Of Trees and Tinsel in Mennotopia*

Menno toddlerAh, the Christmas Tree. If you’ve been prowling around the internet wondering about Mennonite Christmas traditions (and, really, who hasn’t?), you may be under the impression that Mennonites don’t DO Christmas Trees. They are either too frivolous or too worldly. But here we come, again, up against that single unifying truth among Mennonites — that there is no single unifying truth among Mennonites, certainly not with regards to Christmas Trees.

As for me, I remember no Christmas without a Tree, decorated lovingly with all of the glass, wooden and plastic ornaments that my mother had gathered through the years. One or two each year from Ten Thousand Villages, or MCC Self-Help as the stores were called back then; a few that were gifts from friends and relatives who picked them up on their travels or just thought that she would like. She favoured glass and delicate cut items – no plain round balls except the few she kept only out of nostalgia.

The ornaments sat above the multicoloured flickering electric lights we had impatiently wound around the branches beforehand, frustrated by the bulbs that mysteriously disilluminated only when on the tree. Last of all, since this was the 1970s, were delicate strands of tinsel. Some of my friends threw the tinsel onto the tree in clumps as if the tree decorating was an act of bacchanalia instead of a rite with solemn purpose.
We did not.

We kept our tinsel from year to year, expressing appropriate outrage when aluminum tinsel** was replaced in the local stores with plastic, grateful that we had had the frugality if not the foresight to return the tinsel each year to its special place in a used chocolates box. Which allowed us every December to take it reverently out of its special box single strand by single strand to drape one by one upon the branches. And when it was done, we would turn out the lights in the room, and turn on the lights on the tree and admire our handiwork.

None of this was an act of great rebellion on my mother’s part. She had had a Christmas Tree as a child — though it only appeared on Christmas Eve and was not seen by the children until the morning — and her mother had had a Christmas Tree as a young girl in her Mennonite colony in Russia. After all, the Mennonites in Russia had strong ties to the Mennonites in northern Germany or Prussia and Christmas Trees were well-established in that part of the world by at least the mid-nineteenth century. 

But this wasn’t true for all Mennonites.  Apparently, the Amish and the Old Order Mennonites scorn Christmas Trees, as do the Old Colony Mennonites, who lived for a time (some still do) in Mexico and South America.

My father’s family was divided on the issue. My grandfather, a preacher and bishop in the Bergthaler Mennonite Church (one of the more liberal brands of Mennonite to be found in southern Manitoba), quoted Jeremiah 10: 1-3 in declaring the Christmas Tree an item of idolatry and banned it from his household. This was, however, after years of shrugging his shoulders when his daughters and sons took matters in their own hands and appropriated the school’s Christmas Tree after the school was finished with it. Perhaps such frugality was always to be encouraged, never mind Jeremiah.

I’m naming this cocktail after my Aunt Susanna who pushed the Christmas Tree issue with her father a little more than the rest. There are Christmas Tree cocktails out there that call for fir-infused vodkas or pine eau-de-vies or even the actual boughs and needles in a Champagne Cocktail. I can’t imagine these tasting like anything but turpentine but if you’re into it, go for it (especially if you live where Douglas Firs grow naturally). I’ve said it before: DIY and foraging are both very Menno. Still, for this, I wanted something pretty, homey and comforting like a Christmas Tree. So, this is a variation on a Brandy Alexander, done a la Five O’Clock Cocktails with chocolate mint ice cream. The variation is in the proportions and I found it better to just mush it up with a spoon and strain out the chocolate chips instead of shaking in a cocktail shaker, as shaking tended to break up the chocolate and render the cocktail an ugly greeny-brown colour. Which is not an attractive hue for a Christmas tree, or a beverage.


Picture

Susanna’s Christmas Tree

2 teaspoons full of green mint chocolate  chip ice cream
1/2 ounce brandy
1 ounce creme de cacao

Mush all this together with the back of a spoon, and strain into a small glass. Garnish with something pretty like a cranberry or a mint leaf.  Gulp this down and then go decorate your tree with silver and gold, and worship it as an idol.

*It should go without saying that Mennotopia is not a real place; you can decide for yourself whether it’s a dystopia or utopia.
** We all thought it was aluminium but perhaps it was really lead as claimed by wikipedia. In that case, my family all probably suffered from lead poisoning as a result of our refusal to move with the times. Which would perhaps explain a few of our eccentricities.


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