Monday, November 26, 2012

Preserving Traditions

RHYS BOWEN: One of the reasons for writing my new Lady Georgie book, The Twelve Clues of Christmas, was a chance to relive everything about the classic old English Christmas that I remembered from my childhood—singing carols around the village, being invited in for hot sausage rolls and mince pies,  Christmas pudding with the silver charms inside, each of which meant something, and you were careful not to swallow them. Then there were crackers, silly family games, snow houses and a simple, non-commercial enjoyment of the holiday that I really miss these days.

I’ve tried to recreate some of it with my own family. We have crackers at the dinner table—not the type of dry things you eat with cheese but the paper tubes that you pull and they go pop and disgorge presents and riddles and silly paper hats. We have a Christmas pudding though I confess I buy it at the store. I make mince pies and sausage rolls and my daughters have started doing the same.
So I wondered what family traditions, not necessarily holiday ones, you’ve kept and passed along to the next generation.

 One of ours is teatime. My kids say it’s in the genes that I have to have tea at four o’clock every afternoon. And we’re still particular about our tea. We buy it loose, not in tea bags, and John mixes his own blend of Darjeeling which is mild with  a strong Indian tea and just a touch of Keemun, a smoky Chinese tea. We make it properly, in a pot and we found a brilliant one in England this year that has a cylinder in the middle to make removing the leaves easy.
Tea has to be accompanied by a little something to eat. On formal days I’ll make scones, ideally to be eaten with cream and jam. On rushed days it’s only a gingersnap. But teatime is always a break from a hectic day, a time to sit down for a few minutes, to enjoy afternoon sunshine, to chat and enjoy company. 
So now we're in the holiday season, which is all about traditions, what about you, dear Reds and Readers? What family traditions have you kept? Which ones have your children adopted?

LUCY BURDETTE: I would say our biggest tradition is the Christmas stockings. My mother used to collect things all year long to fill them--they were hand-knitted by my aunt and had a lot of room for goodies! When I got married, I sewed a set of stockings for my new family. They are not as beautiful as the originals, but we love to hang them from the mantle and stuff on Christmas Eve.

HALLIE EPHRON: My kids (2 grown daughters) are usually home for Christmas and I make crispy potato latkes and a savory pot roast regardless of when Chanukah is. Christmas morning we open stocking stuffers and a few gifts, and by the end my daughters are wearing all the ribbons and wrapping paper.
One Christmas I made cinnamon rolls and they were SO delicious... and SO MUCH WORK that I never did it again but it's become a tradition that every Christmas someone remembers how great they were.

JAN BROGAN - When the kids were little, I established a tradition of lighting the advent candle every Sunday evening in the four weeks leading up to Christmas. My mother was not super-religious and we never did anything with Advent when I was a kid, but when I was raising my kids I got so freaked out about the materialism of Christmas, I started this tradition  as an anti-dote.   Kids love tradition. So even though we are not a super-religious family, the kids still  usually insist we light the advent candle at least once.

HANK PHILLIPI RYAN: Hallie, I am laughing and laughing about the tradition of talking about something that you DON'T do. I LOVE that.
We have the tradition of telling the story of my mother's stuffing secret.
Every year, she'd make two holiday turkeys, on with oyster stuffing for the grownups (YUCK, we thought), and one with plain for us kids. Which we loved.
After years and years and years of this, when I was about 25, I was in the kitchen while she was stuffing the turkeys, and was terrified to see her put yucky oyster stuffing into BOTH turkeys.
AH! MOM!  yelled. You're putting..
Of course I am, she said. You think I'd actually make two kinds of stuffing? Never! And you kids had no idea.
And now the tradition is kept, yet again. Thanks, Reds.

DEBORAH CROMBIE: Hank, laughing about the oyster stuffing. My family had two separate dishes, too, although in Texas it is "dressing", not "stuffing." But I LIKED the grown-up one with the oysters, so I don't know if my grandmother/mother/aunts cheated and put oysters in both!
Traditions, Rhys... We do stockings. Not as elaborate as the stocking of my childhood, which had apples, oranges, mixed nuts, and those wonderful hard curly or stripey candies (does anyone see those anymore?) as well as little treats. My daughter does my stocking now:-)
We do crackers, one of our adopted British customs. I try to read Dylan Thomas's A Child's Christmas in Wales on Christmas Eve. I used to read that and The Night Before Christmas aloud to my daughter, merging both sides of the Pond, but now I read to myself.

