For the longest time, as a young Jew, I was convinced that all of Christianity hinged on a deep, profound belief in Santa Claus. Jesus baffled me; I presumed he was just a supporting player in the epic, inspiring story of Santa. And as much as I was supposed to be impressed with an oil lamp that burned for eight straight nights, the idea of a big fat man with a beard soaring through the air, climbing down the chimney of good little Christian kids and smothering them in a sea of gifts filled me with a jealous rage.
It took 20 some odd years, a flight to Seattle and a drive to Bellingham Washington–where Craig’s family lives–to finally experience December on the other side of the religious fence. And though I won’t be baptizing myself in the bathtub any time soon, I was thoroughly impressed. Here’s why.
Let’s start with this table:
Each year, Craig’s family participates in a progressive dinner with their friends. It’s called a progressive dinner not because the politics are progressive but because the meal begins at one family’s house, continues on to another family’s house and so on. Only in recent years, to keep things simpler, the dinner is limited to two houses: it starts at one and finishes at another.
Craig and his sister Kristin (pictured in the lead picture) find this recent change unacceptable.
“It’s not a progressive dinner if there are only two houses,” says Kristin.
“That’s a bisected dinner,” says Craig. “Not a progressive dinner.”
Still, I found the entire practice charming. We started at Craig’s family’s house where I helped make the scallops (I cooked them in butter and deglazed them with white wine) as well as a few other things. My favorite was also the most simple: a Greek salad skewer. That’s a skewer with a cherry tomato, a piece of feta and basil. Simple and satisfying.
At the second house we ate shrimp jambalya on white rice and, for dessert, I had a combination that Craig’s mom couldn’t believe I hadn’t had before: chocolate brownie, peppermint ice cream and chocolate sauce. It was divine. Convert me now!
From this point forth, you should be astonished at the amount of food Craig’s family made. You won’t be astonished photographically: I wanted to be polite so I didn’t take pictures of everything. But the next morning (Christmas Eve morning) Craig’s dad made us lattes as good as any I’ve had in New York. That night, for dinner, Craig’s mom made her traditional Christmas Eve lasagna. Before that, we upheld a Johnson family tradition and took a tour of the James Street Estates which is notable for its chintzy Christmas light displays. Craig and Kristin amused each other by counting the plastic snowmen vs. plastic Jesuses vs. plastic Santas. (Snowmen won this year.) Here’s a very blurry picture:
Now here’s where I think Christmas has Hanukkah beat. That night, before we went to bed, all the gifts were under the tree and the stockings were bare. I knew the next morning we’d be tearing into those gifts and those stockings would be full and I could barely stand the tension. Going to bed was a delightful, distressing exercise in excitement and frustration. How can drama like this compete with my memories of frozen latkes and an electric menorah?
Actually, to be fair, my mom was a pretty wonderful orchestrator of Hanukkah drama. I have a vivid memory of going outside one Hanukkah morning, my mom handing me the garage door clicker and telling me to push it. The door lifted and there, for me, was a shiny new bike and for my brother a little car for kids.
The best, though, was the year my brother and I were obsessed with wrestling. My mom handed my brother and I two wrapped gifts and we tore into them greedily. When we got the boxes open, inside we saw the sight every child dreads in December: clothes.
“You got us clothes!” we screamed, like true brats.
“Try them on,” said mom and dad.
“No!” we belted. “I can’t believe you got us clothes!”
But, after some consoling, we finally removed the shirts from the boxes and, fluttering to the ground, there were two tickets. We picked them up and they were tickets to this ultra-important WWF match in Miami with Hulk Hogan and The Ultimate Warrior. We were on cloud nine.
So credit must go where it’s due. Mom operated within the confines of her religion quite splendidly. Still, the machinations of Christmas make for a better build. That next morning we came tearing into the living room and Craig dove into his stocking as his mom looked on proudly:
In it he found a gift card to Joe: The Art of Coffee (purchased by a Jewish elf), a Yo La Tengo CD, socks, magnetic art, and shampoo. My stocking was even better: there was the DVD of “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg” (a perfect gift because it was something I really wanted but forgot that I really wanted it), a guide to Barcelona (where I want to travel with Craig in the next year), some sea salt and a peeler that fits in your hand.
I got Craig’s dad Michael Ruhlman’s “Elements of Cooking”:
And I got his mom an awesome cheese board that swivels on the top and reveals knives within. (It was a big hit: his grandmother wanted one too).
For Kristin I got Amy Sedaris’s new book and for Craig I got “My So Called Life” on DVD.
Among the many gifts I received were a Jens Lekman CD (from Kristin), Steve Martin’s autobiography (from Craig’s parents) and a sweatshirt/jersey from Craig. Here we are with our gifts:
But enough with the gifts; back to the food. Craig’s mom made a terrific breakfast casserole with eggs, sausage and cheese and served that with cinnamon rolls:
After a breakfast like that, I needed a walk so we took Bagel the Beagle out for a stroll:
And when we came back, there was even more family present. Craig’s Uncle Tom and Aunt Verna came with their four sons: Matt, Philip, David and Chris. Along with Craig’s grandparents and a few others, there were 16 people there for dinner. If I had 16 people at my house after making lasagna the night before and a casserole for breakfast, I’d go crazy with stress.
Not so Craig’s parents. Craig’s dad, Steve, made an incredible rib roast which I stupidly didn’t take a picture of. (He got the recipe from Cook’s Illustrated). I helped make the Yorkshire pudding which you can see Julee, Craig’s mom, serving here:
It was a lovely meal. So lovely, in fact, that the next day–after Steve and Julee fed everyone present bacon and eggs and fresh squeezed OJ–I decided I would make a thank you meal to let them, finally, take a break.
I decided to make what I know how to make best: my signature roast chicken which isn’t mine at all, but Chez Panisse’s.
I made two chickens since I was serving five people and everything came out really well:
And here’s the happy family taking a load off after cooking for so long (that’s Craig’s brother Eric in the picture; Kristin went back to Seattle the night before):
Even Bagel the Beagle had a taste:
In conclusion, I learned that Christmas isn’t about presents or cookies or worshiping at the shrine of Santa. It’s about spending time with family, sharing heaping portions of food and relaxing by the fire. In that regard, actually, it’s not that different from Hanukkah. A menorah is a fire, isn’t it? Only instead of “ho ho ho” you hear, “Why couldn’t you be a doctor?” “When are you going to get a real job?” “Why do you wear your hair like that?”
Luckily, my Jewish stocking is constantly filled to the brim with neuroses and anxieties that feed the creativity you so enjoy on a semi-daily basis. In that regard, Jews have the Christians beat. You may have Santa Claus, but we have Sigmund Freud. And latkes.
Thanks, Johnson family, for a wonderful holiday, but my people need me. And I need them.
I’m sticking to Hanukkah.