Tag Archives: Holidays

Celebrating a Christmas Tree Ritual

Waking up to a coating of fresh snow this morning has me thinking more of the upcoming holiday and everything I still need to get done by Dec. 25.

I am actually a little ahead of schedule this year, as I went out with some of the kids and cut down a fresh Christmas tree at a local farm that is donating some of the proceeds to our high school.  

Growing up in New York City and living in an apartment for many years, we always had an artificial tree that my parents took down from the closet and painstakingly put together, added lights and decorated.

I always loved placing the ornaments on the tree. I still do.  

Year after year we went through this ritual. A more realistic artificial tree replaced that original one, and we used this for years even when we moved into our own house.

We did eventually have some real trees to celebrate the season. It was more mess to clean up but it made the house smell festive.

After we were married and in a new place, our first Christmas together we did not have a lot to fill our house.  We had a bed and a few pieces of furniture.  

Our dining table consisted of a closet door propped up on paint cans.

Our dining room “table.”

 I had a small 13-inch TV, no cable, a VCR and some VHS tapes for entertainment, and some pillows to sit on, or a paint can if you preferred.

For our first Christmas, our new neighbors took us to a tree farm that seemed to be on the side of a mountain. Of course this was a new experience for us as we were both city people. We were way out of our element in the wilds of northern New Jersey.

It was snowing and cold, and being the perfectionist that I am, I had to choose the perfect tree.

My wife was ready to kill me as we trudged through the hundreds of trees, blowing snow, feet numb with the cold. Finally I settled on one after being threatened with divorce and death

I had to lay down on the snow and cut the trunk with a hand saw. There is a first time for everything; trust me, this was not as easy as it looked.

Then we dragged that heavy tree down the mountain and the tree farm helpers wrapped and loaded it into the trunk of our car. Note to self: A pick-up truck works better.

 So we set up our first tree in an empty living room with just a few ornaments and a new tradition was born.

Since then we have had many different trees, of various shapes and sizes, so many more ornaments and decorations than the first one, especially all the hand-made ones done by our kids over the years

We have also had some memorable trees.

One year we had a new dog in the house, Smokey. He had never experienced a Christmas tree before. The tree was up and Smokey went over to sniff it and up went his leg.  That year the tree spent most of its time behind a child fence to prevent another unauthorized watering.

The best one yet was after we brought home our fresh-cut tree and as we started to put lights and decorations on, one of the kids screamed that there was a mouse in the bathroom!

We were able to capture it alive and we let it go outside. 

When I put the lights on the tree, I found a nest in the middle of the tree near the trunk.  I just can’t imagine how scared this mouse was as I cut down this tree and dragged it to the truck, wrapped it up, drove it home, carried it into the house and mounted it on the stand.

This poor little guy stayed put, terrified in its nest and survived all the way into the house, only to get chased and trapped. I hope it found shelter and survived after that incredible journey.

Our journey continues now too as the most recent tree sits in the garage waiting for us to clear the living room and move the couch so we can set up and decorate this year’s Christmas tree.

Merry Christmas and happy holidays.

Baking While Intoxicated

When I was a kid, the weeks leading up to Christmas were literally the sweet spot for my Dad and my sisters and I because Mom would be baking up a storm.

Butter cookies in the shapes of trees and wreaths with colored crystals sprinkled on them, chocolate chip cookies, peanut butter cookies, linzer tarts, butter cookies with a dollop of melted chocolate in the center…you name it, she was pumping these tasty treats out like crazy in the cramped kitchen of our Bronx apartment.

The sounds of whirring electric beaters and clanging cookie sheets could be heard until well past 10 p.m. as she baked mounds and mounds of cookies for family and friends.

This was also a special time of the year since, as I got older, I could help her in the kitchen to prepare the dough and do KP. I got to spend time at my mother’s elbow learning how to bake, but just as importantly, simply to spend time with her.

Her talents in mass-producing such delectable treats sparked a cat-and-mouse game between Mom and the rest of the family. She would have to hide the many tins brimming with cookies so my sisters and Dad and I would not raid them.

(I recall sneaking cookies from the tins and rearranging the layers so as to hide my tracks and make it appear nothing had been removed. Forget it. I had Dick Tracy for a mother and she could spot the telltale signs of cookie pilfering.)

True story: When in my teens I transcribed many of my mother’s recipes on a typewriter, I included these instructions at the bottom of her butter cookie recipe: “Place into cookie tins and scream at husband and kids for eating them all just before Christmas.”

That notation was but just one example of what a major smart ass I was as a kid. As much as I admired Mom’s baking prowess, it was not beyond the reach of the snarkiness of my young adulthood.

