January 28, 2013 – O Tannenbaum
Five days before Christmas my older sister and I walk the three tenths of a mile from my parents’ house to my grandparents’ house. For as long as I can remember Christmas dinner has had the same selection of delectable treats; ham, brisket, potato casserole, spinach casserole, sausage balls, forgotten cookies, peanut butter cookies, coffee, hot cider, copper pennies carrot salad, hot rolls with butter, black eyed peas, corn, green beans, pecan pie and some green Jello thing which I never tried. Even after I slid headfirst into veganism, raw foodism, vegetarianism, otherism I still expected to see all those things on Christmas day—not for me to eat, but for the magic of tradition to stay alive.
For Grandmama Christmas day was a well-orchestrated, time sensitive, gift to all of us. She’d get up at an ungodly hour (something like 3:30 ante meridian) on Christmas morning, don an apron, start the brisket, put the casseroles in line for heating, soldier-line the rolls on baking sheets, set the timers and turn on the coffee makers and cider warmer. By the time the presents had been opened and the smells had already teased us into more than nostalgic hunger we’d take our plates from the preset tables and fill them up hoping there’d be enough for seconds or thirds. And there always was. My brothers would fight over the peanut butter cookies (so much so that Grandmama began to make extra and put them in To Go baggies for each of the boys to take home with them), I’d gorge on spinach casserole, and always hope that there was an extra pan of potato casserole still uneaten somewhere. And almost always there was.
All the planning that went into making the day Timed Perfection was as mythic and wonderful as the idea of Santa Claus. It just happened. It was the squeezing down a chimney and filling stockings and putting presents under the tree kind of magic. I’d never paused to consider what went on behind the scenes, but Grandmama had it down to a science and it worked year after year after year.
Then last year I begged my grandmother to let me help her with some of the preparations. She and my grandfather had had a rough year under the wicked weather of a nasty, persistent virus and Christmas had come around too quickly. I worried that the sausage balls (which I didn’t even eat) wouldn’t get made, the forgotten cookies would be forgotten, and Christmas would be broken into glittering, watery shards like the snow globe I’d broken, and cried over, years ago (on a Christmas day). What I really worried over was the pressure my grandmother might feel to do too much, to stretch herself too thin, to lose the fun of the holidays in the expectations of the past. So I bullied her into letting me and my mom come over and help, and we had. I’d hoped my stepping in wouldn’t mar the beauty of Christmas for her. That the gift of her hospitality would still be all hers to give to us. That she would know how much we appreciated the way she and my grandfather made the day so very perfect. Every single year.
This year, though, I didn’t have to bully or coerce my way into the Christmas cheer and that’s how Jesse and I find ourselves ringing the doorbell, walking into the kitchen I’ve known all my life, and donning aprons. Jesse gets put in charge of the sausage balls, mixing the sausage and cheese and then palming them into bite-sized balls. I get assigned to making the copper pennies carrot salad; cleaning, peeling, and cutting carrots, mixing in the secret ingredients (it’s sometimes better not to know why things taste so good), and setting it all into the bowl where it’ll live until eating time.
“I like to have Christmas music on while I work,” Grandmama says, “how about you girls?”
“Yeah!” we say.
And soon enough, I’m humming along. When there’s a lull between CDs, something triggers me off and I start singing “O Tannenbaum, O Tannenbaum” adding in my own words to keep it going. Mid note I stop and ask, “What is a Tannenbaum anyways?”
“It’s Christmas Tree in German,” Grandmama says. “I’m a wealth of information. Aren’t you glad?”
And I am.
Before Google was a thought in anyone’s mind, my Grandmother had the handle on all knowledge. If I needed to know what it meant if my nose itched (was it going to rain or was I going to have company?) or my right palm itched (an indication that I should be coming into money which was fantastic except that it seemed it was always my left palm that needed the scratching) I could call her, when I had a question about history and needed a personal spin to it I could call her, if I needed a substitute for a recipe because I didn’t have buttermilk she could tell me what to do. And those examples are just the tip of the informational iceberg. If I’m ever on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire she’ll be my Phone a Friend friend.
I keep on cutting carrots and singing. I can’t help myself, that’s the problem with Christmas songs they’re just way too singable. We finish with the food, clean up the dishes, and even have a few moments to sit and visit. Eventually, Jesse and I take off the aprons and say our goodbyes. I’m still singing (under my breath and kind of against my will) on the walk back. “O Tannenbaum, O Tannenbaum, your leaves are so appealing…”
“That’s what I’ve been wanting all my life,” Jesse tells me when we’re on the home stretch, ignoring my muttered melody. “Traditions like that.”
“Do we not have any?” I ask. “Maybe the traditions we have are so familiar we don’t even see them as traditions.” I’m thinking of each year, running back over the time to see what we have. The little things that make the holidays special to me, that bring the family more together than ever, that make Christmas a day different from any other.
I know Jesse means traditions that bind our generations together: mother to daughter to grandmother, sister to sister to sister-in-law, aunt to niece to grandmother to mother, but what comes to my mind is the smell of baking cookies, crushed peppermint, cinnamon chocolate sheet cake, and of course, Christmas dinner at Grandmama and Grandaddy’s house.