Ex-mas

Christmas Day, from a celestial standpoint, is no different from any other day of the year. There is nothing mechanically unique about it and no special provision is made for it within the clockwork of the solar system. At most, it is a day slightly longer than the day which precedes it and slightly shorter than the one which follows. (Its proximity to the winter solstice is among the real reasons we celebrate that time of year in the first place.) Despite containing almost exactly 24 hours, it always tends to feel like it “rushed by”, our perception shifted by the demands and expectations of the day. Everything about Christmas stems from what we choose to make of it.

From 1997 to 2007, I spent Christmas with my wife and we had an obligation to others during the holidays; the entity to which marriage also commits you - family.

For a variety of reasons which eventually boiled down to one, we went our separate ways in 2007. For the first time in well over a decade, I faced Christmas alone. Not for lack of invitations from very generous and caring friends, but by choice. I wanted to “find myself” again and recalibrate my expectations as to what a Holiday could be.

During all those years, Christmas felt like a day spent holding my breath and pretending to be something (or someone) else. I somehow felt both over-dressed yet inadequately so at the same time. It was a tirelessly judgmental audience who insisted on unnecessary structure and the highest expectations. Dozens of songs about love, harmony, peace, sharing, caring, and of course happiness have been written about this day and, yet, I placed all of these things on a 24-hour hold. Tolerance, patience, tongue-biting, choking down the occasional Jell-O-mold, remembering to over-compliment the hostess (usually my sister-in-law whom I eventually discovered was as uneasy as I), and accepting overt and obligatory compliments on my cooking even when it was clearly a disaster; a grown-up version of a children's tea party where we get dressed up and go through motions we wouldn't repeat for the rest of the year.

This year on Christmas day, I awoke to no presents under no tree. I made coffee, tidied the place up a bit (perhaps following a nesting instinct or simply a decade-old habit), touched up a blog entry or two, and that's when inspiration struck.

I had just placed Julia Child's “Mastering the art of French Cooking” back in its rightful place on the shelf and remembered my dad having made “Coq-au-Vin”. I decided that, even in this late hour, I would make it too. That is what had been missing from Christmas – real cooking! The one day for which a year of practice and experimentation could be utilized but I was forced to hand over the reigns to someone else or bow to the culinary constraints of my guests. Not this year. This Christmas was mine.

The grocery store was surprisingly busy (my assumption being that people would have done their shopping well in advance). Unlike Thanksgiving, fewer people were lined up with the 1-5 items that they had forgotten from the big shopping trip a day or two prior. Most people moved gracefully but intently between aisles with no apparent sense of panic or dread.

Not surprisingly, many things are cheaper on Christmas day in a grocery store. Nutmeg, cinnamon, canned sweet potatoes, cranberries; it's perhaps an under-appreciated shopping day; a store's last chance to capitalize on the procrastinators.

I bought my ingredients, came home, lit a fire, turned on Christmas lights, and cranked up Christmas music. I opened Julia's book to the appropriate page, and suddenly froze in my tracks. I must have resembled a Norman Rockwell painting, standing there donning an apron with one hand on Child's' tome, the other on the stack of ingredients when a sinking feeling came over me.

Something was missing.

My mind was racing; after almost a year-long hurricane of drama, the day which was to be declared “stress-free” suddenly had a twinge of panic about it. What had I forgotten?

The missing element made itself known; an inanimate object seemingly cued by fate to make a sound at the perfect moment. Ice surrounding the Champagne that had been chilling in a bucket melted just enough to allow the neck of the bottle to tap the edge; even Madame Clicquot's ghost is good at marketing.

After smacking my forehead at having missed something so obvious, I yanked the bottle from the bucket allowing the salty slurry to fill the resulting void with a bit of a splash, unzipped the foil, unwound the cage, and uncorked it with a bit more of a celebratory “pop” than I would typically allow; my uncharacteristic drama lost on the absent audience.

I now had the right combination; music, food to prepare, a calm mood edged with a sense of adventure, and a glass of Champagne with three perfectly thin streams of bubbles rising through the middle. One could argue that I was missing an audience for whom to cook, but that is exactly the point; I, for once, was the audience. It wasn't about "them", it was about "me".

It was evolution, it was change, and despite solitude, it was happiness. I wanted to prove to myself that I could still go it alone. With any luck, it would be the last time I would choose to spend Christmas that way – needing to exorcise a decade of discomfort would never be repeated. Comfort within myself, the pleasure of cooking a Christmas meal of my own choosing, and the experience of trying something new rather than a tradition which made me unhappy struck me as the best way to spend, not just Christmas day, but every day.

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