The gifts that keep on giving

It would be nice if the concept of regifting was about protecting the environment but really it’s about making that mangy—I mean festive—stuffed reindeer wearing a Maple Leafs hat someone else’s problem. It’s like a demented holiday version of hot potato.

The object is to get rid of the mug with “You have to look through the rain to see the rainbow” emblazoned across it in the colours of the rainbow, or the “belly button brush,” before the holidays end or you’re stuck with it. I suppose those can be regifted throughout the year but that mangy reindeer can’t be rewrapped for a July birthday.

Personally, I think it’s cheating to continue doling out the flotsam and jetsam of the holidays between Christmas and New Year’s. Once Christmas has passed and the carols have stopped that’s it. Game over.

Tony’s family has an odd tradition they call the “lucky dip.” I suspect they’re being ironic. Everyone buys three gifts worth $1-$5 which are wrapped and placed in a pile. Everyone takes a turn pulling a gift until there’s nothing left. There could be anything underneath the snowman paper held together with gobs of tape on the folded ends. That’s what makes it stressful.

If you’re lucky you get a chocolate bar and lottery ticket or the much sought after box of Viva Puffs—those cookies with marshmallows, jam, and a “chocolaty coating.” You can steal a gift if it’s something you really want. That’s rare though. Mostly you’re just thankful you didn’t get the lacy dollar-store thong.

The beets go on…

This year my husband bought a package of pickled beets, which originated in Romania. He thinks it’s funny. Some poor sod is going to have to take those home because Veronica, Tony’s mom, has an eagle eye, so there’s no way to “forget” a gift at her house. I’ve tried it. I had one boot on when she came down the stairs carrying my orange pylon. “Don’t forget this,” she said holding it out to me.

There has been a tradition of regifting in this game. Several years back there was a pregnancy test that reappeared year after year. My niece August and I tried to saddle one another throughout the year with a pair of elbow-long pink rubber gloves with “Princess” written across them. I’d slip them into her backpack and she’d hide them somewhere in the house. I don’t know what happened to them. But I suspect I have them somewhere.

It’s not just purchased gifts that get regifted. Home kitchens turn into Mr. Christie factories at this time of year as everyone rolls up their sleeves and digs out a rolling pin. Those sugary calories have to go somewhere and, personally, I’d prefer that it be someone else’s thighs.

I don’t really bake. I like measuring things and putting them in a bowl and stirring them together and then I lose interest.  I do like eating a warm cookie with melty chocolate chips. But once I’ve eaten one there are still 23 more cookies to eat. I don’t want 23 cookies. Well, actually I kind of do want 23 more cookies but I don’t want to go into a sugar coma.

The solution is to wrap those suckers up or put them in a tin and voila, someone else’s temptation.

People stress out about Christmas baking. “I have to get my Christmas baking done!” they say. No you don’t. Not really. As women of a certain age, we should know this. It’s guaranteed the other women of a certain age are going to bring trays and tins of baked goods in to work or any social gathering this side of Remembrance Day. There are always leftovers and they’re always abandoned on a piece of crinkly parchment paper. Bring an empty tin to work and you can fill your table at home because there’s too much of everything. In my case the goodies from other people’s kitchens are better than the ones I make anyway and they come with no fuss or muss.

I think a documentary about a Christmas cookie would do very well at Cannes. A discrete camera crew could follow it from house to house as it’s regifted and finally taken to a social function, or it’s consumed, half-consumed, or chucked after New Years.  And what if it ended up in the same kitchen it started from? What then?

It’s a question I’ll contemplate as I rewrap a Donald Trump scented candle.

Danger: holiday baking–Part 1

What are those light-brown dessert squares with the coloured marshmallows in them? I see those a lot during the holidays nestled among the mini brownies, rumballs, and coconut squares that have emerged from someone’s kitchen—proudly and lovingly displayed on a festive plate.

Maybe it’s a combination of cynicism and metabolism but I proceed with caution when approaching a tray of homemade baking.

Name that dessert.

People make all kinds of wonderful things at this time of year but I think for many there’s also a need to bake out of sentimentality and to carry on tradition. As lovely as that inclination is, some traditions don’t belong on a plate, or in a recipe book, or in the mouths of co-workers.

My grandmother was a fan of the Jell-O mold. She had several varieties and many a diced pear hung suspended in a ring of red or green Jell-O like some cryogenics experiment. It had a special place in the middle of the dining room table. When my grandmother sliced through the Jell-O with a spoon it would make a sucking sound and then it would shiver silently after she plopped it into a bowl. For that extra fancy touch there was always whipped cream in a spray can. This is a Christmas tradition that should remain a memory. Times and tastes change.

