Eating Christmas: Tales of Toffee, Snow, and Christmas-Loving Jews

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In this week's paper we bring a little preview of what's to come Tuesday, Dec. 17 at Crescent Ballroom: the second annual Eating Christmas. Our writers gnawed hard on the holidays, and they'll be serving up the fruits of their labors at the event. You can also read each piece (and catch a couple of comics) on Chow Bella, starting next week. Admission is free and the reading begins at 7 p.m. -- with musical mash-ups by Jason Woodbury. Here's a sneak peek of what's to come....

See also: 50 Awesome Gifts for the Food and Drink Lover

Unwanted by Julie Peterson

Despite being beloved and spoiled and having found a way to do just about everything I want to, I occasionally lapse into self-pity about how rarely I "get what I want." This is ridiculous, of course. Even having the luxury to think about what I want instead of struggling for what I need puts me so far up Maslow's hierarchy that I should suffer from constant vertigo. It's fairly dysfunctional to think you're deprived when you really aren't . . . but I know I'm not the only one.

Not "getting" to have relationships with particular people should not count, I tell myself -- those people are free adults with rights and, despite their abundant charms, don't exist to be won and possessed any more than I do. And if I want a particular job or skill or vacation or a muscle car or something like that, it's really up to me: my personality, my metabolism, and what I'm willing to bring to the table. I know this.

But let's say you thoughtfully ask me what I want for Christmas and I thoughtfully give you a range of options, including "a slab or two of English toffee from such-and-such a shop," and you present me with a box of cat-turd-shaped faux Almond Roca from some other local chocolatier. It is awful.

I love you, the giver, no less, but my inner diva is raging. Why did you even ask? Now, even I know that what I want is not always convenient. I don't want anyone to stress out or lose sleep finding it. I like surprises. I would adore getting no gift at all and simply enjoying your company. What I hate, far more than is reasonable, is getting what I specifically do not want. Especially after I've gone the extra mile and told you. (Because expecting you to magically know without being told is, after all, my preference.)

I also hate delicious homemade sugar cookies that have been decorated until you can't taste them anymore. But, more than anything I've already mentioned, I really, really hate hot ham. I like ham in a sandwich -- a cold sandwich -- and that's about it. The color, the texture: Ham, you are not an entrée. Being a married person with two places to eat Christmas dinner and, typically, having spent Christmas Eve and Christmas morning with the ham-lovin' side, it's been completely logical to skip Ham House and stop by later for dessert and parlor games, generally the best part of the entire holiday anyway.

This year, though, we have the most wonderful new Jewish nephew-in-law who will be visiting from out of town. He loves Christmas trees. He loves ham, and he has come to terms with the unholy volume of gifts received by his bride, our baby, our pet. (I was her predecessor in the role, and I still get far too many gifts.) I will almost undoubtedly attend dinner at Ham House. Maybe I will drink my entrée and bring my own damn cookies. Because getting what you didn't even know you wanted can actually be pretty great.

Merry Christmas! by Eric Schaefer

Merry Christmas! Not "happy holidays" or "happy Chanukah" or "happy Kwanzaa" or even "happy Festivus." As a self proclaimed Jewish Atheist Buddhist, even I can accept the fact that Christmas is the superior holiday. I'm a devout non-believer; I don't really care whether Jesus is the reason for the season but I do acknowledge that it's hard not to feel good when Christmas is upon us. I'm the last guy to get offended when someone wishes me a "Merry Christmas." I embrace it!

But as a Jewish kid growing up in America's heartland, my take on Christmas was somewhat skewed. We, like most other reform Jews that we knew, celebrated Christmas. Chanukah, too, but Christmas was the big one. I may have been going to Hebrew school to study for my Bar Mitzvah, but we still had a Christmas tree, wreaths on the front door, and boxes full of ornaments that were stored in the attic. We left cookies for Santa, had stockings that hung on the mantle, and opened what seemed like a mountain of presents on Christmas day. Some of this my wife didn't even know until reading this; she's now convinced that I'm not really a Jew.

Perhaps I'm complicit in the secularization of Christmas but, to me, it had nothing to with religion. The 25th of December was a great day to be a kid and some of my most vivid childhood memories involved poking around the house with my sister trying to find out where my parents were hiding the presents. What's not to love about Christmas? At least in the suburbs of St. Louis, all of our Jewish friends did it.