But for me, the big thing is the tree.  A real tree, please. Every year I have the plastic vs real argument with my hubby, but I won't budge. Christmas is not Christmas without going to the tree lot, finding the perfect tree, bringing it home and decorating it with all the sentimental ornaments collected since I was a child.  I love the twinkling lights, and the smell of fresh evergreen. Although I must say trees have improved a lot since the prickly, dried-out Scotch pines of my childhood.  Now we get beautiful firs that are so fresh that if we buy them the first weekend in December, they are still beautiful at New Year's. (Kept in water, of course.)

So who else would like to share a tradition, Christmas or otherwise?


  1. Tradition . . . it’s a wonderful thing. The Advent calendar goes up, but nothing else for Christmas until after the 4 December birthday child gets to celebrate his special day. We always have those yummy homemade cinnamon rolls, which I make from my mom’s recipe . . . we don’t have turkey for dinner [Christmas is a prime rib roast and, while nothing about the meal is traditional English, we do always have Christmas pudding]. We hang stockings . . . .

    We always take names from the Angel tree and buy presents for children who wouldn’t otherwise have any Christmas . . . we always go to midnight Christmas Eve candlelight service [where tradition also abounds and “Silent Night” is always the closing song in the service] . . . .

  2. That sounds lovely Joan! And so nice of you to hold off on Christmas until after the December birthday!

    About the cinnamon rolls--I meant to say to Hallie, I've looked at that recipe many times but haven't been able to get over the hump and tackle it!

  3. I make cinnamon rolls every Christmas morning and my recipe is not hard at all. Hmm. It's the same method my mother used except her dough was from Bisquik and mine is homemade whole-wheat biscuit dough. We eat them with bacon and scrambled eggs and mimosas.

    Much of our Christmas ritual involves baking with loads of butter. And since my divorce ten years ago, we always make sushi on Christmas Day. ;^)

    I love to put electric candles in the windows of our antique house. Those get left up into the new year, but the (fragrant live) tree has to come down and be cleaned up by New Year's Eve. I want to start the year fresh.

  4. Edith,

    Easy cinnamon rolls? Can you share that recipe?

    Pretty Please?

  5. A real tree, absolutely, that we cut down ourselves at a Christmas tree farm down the road. I love the scent of it in the house.

    Candles in the windows and wreaths on the doors, which makes the house look so lovely.

    My family eats what we call mutton pies for breakfast or lunch, which are small lamb pies served in a broth fragrant with cinnamon.

    The Christmas morning food revered in my partner's family is orange rolls, time-consuming to make and so delicious.

    And holiday cards. In a nod to modernity, we send some by email these days, but still hand write about 100 and look forward to receiving notes (email or snail mail) from friends near and far.

  6. OH, cinnamon rolls...nothing smells better!

    Why is the recipe so difficult?

  7. I'll have to pass on the oyster stuffing. I'm allergic, but I'm with you, Deb on the real Christmas tree. We even go to a tree farm and my hubby cuts one down.

    When I think of Christmas traditions, my favorite is Christmas Panties. A tradition oddly enough started by my grandfather when I was a little kid. My grandmother needed more panties, so Papa Steve thought it would be hilarious to put some under the tree from Santa. Everyone laughed and my aunt went on and on about "Mother's Christmas Panties."

    Mama Ruth was the most genteel gracious woman and thanked Papa Steve for the gift, BUT my grandmother learned a few tricks after being married to him all those years and got her revenge later.

    The following Christmas, two more packages appeared under the tree. "Santa" brought Christmas panties for my aunt and mom. The tradition was born! My sister and I exchange panties now.

  8. Mr. Right and I host a Christmas Brunch for our closest friends on the Sunday morning a week or so before Christmas. (With pecan rolls, which are easy when you use the bread machine to make the dough.) It's become such a tradition that it actually factored into our kitchen remodel two years ago!

  9. Melissa, I love the Christmas panties!

    Okay, someone is going to have to post the cinnamon roll recipe! If I won't tackle it, maybe my daughter will!

    The other thing we do is Christmas lights, usually the day after Thanksgiving. I declared TG too early this year, however, so maybe we'll do them next weekend, and the tree the week after that.

    And we had better be getting a picture of the new puppy for our Christmas cards...

  10. Not sure how well this recipe will come through here (my mother was Marilyn).
    Mariyn's Christmas Morning Cinnamon Rolls

    Preheat oven to 425 degrees F.

