When I was young, Mom threaded popcorn, piece by piece, in strands to drape around the tree.* After Christmas, she wrapped it around a slab of cardboard and stored it in a tin where it kept for close to 20 years. But a few years ago, instead of the real popcorn, I went home to find strands of plastic popcorn draped around the tree.
Soon, even the tree itself was in jeopardy when Mom mentioned buying an artificial one rather than the fragrant pine my parents usually haul home from the Lowe’s parking lot.
A few years ago, another tradition bit the dust at my own suggestion.
Thanksgiving is the starter pistol that launches the Christmas season marathon. It also launches Mom’s festival of turbo baking. For most of the Christmas season, Mom stands in the kitchen, her oven glowing. We can expect ham and Swiss sandwiches with poppy seed spread on Hawaiian rolls; a cheese ball rolled in pecans; chocolate covered pretzels; peanut butter fudge; peppermint brownies; cappuccino punch; cracked corn casserole; fried bread; Rolo pretzel bites; and lemon cookies rolled in powdered sugar.
Jesus didn’t eat the cake, and neither did we.
During the week of Christmas, Mom always baked a star-shaped white cake, slathered it with her homemade yellow icing, and wrote in blue frosting letters, “Happy Birthday, Jesus.” We sang to Christ then blew out His candles. But inevitably the cake sat there for weeks, molding under the cake-taker cover. Jesus didn’t eat it, and neither did we. But who could blame us with all the other gratuitous goodies that Mom spread before us.
At some point it became awkward to gather and sing “Happy Birthday” to a conspicuously absent Jesus. Finally two years ago when I saw her reach for the cake mix box, I objected, “Mom, don’t make it. I mean, why don’t we just stick candles in one of the brownies or pieces of fudge?”
She looked hesitant, as if I may have been spouting heresy.
“I don’t think Jesus will mind,” I insisted. “Do you really think He’d want us wasting a whole cake? Besides, it isn’t even His real birthday. Some scholars say that he was probably born in the spring.”
Another skeptical moment, and then, “Well, all right.” She wedged the box back in the cupboard, and so ended that tradition.
It’s the smell of every Christmas season that I can recall.
One Christmas tradition, however, remains as constant as a carol. And unlike the neglected, moldy cake for poor Jesus, it hardly lasts a few days.
Thanksgiving is soon enough for my family to hope that Dad will pull out his deep silver pot and whip up a batch of eggnog.* We wait for the moment when he lugs a gallon of milk and carton of eggs from the refrigerator, grabs the blue sugar container with the melted edge, and pulls a little brown bottle of rum flavoring from the cupboard.
The milk “glub glubs” as he empties the gallon into the pot and turns on the burner. Egg whites, sugar, and vanilla thicken and mound like snowdrifts against the sides of the silver mixer as he beats them on the highest speed.
Next, he folds the egg white mixture into the heated milk and dusts it with nutmeg. He stirs and stirs and stirs, a mesmerizing rhythm of spoon tapping the sides of the pot. The simmering brew fills the house with the smell of rum and spices—the smell of every Christmas season that I can recall.
When the eggnog has cooled a bit, he calls someone to hold the strainer and funnel while he pours the concoction into a milk jug. Baked pieces of egg whites and clumps of nutmeg catch in the metal strainer as the warm mixture flows into the funnel. Finally Dad rinses off the sides of the jug and into the fridge it goes.
About eight ounces of eggnog that won’t fit in the jug gets poured into a cup. Most of that remainder never makes it to be chilled in the fridge, not after the cup is passed around to lips eager for the first sip of the season.
It’s a long process, so Dad only makes two or three batches a season. But those we ration, in the back of the fridge, and peek in now and then to make sure no one has taken the last of it.
Those rich, thick sips remind me of the very essence of Christmas
Holiday guests ask for it, and more than once we’ve watched half a gallon at a time go to particularly close friends. As they carry off a brimming Rubbermaid pitcher, I’m initially hesitant to share. It’s not that I even like the stuff so well. (Truth be told, the eggy sweetness turns my stomach if I drink much more than a slosh.) It’s just my favorite Christmas tradition.
Each year those reliable rich sips, unchanged by the passing of time and variance of life, remind me of other enduring Christmas’ traditions—peace and goodwill, charity and love, tidings of comfort and joy.
I suppose those should be shared, a pitcherful at a time.
*I won’t deny nibbling at it once or twice when I was very young. In fact we have pictures catching me in the act. My only regret is that it wasn’t cheddar flavored.
**Though we don’t know exactly where the word eggnog originated, some etymologists believe it comes from the term noggin, referring to a wooden mug that eggnog was often served in. Some etymologists believe that nog stems from the Norfolk word referencing strong ales. But perhaps it came from colonial times when Americans asked their bartenders for an egg-and-grog. Say it fast over decades and you’ve got eggnog. Man, language is weird and wonderful.