Sunday, December 26, 2010

Seasonal Reminder

At this time of over-indulgence, I think we could all use a little reminder to make better choices.  Today's PSA is provided by the Scottish Falsetto Sock Puppet Theatre

Happy Boxing Day everyone!

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Merry Christmas!

Christmas is finally here!  This year has been a little unusual.  Generally, we tear through the presents at a rapid, joyful pace and by noon, we're staring at each other going "Now what?"  This year, present-opening went on until nearly 1pm (partly because I happen to be sick with the flu and we had to wait an hour to eat breakfast due to some medicinal constraints.) Due to this delay in time, there was no after-present lull.  We skipped straight to cooking and preparing the house for Christmas dinner. 

Breakfast Christmas morning is always the same: Scrambled eggs and Stollen.  What is Stollen?  So glad you asked.  Stollen is the final Schildkret-Griffin Christmas tradition I'll be sharing this year. 

 No Christmas would be complete without Stollen.  If you’ve never experienced this German sweet bread, you’re missing something delicious.  Stollen requires you to buy several pint-containers of candied fruits-pineapple, orange peels, and (the best part) cherries that end up sitting in the cabinet for the other eleven months of the year, but it’s definitely worth it.  In 2008, I spent Christmas in Venezuela (I skyped with my parents on Christmas day and they actually opened presents they had bought for me in front of the camera.) It was a bit strange being away from home at Christmas and I found myself feeling very homesick.  What did I do to make the holidays feel more like what I was used to?  I Baked Stollen. 

The recipe isn’t terribly difficult (you don’t actually need any fancy schmancy equipment, I made it all by hand in Venezuela) and the finished product is a delicious, delicate semi-sweet bread.  It doesn’t keep long, but it never has to.  A loaf of Stollen never lasts longer than 2 or 3 days in my house.  It also makes a great gift, and we always bake a few extra loaves to give (a bit reluctantly) to a few special people.  If you receive a loaf of Stollen from a Schildkret or a Griffin, you can rank yourself among the few closest of our friends.

Merry Christmas Everyone!

Friday, December 24, 2010

The Sounds of Christmas Eve

Ok, yes it’s a cheesy title, but there are several sound-related traditions we have on Christmas Eve I wanted to share.
A Christmas Carol

A Christmas Carol is one of my family’s long-standing Christmas traditions.  In my family, there’s only one Christmas Carol.  It’s an old radio drama starring Lionel Barrymore as Ebenezer Scrooge.  He reads the part with a distinctive, gruff voice.  He sounds like he’s chewing his consonants and then spitting them out, you can almost hear his jowls flapping (at least, that’s the way I like to image it.)   My mother used to listen to a record of the radio show when she was a girl.  Then, when my sister and I were little, we started listening to a tape recorded off the original record on the long car rides to Vermont to visit Grandma at Christmas.  Ever since those trips, we have listened to that recording every year.  The tape has since been replaced with a CD I triumphantly found on Amazon one Christmas.  We know all the words by heart and quote them at each other as we listen to the recording (in our best Lionel Barrymore impressions.)  We also add in our own versions of certain lines, most of them misinterpretations from childhood.  Miriam’s admonition “Don’t please do that” (an interpretation of Scrooge’s line, “Please don’t do that” in response to a “creepy” moan Marley attempts) is our favorite.

The King’s College Choir
Every Christmas Eve, I wake up to the sound of the King’s College Choir singing their nine lessons and carols service.  The service is broadcast on NPR (if you live in a place with two NPR stations, it’s probably broadcast on the classical music station.)  They always manage to sing my favorite arrangements of Christmas Carols like “In the Bleak Midwinter” and “Lo How a Rose E’er Blooming.”  It’s a bit of a mind trip waking up to the lessons and carols service, because in Cambridge, England, the service happens in the late afternoon.  Here, it’s always playing (live) on the radio when I first wake up on Christmas Eve.  The year I spent Christmas in Venezuela, I found the Kings College lessons and carols service on NPR’s website and streamed it into my little Venezuelan apartment while chatting with Mom and Dad on Skype.  The internet is a wonderful thing!

