Although I have lived hours away from my hometown for the entirety of my adult life, I have never spent a Christmas anywhere but in my childhood home, with my parents. I wake up on Christmas morning in the same bed I had in girlhood, even though my mother has replace the carpet and painted the walls in my former bedroom, and I attend the same church in the evening that marked Sundays in my youth, even though I’m now sitting in the pews and not in the choir loft.
Other things have changed and shifted the normalcy of Christmas for us: our beloved family Jack Russell, Baron, is long gone save for the portrait of him that hangs near the tree and the memories of him ripping apart the gift wrapping at some point during the night. We have also expanded our family of three to five, as my two children are now present for the presents. My folks tell me that the only reason for having me, their singular child, was for the gift of grandchildren. (Jokingly, I hope!) Three stockings on the mantle have become eight because my mother has upgraded the size and quality of our stockings with time but insists we also hang our three original stockings. Thin, worn and relatively tiny compared to their modern counterparts, we hang them to remind us of the years when my parents were young and struggling to make ends meet. Sometimes, all that would be in those early stockings were a pair of socks, a special orange and a box of crayons, but there was always something to be found inside even when the years were lean. Santa -- and a resourceful mother -- always provides.
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One thing that has never changed is the promise of a fresh, warm cinnamon roll from the oven on Christmas morning. After church and before the kids are tucked into bed, my mother and I stand at the kitchen counter and mix yeast with warmed milk and sugar. Combined with eggs, butter, flour and salt, a floppy and sticky dough soon forms around the hook of a stand mixer and then is turned out for a quick kneading. The dough is placed into a butter bowl and lightly covered with a clean towel to rise in the radiating heat of the fireplace. A buttery, brown filling is sprinkled on the dough once rolled out, and together we roll the dough into a log and cut it into 12 spiralized rolls, just enough for each of us to have two with remnants to fight over later. Icing is made and tucked away to top each roll after baking.
Christmas morning’s first riser is responsible for placing the baking dish of cinnamon rolls in a 400 degree oven and starting the coffee pot. By the time everyone is awake, the rolls are ready to be enjoyed in the living room while we sort our gifts, count our blessings and sit near the fireplace while the yule log burns, letting the warmth raise our spirits much like it lifts the yeasted dough.
Our tradition is familiar to other families, too: Jonathan Stewart, the longtime wine director at 15 Church in Saratoga and current sales associate with Frederick Wildman and Sons wine distributor also enjoys cinnamon rolls at Christmas. The eve of, he gathers with friends and family for appetizers and cookies and homemade eggnog.
Michael Lapi, a SUNY Cobleskill instructor of meat processing and farm to table management counts a sweet pastry among his cherished holiday traditions. Cucidati, a Sicilian cookie with dried fruit and nut filling with a long shelf life, is a recipe that surpasses the generations for his family. “My grandmother made them and now my mother makes them,” he said.
Maria Gallo, owner of Nani’s Iced Tea based in Delmar grew up in an Italian family that celebrated Christmas Eve with tripe, squid, cream puffs, nuts, fruits and liqueurs. “[There was] no dishwasher, everyone was in the kitchen with a steady flow of hands and dish towels,” she said. Much has changed for Gallo since those days -- including the convenience of a dishwasher -- but the liqueurs are absent (“due to sambuca and I breaking up in 1988,” she said) but nuts and desserts are a mainstay, and the table is set with her grandmother’s linens and dishes.
Patricia Novo, owner of Taverna Novo in Saratoga Springs, also celebrates the Italian tradition of The Feast of Seven Fishes, but due to life in food service, she and her husband and business partner Jeff will be hosting the feast at the restaurant for the first time this year. “It’s something that Jeff’s grandmother did and I’ve always been excited to do it,” Novo said.
Regardless of the recipe, the tradition of food at Christmas Eve is one that simultaneously provides roots in legacy with the malleable adaptations that allow the tradition to be marked by each generation that embraces it. Subtle changes to our cinnamon rolls over the years have included the addition of orange zest or a little vanilla extract, but the arching theme of what the tradition symbolizes remains. Enjoying that cinnamon rolls brings a rush of memories of Christmases past, like Ebenezer Scrooge slipping through time in his dreams. Whether the base of our Christmas tree is hidden by ornately wrapped gifts or exposed by the barren nature of bank accounts, the joy of those cinnamon roll and the love they convey is reminder that we are graced with a bounty and whatever we have is all that we need.