It must be mid-December; I can feel the crazy pulsing through my veins. During the day, I wrestle with 12-foot garlands of pine, carols jangling in my mind like forgotten change in a purse. At night, I wrap presents with crisp hospital-bed corners, signing “Love Santa” with my mouth so the kids can’t ID my handwriting. (Take that, CSI!)
Watching from his perch on the couch, my husband, Jeff, has been known to ask: “Honey, why are you doing all of this?” I glare at him, red Santa pen clenched between my teeth, and shoot back: “Because I LOVE Christmas!! I am happy! Can’t you tell?” (In reality, Jeff gave up this line of questioning long ago, but his bemused observation continues.)
Surely Jeff is not alone in wondering about my psycho pre-holiday behavior. For one thing, we are raising our children to be Jewish. I schlep them to Hebrew school, cook Shabbat dinners, and have even adapted an awesome collection of Yiddish phrases. So why do I expend all this energy on a Christian holiday? Quite simply, it’s in my genes.
Though she complained a lot, Mom actually adored Christmas. A die-hard believer, Jeanne never –not once!—acknowledged that Santa Claus did not exist. Confront her on this topic, and she would break out in an eerie grin. “What do you mean?” she’d ask eyes wide open like a soap opera schizophrenic. “You never know…you never know.”
At age fifteen, this behavior was infuriating and insulting. But once I hit 30, I kind of got it. Why take the magic out of the season? Besides, every year she put up the tree, baked Christmas cookies, scrounged together money for presents, and wrapped every damned one of them. If such effort isn’t willed by a supernatural force of nature, I don’t know what is.
Mom defined her year by two events —Block Island and Christmas— both of which she had woven intricately with family traditions. At the heart of these moments lay Mom’s knowledge that she would be surrounded by those she loved best. In tougher times, she depended on those precious days like oxygen.
Selfishly, I celebrate Christmas because I would feel untethered without its familiar, comforting rituals. For my children, it’s the least I can do. They were robbed of knowing their grandmother, how can I deny them the simple joy of her favorite holiday too? And when my son enumerated each Christmas tree he had hung from the tree, I knew that he too was learning why this season matters to me.
Perhaps one of Mom’s favorite Christmas traditions was when we would gather at her friends Richard and Laura’s house for Christmas Eve, While the kids watched yet another “very special holiday episode” of Diff’rent Strokes, the parents enjoyed Richard’s famous egg nog. In my mind, I can see her, feet up on the couch, sipping her obscenely rich drink, and marveling that she had made it through yet another year. Well done, Jeanne, well done.
Richard’s Famous Egg Nog
Courtesy of the New York Times Cookbook
Known to us as Richard’s Egg Nog, the recipe was actually discovered by his wife, Laura, in the New York Times Cookbook. Craig Claibourne originally introduced the recipe in the Times in 1958, and Amanda Hesser reintroduced it in 2007. As she accurately wrote: “If you already have a favorite eggnog recipe, throw it out, because the one that Craig Claiborne ran in 1958 sweeps the field.” She also correctly explained that this frothy drink must be consumed with a spoon. It’s more dessert than cocktail. I have listed the recipe below, but would also recommend checking out Hesser’s article and instructions before getting started.
NOTE: Halve the recipe for a smaller gathering
12 eggs, separated
1 cup granulated sugar
1 cup bourbon
1 cup Cognac
½ teaspoon salt
3 pints heavy cream
1 to 2 cups milk (optional)
1. In an electric mixer, beat the egg yolks with the sugar until thick.
2. Slowly add the bourbon and Cognac while beating at slow speed. Chill for several hours.
3. Add the salt to the egg whites. Beat until almost stiff.
4. Whip the cream until stiff.
5. Fold the whipped cream into the yolk mixture, then fold in the beaten egg whites. Chill 1 hour.
6. When ready to serve, sprinkle the top with freshly grated nutmeg. Serve in punch cups with a spoon.
7. If desired, add 1 to 2 cups of milk to the yolk mixture for a thinner eggnog. Makes about 40 punch-cup servings.