local and supporting independent businesses (yes, I have a small business) and therefore I can speak quite clearly from the heart and the pocketbook about spending your hard-earned money where it does the most good. So, if the holidays are a time when you purchase gifts, be sure to choose wisely and think “Shop Local and Shop Small.”
For so many, Christmas is that time to connect with family. And the holidays are an excellent excuse to take time from work and everyday distractions to remember those who make up your family. Perhaps your family is far away and travel is simply not an option, yet this doesn’t mean you can’t set aside extra time for phone calls—not a quick cell yammer while dodging traffic, but rather a leisurely time spent one evening, toasting each other with respective glasses of long-distance cheer and conversation. I miss my hometown memories of family, but my sister Susan and I will share, via telephone, some half-forgotten tidbits, plot a trip to visit each other, and realize that sisterhood has grown into a solid friendship. And I am here to tell you that I have been blessed to have spent the past 26 Christmases with my family of New Orleans friends. To be family, you needn’t share lineage—just love.