Christmas in L. A. means no chestnuts roasting over open fires, no Jack Frost nipping at your nose, no folks dressed up like Inuits. When I was a kid, unless your family "went up to the snow" (drove up to Mt. Wilson after a storm) and brought some back in a box, you'd never even see snow.
People from the East would get mopey at this time of year and ask how we could have the Christmas spirit while walking across a healthy green lawn in our bare feet. We thought they were weird. What did snow have to do with it?
Putting white poster paint around the edges of window panes, flocking Christmas tree branches, spreading cotton batting or wadded bedsheets under sleighs in seasonal exhibits at church or school--all that was part of the magic of the season. We never thought about the fact that the white stuff was supposed to be snow, or why snow should symbolize Christmas. It was just a festive traditional color scheme.
That's how symbols work; they take their meaning from what they're applied to. Along the same lines, a sleigh hung with bells symbolizes Christmas for a largish number of Easterners who've never exactly traveled to Grandmother's house in one.
Come to think of it, the lyrics to "Jingle, Bells" don't actually say anything about Christmas. It turns out the song was written for a Thanksgiving pageant in the 1850s and got associated with Christmas because of that snow thing (or maybe because of Santa's sleigh, despite being drawn by bobtail horses instead of reindeer). I don't care. I say "Jingle, Bells" is a Christmas song anyway, because that's when we sing it.
As it happens, the sight that symbolizes the magic of Christmas Eve to me is not snowflakes gently covering a silent world but a line of red lights curving up into the hills. Red lights, because traffic was stopped; a long line of them, because the freeway was stop-and-go \o7 at night\f7 ; going up into the hills, because we were heading over Sepulveda Pass to Aunt Gert's. And if the red lights were reflected in rain-wet pavement--well, I could just about hear jingling and ho-ho-hoing overhead.
The party at Aunt Gert's was for exchanging presents with our cousins. It meant cocktails for the grownups, soft drinks and candies for the young ladies and gentlemen. To this day, the taste of ginger ale and See's soft centers makes me think of holiday bustle and a glittering Christmas tree.
On Christmas Day, we had dinner with the immediate family. The menu was basically a repeat of Thanksgiving: turkey, yams, mashed potatoes, cranberry stuff, succotash, green and Jell-O salads and olives of the season.
And for dessert, there'd be Grandmother's specialty, graham pudding with hard sauce. It has a dreary name, and the recipe clearly belongs to the stodgy school of cooking that held sway in my grandparents' youth. It's made with graham flour (that turn-of-the-century health food), raisins (a bow to local California patriotism) and a teetotaler's hard sauce with no liquor in it. And it's a steamed pudding, which everybody thinks is too much trouble to make anymore.
It's really good, though, dark and spicy and concentrated, like a cross between fruitcake and gingerbread. This year, I'm going to make it myself. Because it's a Christmas dish, OK?
\o7 This recipe calls for graham flour, which is sold at health food stores. Graham crumbs processed fine may be substituted, but in that case steam for two hours rather than one hour.
1/2 cup molasses
1/4 cup butter
1/2 cup milk
1 cup raisins
1/2 cup currants
1 1/2 cups graham flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
In bowl mix molasses, butter, milk, raisins, currants, graham flour, egg, baking soda, cinnamon, ginger, cloves and salt thoroughly. Pour into buttered 5-cup pudding mold or small pan and cover with lid or foil.
Place mold on rack in pot and add boiling water to reach 3/4 way up side of mold. Steam 1 hour. Slice and serve with Hard Sauce. Makes 4 to 6 servings.
Each serving contains about:
707 calories; 578 mg sodium; 125 mg cholesterol; 30 grams fat; 110 grams carbohydrates; 7 grams protein; 1.40 grams fiber.
1/4 cup butter
1/2 cup sifted powdered sugar
3 tablespoons whipping cream
1 teaspoon vanilla
Cream butter and sugar slowly. Add cream and vanilla and beat well. Just before serving, place bowl over hot water (but not hot enough to melt butter) and stir until smooth and creamy.