Kris Kringle

My dad was always the one to put the old figure of Kris Kringle on top of the tree. This was the last step in trimming the tree, the prelude to the grand lighting up finale. Through memory’s lens I can see his movements, gesture by gesture. He unwraps the ornament from its shroud of tissue paper, hefts it in his hand, holds it for us to see then looks consideringly at the tree as if there were anyplace to put Kris Kringle other than the top spiking tip.

He walks over, reaches up, and gently places it, steps back, nods. “OK, lights on,“ he says and I crouch behind the tree touching plug to receptacle then hurry to join the collective “ahh…” of satisfaction. Kris Kringle, he’d tell us, was on his tree when he was a boy. He told us this every year and I’d imagine him, dressed in the short pants and high top boots of his childhood, watching as his father crowned the tree.

IMG_0460When I was a teenager I liked to stay up alone on the night we trimmed the tree, just sitting quietly at the edge of its radiance, moved by something I didn’t quite understand and couldn’t put words to. Kris Kringle knows. He’s huddled inside a hooded, snow covered coat; his arms are clasped in front of him, hands shoved inside the sleeves to stay warm. He clutches a bit of greenery in the crook of one elbow. His face is dour and fierce. “Yes,” he says, “this is the dark season.”

He sits on top of my tree now and I too carefully unwrap him, heft him, consider the tree, and gently settle him in place. I once read an essay about the solstice that said we put ornaments on trees to commemorate the dead. I gather friends to trim the tree. They admire Kris Kringle’s antiquity but can’t appreciate the shadows and ghosts that hover around him, the echoes that fall away from my gesture as I reach up, my father’s arm reaching up and his father’s before him.

“It’s time for the lights,” I say once Kris is in place. I go to the window to lower the blinds against the cold early dusk. Outside the garden lies dormant and stiff under its blanket of leaves. In the dark room I crouch behind the tree, touch plug to receptacle, and “ahh…” we exclaim, wondrously, reverently, touched once again by this reminder of life, its green smell, its host of ornaments, its fiery light.

Plum Pudding

How to make plum pudding:

First go to the store and beg the butcher for a lump of food grade suet. Grind it up. Soak raisins and candied fruit in dark ale. Mix together brown sugar and eggs until they are frothy. Sift flour and spices and baking soda–cloves, cinnamon, nutmeg. Mix it all together and pour into a pudding mold–or a coffee can if you can’t find a mold–and steam for many hours.

Prepare a month before Christmas so you can soak it every few days in brandy. Resteam it for a few hours before Christmas dinner. Serve flaming, with buttery/brandied hard sauce.

My sister taught me to make this concoction using a recipe she clipped from the Cincinnati Enquirer. Her English husband claimed it was as good a plum pudding as anything his mother ever made and for many years it was a highlight of our family’s Christmas dinner.

After my sister and her husband moved back to England, I took over the plum pudding duties, working from an ale and batter stained recipe card. I chopped and soaked and stirred and steamed and proudly served the flaming result to our ever dwindling family gathered around the Christmas table. A rich, dark, spicy link to her, serving the same pudding to her English family.

But then my parents died and cousins moved away and I stayed in New England for Christmas with friends. Suet rich plum pudding didn’t really fit most of my friends’ food preferences. For many years the recipe card sat in the card file and the pudding molds sat on the shelf, sad and unused.

But a few years ago, my sister and I spent Christmas with relatives on the west coast and I brought a plum pudding, which was such a hit that I left a copy of the recipe and an empty pudding mold behind. I made it again last year to share with friends and my sister, who was once again visiting. I am looking forward to digging into the rich fruity goodness again this year, happy to see this tradition revived and pudding molds out of the cupboard. 

Photos and vases

I love to look at the mantelpiece—strange thing to say, but the objects arranged there please me. Two photographs taken by a friend, a lithograph of a black cat looking out a window, a collage of family photos, brass candlesticks that have been in the family for several generations, two small wood carvings. And vases, several vases.

–A raku vase made by a former pottery teacher. She’d studied in Japan and taught us that beauty lives in imperfection, in irIMG_0074regularity. In her class I learned to throw quickly, lightly, maintaining just enough control to pull the walls of the pot up. I have a set of small bowls I use all the time that I threw “off the hump” working with a large chunk of clay—center a small piece on top and quickly pull it up into a vase or open it out into a bowl and cut it off then center the next small portion.

–An old blue vase that’s been in the family a long time—
I love the color and the simple clean lines–and the knowledge that it’s been held and at some point used by mother and grandmother.

–A small wooden vase I bought in Australia, delicate as a seed pod, and a wooden bud vase from New Zealand.

I like to handle all these objects, look at them, use them when I can but they also—and more importantly—evoke memories of lessons I’ve learned, places I’ve travelled, people I love.