It is a few weeks before Christmas and I am making mashed potatoes, forcing buttery colored chunks of starch into submission with the help of ample butter and cream. As I work, I listen to my chirpy toddler sing the ABCs in the next room and realize that, at thirty-eight years old, I am mashing potatoes for the very first time.
I cook every day. Huge pots of steel cut oats layered with cinnamon and vanilla and chopped prunes; persimmon cakes cooked in a well-seasoned cast iron skillet, pans and pans full of roasted vegetables, roasted chickpeas, roasted chicken. But never mashed potatoes. I leave that sort of thing to my mom, not because it’s hard, but because she is the holiday cook. She stocks her pantry with pounds of butter and sugar and flour. She makes a special trip to the artisanal grocer to order the holiday bird. She roasts and bastes and bakes and makes it all seem organized and effortless.
All I do is show up and eat. It’s been like this since I was a child and I want it to be like this forever. There’s just one problem with this comforting ritual: now I’m a mother, too. And I worry that when it comes to the glittery creativity and cozy domesticity that defines being a good mother at Christmastime, I am a semi-homemade hack. I put in some effort into the holidays and it usually turns out ok, but my results are hardly the stuff of blissful childhood memory.
My family and I live in San Francisco, California, but I was raised in Salt Lake City, Utah. And Utah is where I’ve spent every Christmas of my entire life. In college, I decided against studying abroad in the fall because it would have meant spending the holidays away from home. My first year of marriage, I threw such a fit when it was suggested that we might spend Christmas with my in-laws that the idea has never been mentioned again. Now my husband and I have one child and another on the way. And for the third year in a row we are traveling to Utah for Thanksgiving and Christmas, something most mothers I know consider to be completely crazy.
It is a little crazy. It is also completely magical. There’s almost always snow. There is a wreath on nearly every door and a sparkly tree in just as many windows. But even more important than the details are the people. I like spending Christmas with my family and can’t imagine it any other way.
On Christmas Day we take an afternoon walk, waving and saying hello and Merry Christmas as we pass. My husband spent part of his childhood in Rome, and the first year he visited, he said the neighborly holiday traditions reminded him of a Roman Christmas. Of getting new clothes for Christmas, of putting them on after unwrapping all the presents, of a big lunch, a postprandial walk in the cold, of saying Buon Natale! to everyone you saw.
Of course, food is a huge part of our holiday tradition. And like most, our traditions are distinctly ours. I’m not exactly sure what most people eat for breakfast on Christmas morning. In the blogs and magazines there is more talk of dinner: roasts and hams, traditional side dishes, and rich desserts. But the day has to start somehow; you can’t dig through stockings and unwrap presents on an empty stomach. And it’s Christmas, so it better be special. That means no bowls of cold cereal or skimpy slices of toast.
For as long as I can remember we have eaten the same breakfast every Christmas morning: my mother’s savory egg strata, citrusy ambrosia made from my Southern Grandmother’s recipe, and a wreath shaped yeasted sweet bread stuffed with walnuts, cinnamon, and raisins, drizzled with vanilla glaze, and doused with red and green sprinkles, an annual gift from a dear friend.
My Mother prepares the strata, essentially a savory bread pudding with eggs, sausage, and sharp cheddar cheese, on Christmas Eve and bakes it on Christmas morning. My Dad wakes up early, lights a fire, and queues some holiday music. It is hard to say what wakes me first: the eggy, cheesy smell of the strata, the noise of coffee percolating, or music and the sounds of rustling paper as the dog pokes her nose into the presents.
As a child we were encouraged to “eat a little something first” before starting to open the gifts. This didn’t work then, and it doesn’t now. Even as a group of mostly adults, we still eat buffet style, loading up a plate in the dining room before sitting around the tree to poke through stockings and presents. We lounge and pick at the breakfast food all day. I always have at least two hunks of the sweet holiday bread. And several cups of coffee. And, eventually, a big nap. It has been like this since I was a child, and I want it to be like this forever.
