Faithful Food: The Extraordinariness of Christmas Eve

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by Kim Long

My siblings and I had a regular childhood for the time. No  sojourns to Wal-Mart, no gifts lavished on us except on Christmases and birthdays. Our days were taken up with school, homework, chores, going to church and playing outside a good portion of the time.

The exception to the ordinary in our family was Christmas Eve, for which my grandmother’s home went through a magnificent transformation.
By December 22, my grandmother’s house was operating at a fever pitch. She was finishing the last touches on the long dresses for my sister and myself, snipping threads and taking last minute measurements. The house was completely transformed into something beyond our regular mundane and lovely world. There was glitter, candles, tapers and bayberry, and Christmas towels hung in the bathroom. Her china, crystal, silver and linen came out. All was polished within an inch of its life.

For months she had been scanning the pages of Ladies Home Journal and Better Homes and Gardens for new recipes that would be just for us to feast upon on Christmas Eve. No ingredient proved too exotic, no produce to costly. She was a planner and her family was frugal for 11 months, but they would feast this night.

The women wore cocktail attire, my father donned a suit and tie and my baby brother’s suit was a miniature of his. My sister and I wore beautiful velvet dresses with black patent leather shoes.

Immediately before the relatives assembled, every candle in the house was lit.  In the kitchen my grandmother poured the eggnog into the chilled bowl and whipped cream floated on the surface in pillowy mounds over which she grated nutmeg. I can still see her hands, one on the box grater and one holding the hard brown nutmeg, and a powder of exotic fragrance drifted over the stark creaminess.

My sister and I were allowed to serve eggnog in tiny demitasse cups from a small punch bowl. As we carefully ladled out the heavy sweet concoction, I felt as though I were presenting a gift to royalty so arrayed were we.

The nativity set was set up on the buffet and I passed it many times during the season. At home we didn’t put baby Jesus in the creche until we got home, but here he was swaddled, dressed for our party, a welcome guest.

She made her family feel like royalty that one night each year. We were special in a way no ordinary day could bear. This was Christmas Eve. We were not spoiled nor petted over much, but on this night we were transfigured; we were sure of ourselves and we thought life would always be warm, exotic and special. Santa Claus always played second chair to this experience. Presents were fun and I liked them, but this evening, this atmosphere, was a pure gift.

I don’t know if I can recreate it, but I am shaped by it and transfigured with each passing year. There are ordinary days aplenty, and the appreciation and joy I feel for them are shaped by a night 40 years ago in a house on a corner lot when heaven came down.

Here I share with you a dish for your Christmas Eve table – a bread whose origins lie in Belgium, the home of St. John Berchmans.

Verviers Bread

Ingredients:
• 1 tbsp. active dry yeast
• 1/4 cup lukewarm water
• 1/4 cup granulated sugar
• 1 cup milk
• 1/2 cup butter (1 stick)
• 2 eggs slightly beaten
• 4 1/2 cups flour
• 1 cup of small sugar cubes

Directions:
1) Sprinkle yeast in lukewarm water with 1 tsp. sugar.
2) Scald milk and add rest of granulated sugar.
3) Add stick of butter to melt in the milk.
4) Add salt. Let stand until lukewarm.
5) Blend yeast with milk mixture.
6) Stir in 2 eggs and add flour, 1/2 cup at a time, stirring until dough is smooth.
7) Add the sugar cubes to dough and turn on a floured board, adding more flour if dough seems sticky. Knead a couple of minutes to incorporate sugar cubes.
8) Place dough in a large buttered bowl, cover with a towel and let rise for an hour, until doubled in bulk.
9) After dough has doubled, knead a few minutes and divide into two equal pieces.
10) Butter two round 8 inch cake pans and shape the dough into pans. Cover with a clean dish towel and let rise again in a warm place for 45 minutes.
11) Bake at 350 for 30 minutes or until nicely browned.

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