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Christmas has always been my favourite time of the year. My friends call me the "Christmas Lady" because of how "into" the season I get.
I usually start as soon as the Santa Parade takes place. In Toronto, that was November 18th this year. The house is decorated inside and out, the CD cartridge in my car's player is filled with Christmas music, all of the ingredients for the eggnog are bought and ready to go and I start to plan the table gifts for Christmas Eve dinner and the treats for the Advent Stocking Calendar my children still look forward to.
Let me explain.
The eggnog first. For years while growing up at home, we waited anxiously for Christmas time because of the eggnog. Only available at that time of year, it was like a mysterious concoction, almost a magic Christmas potion. When I first got married, I determined to be a "good wife" and do as much as possible from scratch. Hence the discovery of "homemade" eggnog. It altered my opinion forever. There was just no comparison. If the store bought stuff we'd been used to all those years was a magic Christmas potion, then this homemade version was the nectar of the gods. Truly, it's almost a completely different animal from the pre-packaged variety.
Anyone who tastes it is instantly converted. And the truly magical thing is that it's so simple to make that you can be making it while your guests are arriving and have it ready to serve as soon as they're settled comfortably on the couch. It's so much a part of my Christmas tradition now that everyone I know waits for it too. When they call to say they'd like to visit, the first question they ask isn't "Are you free?" but "Is the eggnog ready?"
I make it to give as gifts or just to have at home for guests and I always have copies of the recipe ready to give as well. Each year, I send a double batch of it to the schools my children attend on the last day before Christmas vacation as a treat for the teachers. They look forward to it now and the staff at the elementary school that my youngest attends is already wondering what they'll do next year when he moves on to the high school with his brothers. I may have to continue the tradition. Look for the recipe at the end of this column.
We all know how anxious kids -- both young and old -- are at Christmas to open their gifts. Hard to make them wait till Christmas morning. It's always been my tradition though that the gifts arrive on Christmas Eve when Santa brings them while all good children are asleep. But when you have small children who don't understand why they can't open the ones from gramma or auntie, you become inventive. And so I started a family tradition. We have a festive all seafood meal on the Eve of Christmas which is a great family celebration. Everyone is present, aunts, uncles, cousins, everyone. So what we do is have a centrepiece which is made up of individually wrapped gifts, one for each person present for the meal, all piled on top of each other willy-nilly. There are no gift tags though; part of the centrepiece's decoration is a bunch of curling ribbon that literally cascades over the whole thing. One end of each ribbon is firmly attached to one of the gifts, and the other end is woven and wound around the rest of the table settings and ends up at the place of the person to whom it belongs. The idea is that once everyone is seated, after prayers have been said and before the meal begins, each member of the family follows his or her ribbon to their gift. It's always fun. The laughter as each of us tries to wend our way to our gift without upsetting Nonno's wine glass sets the stage for the rest of the festivities. The gifts themselves are small -- usually under fifteen dollars -- but chosen with care to reflect the person for whom they were bought. It's amazing to see. Smiles, tears, but mostly laughter fill the room. And what about me?? Since I plan the gifts for everyone else, who does mine? Well, at first I did my own but once my daughter was old enough to understand the significance of it all, she took over so that now even mom gets a surprise. I remember the year my table gift was a china saucer, which seemed strange until she brought out the rest of the Christmas china I had been wishing for. The table was quickly relaid with the new dinnerware and mom needed a case of tissues that night.
My advent calendar is a bit different than most others I've seen. It consists of 23 quilted felt stockings (numbered one through twenty three) about three inches high and one quilted felt tree (numbered twenty four) that are strung together and hung over my fireplace. Each of the stockings and the tree as well are actually pockets that can hold treats. When the children were smaller they actually did hold small toys or coins or candy that I would put in place each day. As the children grew and the pockets became too small to hold four of anything, I changed the tradition slightly. The last few years, I've been hiding their treats around the house and the advent calendar pocket holds a rhyming clue to what the treat might be and whereabouts it may be found. The daily process of figuring out what the treat was and how to find it became a source of great fun in our house and a part of Christmas that is looked forward to with anticipation.
The kids are 21, 18, 15 and 13 this year. I have a couple of Harry Potter fans and a Rings fan, so this year I decided that instead of the calendar, I would take them to the openings of both films and then dinner and that would replace all the little advent calendar treats. They agreed. But guess what?? The more I reflect upon traditions and the need for them especially in these changing, challenging times, the more I feel like something is missing and it's not even December yet. So guess who is heading out to look for advent calendar treats?? Any volunteers to help with the clues???
It's my wish that this holiday season finds you spending special time and making beautiful memories with those near and dear to you. Try a new tradition for your family or revive one that's been lost in the rush. Either way, may the season of blessings gift you and yours with health, happiness and love.
Buon Natale, Felice Anno Nuovo!!!
6 eggs, separated
3/4 cup sugar
2 cups whipping cream (35%)
1 cup light or dark rum (don't use white, it's flavour is too sharp!)
2 tsp vanilla
2 cups milk
Beat egg whites till stiff peaks form. I always like to tip the bowl they're in upside down. If you don't get a mess on the counter, they're ready! Set aside.
Beat egg yolks til light and gradually add sugar. Continue beating until all sugar has been added and yolks are fluffy and light coloured. Stir in rum and vanilla.
Whip cream till stiff.
In a large punch bowl or other container combine all three mixtures and stir till well amalgamated. Stir in milk. Refrigerate.
To serve, remove from refrigerator and stir again to recombine (because of the beaten egg whites and the whipped cream, the mixture will separate when left for any length of time). Pour into cups and sprinkle generously with grated nutmeg.
Yields: approximately 2.5 - 3 litres
Preparation Time: about 30 minutes (excluding chilling time)