We had so much food. I don’t know what I was thinking. It wasn’t Christmas dinner. It was the White House Correspondents’ Dinner. There was crostini with roasted tomatoes and mozzarella, and the best pepper dip this side of Harry & David. There was turkey, and ham, and David’s mom’s lasagna. There was green beans, and corn, and my aunt’s mashed potatoes and sweet potatoes and my mom’s stuffing, with homemade biscuits to go along with them. We had malbec and cabernet, and Sam Adams winter pack on ice, and two open bottles of sparkling wine. There would have been Brussels sprouts, which I’d roasted the day before thinking I’d just heat them up and throw more salt on them (have you had roasted Brussels sprouts? I’ve never liked the things–those strange-looking, mini cabbages–but roasted, with lots of kosher salt, they taste like vegetables that waged a bet with French fries, lost, and are now forced to wear their underwear over their clothes for a year. That’s a good thing), but then I decided that morning that cooked Brussels sprouts reek like a Port-a-Potty forgotten in an underground SEPTA train station, and opted to stash them in the back of the fridge until after our guests had left.
Sorry, my Philadelphia friends. But some of my most defining memories of my time working in Philly, other than getting hit on by my married boss one night at a happy hour at McGillin’s, and the depressed look of all the business people with their briefcases on the R5 to Ardmore (both of which ended up being big signs that a publishing career in the City of Brotherly Love was not for me) are the smell of the human pee-soaked sidewalk directly across the street from 1617 JFK Boulevard, and the decomposing animal-scented stairway under One Penn Station. I love the Philadelph, don’t get me wrong, and wish I got back to it more often especially now that I’ve moved away. But I didn’t want my kitchen smelling like Center City in August. You can’t blame me there.
So, no Brussels sprouts on the table, and lots of candles lit to disguise what was left behind from me roasting them the day before. It was Christmas day at our house, and were lucky enough to host David’s family, and some of my dear ones, as well. I say lucky because it was so nice to have all these people we love under one roof. It was wonderful that my children were able to spend time with their bounty from Santa that morning, and later wake from their naps to a houseful of family. As nervous as I was in all the preparations, I had a husband who dives in there with me, with cleaning (and, yes, my directives because I HAVE IT ALL UNDER CONTROL DAMMIT) and setting up the table and all that good stuff.
David was up until 3 o’clock in the morning of Christmas putting together a train table with my brother, who graciously offered/got sucked into sticking around after Christmas Eve mass to help. Then he was up to 2 a.m. the next night (my husband, not my brother) reorganizing the train tracks and new accessories so that it was all set up perfectly. That and I think he wanted the excuse to play without having to be polite to his wee offspring. I swear I heard him giggling.
For dessert, we had fruit, and flourless chocolate cake, and gooey butter cake (thank you, John McGuire–my former colleague–who innocently posted something about this cake on Facebook and has ruined me forever. No, there’s no cheese in the cake, as many people who’ve tried it ask. It’s butter. Just butter and sugar and more butter and SO MUCH BUTTER), and banana bread with chocolate and cinnamon-sugar, and chocolate toffee and peppermint bark, and cookies: chocolate chip, and sugar, and oatmeal/cranberry/white chocolate (thanks to my friend Kate for that one), and cranberry sandies. There was so much. Too much. Why?
Because I love it. Because to me having lots of food and baking with my children are just as important as reading books and teaching them their manners. And around the holidays, food preparation is how I show people I care. I want them to be comfortable. I don’t want them to be wanting. So I make sure they’re fed. And in the weeks leading up to Christmas, I think that preparing food is as much of a tradition as decorating the tree, and wrapping gifts. We do all of these as a family. They’re ways to get stuff done while spending time with the kiddos. At least that’s what I tell myself. I also selfishly love to get all creative-y and play with colored sugar and experiment. It’s fun. The dishes, not so much. But you take what you can get.
So did I make too much? Um, yeah. We’ve been eating nothing but biscuits and cookies for days. Did I mention the bread pudding and bacon and scones I made for Christmas morning breakfast, even though it was just the four of us and I may very well be insane?
We overestimated a lot this year. Our Christmas tree takes up most of our living room. We had a bit of a Griswoldian moment picking it out, but it’s lovely, even if you can’t see anyone else in the room if you stand beside it.
But there’s one chair beside it that’s sort of wedged into a corner at the moment, and if you sit in that, all you really see is the tree, and the view from our picture window. It’s one of my favorite spots right now. From there you see our favorite ornaments: the crystal snowflake my high school friend gave to us for our wedding, the brass Celtic cross my aunt gave to me in high school, the paper plate angel Saoirse crafted in school this year. I see a map of our family life together, David’s and mine, and laugh at how there are no ornamaents on the bottom half of the tree because the girls keep using them for shotput practice. I hear Saoirse calling out, “Happy Merry Christmas!!” to whomever walks by, and realize again that, when it comes down to brass tacks (tacks, right? Not knuckles. That’d be a whole different analogy), life is pretty darned good when you just stick to what you see in front of you.
Christmas was overwhelming this year. Not just because I spent four weeks leading up to it glued to either the sink, my stand mixer, or the oven. Not because there’s always that tamping down of grief when you’re missing people who won’t be with you. But there was just so much of everything. So many plans, so much food, so many gifts. It’s a lot. David and I try to do as much as we can for charity throughout the year (do I sound all richie-rich philanthropist? Why not?), and especially at the holidays, but it wasn’t enough this year, I don’t think, not in comparison to what we gave and received. Even Quinn melted down halfway through Christmas morning–too many presents, too much wrapping paper. We ended up putting her in her crib for an hour around 10 o’clock, and she happily curled up into fetal position, talking to herself, until she’d calmed down. Right before that, I’d offered Saoirse the stocking Santa had left for her–and she told me she didn’t want to see what was inside, that she already had enough gifts. Next year will be simpler, I think. It needs to be. I think that, once again, our children know what’s right.
It’s still a heckuva lot of fun to do all the cooking and baking, though. Especially now that I have two little people to help measure ingredients and taste-test along the way. And I’d do it again, even if the only one who ate most of the desserts after that huge dinner was, well, me. And we’ll probably still be up to 3 a.m. next year putting together some “big” gift for our children, because it’s just too much fun to see their faces light up on Christmas morning. And David really likes the excuse to go play with the girls’s cars and blocks. But don’t tell him I told you.
I got Quinn up from her nap yesterday afternoon, and she still seemed sort of exhausted. We’d had a whirlwind three days of family visits and outings and travel, and she’s still getting over a doozy of a cold. I put her on the changing table to take off her diaper, bracing myself for a struggle. She’s at that stage where she’ll twist and fight and writhe because she hates the table so much (granted, she’s about twice as long as the thing now because we’re raising giants), but this time she was quiet, looking at me, sucking her thumb like she does when she sleeps. And then she reached her arms up to me. “I want a ho,” she said. “Uh. What was that, sweetie?” I replied. “I want a ho,” she said again. “Oh,” I realized. “You want a hug.” She smiled. “Yeah. A ho.” And she wrapped her little arms around my neck, calm and warm and quiet.
Happy Merry Christmas, anyone. I hope you enjoyed your holiday. Oh, and if you’re hungry, feel free to stop on by. I’m sure we still have some of that butter cake lying around. I certainly made enough.