A Feast of Love... 

If you have read any of my previous Christmas entries, you know that story-telling and Christmas go hand in hand in my family.  Many of our traditions have family anecdotes attached to them.  I imagine its the same in most families.  Somehow, I never mind hearing them over and over again.  So here is one of my family’s favorite Holiday anecdotes.

One way or another, my family always seems to be headed off to church on Christmas Eve.  Here in Phoenix, this is because my father conducts the choir at a Methodist church in Scottsdale and they have a Christmas Eve service.  When we lived in Winston-Salem, NC, we loved to go to the Christmas Eve Moravian Lovefeast The Lovefeast is a really beautiful Christmas Service involving sharing coffee and these semi-sweet rolls called “Lovefeast buns” with the congregation.  At the end of the service, you sing a carol while holding lit candles decorated with red crepe paper to protect your hands. 

(Moravian Candle, Coffee, and Lovefeast bun)
Artist Unknown

This is a rather round-about way to explain one particular Moravian Lovefeast that will always stick in my memory.  It was probably our first or second year in North Carolina, and Miriam, my sister, was still quite young.  She had a taste for lovefeast buns, though, so she insisted we go to the Lovefeast.  At the very end of the service, she received her candle and proudly held it aloft as we sang “Hark the Herald Angels Sing.”   Even then, Miriam had a powerful set of lungs, and so, when she sang “Peace on Earth and mercy mild, GOD DAMN SINNERS RECONCILED.”  The whole room heard it and broke into hysterical laughter.  Her comment became so immortal, the pastor at that particular Moravian church managed to work it into his sermon on subsequent Lovefeasts.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

O Tannenbaum

Lately, as we spend more and more time in the desert, my parents have been flirting with the idea of a plastic Christmas tree.  My Dad rightly thinks it would be cheaper in the long run and wrongly thinks it would be easier to set up (clearly he has never experienced the uniquely frustrating parts of this process.)  My mom always counters with “But it won’t smell like a Christmas tree!” and we troop out to an abandoned parking lot to buy the least pathetic real tree we can find.  Most likely it has traveled all the way from Oregon or Montana just to die in our living room.  I love real trees.

Decorating the tree is one of my favorite holiday traditions.  We climb into the back of the tiny crawl space in my closet to find the red and green ornament boxes and carry them downstairs.  The rattling brings the cat to the living room to investigate (no doubt to plan in advance which precious, irreplaceable glass ornament he’ll attempt to break this year.)   The lid comes off the box, and Miriam and I carefully unwrap the first level of ornaments.  The ornaments always go into the box in the same order at the end of the christmas season, all carefully wrapped in tissue paper.  Glass ornaments and the little wooden angels are on the first level, along with the collection of colorful cardboard birds from Metropolitan Museum of Art and a series of tatted lace snowflakes made by my Grandmother.  These go on the tree in strategic places, glass ornaments hung next to christmas lights in order to make them sparkle, wooden angels hung on the highest branches, as if they singing in a heavenly choir with the angel that tops our tree.

The second level is an eclectic mix of our family’s favorite ornaments.  Many of them have stories that my mom tells every year.  I pull out the tiny little train with a puff of cotton smoke coming out of its stack, and mom says “Martha got that for us in London.”    brightly colored wooden carolers and ice skaters are hung, and mom says, “These were some of the first ornaments we got back when we were in Graduate school.”  My sister and I have heard these stories so many times (probably over close to twenty christmases) that we can recite them all ourselves. 

