Welcome to my house for the holidays! It’s that time of year and I thought I’d share a little of my Christmases past with you. Okay, don’t laugh. Each thing has a reason and I’ll try to explain them. But I hope you’ll drop a tip or share one of your holiday traditions at the bottom because we all learn as we go.
Christmas Tree in the Playpen: Our first daughter tipped the scale from sweet little bundle to a walking, climbing, jabbering machine fueled by the Energizer bunny. After saving her from the tree, (or the tree from her) on several occasions, I got the brilliant idea to prevent her from getting seriously hurt. When we put her into bed for the night, we moved the tree into the playpen. Now I didn’t feel as though I was caging her in a pen. She could get her fingers to the tree and to a few packages but she couldn’t cause any damage. She was free to roam. (This trick also works well if there is a new puppy in the house. It does not work for cats!)
Live Trees: Buy a plastic tarp or use a heavy-duty leaf trash bag under a live tree. I liked to tuck old kitchen towels under the live tree reservoir so if water does spill it doesn’t run off the plastic and get to the floor. Protect your wood floors or carpets from accidents! Cover the plastic with a tree skirt. If you have a cat or a dog, cover the open water reservoir with plastic wrap and cover that with a tree skirt.
Young Children: Keep indoor decorations simple. The worst thing is to be constantly telling children not to touch or don’t do that. It’s so negative. They are enthralled with decorations, and it’s natural that they want to touch. Also don’t place grandma’s priceless/irreplaceable china/glass ornament within touching distance of the child. (Beware of dogs who have Happy Tail – also known as Restless Tail Syndrome. They can wipe out the the lower boughs of a tree or anything on the coffee table, etc.)
Let children help with decorations. Paper chains, anyone? We are already into December, but you can help children count down by making a paper chain. Every morning or before they hop into bed in the evening, they get to remove one loop! This is a great way to decorate their room! I’d put the chain just high enough that it was out of their reach. We’d have to lift the children for them to remove a loop. One year when they were pre-school aged, I made the loops and added something special to them. On each loop I wrote a different Christmas project such as bake cookies or make a bird suet ball. They thought that was great fun! They couldn’t wait to remove the loop and discover what craft was in store for them.
Using Cuttings and Other Natural Decorations: Beware of decorating with live branches. Bringing in cuttings from forsythia, pussy willows, etc might not work as well as you expect. Many times, even when spray painted, they have a tendency to realize it is warm and they will put out leaves, flowers, etc. I remember my mom making a beautiful centerpiece and she spray painted several cuttings. Christmas Eve she awakened to yellow flowers decorating her centerpiece.
If using a wreath on the front door, make certain it does not contain real berries. They might fall off and onto the floor when you open the door. You don’t want to poison the children or the pets! And please use artificial mistletoe! (The real stuff can be deadly to young children and pets.)
Wildlife: If decorating outside with real fruits, etc. be forewarned that the wildlife or the neighborhood squirrel might discover that lovely apple tree or Della Robbia wreath! One year as we prepared for our annual Christmas Eve Open House, at the last minute, I realized a raccoon had found my porch. Oh, what a mess! I quickly made a sign that said Merry Christmas, Human Party & Buffet inside, Wildlife Party & Buffet here. (Fortunately our guests laughed.)
Christmas Eve Dinner: This has always been our big meal. It’s a tradition from my mom who didn’t want to spend her Christmas day missing out on all the fun because she was chained to the stove. Most of the food can be done ahead of time. Naturally there were pies and cookies, but there were also things like potato salad, macaroni salad, a molded salad, deviled eggs, all of which can be prepared ahead of time. That just left the ham and the actual salad for Christmas Eve. I switched the green salad for a vegetable nibble tray. My hubby wasn’t a big lettuce eater, but he’d eat carrots, etc., so I would prepare the nibble tray and he and the girls would eat it. I often included cheese, olives, etc., with it. (It’s a great way to sneak the veggies into the children!) Put a few different dressings or dips with it and keep an eye on things. Ham goes in the oven and the meal is easy! Play your favorite Christmas songs and enjoy the family. Christmas Day is leftovers. That’s even easier!
Christmas Eve Gifts: My girls always got to open a package on Christmas Eve. (So did I when I was little.) Trying to get them to sleep is darn hard on Christmas Eve. All those packages calling to them, screaming open me! So a box they can open on Christmas Eve helps to take the edge off. My girls usually got new pajamas. SE Virginia is usually warm up until the end of December, but a few times I got caught and had to let them open their gifts very early! But especially today with all the camera phones, Skyping etc., you want to preserve and share memories of your children looking their very best. New pajamas are a great way to do that! It doesn’t really matter if they are blue snowflakes or pink princess nightgowns, at least they will fit and not be ten inches too short because they outgrew last year’s nightwear. Do not give them a toy with which they will want to play all night or anything with lots of tiny pieces unless you’ve had an early dinner and plan for them to have time to enjoy the new toy.
