Thursday, December 8, 2011

that time of year nostalgia

I don't like enforced get-togethers and shmalzy muzak carols. But there are aspects of Xmas I like... the outline of coloured lights on the houses when it gets dark so early. The decorated trees. The smell of Austrian Christmas cookies baking. I don't actually eat them--working for a couple of years as a baker killed my sweet tooth--but I love the smell of pepper, ginger and honey; vanilla and butter; hazelnuts and almonds.
I bake a few different kinds of cookies from the Viennese book handed down from my great-grandmother to my grandmother to my mother to myself. The book is so old that the instructions predate electricity: beat egg whites 45 minutes until stiff. Bake at middle heat, ie not too much wood in the stove. The yellowed pages describe an arcane lifestyle of starched collars, boiled laundry, how to lay the table when you invite the priest to tea, how to preserve fish in brine. Here's how to make mushroom juice extract to flavour soups and sauces:

The language is German, the font Gothic. Yes, I can read it.
I usually only refer to this book for the cookie recipes. Someday I'd like to write an essay about the book's journey from great-grandmother, sent down a mountain into the next valley with her daughter, on to Canada with my mother, then to Montreal with me. The women's version of a family bible.
Also from the past, resurrected for Xmas, are my tree decorations. Notice the rust. They aren't fake retro. When my parents split, and my father was packing up whatever my mother didn't want to take into her new life as a gay divorcée, he found the box of tree decorations from my childhood. Stylized metal pine cones with hard white ridges of fake snow. Pink glittery balls with starburst patterns. That shade of pastel aqua that was popular in the 60s. The balls are rusty, the sprinkles balding, the tips scratchy. I hang these mementos with the more artsy decorations friends have given me over the years.
When I was growing up, our Christmas tree was never decorated until the 24th of December in deference to my parents' Austrian tradition of not seeing the tree lit for the first time until Christmas Eve. When I left home, I kept that tradition--overruling various boyfriends' and husbands' objections. Only more recently did I decide that I like the coloured lights on the tree, so why wait? This year we decorated the tree especially early since I'm still in line to get a surgery date that will probably interrupt my time at home over the holidays. I want to see my tree.
My tree and the smell of cookies--that's Christmas for me. Sensory nostalgia.


  1. What a lovely post. I love thinking of your space filled with the scents of those cookies and the muted glints of the old ornaments.

  2. Muted glints... Very nice. Thanks.

  3. I want to know how to set the table when a priest comes for tea. How is it different from when a secular person comes? Do you have to fold the napkins into crucifixes? Do you have to use holy water for the tea?

    That was blasphemous wasn't it?


  4. The setting isn't more holy, only more formal. This is how you'd set the table for the town mayor too: an array of forks and knives in the correct order, the coffee spoon on the table in front of the plate as opposed to on the saucer, flowers in the middle of the table, freshly starched (preferably linen) napkins. The book has drawings of a dozen different ways to set a table. Do you really want to know?
    Also ways to fold napkins. I suppose that for a priest the bishop's hat would be nice--though he might construe it as a taunt because he was only a priest?
    No need to apologize for blasphemy here. Always healthier to express cynicism than to let fester.