The last level are the ornaments that most likely won’t fit on the tree, but are kept for sentimental reasons.  They tend to be the largest, heaviest ornaments (such as the silly stuffed moose and reindeer my Aunt Chris gave my sister and I one year).  On this level we also keep the silver an red beads that go on the tree last as the final touch, right after we hang the red ball ornaments that tie the whole thing together.  After we’ve hung all the ornaments we can fit on the tree, the squares of tissue paper that the ornaments were wrapped in are carefully smoothed out, folded, and put back in their boxes ready to wrap ornaments when the tree comes down sometime in March.  I’m sure some of those squares of paper are 15 or 20 years old and have wrapped ornaments since my family lived in Rochester, New York.  That’s just the sort of person my mom is.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Chappy Chanukah

When I was young, maybe five or six, I asked my parents if I could say the Chanukah blessing.  I suppose they were expecting something along the lines of “Blessed art thou oh lord our god” in five-year-old speak.  What they got was a prayer to the Baby Jesus.  They promptly decided that some ‘splainin’ had to happen.  I now have firm grasp of the difference between Judaism and Christianity, and a firm understanding of how best to benefit from the two.  My sister and I demanded Chanukah presents as well as  Christmas presents all through our childhood (we still receive the occasional Chanukah gift).  My favorite Decembers are the ones where the last night of Chanukah falls on or near Christmas Eve and we end up with a Christmas Tree and a Chanukah Menorah side by side in the living room.   I think that image represents my family well.

The best part of Chanukah, as with many Jewish holidays, is the food.  Latkes, to be precise.  My southern friends call them “Jewish potato pancakes.”  The art of Latke-making is something I have not truly mastered yet, although I’ve tried a couple times.  Making Latkes is not actually a hugely difficult process, but it involves a lot of steps and the recipe is one of those oral tradition things that depends on a knowledge of what looks right.  I believe the best latke-making experience of my life was for a Chanukah party I planned for my dorm-mates my sophomore year of college.  My friend, Seth Woods Jokingly began calling the party “Jewmania,”  and after he fried at least 50 Latkes (from potatoes we had all grated by hand), we decided he could call the party whatever he wanted.

After you’ve made the Latkes, you have to decide what goes on them.  This is generally a big debate.  There are two options: sour cream and applesauce.  This means you end up with two camps: the savory camp and the sweet camp.  My family has reached a tenuous compromise by serving our latkes with both applesauce AND sour cream, but the peace is precarious.

All in all, Chanukah really isn’t a very important holiday in the Jewish calendar.  It celebrates an obscure little victory and a modest miracle.  It’s importance may have been overly inflated, but it’s a lovely celebration none the less (anything that allows you to eat copious amounts of food fried in oil and play with fire FOR RELIGIOUS REASONS should be considered important.)  For me, the now all too rare sight of the Chanukah Menorah all lit up and the smell of potatoes frying herald the start of the holiday season.

Monday, December 20, 2010

December in the Schildkret-Griffin Household

The Holiday season is always a little bit loco in my house.  My father was raised Jewish, my mother Presbyterian (Edit: I picked the wrong denomination.  She was Episcopalian.  Shows how much of an impact it's had I guess.), and we celebrate both Chanukah and Christmas.  When I was younger, this meant double the presents, which is really all you care about when you’re six.  Over the years, I’ve come to appreciate the rigamarole of the holidays as well as the presents part.  My sister and I still retain a certain sense of wonder around Christmas.  Miriam insists on going to sleep before the presents are set out so that when she wakes up on Christmas morning (still at an ungodly hour even though she’s 20 years old) the presents are all there, as if Santa Claus had brought them. Neither of us believe in Santa Claus any more, but we still enjoy the wonder and the sense of anticipation that we associated with the Holidays when we were younger. 

Christmas is also one of the busiest times of year for my family.  In a household full of artists, there are lots of demands on our time around the holidays.  Add to that the fact that my (Jewish) father also conducts the choir at a Methodist Church, and its a wonder we manage to fit in time for holiday baking, shopping, and light-viewing into our busy schedule. 

In an environment like that, a little confusion and a little craziness go hand-in-hand with the holiday season, but we do have our traditions, and we always make time for them.  Over the next few days, I’ll post a tradition a day.