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Home and away

(article, Deborah Madison)

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When I was growing up, Christmas was wacky and fun; one year, for example, my brother wrapped all his presents in philodendron leaves. But my husband’s boyhood Christmas was formal and tedious, so he’s not too fond of the holiday. He could care less about having a tree, while I find one cheerful. (Plus, it amuses the cat and even the dog, who once ate all the cookie ornaments I had brought home from Switzerland.) Both of us, however, have a hard time with the pressures of a consumer society at its worst, and we struggle with a river of parties and a month-long diet of rich foods. 

[%image "reference-image" float=left width=400 caption="Dogs are intrigued by edible tree ornaments." credit="Photo: iStockphoto/Hubert Grüner"] In fact, the holidays were a big challenge for me until rather recently, when I began to accept that, whether one likes these days or not, they don’t go away. Since then, they’ve become more fun — and never the same from year to year. 

We don’t have the pressure of putting on a full-blown event for children, so our main task is to figure out what we’re going to do each year. Sometimes we travel; sometimes we stay home. Sometimes we have a big Christmas dinner with out-of-town friends and family; other times we go for a series of small suppers with friends we haven’t seen enough during the past year. 

Gifts are not a big deal in our house. The first year we were married, my husband gave me a 75-foot garden hose, “wrapped” in a new garbage can. I was surprised, then amused. And I still use that hose. 

As it turns out, we’ve found that we like to be somewhere else over the holidays every other year. It’s a strategy of semi-escape. The Sunday paper has a deal on a trip to Prague; suddenly, we want to go there for Christmas. Which leads to thoughts of a trip to Manchuria via the Trans-Siberian railway — but just visualizing two weeks on a train through Russia in winter is enough to abandon that idea.

[%adInject] Instead, we remind ourselves that shorter car trips can lead to adventure too, like the New Year’s we spent in Austin, Nevada, population a few, where the Christmas tree from the local bar was set afire at midnight, firecrackers popping — or was that gunshots? Awakened by the revelry, we retrieved our bottle of Champagne from the huge pile of snow in the motel parking lot and toasted a great easy start to the year.

The thought of getting on a plane at Christmas is not a happy one, but travel to faraway places can be inspiring for the simpler pleasures one finds. Culinate’s editor, Kim Carlson, writes, “A few years ago, we traveled to the Philippines for Christmas, arriving on Christmas Eve. I loved it! The ‘tree’ was a huge branch that had washed up on the beach, and my cousin and her husband had dragged it up to their place on the hill (180 steps, if I remember right) and hung shells and bells from its limbs. We were all delighted by it. On Christmas Day we went to a Cuban restaurant right on the beach. Bliss.” 
I once spent Christmas Day in the central plaza in Oaxaca, eating enchiladas suizas now and then for the sustenance required for reading on a park bench. It was so free of the usual Christmas insanity that the day simply passed, and it was utterly delightful. 

However, my Christmas in Norway could not have been more different. That cold, icy landscape was made for this holiday. The stars and snow really did twinkle, people dressed in cozy wool hats and mittens skated on lakes and ponds, and candles were lit everywhere — in banks, on the sidewalks. The atmosphere was truly magical, and nothing like New Mexico. As a guest in a friend’s family home, I got to take part in three days of celebrating that included a vast array of astoundingly rich, delicious, and very traditional meals interspersed with long and necessary walks in the snow. It was a gift to take part in another country’s (and family’s) customs and to experience Christmas as a festival of light and cheer in the darkness. 

[%image girl float=left width=300 caption="A beach Christmas."] Similarly, a Christmas in Rome remained damp and cold with nothing to relieve the dark mood until Christmas Day itself, which is when the holiday season actually started, not to end until Epiphany. I never dreamed I’d be so relieved to see lights and decorations, the piazzas filled with carts of Christmas candies. Everything had come to life and light, and the gloom of winter was at least temporarily dispersed.

Then there are unexpected holidays. My husband and I had planned to exchange homes with friends in New York, but when our flight was canceled, we had no choice but to go somewhere, anywhere. We went home, got our dog, and drove to the Mexican border, where we turned right, heading west and making up our trip as we went along. We arrived at my brother’s doorstep in northern California minutes before Christmas Eve dinner was to begin. 

It was such a surprise for all of us to be together that we had an especially good time, one free of all expectations. The next day we continued on our trip, putting about 5,000 miles on our truck before returning home. It was way too long a drive, and one that we never would have planned in a million years. But we saw places we’d never seen before, and the landscapes we usually knew as summer ones were covered in ice and snow and utterly beautiful to witness.

This year we’re staying home. We’ll host a dinner on Christmas Day for a miscellaneous group of friends whose families live too far away to visit and any friends they might bring. Everybody will be invited to bring a poem to read at some point. We always do this at holiday dinners, and it never fails to be the best time, hearing what moves your friends and discovering what moves you, especially before plunging into the new year.

p(bio). Deborah Madison is the author of numerous award-winning cookbooks, including Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone. She lives in New Mexico.

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