The beauty of the Christmas holiday is in the waiting. There's something special to me about the month of December. Whether you rely on the Christian idea of Advent or just the eager countdown to the opening of presents, the days leading to Christmas are filled with anticipation.
When so many people are racing through the season, December is a time for me largely to slow down, to reflect. I put the brakes on any activities that aren't essential to the Christmas season. I've turned down events, sports and children's activities, simply because they weren't special to the Christmas season.
An American Christmas: No Two Are the Same
Growing up in Kansas, hours away from family, we had a simple Christmas celebration. We opened presents and went to Mass. My childhood memories focus on sneaking to see what was in the stocking, only to quickly replace it before Mom and Dad found out. And on a few lucky Christmases, we were blessed to make the 16-hour drive to Wisconsin to see extended family.
For my husband, growing up just a few hours away, Christmas was about family. I remember being shocked the first Christmas Day celebration with his family, when we spent literally three hours opening gifts - there was that many people.
But the celebrations went well beyond gifts. As we dated through college, I was welcomed into their Kansas City traditions of savoring Strawberry Hill povotica, visiting the Plaza lights and seeing the Nutcracker at the Midland Theatre. We enjoyed Christmas Eves at the local winery and ate (or choked down) black-eyed peas for good luck on New Year's Day. And I always teased my mother-in-law about her unusual tradition of an orange, apple and peppermints in the stockings, until she told me it was a family tradition from when such things were rare in Arkansas generations ago.
Creating Our Indiana Holiday Blend
When my husband and I were married, we created our holiday blend of traditions of our own. And as children have come into our family, I've loved to see how our family traditions have evolved and the way faith has intersected with the traditions of past.
Our Christmas celebrations begin with the Advent season. While we haven't been active with having the traditional Advent wreath at home, we celebrate this season in other ways. Our children are first to grab a child's name off the Giving Tree at church. We've embraced unique Catholic traditions like the shoes left for St. Nicholas on Dec. 6, which I was introduced to when my daughter was in kindergarten, and the Dec. 12 celebration of Our Lady of Guadalupe, a decades-long tradition for our Hispanic ministry at church that included an elaborate Mass, traditional costume and a dinner celebration. This year, I'm gearing up for 5 a.m. mananitas as well (prayers and singing).
At work, I haven't missed helping with the Live Nativity for 13 years, and I love the Gift a Family program, where we adopt local families for the Christmas season. I've been blessed to see from all sides how it makes a difference, one family at a time. And for that I could never tell my child "no" if they wanted to do the same.
Food is key to our celebrations, as well. The kids and I love the afternoons baking Christmas cookies, and I'm always shocked about how many dozens of cookies my grandmother's old sugar cookie recipe really makes. We love our Christmas Eve tradition of noshing through the day, baking a dessert or making chicken wings, or whatever and whenever the mood strikes. We mix our family favorites, from treats my husband's family's Southern roots to our sixth-generation apple streudel recipe, which is an understood part of the day.
Grandma Johnson's Apple StreudelDough:4 cups flour1 1/2 teaspoons salt1/2 cup lard or shortening (we use butter or margarine)2 beaten eggs1 cup warm waterFilling:2 quarts peeled and sliced apples(or more)2 cups sugar2 handfuls of Corn Flakes1/2 cup raisinsCinnamonMix flour, salt and shortening. Add the eggs and enough warm water to make a soft dough. Knead on floured board until smooth and elastic (the longer you knead the better it pulls later). Cover with a bowl and let rest about 2 hours.Cover table with a large cloth. Sprinkle cloth all over with flour. Roll dough long and narrow to get it started. Then put hand under the dough and keep stretching dough gently until it is very thin, trying not to tear it.When dough is stretched very thin, scatter the sliced, cut up apples all over the dough. Sprinkle with the sugar, cinnamon, raisins and the crushed Corn Flake crumbs (or you may use 1 cup fried bread crumbs).Roll up into a long roll. You may do this by raising one side of the cloth and the strudle will roll up by itself. Cut the roll in half. Place streudel rolled with open side up, on two greased cookie sheets with four sides. Pinch ends shut. Grease top with melted butter or margarine.Put in 400 degrees oven for 15 min. Then reduce heat to 350 degrees and bake about 45 min. more until brown. Remove from oven. Cut into 3-inch pieces. Remove from pan while hot using a pancake turner. Is best when warm.Note: The dough pulls easier in a warm room rather than in a cold one.