The art of being good at Christmas, as I came to understand it as a child, included helping Mom with the upcoming feast.
It was always turkey, and it called for dressing. (Some others called it “stuffing” but it was “dressing” in our house.) My sister and I would sit in the kitchen, a loaf or two of bread and a large bowl facing us, and tear the future dressing into small bits, occasionally popping a stray piece or two into our mouths. At that point it was just bread, but we knew come Christmas that with the addition of onion, pepper and perhaps other herbs with which we had no familiarity, it would taste tantalizing when scooped from inside the roasted bird.
A few days later on Christmas afternoon, with the turkey ensconced in the oven, we would spill onto our street in the village eager to share stories of our lovely loot, which now lay opened and scattered under the exhausted tree. Chatting with friends, we would get a taste of how everyone’s Christmas had been so far, and how eagerly we were all looking forward to the evening feast.
After one more inspection of our presents before dinner, we gathered at the table. Bring out the roasted turkey, the mashed potatoes, the peas, the corn, the dressing, tomato juice, wine for the adults, and the gravy — most of all the glorious gravy. What is better as a child than pouring the brown elixir that is gravy onto the white meat, the dark meat, the potatoes — oh, yes, smother the potatoes with it — and watching it flow river-like through the vegetables into a pool on the only tiny spot on my plate that isn’t heaped with food?
We didn’t just eat the Christmas bird, we attacked it as if it were the last we would ever have. I’d tuck away my second helping before my stomach had even acknowledged the first. Yes, there would be sighs and groans later as our bloated bellies rebelled, but it was always worth it. For dessert there was no traditional flaming pudding in our household, but instead … birthday cake. December 25 was the date of my brother’s birthday, so out came the candled cake, always chocolate, and he’d make a wish. (No doubt he craved any other day for his birthday so that his gifts could be spread out longer than 24 hours.)
The clock’s hands have moved relentlessly forward since those early years, and each Christmas blends into the next and the next. Some gifts more memorable than others, some feasts better than previous ones. Christmas Eve’s midnight mass has long been replaced by other rituals — traditional tourtière for dinner and glasses of wine followed by screenings of A Christmas Carol or It’s A Wonderful Life.
On those perfect occasions with the drape of winter darkness descended and the snow drowsily dropping outside the window, I’m taken back to those decades-ago days. Dry voices from the past, as if carried in by a gentle gust, whisper in my weary ears their tales of Christmases past. Half-heartedly fighting sleep, I recall snatches of long-ago village gossip, a half-sung carol wafting over the churchyard, delightful screams from a nearby hill as children hurtle downward on the toboggan ride of their lives, or the barely stifled laughter of a rosy-cheeked boyhood chum nestled beside me in a snow fort plotting our next brave move.
And now, wrapped in the warm embrace of midnight and memories of bygone times, I slip softly to sleep, the promise of another Christmas meal mere hours away.