Last Christmas, I wrote up this nostalgic piece as a sort of Menno-ified version of Dylan Thomas’s A Child’s Christmas in Wales. It’s a bit sweeter than my typical fare.
It didn’t snow every year at Christmas when I was a child growing up in the Mennonite enclave of Kitchener-Waterloo, but it snowed often enough that the possibility was always present. All through December, if the ground was green we would wonder right up until Christmas Eve whether snow would fall for the morning.
And sometimes it did.
But if there was already snow earlier in December,we would still wonder since it was also possible that the snow would melt in a rainfall or a sudden warm spell. And so some years we wondered “will it snow?” and others “will it stay?” and it amounted to the same feeling of wonder and suspense.
In truth, though, we were never all that disappointed if there was no snow on Christmas morning. It was still, after all, Christmas, whether there was rain or snow or sun.
As I remember it, I always awoke first on Christmas. I’m probably wrong about that. In retrospect, I suspect that my mother was lying in bed awake before me, waiting to hear me stirring about. She was always quick on my heals by the time I stumbled out of bed and made my way downstairs.
The doors to the living room would be closed, which was unusual, and a sheet covered the glass panes in the door, to prevent my eager eyes spoiling the surprise.
My mother would meet me in the kitchen and we would pass the time there until it was a reasonable hour to awaken my brother and father. We might have had a small breakfast before that. I was never big on breakfasts and I can’t remember ever having a big one on Christmas. Maybe a quick eggnog and a piece of cinnamon toast. Eggnog was breakfast food to me, composed, as it was, of milk and eggs and a bit of flavouring. My mother claims not to have made eggnog but I have the recipe to prove it. It was a light and frothy affair, not like the thick concoctions we bought in cartons in the grocery store.
Eventually, my mother would declare it late enough and she would rouse my brother and father who stumbled bleary-eyed and complaining downstairs. We wouldn’t wait for them to break their fast; they could nibble on a zwiebach or a mandarin orange and some nuts while we opened presents. Over the weeks, my brother and I had watched the pile of presents grow under the tree and so we would already have known which ones we wanted to open first.
After, of course, the stockings.
Stockings aren’t a Mennonite tradition. We had stockings because my mother did not have a stocking when she was a child and she had envied her englander neighbours. I didn’t make the distinction as a child. I just happily pulled out the items from the handsewn stocking that we had laid out the night before. Always an orange in the toe of the stocking, a box of After Eight mints or some Laura Secord soft pastel mints, maybe fruit jelly slices. And then there were do-dads of various kinds — novelty stationary items mostly.
And after the stockings, there were the presents. Something big from Santa like an easy-bake oven. Some clothes. Always a book from my brother. I don’t remember the rest. Mennonites vary on whether to encourage a belief in Santa; it wasn’t a North American assimilation thing for us (the stockings were, but not Santa) as my mother and her mother before had waited for the Weihnachtsmann to bring them presents each year whether in Russia or in Canada. The name and look shifted over the years, but so did everyone else’s.
Once the presents were all opened and the wrapping carefully folded to be used again next year (yes, frugality continued to reign at Christmastime), we would all pile into the car for the drive to Oma’s house.
What? — no Church on Christmas Day for a deeply religious family, you ask. That’s right. I know of some Mennonite Churches that had services on Christmas Day, or even the 3 days of Christmas as celebrated in Prussia and Russia, but those Churches seem to have been the exception not the rule.
We had Christmas programs in Church in the weeks leading up to Christmas and my home Church began a Christmas Eve service at some point in my childhood, so we attended those and sang our hearts out.
But Christmas Day itself was a family day not a Church day. Theologically, this makes some sense. Anabaptists never denied the Virgin birth but they shifted the emphasis of faith from the miraculous and mysterious transfiguration of God in human form as represented in the birth story to the life and teachings of Christ as an adult God in human form. Nothing wrong with celebrating the day, per se, but no real reason for a separate Church service either.
And so, with morning inching towards noon, we headed out the door and off to the extended family.
But this post is getting long and you probably want a drink before coming with me on my ninety minute drive to Oma’s house. There’s nothing particularly Mennonite about eggnog; it is thoroughly North American and I have no idea whether it was ever to be found in my grandparents’ homes. It was always non-alcoholic eggnog for me when I drank it down as a breakfast replacement and I still find that the particular recipe I used for breakfast is not enhanced by the addition of rum or brandy. For years I turned down cups of rummy eggnog in favour of other libations, until a glass of Trinidadian “eggnog” was passed my way. And since I know of a Mennonite who married a Trinidadian, I hereby appropriate this drink as a teensy, tiny bit Mennonite. We’ve been appropriated foods from other cultures for generations and I see no reason to stop here. If someone could just translate ponche de crema into plautdietsch, we’d be all set.
1/4 cup sugar
4 cups milk
dash of vanilla
dash of nutmeg
Throw all of this in a blender, whir, pour into glasses and drink alongside a slice of cinnamon toast.
Ponche de Crema
rind of half a lime
1.5 tins of evaporated milk
.75 tin of sweetened condensed milk
1 cup rum (about)
1 tsp Angostura bitters
Beat eggs with lime peel, add evaporated milk and condensed milk to taste. Add bitters, nutmeg and rum. Remove lime. Serve over ice.