M. Jane Ross
Back when I put out the call for submissions for SCN’s cookbook-anthology, I was amazed at the number of the stories and recipes submitted that centered on Christmas. There were stories of how a certain food became a Christmastime family tradition, like Penny Appleby’s musing on the origins of the Oysters Mosca that her family prepares every year. There were stories of favorite childhood holiday treats, like Lavon Urbonas’s story about the tradition of baking Springerle cookies that has passed down through her family. And there were stories tinged with the sadness of loss, like Susan Ideus’s memories of baking her mother’s date cookies for Christmas and suddenly understanding as she stirred the batter what it meant that her mother had recently passed away.
What is it about Christmas foods that speak so clearly to the lifewriter in us? Memory of course has a lot to do with it. Our memories are created when an event in our life has an emotional charge to it. For better or worse, Christmas is built on emotional charge. The story of Christ’s birth is full of mythology and symbolism that is meant to illicit an emotional response and does. Add to the Christmas story, the child’s expectation of presents under the tree, the longing and fear that surrounds Santa’s much heralded and secretive visit, and the joy and tension surrounding preparations for the Christmas feast and for the dinner guests who will come to share it.
As well as the emotional memories, there are the many sense memories that we associate with Christmas foods and feasts: the tactile memory of doughs and batters prepared for cookies, cakes, and breads; the sweet aromas of baking; the rich and savory smells of pots simmering with seasonal mains; the sight of the festive table and of special dishes laden with holiday treats; the sounds of extended family and friends gathered round the table—every element that's needed to create enduring sense memories.
And when the memories forged are good ones (or even just somewhat good), then from time to time over the years we’ll bring them to the front of the mind, dust them off, rerun them as if watching an old family movie, and restore them in their proper place in the mind, with a new sharpness and a fresh sprinkling of nostalgia.
As you prepare your holiday foods this year, pay special attention to the emotions that they evoke and to all the ways that they touch your senses. Whenever you have a moment, note down a few words that capture the emotional and sense memory of these foods. Then, when you have a quiet moment over the holiday break, write a story about this year's winter holiday and the foods that were part of it.