Stockings: Our first house didn’t have a fireplace or a mantel so stockings were hung on the child’s doorknob. (Thread a heavy-duty rubber band through the stocking hanging loop. That made it easy to hang the stocking on the doorknob.) Place small interesting things in the stocking. At least one thing should make them want to quietly play. If you have girls, put things like earrings in there so those little boxes don’t get lost in all the piles of wrapping paper later. Our girls were told when they awakened, they were to grab their stocking and head to our room with it. They could open their stocking stuff on our bed. This gave us a chance to open our eyes, take turns brushing our teeth, and one of us (usually me) ran to the kitchen to make coffee and start breakfast (I’ll explain that below). It also kept one child from waking another.
Christmas Breakfast: This tradition came from my husband. As a child everyone went his Mémè and Pépè’s house (French Canadian grandparents). That must have been a madhouse with that large family. Mémè and Pépè had a huge brood of their own, and then those children had children! Plus Mémè had a ton of sisters who came with their families. All the women kicked in and cooked up a storm. They had roast beef, pork roast, ham, turkey, tons of seafood, etc. They had French foods I can’t pronounce and the festivities started on Christmas Eve, then everyone left before midnight for Mass. After Mass, they returned to Mémè and Pépè’s because Santa would come while they were at church. So children were running around until almost dawn when they were packed up and taken home for more Christmas presents at home. Then everyone returned to Mémè and Pépè’s for brunch. Really? Did these children sleep? According to my husband, they didn’t. (Oh, I can imagine a house full of tired, cranky children. No thanks!) But one of the main foods was something called took-kay.
My husband loved took-kay. The first Christmas we had together, his mom served took-kay or too-kay or however it is pronounced. I think I stood in my MIL’s kitchen for 20 minutes trying to pronounce it correctly. I gave up. It’s took-kay. Which is probably a childhood slur. I’d had eight years of proper Parisian French and in those days I was rather fluent so you can imagine my surprise when I was handed a copy of the recipe with the name written on the top. No wonder I never understood much of what they were saying in French.
But this pie meant Christmas to my husband and so I learned to make it, as have my children, and now my one granddaughter makes it. (The other granddaughter is a vegan.) So I make these pies ahead of time. In the morning, I place the pie in the oven and allow the pie to warm while we are opening presents. There were such a hit in my family, I’d buy about five pounds of pork and a big bag of boiling potatoes.
Ground Pork: I will warn you, I did cheat from the original recipe. I’m not into grinding my own meat! But I will ask the butcher to grind it for me and I place that order usually about a week before I make the pies. Most grocery stores aren’t thrilled about grinding pork. They have to totally clean the grinding machine before and after. It’s labor intensive and there’s not enough call for it. I also use very lean pork and do not mix extra fat into it. And since I’m not cooking a few pork roasts with it, I buy packets of gravy. (Shh! Don’t tell anyone!)
In my own defense, the last Christmas before my hubby died, we drove up Christmas Day to see his parents and I bought pies with me. His mother was stubborn and refused to eat my pie because no one can make them as well as she does. And they weren’t refrigerated. No, they weren’t. I had them in a cooler so that they wouldn’t freeze in the car’s trunk on the way up! Then my father-in-law sits at the table and announces that he wants some. I warmed a pie and sliced it for those of us who would eat it. My father-in-law sat there humming and yumming over each bite of my pie. Then announced it was the best took-kay he’d ever eaten. Inside, I was busting my buttons, but outside, I was cringing because I knew that would upset my mother-in-law.
This year my granddaughter cheated and used a store bought pie crust. Why? I taught her to make pie crusts! It takes only a few minutes to make them. I won’t say a thing because I don’t want to turn into that cranky, old lady who thinks that she’s the only one who knows how to do anything. My mother-in-law’s pies were delicious but way too much work, and it wasn’t necessary.
1 pound of ground pork (I ask the butcher to grind very lean pork for me. It costs a few cents more, but it’s worth it.)
2 medium boiled and peeled potatoes (Cut up fine. You want some texture but no large chunks.)
One fat slice of mild onion (or cheat with powdered onion and skip sautéing in butter.)