Back then, and even today, Mom liked her cordials and her occasional beer. Well, one night (30 years ago to the month, in fact) she was baking and quaffing her thirst in the hot kitchen with a Michelob beer.

What came next was that she burned a batch of cookies and, separately, realized she forgot to add eggs to one of her cookie doughs!

While it’s more likely that fatigue rather than imbibing contributed to these errors, it was fodder for yours truly to write up a “ticket” for B.W.I: Baking While Intoxicated.

My Mom kept the ticket, lo these many years, and as you can see in the photo I noted under “Course of Action: Lock up all the liquor to prevent nipping. (She has a previous record of making too much merry with Hagen Daz cordial.)”

It was signed by “U.R. Sloshed, Officer in Charge (Kitchen Detail).”

But here’s the thing: No matter how much baking I do, my handiwork still cannot compare to hers – even if she’s been tippling!


Food and Culture Come Together at the Holidays

Coquito y Empanadas!

For the past 23 Christmases I have been able to share the joyous holiday spirit with my lovely wife.

We combine two very different Hispanic cultures and customs.

To outsiders, Hispanics all seem to be the same because we share the same language from the mother country of Spain, Hispanics vary widely in words, customs and traditions.

Caribbean Hispanics differ from Central American Hispanics, and those differ immensely from South American Hispanics.

To compound the issue further, there are smaller subsets of those major groups that also differ from each other. But it is that diversity that strengthens us.

The blend of Hispanic traditions and cultures is huge in my family.

My wife hails from the northern part of Puerto Rico — the Bronx. (I kid.) Yes, she was born in the Bronx, but her Puerto Rican heritage is strong and forged by very many long summer vacations in Puerto Rico.

For my part, I was born in Argentina, the southernmost of Hispanics. I lived many years of my childhood in Argentina.

So through marriage we combined our cultures and traditions and no place is it more apparent than during the holidays.

From the pernil and pasteles at Thanksgiving to the asado on Christmas Eve, foods blend and bring together the cultures.

So this Christmas, like so many before, I proudly make a Coquito recipe entrusted to me by my wife’s aunt from Puerto Rico and I also will indulge in a batch of my Mom’s Argentine empanadas.

But, of course, I will share with friends. It is, after all, the most wonderful time of the year.

Merry Christmas y Feliz Navidad!

A Grandfather’s Blessing

Christmas is here, and I remember when I was a young kid and celebrating this joyous holiday with my family, having a ball hanging with so many cousins, aunts and uncles, and my grandparents.

Christmas Eve was the night when all of my Mom’s family would gather to celebrate.

She was one of seven children, five sisters and two brothers, and with their respective kids, other relatives, friends and my grandparents, they filled my grandparents’ apartment with two to three dozen people.

It was loud and hot, and the smell of all the food was great, but the most important thing to the kids back then was the mountain of gifts that was stacked up all over the place, divided by family.

My grandfather would then get everyone’s attention and give his blessing to the family, giving thanks for our health and for being together as one family.  I’ll always remember his deep and powerful voice that exclaimed his love and pride for everyone there.

Then he would hand over the ceremonies to one of the uncles or older cousins to announce and distribute the gifts to one family at a time.  They would read the tags and we would cheer and carry on with love and good humor.  The best, of course, was that the young kids would always be first and receive a gift that was a toy.

Oh the joy of Christmas!

Santa’s Special Key and His Secret Helpers

As a kid, I’d walk around my neighborhood and there would be an endless array of Christmas trees and lights in people’s apartments.

It was beautiful going to sleep and miraculously finding presents under the tree the next morning.  Thank you, Santa!

But we didn’t have a fireplace for him to come down, so we apartment kids were told that Santa had a special key to get into all of our homes.  One year I heard a noise about two in the morning and crept out to peer into the living room.

I watched as my oldest brother and my dad played with some of the toys.

Santa must’ve come early, I thought, as I returned to bed. I awoke in the morning to find toys and clothes wrapped underneath the tree. I was told that Santa brought the wrong batteries and that my brother and dad had met him and they were appointed his elves that year.

I strained to stay awake the following year but again Santa had come and gone in almost an instant.

One year I was so excited upon getting a garbage truck. Perhaps my dad was preparing me for a city job?

One of my aunts would always give us clothes. One year it was socks, another year hats, and the following year gloves. By the fourth year, it was socks again.

I have 12 nieces and nephews. Although some are first cousins of my nieces and nephews, I consider them family. I guess that’s the true gift of Christmas: family, friendship and love.