Christmas has come and gone, or so many people think, but Christmas, real Christmas is still around the corner. Hiding, waiting, hardly breathing, choosing just the right time to come swooping down like a wave of doves, to steady and calm your madly ticking heart.
The candle on my coffee table is almost burned out… sharp and spicy, intensely perfumed. Clove, bay leaf, cinnamon, tangerine, red berry. Pine? It does not smell like a Christmas tree or the winter air, or anything I know, and bending down, almost putting my face in the melting pool of wax, I see a little man in a lab coat sitting far away, bombarding molecules in a flask, and I smell the smell of modern Christmas, fake nothingness, and throw the candle away….
January 4 today, cold and sunny. Then suddenly the sun ran away, the sky darkened into silky grey, and large dancing snowflakes fell, dusting ice and lumps of dirty snow on the ground….winter perhaps is coming……but then the snowflakes disappeared…
There was no Ukrainian Christmas Eve dinner of twelve courses this year. I sent out no cards. Did not buy a Christmas tree– I remembered last year…. eight hours decorating it. Searching for the lights in the basement (didn’t label boxes last year after taking them down), bringing them upstairs in tangled piles (forgot to fold them neatly), struggling to untangle the long ropes of lights on the living room floor, draping them around my neck, arms, and hands trying to get them on the eight foot tree, trying to hide the wires and twist them neatly on the branches, getting them tangled on the tree branches, trying to untangle them while teetering on a ladder, taking them down and trying to untangle them again, throwing them on the floor, accidentally stepping on them, crushing them, forgetting how to replace them, trying to remove the tiny lights with my hands, teeth, tweezers, twisting and turning them, breaking them, looking for spares in the cluttered basement…. Then, three hours later figuring out how to take them out (you have to pull harder ).
Ah, but I miss the tree, how it glowed in red, amber, gold and slightly tarnished wine. How it glinted and glimmered, turning that corner of the room into a haven of elves and fairies. And, on some violet evenings, I saw strange birds flying in and out of the shrubs at the window, peering inside, looking at me with those dark seeded eyes. How the pine smell got deeper, sharper, and then soft and slightly sweetish, like dried things do as they fade away, more exquisite than all the perfumes in Bloomingdale’s………
I spent December lamenting the warmth of fifty and sixty degree weather, hating the green grass that glowed neon, the earth that was still rich and brown, so warm I could put the last of the spring bulbs in. The lilac sprouted green buds, daffodils peeped out of the ground like April, birds flew in and out of the bird bath, and robins arrived deep in winter instead of early spring.
Where is winter?
Every year when we were children (and even adults) we longed for the snow especially in December at Christmas, to see it out the window falling gently and covering the trees in a fine dusting of powdered sugar that clung to every branch, stem, leaf and needle, turning the world into a lithograph. Or, sometimes thick and heavy like whipped cream, making you want to run outside and just throw yourself in. Walking home, the snowflakes floating down and melting on your lashes,… the happiness of it all, the Christmas lights on trees, windows and rooftops, muted like gas lamps in a Dickens story.
We were skiers then, we were skaters, we were snow queens, catching snowflakes with our open mouths like bubbles in champagne. We walked on snowy sidewalks in high-heeled boots with pointy ballerina toes, wandered under the icy moon in fur-trimmed coats and silk lined Cossack hats, all of them hiding in our closets now, still smelling of Joy, Mitsouko and Fleur de Bleu.
But most of all we had our mother. Maria. I say her name now like a prayer to the Holy Ghost. Every year at Christmas time she told us stories of her childhood in Ukraine, and in my mind these are the only true Christmas stories I know. Real Christmas with real snow, that fell at the right time, the right season, that snow is still falling somewhere where Christmas is the way Christmas should be.
My mother grew up in a small village in the Carpathian mountains of Ukraine. A very small village, a wee village we might say like the one Dylan Thomas wrote about, in “A Child’s Christmas in Wales”. All our lives my sisters and I heard stories about that village. The snow, the air, the wild flowers, the perfume still floating in old hotel rooms where Polish aristocrats once stayed….
Though she called them mountains, they are really more like hills. Big soft green hills, maybe somewhere they reach 2,000 or 3,000 feet but they are not majestic and scary like the Rockies. These hills you could walk up and down on, run and dance on, picnic on and walk to and from school on. But they go on forever and the air is pure and fresh and once you live there no matter where you are you never forget it. They contain bits of forest here and there, enough to hide a witch or vampire or two. Providing enough rain, moisture and shade to sprout thousands of mushrooms, wild violets….