Of course, not everything about the holidays is so cheery and bright. The travel is a drag, especially with a young child. We pack huge suitcases full of coats, wooly socks, knitted hats and fuzzy footed pjs. Mid-December, I mail boxes of Christmas gifts to my mom, only to box them up and mail them back again a couple of weeks later.
There are more subtle nuisances, too. The baby tends to forget how to sleep while on vacation. Sometimes it’s too cold to go out and play. My parents are used to running on their own time and prone to accidentally eating late, which never works well with a hungry and tired toddler. While we are there, I wish on a regular basis that we had just decided to stay home.
It’s a hassle for them too, I’m sure. We arrive excitedly from the sunshiney West, ready for snow flurries and holiday cheer. So that’s what my parents try to provide. There are winter walks and trips to the mountain, roaring fires and constant Christmas tunes. We eat and drink as if it’s a party every night. There are cheese plates, Manhattans, bottles of bubbly popped in front of the elaborate tree. It is wonderful, memorable, and exhausting.
And now, for me, there’s guilt: Shouldn’t I be in charge of doing all the magical things that make Christmas, Christmas? Isn’t that what good mothers do?
I worry that when she is older Vera will have grand memories of my mother’s festive home and groaning table and that in comparison I’ll seem parsimonious and uninspired. But when I think about doing things differently, my heart starts to hurt. It’s been like this since I was a child and I want it to be like this forever.
Vera was born in September, and that year, the holidays were perfect. She was a warm bun, sleeping and eating and gazing contentedly in the direction of the twinkling tree. One afternoon I strapped her to my chest to make cookies, my signature holiday contribution. Cutout hearts and stars, trees and angels, all festooned with expensive, colorful sanding sugar I’d splurged on at Dean and Deluca during the regular trips to New York I made before having a baby.
The following year felt different. My toddler was well-behaved but curious, she couldn’t be left alone for a moment. And the other adults meant well, but had plenty of things to do. While they shopped and cooked and chatted in the kitchen, I sat in the living room for hours on end, patiently trying to teach Vera how to push the buttons on the light-up toy my mother had purchased at a secondhand shop. There was no time to make cookies.
I couldn’t help but think how much easier things would be if we were at my house. My house was childproofed. At my house there were boxes of baby toys and books. At my house it was sunny and mild, we could walk to the park every day and take three-hour naps in our familiar, cozy beds.
True, it wouldn’t be the same. There’s no space in my house for a grand tree. And the trimmings would be slim; my boxes of holiday decorations take up two small boxes not a corner of the basement. While I can execute sugar cookies like a pro, I don’t know anything about making Cioppino, the traditional Italian fish soup, which is what my mother typically serves on Christmas Eve.
When I think about my conflicted feelings, I realize that part of the reason I hold tightly to existing traditions is because I’m worried that I’ll never do things as elegantly as my mother has. When I think more carefully about this, it seems silly. After all, once upon a times she was like me, a new mother with a to-do list a mile long, completely overwhelmed by the idea of planning and executing the holidays. Still. I want Vera to have good memories of Christmas; I want her to think I do things exactly the right way. I want her to want to spend the holidays with me forever. In order to do that I must, at some point, start to make Christmas mine.
This year, we began with what I do best: Christmas cookies. Why not?! Vera exclaimed again and again as a snowy pile of tiny white balls piled up on a single cookie. When she paused to examine her work she shook with excitement.
It was nighttime. The dining room was cozy with low lights and a flickering candle. There was music my parents would never listen to on the record player.
I want it to be like this forever.
1.5 cups butter, softened
2 tsp salt
Mix thoroughly butter, sugar, eggs and vanilla. Blend in flour, baking powder and salt. Cover or put in plastic bag and chill at least one hour. Heat oven to 400. Roll small portions of dough 1/8 inch thick on floured cloth. Cut into shapes using cookie cutters. Place on un-greased or parchment covered covered cookie sheets and bake 6-8 minutes, or until just done. Do not over-brown.
Anne Zimmerman is the author and editor of three books about the food writer M.F.K. Fisher. She lives in San Francisco with her husband and daughter, where she teaches non-fiction in Stanford University’s Online Writers’ Studio. She is working on another book.