Wednesday, December 4, 2019

Jams, Jellies, and Christmas Puddings

When I was still but a boy in the Bronx, my mother would occasionally buy a jar of "old English marmalade." I don't remember the brand, but it proudly displayed the distinction of a British Royal Warrant, which labeled it the purveyor of the Queen's "jams, jellies, and Christmas puddings." I liked the marmalade, but "Christmas pudding" was a completely alien concept. My only image of an English "Christmas pudding" was the plum pudding that predictably appeared in TV versions of A Christmas Carol. In our home, however, December was dominated by Christmas baking of a different sort, the most exotic and anticipated product of which were the Sicilian Christmas cakes my grandmother and mother spent many, many hours preparing, and which we never tired of eating! Inside the delicious dough was a stuffing of dates, currants, and any number of other holiday fruits pre-cooked in caffè nero ("black coffee"). Not unlike the Lebkuchen lovingly described by Maria Trapp in Around the Year with the Trapp Family, my family's Sicilian Christmas cakes likewise seemed to get better with age and added a wonderful ""Christmas smell" to the holiday experience. Everyone we knew was given some, and we even sent some package by mail to those we didn't get to see.

We all have our different kind of Christmas memories, but I would bet that most members of my generation (and generations before, of course) still treasure memories of the sights, smells, and taste of pre-Christmas baking, that added so distinctively to the sense of pre-holiday anticipation - and then holiday fulfillment. Sadly I suspect such sensory experiences have been among those most likely lost for many as we approach our modern Christmas, increasingly detached from Christmas past and its important lessons, as well as increasingly isolated from one another. 

No matter when the baking began, it somehow said both that Christmas is coming and that getting ready is an essential part of experiencing what Christmas is about.  Instead we now just jump into Christmas on or after (or before) Thanksgiving (or Halloween or whenever) and rush around in a spirit of insane "celebration" until the big day comes and we are well worn out and ready for it to end - just when the real feast is supposed to begin!

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