Tom Ross: Christmas Eve menus are lasting family traditions
Steamboat Springs — Every family I’ve ever known or been a member of that observes the winter solstice or Kwanzaa or Hanukkah or Christmas has its own sacred rituals and traditions when it comes to celebrating the holidays.
In another era, folks strolled through their neighborhoods and paused at the neighbors’ doorsteps to sing carols on Christmas Eve. I’ve interviewed Routt County pioneers who recall, as children, being bundled in blankets and tucked into a horse-drawn sledge to go to a community party in a grange hall or one-room school on Christmas Eve. If they were fortunate enough to find an orange in their stocking the next morning, it was savored as an exotic mid-winter treat.
In my family it was, and still is, mandatory to cuddle on the couch and read “The Night Before Christmas” out loud. More modern families cherish gathering around the flat screen watching a startlingly young Bill Murray playing the role of a cynical television executive bent on exploiting Christmas in that holiday classic, “Scrooged.” Myself, I’d rather watch Steve Martin and John Candy in “Planes, Trains and Automobiles.”
For other households, the Christmas Eve dinner menus must never vary.
Some people dine on heavy appetizers on Christmas Eve and and leave the heavy eating for Christmas dinner. Others serve a Christmas pizza topped with chestnuts roasted by an open fire. Still others host an ethnic sausage eating contest before leaving for midnight Mass.
When I was in college, I had a buddy in the dormitory who won his family’s traditional sausage eating contest, only to lose his Christmas Eve supper while seated in the balcony during Mass. That was not a family tradition that endured. Ho-ho-ho-oh-no!
To this day, I enjoy pan-frying fresh Pacific oysters on Christmas Eve, but as a child, it was all I could do to choke down a single bi-valve. My mother served the naked oysters in a bowl of hot, buttered milk. I could barely stand to look at them swimming around in their thin broth, let alone bite into one.
This year, we’ll chow down on crab legs on Christmas Eve at my house. But I’ll insist on also eating pickled herring in sour cream sauce on crackers. And as it turns out, eating multiple seafood on Christmas Eve is a Roman Catholic tradition related to abstinence from eating meat and dairy products on the eve of a religious holiday.
Luckily for my sisters who still live in Madison, Wisconsin, my mother has abandoned the oyster stew in favor of a traditional New Mexican posole. It’s a soup or pork stew thickened with dried corn or hominy. The tradition honors an era when food was in scarce supply in winter and re-hydrating dried corn was a way to economically feed a crowd. Wish I could be there for Carrie’s spicy posole.
Growing up in my household, we took Santa Claus very seriously.
When the two eldest of my four younger sisters and I still were young and naive enough to be Santa believers, my father had us conned into an elaborate hoax that involved writing down a list of the toys we hoped to find under the tree on Christmas morning.
We were directed to go through the Sears catalog and mark our list of preferred gifts (my sisters must have had help with this, but I can recall writing out my own my list). Naturally, our parents went over the wish list, but to keep us in a state of innocence, my father lit a roaring fire in the fireplace and burned them. He told us that Santa’s elves could read the smoke signals from the North Pole and were sure to relay our hearts’ desires to the jolly old elf, himself. And we believed every word.
As my father always says, “Christmas is for kids!”
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