Before Christmas my mother and her family fasted. Everyone in the village did. For days before a holiday. Ate nothing but bread and maybe an egg if there was an egg. Some potatoes, cucumbers in a little oil. Maybe porridge made with buckwheat and a little milk.There might have been an onion or two, some garlic. The children always had milk for breakfast, they didn’t starve, but things were lean.
And then it started, the cold and grey, the days shorter but seeming longer and longer until Christmas. The air frosty and cold and fires in all the houses in the village burning bright. The house was thoroughly cleaned. Walls and floors scrubbed, windows and curtains washed. With rags, water and maybe vinegar or some rough soap. On your hands and knees.
My mother’s brother would go out to the forest and cut down a Christmas tree and drag it home on an old wooden sleigh. It was always a tall tree, not too wide and not too narrow, the kind where all the branches looked like long delicate arms, welcoming you inside its feathery boughs. They didn’t decorate it until Christmas Eve. The decorations were homemade– paper ornaments, dried pieces of fruit, apple and orange peels, some silky cotton pulled apart and scattered on the branches to make little clouds, small white candles and a chain of red berries and gold stars.
My mother tried to show us once how to make the gold stars. We cut narrow strips of paper about 1/4″ thick and weaved them in and out from the center until we had a five-pointed star. This took a while as we were impatient and thinking of shopping, parties, presents, whether or not there was enough wine and champagne, what we were going to wear…. while she sat on the couch explaining to us how to start the weave, trying to talk to us about things, trying to teach us Ukrainian songs……. Finally, after many tries we got it and sat there together for once, making a big pile of stars that we painted gold and strung along a red beaded chain. My sister has it still.
In those days fresh hay was strewn on the kitchen floor to commemorate the hay in the manger where Jesus was born. Sometimes it was scattered on the dining room table and covered with a white cloth. It perfumed the house with a grassy sweet smell mingling with the sharp scent of the Christmas tree.
My grandmother baked. And baked and baked. All from scratch. She made poppy-seed rolls and nut torts without flour, with hand ground hazelnuts or walnuts, the layers slathered with rich buttercream flavored with coffee and vanilla, a layered confection made of thin almost translucent wafers layered with meringue and crushed almonds, A honey cake made with real honey from real bees that didn’t eat poison. She added lemon peel, orange peel and a little sugar to rich yellow Christmas breads, called Kolach. For special occasions there was rum to put in the cakes. There was a spiced compote called uzvar, of stewed apricots, apples, raisins, and prunes. This was served on Christmas Eve after the feast.
There were dozens and dozens of varenyky to make, known to most people as pierogi which is what they are called in Polish. My grandmother’s varenyky were small and delicate. The dough light and silky, not the huge rocky blobs so often served in restaurants or in the frozen food sections of supermarkets loaded with preservatives to keep them fresh. They were filled with homemade sauerkraut and sautéed cabbage mixed with a little onion, carrot and oil. Others were filled with potato, some sharp cheddar or farmers cheese, a little salt and pepper.
I have tried and tried but can never make the dough tender enough the fillings savory enough and the varenyky small enough. The flour was different then, the potatoes, the butter. Oh the potatoes grown in the rich black earth of those Ukrainian farms and village gardens!
There were also tiny cabbage rolls. Holubsti (little doves). My grandfather disliked food that was big and bulky and always asked my grandmother to make them small. Hers were about three inches long and stuffed with rice, onion and chopped mushrooms, a tiny bit of garlic. Everything had to be finely minced. She cooked them in a light tomato sauce and served them piled high on a platter. Making so many small and delicate holubsti took hours. I still remember visiting her when I was five years old and the family gathering for the big dinner in her dark cool basement, the long table covered in a white tablecloth and her coming down the basement stairs with about a hundred of the little birds piled on a ceramic platter.
There was always kutia, on Christmas Eve, a dish made of whole wheat kernels, honey, and poppy seeds. It always starts the holy meal. It’s an ancient dish and symbolic of the bounty of the earth, sometimes referred to as God’s food. We each had a spoonful before dinner and never really appreciated it. What it meant. Wheat, a product of the great bounty of Ukraine, the wheat growing in the world’s richest, loamiest, blackest soil.. Wheat before it made people sick and was the topic of endless dinner conversations ….. when it was pure and bread baked with it perfumed the house for days. Everyone could eatand rejoice at the gift of the weaving golden grasses.
