We weren’t Christian, but we kept Christmas. My mother subscribed to the Dickensian school of yule revellers. Each year, a month before Christmas, she would make a plum pudding, which to my single-digit mind did not look like pudding, and since I helped her make it, I knew it didn’t have plums in it, but lots of candied fruit and a little flour, and some suet.
One year my mother sent me down to Trent’s Market to buy the suet (she was tied to the house by her brood of six), and I can picture her handwriting on the note she wrote for me to give to the butcher: suet. Come to find out it’s just fat, but in later years she had to special-order it (and the goose) because it was no longer a standard item in the butcher case.
The plum pudding was wonderfully intense after being turned out of the fluted metal form and flambéed and served with hard sauce, which didn’t look like sauce, but it was hard, like fossilized whipped cream.
Unlike any other family I knew, we did not have turkey at Christmas, but goose. A small, dark bird that like the plum pudding concentrated its flavor and substituted quality for quantity. I have an early oral memory of biting through the crisp, oily skin into the seriously dark meat. There was no white meat.
Another necessity for Christmas dinner was rutabaga, that big yellow turnip that was peeled, chunked, boiled and mashed, and produced a pale orange cousin to the mashed potatoes, not as hearty, and a little insipid, if “insipid” can have a positive connotation. A root vegetable we ate only twice a year, at Thanksgiving and Christmas, and its rarity made it taste good too.
On Grove Street we didn’t have a fireplace, so we hung our stockings with care on the drawer pulls of a chest in the living room. I have an image of Santa Claus coming through the front door instead of down the chimney, since we didn’t have one. I never saw him, but I pictured him stepping in off the porch, and I appreciated his flexibility.
We knew about Santa mainly through the ritual reading of “A Visit from Saint Nicholas” on Christmas Eve. We’d gather around my father, whose deep voice (which I did not inherit) was laced with the aroma of pipe smoke as he read the magic words. “And Mama in her kerchief and I in my cap / had just settled our brains for a long winter’s nap.” What a strange world, where people wore hats to bed! And I loved the idea of settling my brain — it’s something I still struggle to do — and I’m sure that our folks were hoping we could settle them too, in our half-crazed anticipation of waking up from a winter’s nap that we hoped wouldn’t be too long.
When we did awake (on Christmas you don’t just wake up, you awake) we had to examine our stockings before turning to the presents under the tree. You put your whole arm down the sock to find Brazil nuts, almonds, filberts, walnuts, and pecans, and a tangerine, and a Droste chocolate apple, from Holland. To this day I’m disappointed when I have to settle for chocolate apples of some other brand, or — sacrilege of sacrileges — a chocolate orange.
I knew we were celebrating Jesus’s birth, and I knew about the star and the shepherds and the wise men, and I knew and loved the songs and their mysterious language: “God rest ye merry gentlemen.” What was “ye”? “How still we see thee lie.” What was “thee”? “The joys and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.” I understood joys and fears, and all the years. There’s a wondrous melancholy in those lines that I felt at an early age.
I didn’t know that people considered Jesus divine, and I didn’t have any concept of God. We were humanist children, pint-sized agnostics without knowing it. In our Howes exceptionalism (which I didn’t yet know was so exceptional, and I didn’t yet know how much our family identity depended so much on being different) we had warm, pajama-clad family Christmas mornings that celebrated midwinter, and generosity, and plenty, and we did it without a god or church.
I know you might say that God was in our midst, even if we didn’t call it that, and you’re welcome to put it that way. But it was Scrooge’s rebirth as much as Jesus’s birth that guided us in those days. The possiblity of reaching into ourselves to find the hopes and fears of all the years, to discover a warmth and a hope that were mysterious and all the more enduring for being nameless.