    2 c whole wheat flour
    1 c butter
    1T baking powder
    ½ tsp salt
    2 eggs
    ½ c milk
    ½ sugar
    1 tsp cinnamon
    ½ c brown sugar

    1. Combine flour, baking powder, and salt in a mixing bowl.
    2. Cut ½ c (1 stick) butter into flour mixture until mostly pea-sized.
    3. Make well in the middle and add eggs and milk.
    4. Stir eggs into milk with a fork and then all into the flour until moistened.
    5. Turn dough onto a floured board and knead just enough to bring it together.
    6. Roll dough out onto floured board 1/2” thick. Fold in thirds. Repeat rolling and folding (which makes a flakier pastry) three times. Fold one last time and move to the side.
    7. Spread out a thin dishtowel or pastry cloth and dust with flour.
    8. Put 1 stick of butter into a round cake pan and place in preheated oven, checking frequently. Remove when melted. Drop brown sugar evenly onto the melted butter in the pan.
    9. While the butter melts, roll the dough on the cloth until you have a sheet about 18” long and 8” wide. Rounded edges are fine.
    10. Remove the melted butter and pour half of it in a long stream the length of the dough.
    11. Spread the butter on the dough with a wide knife or Rubbermaid spatula.
    12. Sprinkle the sugar and cinnamon all over the butter. Adjust quantities to cover or for preference.
    13. Take the cloth with one hand near each end of the dough and roll away from you, coaxing the dough into a roll.
    14. Continue to roll as tightly as possible until the dough is a long thick snake.
    15. Take a sharp knife, cut pieces about 1/12” wide, and evenly space them cut side up in the prepared pan. (It is customary to promptly eat the two end pieces or give them to someone who enjoys raw biscuit dough.)
    16. Bake for about 20-25 minutes or until light brown on top and bubbling in the pan.
    17. Place a plate upside down on the pan, secure it with two potholders, and invert the rolls onto the plate.
    18. Remove the pan and quickly scrape any of the butter/brown sugar mixture onto the rolls before it cools.

    To get a head start on Christmas morning, prepare the dough the night before and refrigerate. You can use unbleached white flour or a mix of white and whole wheat if you want.

  11. I LOVE the holidays and we have all sorts of traditions, some that came from my family and some from my husband but my son, who is 14, insists that all holiday traditions be observed. This means an Advent calendar, a hanging banner with a tree and ornaments that get added each day until the golden star goes on the top of the tree on Christmas Eve gets put up on December 1st. On each of the four Sundays of Advent we light the candles of our wreath and eat lebkuchen (spice cookies) with tea. On Christmas Eve we have cheese fondue (seriously!) before church and on Christmas Day I do a big roast beef with mashed potatoes, yeasty rolls and Brussels sprouts. We honor St Nicholas Day (Dec. 6th) by putting our shoes under the tree to find oranges, chocolate coins, a new book and an ornament for the tree. We honor Santa Lucia Day but making cardamom buns. We open some gifts on Christmas Eve (always new pjs and a book) and some on Christmas Day. We even light a menorah every year! Yep, I LOVE the holidays. All of them!

  12. I am going to order your book immediately! Nothing I love more than English Christmases, a la Barbara Pym, Catherine Cookson and Downton Abbey!Molly D. Campbell

  13. One of our Christmas traditions was the untangling of the Christmas lights. We used to get a huge tree, and my dad would festoon it with at least a thousand lights. It was quite the production, and we daughters were in charge of checking all the strings. Inevitably, some of the strings had burned bulbs which involved trying to find the one bulb that was out and replacing it. (Remember those days?) Also inevitably, the strings would get tangled, dad would tell mom to just go out and buy a couple of new strings, and mom would balk like the true depression child she was. :-)

    But, man, we had a beautiful tree.

  14. Edith’s cinnamon rolls sound yummy . . . here’s my mom’s [super-easy, goes together fast] recipe:

    Combine 1/2 cup scaled milk, 3 tablespoons shortening, 3 tablespoons sugar, 1-1/2 teaspoons salt; add 1/2 cup lukewarm water in which you have dissolved one 1/4-ounce package yeast [or 2-1/4 teaspoons from a jar of yeast]; mix well. Blend in one egg; gradually add 3-1/4 cups sifted flour; mix well. Cover bowl and let stand for fifteen minutes. Mix together 4 tablespoons melted butter, 1/2 cup sugar, 4 teaspoons cinnamon. On floured surface, roll dough out to about an 18” X 12” rectangle. Spread the cinnamon/butter/sugar mixture over the dough; roll up from the long end [so it looks like a log]; cut into 1” slices. Place in well-greased muffin pans or round cake pans. Cover, let rise about an hour. Bake at 375 degrees for 20-25 minutes. This recipe makes about eighteen cinnamon rolls.