There is always fish on Christmas Eve and it is either broiled, baked, made into fish balls, fried, or in aspic. In our family we had aspic. This dish can be someone’s worst culinary nightmare or the height of gastronomic pleasure. Ours was sheer pleasure.
My father always made the fish. He bought the biggest, freshest, meatiest, most expensive fish he could find, often a sturgeon. Spending most of his paycheck on it. The fish was poached in aromatics, herbs, and garlic and left to cool in the liquid. Sometimes he added gelatin to make the broth thicker and set faster, and small circles of carrot and sprigs of parsley for color, the vegetables glowing underneath the aspic like an underwater garden.
My father had a heavy hand when cooking certain dishes and the fish in aspic was a prime example. He was a rough and difficult man but when he cooked certain dishes he became a kind of artist, creating tastes and delicious smells that we could never put our fingers on.. how he did it, what he used… He never let us watch him when he cooked, he was secretive and fussy, shooing us out of the kitchen when he was making something.
He must have used a dozen huge garlic cloves or more to make that dish. But in his hands the garlic became a pure, savory and aromatic perfume, transforming the flesh, blood and bone of that fish into a culinary wonder.
I remember when he came in with the aspic how proud and excited he was, and couldn’t wait for us to taste it. How hungry we were for that first bite of fish after just a spoonful of kutia and a few sips of Chablis. Our stomachs were growling, because for once we obeyed our mother that Christmas Eve day to fast at least a little…… There it was on the great white platter, like an ancient fossil waiting to come alive again from the cool and glistening jelly. The flesh rich and meaty, white as snow, the taste, clean and fresh as though we were still swimming with that fish in some pure mountain stream.
And then the borscht. The borscht I dream of, the borscht I love, the borscht I remember… each and every spoonful…. The borscht that remains to this day something sacred, deep and still, like the longing I have for my mother, her stories, her blue eyes and golden hair.
My mother’s borscht was a clear borscht. No onions, garlic, cabbage or carrots or meat, which are also borscht but not Maria’s borscht. It was deep red, like a fine Bordeaux. It tasted of beets but only slightly, there may have been onion, carrot, garlic or parsley, but these were simmered earlier in another pot and the whole thing strained until it became a deep, soul satisfying broth that when you took your first sip and felt it floating down your throat, warming your chest…. it made your body and mind feel somehow completely well, completely whole. She made little dumplings to float in the borscht. They were filled with finely chopped wild and domestic mushrooms and minced onion sautéed in oil.
I have tried and tried but cannot get the dumplings silky enough, small enough or the filling mushroomy enough. When my mother made them she only made a few dozen, too much work she said. And when she ladled them into a deep bowl, fresh from the poaching liquid, the dumplings tiny and plump, packed with savory mushrooms peeping through the silky wrapping, and then glistening with melted butter golden with caramelized onions.. it was all I could do but grab the whole bowl and empty it into my gaping mouth, like a starving crocodile finally chomping down on some tasty little morsel….
Recreating this meal that my grandmother made and her mother before her and before that, was difficult, but my mother made it every year even with a full -time job and three children in the house. We always promised to help her, to come early from work, take a day off, spend the whole day chopping, mincing and grinding nuts …. but instead we came late, drank too much before and during the cooking, brought our friends along who also drank and were as inept in the kitchen as we were then. We invited an assortment of various friends to whom she always said yes, thinking maybe this year we will come and help. We didn’t, not the way we should have.
Then it was done. Somehow the tree decorated and lit up with lights. The window robed in turquoise and gold. Her beloved poinsettias scattered in the proper places throughout the house. Candles lit. Bunches of evergreens and berries on the mantle and in vases throughout the house. White table-cloth pressed until every wrinkle was out.
I would often still be at home frantically wrapping presents on Christmas Eve, or still at the mall shopping. Sometimes I came to my mother’s house on Christmas Eve with unwrapped gifts, wrapping them furiously in her bedroom before dinner…….. my tree at home often stood in the stand undecorated, my house a dirty mess….. And then rushing out to my mother’s house, seeing from the distance the tiny gold and turquoise lights sparkling against the yellow brick and the stained glass windows, stepping inside and the house had a hushed atmosphere like the most sacred deepest sanctuary, the candles reminding me of incense and the church I visited so rarely. My mother would still be busy in the kitchen and sometimes a little angry because there was still a lot to do, and we were late again and guests were coming,….but she answered the door managing a smile through the tiredness and annoyance. She was getting older and some years I noticed her face and all the wrinkles that even makeup could no longer erase or soften.
