our family did not have a wealth of distinct christmas traditions, outside of participating in the standard array of secular-Christian-gift-giving-turkey-eating-family-tolerating-activities. two, however (the only two?), come to mind. the first, i do not know when it was established, but i’m going to throw 1986 out there, was that of my brother and i being allowed to open one present on christmas eve. this is not special in itself; i understand it to be a not uncommon way of checking the frantic agitation of greed that possesses many children at this time of year and reaches its almost unbearable apotheosis between 8:45pm and 3:00am christmas eve/morn.
our especial gloss on the tradition was that our parents would always give us each amongst our presents an advent calendar, and that unfailingly my brother and i would choose that as our christmas eve present to open. remembering this raises a host of questions – how did this get started? why were we given advent calendars only on the night before christmas, thus obliterating utterly their purpose and whatever distinguished them from any old box of chocolates? were they cheaper closer to christmas, as other calendars become by the month of march?
of course, when one receives an advent calendar on the 24th, no other option exists than to eat all 25 of those barely-passing-as-chocolate chocolates in one fell swoop, or at most over the course of an hour or so. such is the remaining quality distinguishing advent calendars from other boxes of chocolates when their intended temporal specificity is collapsed into an orgy of chocolate tablet consumption – the form. there is probably something exciting for a child in prying open the little cardboard hatches and popping the chocolates out of their little plastic bubble-molds, comparing to ensure that the illustration underneath accords with the given chocolate shape. i’m sure i remember failing to notice some or other compartment, to excitedly discover it later on or even the next day; an activity, a space of indeterminacy that could only open up when one is freed from the methodical procedure of opening and eating each chocolate on its own day. honestly, i don’t think that i even realized advent calendars had an intended use until nigh on adulthood, both ‘advent’ and ‘calendar’ long settled into the nominal opacity and meaninglessness that even the otherwise inquiring minds of children are wont to accept when chocolate is on the line.
i haven’t had one in years, and it is perhaps just as well, for even through the fog of nostalgia i am conscious that advent calendar chocolate was pretty poor stuff, more than likely near the terminal point of the waxy or putty-like branch of the ‘chocolatey confection’ family tree. that said, one might think that so practised a fool as myself could have taken it upon hisself to assemble a couple of advent calendars for he and his brother, to lend a little of that nostalgia to this year’s proceedings. but i am a mostly a sentimental fool, not primarily a practical one.
the second family tradition, which i have inexplicably failed to resuscitate since i have returned to the ranks of carnivory, was our christmas morning breakfast: “hot mamas.” this consisted of nothing more than bread with bacon and cheese on it, thrown under the boiler, but if advent calendars enjoy an aura of nostalgic fondness, i am fairly blinded by that of the “hot mama.” and perhaps therein lies the hesitancy to attempt a recovery. rather, in the keen awareness of how special a thing seems at the time versus the likelihood of it being able to carry forward that quality into the cold light of the present.
which for me makes the question of how something becomes ‘special’ all the more intriguing. i don’t think that we ever ate hot mamas other than christmas morning, or if so it must have been very rarely. perhaps bacon was uncommon in the house? was this a dish that my brother and i had somehow gotten into, or was it a treat to our parents themselves? i’ll have to ask, it’s the only way to stem such a flow of idle speculation. in any case, i certainly have not had hot mamas since, and face the prospect with some trepidation, if only because i am concerned that bacon and cheese on toast may not stand the test of time, may fail to invoke what i need it to invoke.
at which point it becomes clear that it is not about the snack and how good it is, but how much of that capacity for wonder, that ability to carry forward fond associations, persists in our own hearts. it becomes about not how good the food is, but how good we are, good at keeping something warm and familiar alive inside of ourselves, so that when we bring the food to our lips it is already pouring forth to enclose and infuse the item, fold it into an ongoing narrative of home, tradition, whathaveyou.
much as i wish it otherwise, and if my attempts at sauerkraut, relationships, and the plants in my kitchen are any indication, keeping such things alive is not my strong point.
* * *
so i leave hot mamas aside, to rest unmolested in my memory. christmas morning i pursue, in solitude, a breakfast satisfying to some senses, if unlikely to provide foundations for any new tradition. i have discovered red cress, which i had no idea existed and is perhaps the most beautiful ‘green’ vegetable i have yet seen, although the picture does it little justice.
red cress, chanterelles, walnuts. merry christmas.