At a recent meeting of one of the civic clubs in town, the person bringing the program related some of her personal Christmas traditions and then asked several of the group to recall some of theirs.
This lady came from an English background and recalled her family making and eating English plum pudding. She admitted that she had carried on the tradition even though her immediate family no longer relished the old English dish, in fact, refused to eat any of it. Others in the group recalled being in foreign countries at Christmas time and sampling some of the culinary offerings, sometimes with more than a little hesitancy.
Her reference to English plum pudding struck close to home for me. I too, have English ancestry and plum pudding was a dish I learned to relish at Christmas time. Grandma always made plum pudding for the holidays. Before Thanksgiving, she would gather together the necessary ingredients such as raisins, currents, preserved cherries, citron, suet, various dried fruits and nuts. She never had a recipe that I knew of. The pudding was baked in small pans or she sometimes used coffee tins. After cooling, she would sample a small piece, proclaim it okay and then wrap the pieces in cheese cloth and store them in a large stone jar. Finally she would pour the contents of a bottle of brandy over the top and cover it with a lid. It stayed there until Christmas. For Christmas dinner, she would unwrap the small cakes and steam them in a double boiler until they were heated through. Then she would se! ! rve generous pieces with a lemon flavored hard sauce poured over the top. It was delicious.
After my Grandma passed away, my aunt continued the plum pudding tradition. For many years she would send several cans of pudding to me as presents. Before she passed away, my eldest daughter persuaded Auntie to write down the recipe and then she assumed the plum pudding tradition. Even today, I expect to find some on her table, just for me. No one else in the family cares for it. The tradition that came to America with the family in the 18th century will probably soon die away.
Other Christmas traditions remembered were trimming the Christmas tree before the days of electric lights. At our rural school we always had a huge cedar tree. One of the parents or a member of the school board would go out into the fields and select a tree, and bring it to the two room schoolhouse. We knew we would soon get a break from studies to spend a whole afternoon setting up the tree and decorating it. We had a few colored balls, some tinsel and stars. We spent several hours stringing red cranberries on a thread. The most fun was stringing popcorn on long strings to hang on the tree. We usually ate more popcorn that we strung. Finally we added small candles to many branches, being sure they were far out on the limb, so they wouldn't catch other limbs on fire. As I think about it now, the good Lord must have been watching over us, as we never had a fire. If one had started, th! ! e whole tree would have gone up in flames and probably the schoolhouse. I guess what we didn't know in those days didn't hurt us.
One of my friends recalled an incident that happened at Christmas time when he was stationed in Germany, working on aircraft in cooperation with the U.S. Air Force. It didn't become a tradition, but is worth repeating. He met a lovely German girl and their romance blossomed. As he visited her family's apartment one time, his mother-in-law-to-be was decorating their Christmas tree. She inquired, in German, what Americans used for tree decorations. My friend related that they used strings of cranberries and popcorn. The German mother, who did not speak or read English, inquired about popcorn. She had never seen any. So my friend secured a supply from the PX commissary and gave it to the lady. He explained that she should use a needle and thread and make long strings from it to hang on their tree. On his next visit, the German lady proudly showed him the two foot long string of popcorn sh! ! e ha d made --- from unpopped popcorn! She had used a pair of pliers to hold the needle while she hit it with a hammer to pierce the kernels of popcorn. She asked him what she should do with the broken kernels!
As our children were growing up, we adopted a tradition that was quite common. That was to leave a plate of cookies and milk for Santa Claus. This was a natural for us, as my good wife has been baking Christmas cookies for well over forty years. She has a long list of different kinds, and delights in spending a whole day, or more, these days, turning out these wonderful goodies. The children each have their own favorite kind. Now that the grandchildren have become addicted, they also have their favorites. I expect any day now I will come home and find the house smells like heaven should, and every inch of space in the kitchen will be covered with dozens of cookies. Without asking, I know there will be a scrap pile of cookies that failed to meet her standards, that I can munch on at will. I get to deliver plates of these carefully selected and wrapped goodies to our friends and neighbors. This is one tradition I hope goes on forever.