I love Christmas. I love the tree covered in now-unrecognizable childhood ornaments, surrounded by carefully wrapped gifts; I love the stockings hung by the chimney with care and the cookies and carrots left nearby for Santa and his reindeer; I love the way children wake up before the sun, dancing around in their footed PJs, quaking with anticipation; I love the songs and smells of the season; I love the Christmas meal; I even love the kid's table. Mostly, I love the picture of Christmas I have in my head of my family at home, which is really funny because this will mark the 21st year I have spent Christmas away from home.
When I was very young, we spent several perfect Christmases at my grandmother's house. We always had the same meal: turkey, gravy, country ham, dressing (which is what she called the stuffing; she didn't place it inside the bird but rather rolled it into golf ball-sized lumps studded with onions and celery, which she then baked and we called "balls"), mashed potatoes, oyster casserole, green beans, sweet potatoes with marshmallows baked on top, broccoli casserole, a relish tray (which consisted of pickles, celery sticks, olives, carrot sticks and green onions), and of course, her famous rolls, which, while they were always perfect (buttery, light on the inside but crisp on the outside), she claimed "were not as good as usual." Afterwards, we would each have two small slices of pie - one pumpkin and one mincemeat.
After dinner my grandmother and her sister always had to clean the entire kitchen before we could open our presents. Nothing ever seemed as long as waiting for them to wash all those dishes. They wouldn't use the dishwasher or let anybody help so we all just sort of hung around the door begging them to leave just a few things in the sink.
I don't remember much about the gifts or what happened later but I clearly remember each course and the dish in which it was served, as well as the interminable clean-up process.
When I was older, my immediate family traveled during the Christmas season, which was great because we were usually on a beach, but sad because there was no tree nor stockings or any of the other regalia that surrounds the holiday. My siblings don't seem to care but I am forever trying to recreate the Christmases at my grandmother's house. I invited everyone from my family and my husband's to come to my house this year; I planned the sleeping arrangements and the menu (see above) but no one accepted. So while my family enjoys Christmas on the beach in California, I will be with my husband's family up north.
I was thinking about my Christmas as I toured Ashland, the Henry Clay estate, this week. I passed a sign that said they had Christmas tours so I went to try to get into the spirit of an old-fashioned Christmas. From butler's pantry to nursery, the tour-guide talked about family, and how many people would have been there for Christmas visiting and all I could think about was that I wished I was going to be there instead of New Jersey. The house, always beautiful, looks particularly resplendent in its holiday finery; because the theme is "Behind the Scenes," I learned a great deal about how a house would have been run during this time of year in the Victorian era - it was a load of work for the servants, who could not be with their own families because they would have been taking care of their employers. "I know how you feel," I said under my breath. I don't think I realized until then how bummed I really was that no one wanted the Christmas I wanted, one spent at home, surrounded by family.
Just when it seemed I couldn't feel any more sorry for myself and the tour was about to end, we entered the dining room. There, on the sideboard stood a framed menu from a Christmas meal in the late 1880s. It included a relish tray, goose instead of turkey and most of the other trimmings my grandmother made, including the pumpkin and mincemeat pie. Tears threatened to spill over my eyelids as I turned to the people touring with me, who ironically were from New Jersey, and said, "Well, I don't know what you have in New Jersey for Christmas" (although I know what I will be having - filet mignon and twice-baked potatoes), "but this is exactly what we have in Kentucky for Christmas." Or at least we used to.
Call for Ashland's Holiday Schedule, 266-8581
December 20, 27 - Candlelight Tours
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