Christmas just isn’t the same.
Well, of course it isn’t. You’re not the same, your family isn’t the same, your circumstances aren’t the same. The raggedy old knit stocking, faded and bedrabbled and loved, that hung from the front door knob - no fireplace at your house - for all the years of your childhood has finally disappeared, a victim of too many household moves. You’re the dad or mom, now, who tries to bake cookies while the rest of the family watches yet another showing of Rudolph and the Elf Who Would Be A Dentist.
Christmas is so deeply embedded in us as children that we becomes hard for us to see it any other way than we saw it then, just as it’s hard for us to see our parents as individuals rather than through the us-as-children experience. But evolve it does. I remember, as a child, being shocked that some families opened gifts Christmas Eve. How on earth could Santa get them there before bedtime? Even in my post-Santa years, I decided that it would take the fun out of Christmas morning. So we were a Christmas Day-opening family for many, many years.
During those years, I grew up and became a single mom. The Christmas logistics multiplied. Christmas morning I would drive the kids over the river and through the countryside to their father’s, return to St. Louis and work an evening shift at the hospital. Finally my pragmatic firstborn said, “I know this is heresy, but why don’t we open our gifts Christmas Eve? Wouldn’t it be easier? We could sleep later, too.” The measure passed by a decisive margin.
And so Christmas Eve, which had always been to me, even as an adult, the essence of suspense and drama and a little magic, came into its own for us.
It evolved into a day-long celebration, and to my delight, gifts were only a minor part of things. Food, naturally, played a major role. Originally I had planned Christmas dinner as an evening meal. It immediately became obvious, though, that there would have to be food available throughout the day. My son’s friends, home from the rigors of academia, and my daughter’s, full of the appetites of mid-adolescence, came through at intervals. My own pals were dropping things off as they left town to drive home to their parents or in-laws.
You can’t not offer people something to eat on Christmas Eve, after all. Well, I suppose some people could, but I certainly couldn’t, not when there were two kinds of pie around and dinner a good eight hours away. And we were off on what would suddenly become a running, day- and evening-long open house in the big living-dining-cooking room that was our downstairs, a space made for such an event.
Pies were sliced, fresh coffee was - constantly - being made, the turkey originally planned for dinner, never a small one, contributed to sandwiches which flew out of the kitchen next to potato salad. (Potato salad for the holidays was the result of ten years’ living in pan-cultural Laclede Town.)
From year to year, the menu changed only slightly. A discount-store punchbowl was bought to serve a strange, silly punch my daughter recalled from years past, festive-looking and unsweet enough to be tolerated by adults.. Occasionally we substituted a ham for the turkey and dressing when we felt the urge. The actual dinner hour, when whoever was around actually sat down at the properly-set-by-then table brought out the cranberries and sweet potatoes and spinach casserole. One year, because of various schedules, we skipped the dinner-type foods altogether and had particularly festive sandwiches. The spectacular chicken salad, I recall, was a particular hit with my daughter’s three, yes, three South American swains.
As darkness fell, the company crept away. Occasionally one of the kids would disappear to a friend’s for a while, something I once might have found distressing. But the day would have been so good, it mellowed us all. By mid-evening, lost sheep always returned. I would make a rather brief,Calvin Trillinesque state-of-the-family speech and we would open gifts in a very leisurely fashion.
And after the troops had retreated upstairs, I would survey the lighted tree, think about the smiling people I had fed that day, and I would be an extremely satisfied person.
You need no recipe for the punch, which still takes me back to wedding receptions in Baptist churches’ educational buildings. I make it with ginger ale and lime sherbet, but I’ve seen it made with grape soda and vanilla ice cream and other variations to produce various pastel colors matching the bridesmaids. Scoops or one big block of sherbet goes into the punch bowl and a cold carbonated beverage of choice is poured over it. Stir and ladle the liquid over the sherbet until it reaches a pleasant color and seems to thicken just a little. (Depending on the sherbet, it may not even do that.) Refill the bowl by adding either ingredient or both, as needed.
Spinach casserole is the exception that proves the rule - I first ate this in the cafeteria at Shriners’ Hospital, not knowing what it was. It turns out to be a very good way indeed to introduce the novice to spinach, which in those days was regarded with near-univesal horror for those under 50 or so. They kindly shared the recipe with me, and it’s been a mainstay at holiday dinners. Just another benevolence from the good folks there.
I suppose you could use fresh spinach in this, but 16 ounces is a pound, a lot of spinach to wash, dry, wilt and chop. And if it’s a holiday dinner, you’re doing other things, too. So use the frozen with an easy conscience.
16 oz. chopped frozen spinach, thawed
1/3 c. flour
1 4 hard-cooked eggs, sliced
1 tsp. salt
1 and one half c. milk
one half tsp. dry mustard
1 c. shredded sharp Cheddar cheese (or American, if it’s all you have)
croutons - I use Kellogg’s Croutettes - to cover the top of the casserole
Preheat oven to 425 degrees, and grease the casserole dish you’re using - a shallow 1 and one-half quart one is good.
Squeeze as much liquid as you can out of the spinach and arrange it in the bottom of the casserole.
In a medium saucepan over medium heat, melt the butter. Stir in the flour - mixture will be thick - and let it bubble for at least two minutees. Remove the pan from the heat and slowly whisk in the milk, a little at a time, stirring madly to remove lumps. Return the pan to the heat and cook, stirring constantly, until it begins to bubble. Remove from the heat and stir in the salt. With your fingers, break up any clumps of the dry mustard and sprinkle it over the sauce and stir it in. Add the cheese and stir until melted.
Slice the hard-cooked eggs and place them in a layer over the spinach. Pour the cheese sauce over the eggs and sprinkle the croutons on top in a generous layer.
Bake 15 minutes, longer if you have had to use a lower heat because other things are cooking in the oven simultaneously.