America is truly the great melting pot. The foods of all our various heritages have marched right onto the Christmas table, bringing us back to our roots, while, at the same time, making each family’s celebration unique.
Italian families may add pastas and fabulous sauces to the Christmas menu, while Swedish families insist on including gubbröra (an egg and anchovy mixture), vörtbröd (a rye bread) and lutfisk to the traditional ham and potatoes. For Irish descendants, potatoes are not optional, and soda bread will be a staple as well. A breakfast favorite of the American south that has made its way to us via France is “chocolate gravy” over homemade biscuits.
Whatever our family histories might be, food is a vital part of Christmas, and kitchens are the place to gather as fruitcakes, Christmas cookies, cream pies with meringue, mince, tarts, turkeys, hams, roasts, winter vegetables and special breads are pulled from the ovens or simmer on the stove.
Some of the best gifts of the season are those from the kitchen: baked goods wrapped in colorful boxes; jars of homemade jellies, jams and chutneys; delicious breads and pies—all are sure to get grateful responses from neighbors, mail carriers, teachers and business associates.
Some of my favorite tastes of Christmas are those sipped steaming hot from a mug or glass cup: hot chocolate, wassail, rich coffees, chai, Christmas teas, warmed fruit juices and punches. At our house we have a golden yellow earthenware pitcher and a set of gigantic matching cups and saucers lettered on the sides with the French word chocolat. This special set is saved for one purpose: hot chocolate with a melting marshmallow for children who come in half-frozen from sledding on the hillside.
It is the tradition in our family to have homemade biscuits (my mother’s recipe) and dried beef gravy (my version) for breakfast on Christmas morning. I serve it with a chilled bowl of fresh mixed fruit and a thin glass of sparkling grape juice. We have this hardy breakfast after we have read the Luke 2 story of the birth of Jesus and taken turns opening our gifts to each other.
Later in the day, I perk a giant pot of wassail so we can sip it all through the afternoon and evening and offer a steaming cupful with a slice of lemon and a stick of cinnamon to those who come in to join the music, games, and Christmas dinner.
As I think of it, Christmas is a giant, season-long tasting party. The tastes and aromas are avenues to the loves we have known that have become a part of who we are. The tastes and smells of Christmas are much more than traditional family foods; they put us in touch with the Love of a God who came to eat with us, sit at our table, hear our stories and tell us His.
The traditional tastes our families share remind us that God never was and will never be apart from us, but, instead, is as close as breath, as near as, well, the wonderful welcome-home smells coming from the kitchen. He is the gift we give and receive. He is the light that shines through the window of our souls. He is the fire in the fireplace, the warmth to draw us in, the food that feeds much more than our bodies.
It is the Mass of Christmas. Christmas! Taste and see!