    I mix up the dry ingredients ahead of time; add the liquid when I am ready to bake and make the cinnamon filling while the dough is standing . . . . It’s about five minutes to mix up plus standing time; another five minutes or so to roll out, cut, and put into a pan. Then all that’s left is to pop them into the oven to bake!

  15. This recipe is for a bread machine.


    1 cup water
    1 egg
    2 T butter, softened
    3-1/4 cup bread flour
    1/4 cup sugar
    1 tsp salt
    3 tsp yeast

    Place all ingredients in bread machine pan. Process on sweet dough cycle. (1 hr 50 mins)

    1/3 cup butter
    ½ cup brown sugar
    1 T corn syrup
    1 cup pecans, or more

    Butter 13X9" rectangular pan. Spread topping mixture in pan.

    1/4 cup sugar
    1 tsp cinnamon

    2 T butter, softened

    Roll dough into 15X10" rectangle. Butter with 2 T butter. Sprinkle with cinnamon sugar. Roll up tightly, starting at 15" side. Pinch edge of dough into roll to seal. Cut roll into 1" slices. Place in pan. Cover and let rise in warm place until double, about one hour.

    Heat oven to 375◦. Bank until golden brown, about 22 mins. Immediately invert pan onto heat- proof serving plate or tray. Leave pan in place about a minute so caramel drizzles over the rolls.

    (I bake in a metal pan, then invert onto a pressed-tin tray lined with parchment paper. Trim paper after inversion.)

  16. I listen to the 9 lessons and carols on NPR and bake a special Slovenian nut roll, potica, which my friends look forward to each Christmas.

    I love Christmas trees, but the cat insists that's it's a jungle gym erected for his special benefit so we haven't had one in a while. Even when the ornaments are not breakable it means spending more time fishing them out from under the furniture than enjoying the tree! A warm kitty more than makes up for it.

  17. Sorry, Edith, purist that I am I do not consider a "real" cinnamon sticky bun one that's made with a quick bread (baking soda) dough. Gotta have YEAST. And I don't have a bread machine.

    I make quick breads, pie crust - easy peasy. But yeast bread pretty much defines my limits.
    It's not hard so much as complicated, and you have to pay attention. You've gotta mix it, knead it, let it rise, knead again - then roll it out and fill it with cinnamon sugar and raisins and nuts and then cut it into slices and let them rise again, sitting overnight in a pan in a layer of butter and maple syrup. Bake them in the morning.

    I think I just talked myself into making them again.


    Somehow the "overnight" got me.

  19. We use to untangle lights - lay them all out on the floor, plug them in to test and try not to step on them.

  20. For the past 15 years or so my family has gone to the The Goodman Theater's production of A Christmas Carol, in Chicago, the second weekend in December. It never gets old. There have been years when I feel like pre ghost visit Scrooge walking into the play and without fail, I always leave feeling like the giddy Christmas morning Scrooge.

    Prior to being allowed to check out the presents under the tree Christmas morning, my parents had my siblings and I stand by the ceramic nativity scene, made by my mom, on the buffet table and wish the baby Jesus a Happy Birthday. A silly tradition but one I don't think I will every forget.

  21. This year I'm trying to reinstitute a family tradition of writing a hand written, personal letter to each of the people we love and to enclose it in a card. I just want to write hopeful things for the new year. It won't be newsy letter. Each of the people on our list knows about our troubles this year, and we want to look ahead. It's hard to write real letters now, and I don't expect many, if any, in return. I hope it does happen though, and I hope other people in my family do the same.

  22. Oh, Hallie, yes… yeast for the sticky buns. xo

  23. Lucy, I have the exact same knitted stockings! My great-aunt and grandmother made the originals, but I inherited the pattern and made stockings for my kids and daughter-in-law.

  24. Rhys, my Canadian/Scot father expected tea every afternoon in retirement--yes, with loose tea made the proper way and some sort of refreshment. And we always had plum pudding with flaming sugar cubes and hard sauce--how I loved that sauce. My kids have no interest in such traditions, and I miss them. But we have our cheese ball every year--have had it since I was a kid.

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