What is life without hope?
Without hope, there is no hope and no hope brings dismay. With a world filled of naysayers and unhappiness, I choose to remain hopeful (period). (exclamation point)!
The mind is a powerful thing. The power of belief can fuel us to go on, knowing that good things will happen, or we can turn away and know that they will not (necessarily happen). As children, my brothers (Scott and Mark) and I never questioned our belief in Santa Claus. Even as we became pre-teens and many of our friends began to pellet us with doubt, we woke up every year to the magic of a child’s Christmas. The magic was ours to believe in or turn away from. To this day, we have yet to turn away.
Scott is one year older and Mark, seven years younger than I. In the past, as siblings so close in age can be, Scott and I were at odds with one another much of the year. At Christmas though, we were elves together (we even have real pointed ears). No bickering, or name-calling, just two kids eagerly awaiting the magical day: teaching our younger brother Mark, the traditions that we had come to know.
Christmas in Alaska is a magical place to be that time of year, and of course, is snowy white. Darkness sets in early but earlier, the sun reflects off the snow and makes everything seem extra-bright. As nighttime came, the glitter of Christmas used to light up the sky, as well as houses, yards and the trees from Cook Inlet to the mountains. My Dad always went over the top with our twinkle lights, carefully stringing them up (in September to avoid the real chill) to emphasize the frosty trees. Our garage was finished with a line of large, red, lit bells, that usually never came down until Spring, if at all.
Our grandparents, on my mom’s side, lived in our neighborhood and we saw them often. Our paternal grandparents lived in California, so we didn’t see them nearly as much, but as Scott recently pointed out, they came for Christmas, every year; enormous trunks filled with warm, winter clothing in tow (something they only needed on their visits). We always looked forward to their visit, timed perfectly with our last day of school for the Winter break. I would come home to find them nestled in the living room, Grandpa in the his favorite lounge chair, dipping Christmas cookies into milk (of which he went through a gallon a day), and Grandma on the couch, awaiting our arrival home from school.
In addition to the trunks filled with long johns and down parkas, without fail, they came loaded with boxes of food to keep us munching happily throughout Christmas and into the New Year. The line-up was predictably the same, and always anticipated. There were boxes of fruit (apples, oranges and pears), because we couldn’t get good produce in Alaska that time of year (or ever really) back then. There were bags and bags of nuts. Pistachios for my Mom, cashews and almonds for roasting; my Grandpa had a special recipe he liked to make. Best of all (in my humble opinion) there were mixed nuts, in large quantities, salted and without their shell; filberts, almonds, walnuts and pecans, Brazil nuts, cashews, hazel nuts and peanuts. Then there were the bags of nuts, still in their shell. It was one of our family’s past-times to sit around reading novels, telling stories, playing games… a n d . . .cracking nuts. My mom had a collection of nutcrackers (Tom says, insert clever retort here). They were put to great use.
Grandpa also brought candy. Every year, it was the 5 lb box of See’s chocolates we looked forward to opening; he always brought two. He also brought stories; never to be one who was short on words. My brother Scott, would wake up early every morning and sit talking with him for hours. No matter how early Scott got up, Grandpa would always be there, sitting in the lounge chair, even on Christmas morning, waiting to tell him more stories, of life, the war, and the world.
The night before Christmas, we would all pile into the car and drive the five blocks to our other Grandparent’s house. After dinner, we would open up presents, of which there were many, we were blessed. Before heading over, Scott and I snooped around under our tree at home. The packages kept growing in unison with our anticipation. Mom always let us open one gift, which she cleverly made sure were our new pairs of pajamas.
It wasn’t just about the opening of gifts that we anticipated though, it was the magic of Christmas. From the moment the large metal trunk of ornaments was brought out from under the stairs to Bing Crosby’s last verse of White Christmas being sung (and played on the reel to reel) for the last time until the following year, the season swept us up and united us.
When we returned home from dinner on Christmas Eve, it was usually much later than Mom and Dad wanted it to be, so after leaving out cookies and milk for Santa, we were expected to go straight to sleep. Scott and my bedrooms were downstairs, 15 feet down the hall from the tree. He and I would sit in his room telling stories of past Christmases, making plans to wake up in time to see Santa Claus.
I was always too tired though and ended up falling asleep until morning when Scott would barge into my room, beaming from ear to toe, exclaiming that Santa had come!!! Hurry, he would urge me, our stockings were filled to the brim, Santa had come and I needed to see what he brought. We were allowed to look at the things in our stockings but had to wait to open presents until after breakfast (Dunkin Dougnuts or homemade quiche).