1/2 teaspoon of cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon of cloves
a dash of salt and little butter
pork gravy (you can cheat and use packaged pork gravy)
Cut up the onion into very fine pieces and sauté in butter. Add ground pork and stir until cooked. (You want it cooked but not hard and crunchy.) Turn stove off. Drain any excess fat. Stir in seasonings. Gently add the potatoes. You will need about a cup of gravy. I save my unsalted potato water and mix that with the gravy packet. Add that gravy to the meat and potato mixture and lightly stir.
(I swear they are so easy to make and taste delicious. You’ll never use store bought again.)
2 cups of all purpose flour
1 teaspoon of salt
2/3 cup + 2 Tablespoons of shortening
4-5 Tablespoons of cold water
A pie plate (8-9 inches)
Measure flour and salt into a bowl. Cut in shortening. Take two knives (one in each hand) and cut until shortening seems to vanish into the flour and it all becomes grainy. Sprinkle in water, mix until the dough begins to form a ball and pulls from the sides of the bowl. Gather into a ball with your hands and cut the ball in half. Cover the one unused half with a damp paper towel.
Don’t worry about having a dough board, etc. Make certain your countertop is extra clean. Sprinkle it with flour. Be generous. If you don’t have a rolling pin, substitute with something that will roll such as a smooth glass jar or drinking glass. Sprinkle a little flour on the dough ball and don’t be afraid to sprinkle more flour as you go. Roll the half ball into something about the size of your hand. Pick it up, flip it over, and roll it using pie slice strokes to create a round shape. (Think of a clock and roll from the center to the 12, then from the center to the 2, from the center to the 4, etc.) The flattened dough needs to be about two inches larger than the rim of the pie plate and should be slightly under a fourth of an inch thick. Don’t worry about ragged edges.
When I taught my children, I often used waxed paper under the pie crust as they rolled. I’d let them roll it out part of the way on the counter, and then when I flipped it over, I put it on waxed paper that had been floured. The waxed paper tends to slip around so I’d glue it down with a smear of dough on the countertop. I’d let them mark the circle on the waxed paper with a pen ahead of time (invert the pie plate on the paper and mark) so they knew how far the dough had to stretch. (Put the marked side down on the counter.) Then it’s easy to pick the crust up, waxed paper and all, and flip it over into the pie plate. Gently peel the waxed paper off and push the crust into place. Fix cracks, etc, with a wet finger as you push the dough back together. (Practice will teach you not to have cracks, but if you get them, it won’t change the taste.) Trim the crust slightly beyond the edge of the plate.
Fill pie with meat filling. Do not exceed the height of the pie plate. And don’t try to pack it tight. (Any excess filling can be heated in the microwave and eaten on toast. If you have enough you can make another pie or by adding a little extra potato you can create enough to fill one more pie. Don’t want one more pie? Freeze the leftover.)
Make a top crust by rolling out the other half. Lay it gently on the pie. With luck this one will look much better. (The bottom crust was practice, right?)
If you have clean pastry shears you can cut the dough, if not, use a sharp knife and remove all but an extra inch. Tuck that top layer under the bottom layer on the rim and flute it with your fingers. Or cut both crusts to the edge of the pie plate and run a damped finger between the two so that they stick together. Use the handle of a spoon and press them together or use the tines of a fork. You can make pretty fluted patterns doing it.
Cover the edges of the plate with a foil sleeve to protect the edges from getting too brown. This pie needs to be vented so that the steam escapes. The quick way is to put 2-3 one-inch knife slices in the center. Bake the pie at 425 degrees Fahrenheit until it begins to brown.
Remove the pie, allow it to cool and refrigerate. Then I reheat it without the foil on the edges. Or remove foil to allow the edges to brown and serve hot. Make some extra gravy to pour over it when it’s served. (I’ve also seen hubby’s family eat it with ketchup on it.)
I decorate the crust and this has become a tradition in my house. It doesn’t take much skill and it’s fun! It only takes a sharp knife and toothpicks. (Let the kids decorate it with toothpicks, and then you can use a the point of a sharp knife and stab it in their lines!) Over the years trees have become elaborate things with presents under them and Christmas balls hang from pine branches. Some years the pie crusts haven’t looked that great especially when the younger generations were learning. And lately it’s been the same with the grandchildren making them, but they taste wonderful.
I’m better with a knife and toothpicks than I am with a mouse in my hand! 🙂
No matter what holiday you celebrate, I hope December is filled with family, friends, joy, and peace.
Happy Hanukkah, may the lights always shine.
Christmas on Main Street
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