When I was a kid my grandmother also made loads of mincemeat tarts. My parents’ generation loved them. I was having none of it. Nothing good can come of something described with the words “minced” and “meat.” I hold onto that belief.

My grandmother made trifle too which was a highlight for the older generation.  She put it in a raised glass bowl—the one our cat wanted to sleep in when it was empty. It stood like a multi-tiered statue of sponge, custard and cream above everything else on the table. I still don’t understand the appeal.

ubiquitous Jell-O

When friends or co-workers share their family bakes it’s usually chockablock full of mystery concoctions, like the light-brown things with the fruity marshmallows.

At my last job I would wait until I was alone with the day’s tray of baking before plucking something from it that I hoped didn’t contain coconut or molasses or have a weird sandy texture. By taste testing when no one was around, I could slip over to the garbage can and discreetly tuck it under a napkin. Perhaps it makes me a horrible person but if the baker doesn’t know, where is the harm?

When you hit middle age you have to be selective about the indulgences you partake in. Butter and sugar stick to my thighs like S’mores stick to my chin. There are no free calories so I can’t afford  to eat something I wish I hadn’t and have it take up permanent residency on my upper arms. When I was younger sneezing was enough exercise but now a lemon square means an hour at the gym.

It’s not just home bakes, chocolates can be fraught with danger too. My grandmother always got a box of Pot of Gold when I was growing up. Are they still around?

They all looked tempting but inevitably I’d bite into some coffee-flavoured nightmare and almost have a seizure. I swear the coffee chocolates accounted for half the box while another third was made up of those rock-hard caramels.

I’d chew those caramels like a dog eating peanut butter, drool dripping down the front of my dress, until it was bedtime and the caramel had to be extracted from my teeth and discarded. I don’t know if I actually ever managed to ingest one.

The only chocolates I really liked were the ones with the pink goo, I think it was “strawberry.” I had to bite into a lot of coffee before finding one of those.

In the meantime, my grandmother spent part of each day collecting the chocolates I had ditched with a bite missing or spit out and reassembled. They were subtly left under the lip of a plate, next to a plant, or behind the TV. My grandmother would confront me waving a saliva-covered candy, the chocolate partially melted from the heat of my tongue. I would briefly consider blaming one of the dogs, but I knew she wouldn’t buy it, our black lab would have eaten the whole thing. Instead I would say I was full and that I was saving it for later.

Then I’d hope and pray Santa Claus didn’t have time to unload my presents from his sleigh after I lied and made my grandmother “cross” again.

I would hope to confirm my place on the nice list when I went to bed on Christmas Eve. I was adamant Santa would get only the best: Chips Ahoy. Timeless.

If you’re a fan of vintage recipes, give these a look:

Give me a winter wonderland over a wonderful Christmastime

The Jewish community is owed a debt of gratitude from anyone who celebrates Christmas. It’s no secret that many of the classic carols we’re all so fond of were written by Jewish men and women. Some of the standouts are “The Christmas Song” so often sung by choirs, “Winter Wonderland,” which has invoked many a dream by the fire, and oh by golly “Holly Jolly Christmas,” among many others.

They’re the songs we hum absent-mindedly when we do the dishes, brush our teeth, and fold laundry. This year “Holly Jolly Christmas” has been on a permanent loop in my head. It’s replaced every now and then but before I realize it, I’m back to “Holly Jolly Christmas.”

I dare say that many of the carols written by Jewish composers are better than the carols written by non-Jewish composers. I have a theory.

Jewish songwriters have the distance necessary to write about the beautiful side of the season. If you haven’t had to wait in line for an hour juggling presents while you shrivel up like a raisin in your winter coat, the hustle and bustle of the season might look appealing.

Who can deny the magic of twinkly lights during the darkest time of year? It looks magical, especially if you haven’t stood outside freezing on your porch attempting to unravel a string of lights in the dark while balancing on a wonky ladder. Then, when they’re finally perfectly placed around the porch, and they’re plugged in you discover half the lights are “cool” white (also known as bluish) and half are “warm” white (also known as yellowish). Who knew there were so many different whites?

There are few things less romantic than packing up all the decorations, sweeping up pine needles, and lugging everything back down to the basement once it’s all over. It’s like a mini-move every December.

There are no songs about that, yet. I’m waiting for one though. Songwriters from a Christmas tradition of one kind or another—Christian or secular—have written some miserable holiday songs.