I would jump out of bed and follow him out to the family room, heart racing, to see what there was to see. I was always blown away by the sight; packages everywhere, almost entirely filling the large room (no, we weren’t spoiled). How did Santa make it to everyone’s house in time? The cookies we left him were always eaten and milk stained the glass that was left for dunking the cookies.
When Mark was born and old enough to join us in our Christmas morning ritual, there were even more things filling the room. Three stockings would be placed next to a separate pile of gifts wrapped in special paper from the North Pole. There was usually also a sheet covering the presents that “Santa didn’t have time to wrap”. Santa sometimes also left a large gift for the family, set up and ready to use. One year it was an Atari console, another it was a foosball table, which kept us busy for hours, filling the time before Mom and Dad could be awakened for breakfast.
I loved the sight of the packages. I didn’t want to open them though because I wanted the magic to last all day. It was usually after 2:00 in the afternoon by the time the gifts were all opened, one-by-one, taking turns from youngest to oldest, stopping to appreciate each item. I would end up skipping my turn, embarrassed to be in the spotlight and hoping that nobody would notice that my pile was stacking up.
The three of us are all grown up now with children of our own (and yes, mine happen to be furry and four-legged). The anticipation of Christmas has never wavered. Now my pups leave a cookie with milk and a note for Santa, plus a carrot for the reindeer. Ginger awakens early to go peak under the tree and stares longingly at her stocking. The remnants of Santa’s cookie and carrot are left on the table and my favorite part of Christmas is waking to read her note to Santa and watching her dig under the tree.
2013: Dear Santa (I guess my brother’s okay)…
This year, my favorite part of Christmas was helping my brother Scott surprise his wife with an Audi TT. He was like a six-year old kid again, beaming from ear to toe. After two deals falling through, long conversations and advice, Tom and I went with him to buy the car and drove it home to store in our garage before delivering on the ferry to the island on Christmas Eve. At midnight, he would sneak out of the house to collect it and place it in the garage with a big red bow and the key haphazardly wrapped under the tree. The holiday spirit he exuded was infectious and it had been a long time since we spent so much time together near Christmas, reminiscing and plotting the day. Giving is so much better than receiving and spending time with loved ones is the best gift of all.
Happy Christmas, 2014! Love, Ginger.
Christmas Strata – Serves four (easily doubles)
Our Christmas breakfast, growing up, was similar to the whole holiday season. A good way to describe it is the scene from “When Harry Met Sally” where they are talking about sex fantasies. Billy Crystal’s character asks Meg Ryan’s character to describe her sex fantasy, so she does (it is classic, yet Sally-predictable) and Harry exclaims, “That’s it? Some faceless guy rips off all your clothes, and THAT’S the sex fantasy you’ve been having since you were twelve?”.
Sally: “Well sometimes I vary it a little.”
Harry: “Which part?”
Sally: “What I’m wearing.”
Our Christmas breakfast varied by what flavor of donuts we ate. Each year growing up, our breakfast consisted of Dunkin Donuts and orange juice. I liked the maple-glazed but sometimes chose the apple fritter; now I am partial to an old fashioned, but Tom is lucky to ever see a donut in our house. Then in the eighties, breakfast moved into quiche; apparently “real men didn’t eat it”, but we did. We gave my Mom a hard time and put up a pretty good fuss, but I secretly loved it and still do. I have never actually made quiche (because there are so many great French bakeries from which I can purchase a far better version). Strata is our country’s cousin. It is easy to make for two or for a crowd. I have experimented with many fillings, but this is the version Tom and I eat about every Christmas morning.
Using high-quality eggs and milk make a noticeable difference; I recommend sticking with whole milk, but skim milk works too. I used to think it was important to be prepped the night before for the bread to soak up the egg, but I have found that not to be as important as I once did. As it bakes, the air fills with wonderful smells, Christmas music is played, and gifts are still being opened.
4 eggs (the best quality you can attain, preferably pastured)
1/2 cup milk (I use whole milk from Grays Harbor)
Pinch of salt
Many grinds fresh pepper
1/2 cup coarsely chopped, caramelized onions
1/4 cup diced, red bell pepper
6 oz diced ham (I used Beeler’s this year)
1 tsp chopped, fresh thyme
1/2 cup shredded gruyere and drunken goat cheese (or a mix of your favorite combination)
3 cups of 1/2″ cubes of crusty white bread
Whisk the eggs, milk, salt and pepper in a medium-sized bowl. Add the rest of the ingredients and stir well. Pour the filling, divided amongst 4 ramekins (or one small baking dish) that have been wiped down with butter or olive oil to keep things from sticking.
I like to top them with a little extra shredded cheese. Bake in a pre-heated 375-degee oven for approximately 45 minutes. They will puff up and turn golden. To prevent them from burning, loosely cover with foil if they brown before being cooked through.