I'm not sure if it was a growing sense of guilt, or just a cultural tide shift, but the winter before we moved from St. Louis we stopped celebrating Christmas. Instead of weaning us off of it, my parents quit cold turkey. No tree. No wreaths. And certainly no presents. It was awful; the house felt empty and depressing and there was no holiday cheer to be found. So with the Christmas-related Jewish guilt becoming unbearable and a dark cloud hanging over our house, on Christmas Eve my dad went out to find a Christmas tree. All of the tree lots were already closed.

Not long after that, we moved to Phoenix where it was decidedly weird to celebrate Christmas if you were Jewish. I know that the ornaments made it to Arizona in our move, but I haven't seen them since. They're probably still in a box in; tangible reminders of my confused Judeo-Christian past.

Nearly 30 years have passed since the Schaefer family last celebrated Christmas, but we've found a new Christmas tradition. We now spend the day at the home of friends who go all out for Christmas. A beautiful tree, decorations in every nook of their lovely home and all of us there to celebrate as family. They are not technically related, but they have become an irreplaceable part of our family. My kids open presents around their beautifully lit tree while the adults wait for something far more important: a standing rib roast.

Covered in salt and herbs, tended to with the level of care usually reserved for a precious newborn (except you shouldn't put a newborn in the oven) and prepared precisely one time per year, Aunt Jan and Uncle Larry's standing rib roast is what I dream about starting on December 26th of each year. There's nothing complicated about it; it's just roast beef. But there's something about a standing rib roast that makes it.....an event. Much like the carving of the Thanksgiving turkey, when the roast comes out of the oven we all ooh and ahh at it. We poke it and prod it and Larry obsesses over whether it's done right, and then the serving begins. A standing rib roast is all that is right about beef: fatty, juicy, American gastronomic indulgence. And though it cooks all day and is the subject of discussion for pretty much the entire year prior, we're done eating in about 15 minutes. I usually pass out shortly thereafter, my body expending what little energy it has left on digestion rather than consciousness.

And so it ends; another year, another Christmas, and 364 days of waiting for another standing rib roast.

Merry Christmas!

Gifts by Judy Nichols

On Christmas Eve, the faithful in Hanover, Kansas, gather in their churches, the light shining out through the stained glass windows into the icy night.

At my grandparents' house, we put on our Sunday best, dresses and Mary Janes, and run through the dark to the car parked by the corn field, breaking through the crust of the new snow, crystals slipping into our shoes and melting.

We squeeze in, my grandmother, mother and father in back, holding my big sister. I sit in the front between my uncle and grandfather.

The headlights shine down the road, illuminating the grain silo by the railroad tracks. We turn at Ricky's Cafe, where, this time of year, farmers linger longer over their coffee, waiting for the ground to thaw again.

North Street is decorated with candy canes on the light poles and twinkling garlands that stretch from one side of the road to the other. The frost on the sidewalk sparkles.

We climb past the school where my grandfather is the principal and my grandmother works in the lunchroom, and turn on Church Street, headed toward Zion Lutheran. The bell rings in the steeple.

My grandfather carries me from the cold car up the steps toward the wooden door, hugging friends along the way. I sit on his lap in one of the pews near the front as we watch children act out the nativity.

Near the end of the service, volunteers pass out small white candles, with cardboard circles around the bottom. The lights go out, and someone lights the candle of the person standing by the center aisle. One by one, in each row, the flame is passed from person to person, candle to candle, until the entire room glows.

My grandfather helps me hold my candle straight, so the hot wax drips on the cardboard circle, not on my hand.

Gently, the organ begins, and everyone sings: "Silent night, Holy night. All is calm. All is bright." I can pick out my grandmother's voice. Grandmothers, grandfathers, mothers, fathers, babies, sisters and brothers all sway in time. The last note fades, and there is a hush.

As the pews empty, each child is handed a small paper bag folded over at the top and stapled. I hold it carefully in my lap on the way back. When we get home, my sister and I pour the treasured gifts onto the dining-room table: an orange, nuts to shell, and a handful of Christmas candies.

Later, lying on the cot in my grandparents' bedroom, watching the moon through the window and waiting for the chill to leave the sheets, I sing my favorite carols: "O tidings of comfort and joy. Comfort and joy. O tidings of comfort and joy."

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