That wasn’t true before electricity and shopping malls. There are lots of great carols written by Christians in the 1700s and 1800s—“Joy to the World,” “O Holy Night,” and “Silent Night,” to name but a few. After that though things get dodgy.

Two of the carols that make me grimace when they come on the radio—and they always do—are “Last Christmas” by Wham! and “Simply Having a Wonderful Christmas Time” by Paul McCartney.

“Last Christmas” is just so sappy it gives me a stomachache much like the ones I get when I drink too much white wine with too many brownies.

“Last Christmas I gave you my heart/But the very next day you gave it away…” That’s some speedy regifting and I think I know why.

The lonely misery of “Last Christmas” is reflected in a lot of holiday songs now.

Besides the depressing songs there’s also the just plain awful.

Few lyrics illustrate the joy of having a wonderful Christmas time better than, “Ding dong, ding dong, ding dong, ding/Oo-oo-oo-oo/Oo-oo-oo-oo-oo/Doo-doo, doo-doo, doo, doo.”

To be fair that’s the worst of it. Here’s the best, “The mood is right, the spirit’s up/We’re here tonight and that’s enough/ Simply having a wonderful Christmastime/Simply having a wonderful Christmastime.” Virtually Shakespearean.

It sounds like Paul McCartney wrote this one on a scotch-infused bar napkin 10 minutes before heading into the studio. We know you can do better Sir.

“Fairytale of New York” by the Pogues is super-depressing but not because it’s poorly written. The first verse hits me with a wallop every time I hear it.

It was Christmas Eve, babe
In the drunk tank
An old man said to me
“Won’t see another one”
And then he sang a song
“The Rare Old Mountain Dew”
I turned my face away
And dreamed about you

It’s a whole lot grittier than “Silver Bells,” which was written by a Jewish composer, and encompasses the most idealized version of Christmas, the one I’ve been chasing since I was a child but that always eludes me.

City sidewalks, busy sidewalks
Dressed in holiday style
In the air there’s a feeling of Christmas
Children laughing, people passing
Meeting smile after smile
And on every street corner you hear

Silver bells, silver bells…

With so many brilliant Jewish composers I wonder what kind of Hanukkah songs there are. Other than Adam Sandler’s “Chanukah Song,” I don’t know any. Maybe Jewish songwriters don’t bother because Hanukkah songs will be drowned out by the mainstream rotation of Christmas jewels like “Last Christmas.”

That’s likely part of it but I think my theory translates into Hebrew. When I walk by a menorah partially lit up in a window I imagine the potato latkes and jam-filled donuts laid out on the table and the people inside laughing and celebrating. I get a warm feeling. From my spot outside it’s so easy to romanticize the holiday.

But I’ve never experienced the stress of being one candle short on day eight. I’ve never dealt with the frustration of matches that break as I strike them.

And there’s all that cooking in oil and gift buying and prep just to get to the good stuff. It starts to feel familiar when I see it that way.

Holidays in general are a respite from the afflictions that follow us all. Perhaps there’s no better way to be transported somewhere magical than through music.

When I catch myself singing “Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer” I remember sitting cross-legged, knee to knee, in the hallways of Bala Avenue Public School as we sang morning carols during the days leading up to Christmas. This is when we saw a different side of our teachers as they stood up front dancing and being goofy.

And when I find myself humming “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” I’m extra grateful for what these songs evoke. The warmth of my childhood home, the windows steamed up, as my grandmother boiled the Christmas pudding for eight hours—the pot lid bouncing and clanging.

I can see my grandmother standing on the arm of the couch, tying our tree to a nail in the wall with cord she’d “hide” with tinsel.

I get to travel back to stringing porch lights with my grandfather, his toque askew in the dark, our only light streaming from the living room window. “You hold this,” he’d say, placing one end of the row of lights in my mittened hand.

Those songs take me to places I can’t reach easily without them. They take me to a place I didn’t know I wanted to go, until I’m there. It’s always the gifts you didn’t know you wanted that are best.








What is Christmas without inconvenience?

He’s bigger than he looks on TV!

It just isn’t Christmas if a stranger in a mall fails to bash the back of my knee with the corner of a cardboard box. It’s a nice way to remember this tender part of my body, which goes virtually ignored until it’s throbbing and bruised at Christmas time.

That hasn’t happened this year. It’s a tradition I miss. Sure it makes me cranky, put-upon, and indignant but that’s all part of the season. It’s the war wounds of shopping that prove your love and devotion to friends and family. Presents are always best when there’s a story behind them.