We always brought champagne to start. Oh the delights of champagne! Though they did not drink champagne in their village in Ukraine it became a merry American tradition we picked up decades ago..my mother reluctantly.. But later, even she succumbed to the delights of Veuve Cliquot and after a glass her eyes started to sparkle and she sat for a while to rest and talk with our guests. We had some hors d’oeuvres, another tradition we added to the feast, my mother resisted this also, it was not traditional, but it gave us more time to finish preparing dinner, and… our excuse to keep drinking champagne….
After the kutia and the fish we went to the kitchen to help her ladle the borscht into the deep white bowls, like wine, like ancient blood sacrifices, you could almost hear the old Ukrainian voices from the past praising the bounty of the forests, lakes and rivers, the tiny dumplings floating in them like little ghosts, and we sat there sipping the holy broth and almost died there and then.
On to the varenyky and the holubsti, the cakes and chocolates and more and more wine……. we played Ukrainian Christmas carols or the Little Vienna choir boys and my mother sometimes would sing a little snippet of an old carol, none of us can sing but my mother sang and sang.
Sometimes we managed to go back to the old Ukrainian neighborhood for midnight mass. A magnificent old cathedral decorated in every shade of blue, mysterious and dark, with glorious stained glass windows in violet, red, blue and turquoise, ceilings dripping in gold leaf. We were hung over already, reeking of alcohol, hardly able to stand up for lack of sleep, but we went and smelled the incense and tasted the holy bread and wine…. we perked up when the choir sang, a real old-fashioned choir, where every singer had a powerful, resonating voice and sang their hearts out, and there in that church, we felt something akin to a glorious feeling, a spiritual, holy feeling….
Sometimes we came home after church and continued to eat and drink and sometimes my sister and I put on gypsy music and danced. We were happy then, we were young wild, silly, and a little stupid. We made up tangos and foxtrots and sometimes dervish dances and danced and danced…..My mother would go and sit by herself in the living room looking at her beloved Christmas tree. And the stories of snow came…
Just before Christmas Eve dinner in Ukraine, in the village in the Carpathians, my grandmother would still be making preparations for the dinner and suddenly the family would hear far away in the distance, the sound of voices– men and women singing carols in the dark. Caroling took place all over the villages and people then could really sing, each and every one of them. And you wanted them to come, you wanted to see them, greet them and welcome them into your home. And there was snow at Christmas, lots and lots of snow. And it was white snow that stayed white and it was thick and covered the paths through the mountains and villages in a soft carpet.
Often after a big snow the cold came, and the dark and gleaming night echoed with the dazzling songs of stars as though they too were just being created, just born like the Christ child. And she said though the singers were very far away, you could hear them already, for miles and miles encircling the village with their voices and the thrilling Christmas songs. As they approached closer to the village you could hear the crunching of their boots in the snow, that beautiful crunching sound that sometimes I still hear when I am walking home late at night, the only one in my town, everyone already asleep or dozing in front of the TV….. she said you could hear the crunching of the tall red leather boots the women wore, and almost see the colored ribbons peeping out of their big warm hats streaming down like Christmas bon bons and the men with their long mustaches and tall Cossack hats and black boots, singing in those baritone voices like a grandfather clock, ringing out the sound in every corner of each rolling hill ,and the snow sparkled like diamonds, and there were soft lights all over the village, and all the people where hungry and tired and overworked, and mostly poor, but they had prepared a feast. A feast made with simple ingredients like potatoes and garlic, onions and mushrooms, from the forests, honey from a neighbors beehives, pork fat saved for months, flour, sugar, hoarded and kept like the holy grail…… beets, carrots and parsnips kept cold in some muddy underground pantry, poppy seeds and nuts like exotica from Egypt, orange and lemon peel, and all of these were taken up and chopped and minced and stirred and beaten and pulled and kneaded and roasted and fried up by tired hands, old and weary hands, but they created magic, manna, delicacies that no mouth shall ever taste again …
Ah the whiteness of that snow, the joyous caroling feet that it carried from house to house, the fragrant smells coming from those simple scrubbed kitchens, whose penance and hard work took the gifts of earth and forest and stream and the tired eyes saw it was all good and all kind, and deep like the purest snow, and the snow was the fragrance that the carolers brought in and they were greeted with joy from within, and they sang Boh Previchny and their voices roared like the sea, a happy sea, a sea of goodness and cheer and you offered them a tiny bit of homemade cherry wine….
Like the cherry wine I drank so many years ago with a priest who I met in a tiny village in the Carpathians in Ukraine, by that old drinking well….,
Ah, but that is another story…..