When my cousin Jenny and I were really small we wanted Ernie and Bert puppets for Christmas. They were hot Christmas toys for all the wee Sesame Street fans in 1973. We probably intended to ask Santa Claus for them; I don’t remember if I was brave enough to squeak out a word while perched atop his formidable knee. My grandparents and my aunt and uncle scoured every store to find those puppets. They had the added pressure of having to get a hold of four instead of just two.

My aunt, Julie, relayed the dramatic story on more than one occasion when I was a teenager. They had all but given up, every store had sold out and they had tried everywhere. It was December 23 and they had come up empty. A gentle snow had started to fall when my aunt ventured out to Canadian Tire for something else entirely. And there they were. On one of the end shelves two Ernies and two Berts peered out from their boxes. She grabbed them, clutched them to her chest, and marched straight to the checkout, completely abandoning her initial mission. Had anyone tried to take those puppets from her they would have been hospitalized.

In our respective houses, Jenny and I woke up to Ernie and Bert under the tree. Christmas was saved. Add a messed-up but loving family, an unrequited love story, one sibling struggling to make ends meet and another on the verge of divorce, all going home for Christmas and you’ve got yourself a modern Christmas movie.

Me, Ernie, and definitely not Bert.

In recent years, I’ve spent Christmas in New York City, which is so festive at this time of year. All of the communal traditions are alive and well. There are outdoor Christmas markets, Christmas shows at Radio City Music Hall, and fantastic window decorations at Macy’s, Tiffany’s and other retailers.

Christmas display windows used to be a big deal in Toronto too. A trip downtown was a must to see the Santa Claus parade, and the window displays at Simpsons and Eaton’s. The window displays are long gone, as are Simpsons and Eaton’s.

I am beginning to resent the way the world is changing without my consent. And each time I do I think of my grandparents or my dad waxing poetic about past Christmas traditions—lugging home the tree which one of the dogs would immediately pee on, overloading plugs and blowing fuses, getting an orange in the toe of a stocking, and of course those window displays.

For my grandmother, Isabel, the early Christmases she celebrated after arriving here from Liverpool shaped future festivities. One of her fondest yet sad memories was of her grandmother almost setting the house on fire as she attempted to navigate a narrow doorway while carrying a fiery Christmas pudding. That tradition came to an abrupt end after that first year in Canada.

I have traditions I enjoy, some of them relatively new like watching Love Actually while sipping on Bailey’s-infused hot chocolate or going to the Kitchener Symphony’s Yuletide Spectacular; some of my traditions are old like watching A Charlie Brown Christmas or listening to carols while decorating the tree.

But there were others I didn’t realize I had until now as they all but disappear. When I pull into the mall parking lot, it’s not as hard to find a parking space. I may not get a close one but I don’t have to follow someone walking through the lot to their space and annoy people behind me as I wait, with my signal on, for that person to load the trunk, get in, put on their seat belt, adjust the radio, and finally slowly back out, turn the wheel too late, and complete an eight-point turn before clearing the space.

The crowds aren’t what they used to be because online shopping is more convenient.  I don’t want convenient. I want memories and tradition, even if they’re unpleasant in the moment. So much of what we do is solitary now. There’s something magnificent about being out in a crowd of people preparing to celebrate and make the most of their traditions as I do the same. That commonality between strangers in public places has become more rare.

And there they are! Magic.

Tony shops online whenever he can which means we have a daily parade of Purolater, Canpar, UPS and Canada Post trucks stopping in front of our house. Some of the drivers don’t care if we get the package. They knock, drop it on the porch and I watch them climb back into the truck and pull away, without so much as a glance, as I retrieve the box. Maybe the Christmas stories of the future will be about thwarting thieves from stealing our packages.

I’m reluctant to get into the whole online shopping business. You never really know what’s going to show up on your doorstep. Tony bought his oldest daughter Meghan a human skull—not a real one, he doesn’t shop on those sites—for photography. The seller said it was human size, and it would be if humans were the same size as cats. I guess it could be sent back but it just seems like more hassle than it’s worth.

I like to pick things up and examine them. I like to take a free sample of tea or chocolate from the stores that dole them out. And I’m willing to come home with the back of my knee throbbing because I love my family and friends. This is what I’m willing to do for them at Christmas so that the funny socks match, the arms on the sweater are the same length, and the cowbell for Tony’s drum kit isn’t more of a mousebell.

I’ll take my pre-Christmas stress at the mall or downtown shops instead of on my doorstep. When I sit down to drink that cup of boozy hot chocolate it will taste extra scrummy because I know what I bought is human size, it will be under the tree and not in a shipping warehouse, and it may, if I’m lucky, come with a great story.