Today Katharine Ashe is sharing one of her family’s traditions AND a recipe with us.
Thanks to my lovely hostesses for throwing their Recipe and Tradition Exchange again this year, and for inviting me. What fun!
This year I’m going to share a tradition that’s very special in my family.
I grew up in a large family and on Christmas Eve we rarely made it to Midnight Mass. We were all too excited for Santa’s arrival to sit through a service (and now I’m pretty sure Mom always vetoed it because she didn’t want to be up till 3AM stuffing stockings!). Instead, after dinner but before we set out the cookies and milk for Santa, Dad pulled out the family Bible and read the story of the first Christmas.
Did you ever read The Princess Bride? The original book by William Goldman tells of how the sick little boy had no idea that his grandfather was reading him only “the good parts version” of S. Morgenstern’s classic tale of adventure, and how he only discovered it as an adult when he took up the book himself to read to his son.
Well, when I was a kid I had no idea Dad was reading “the good parts version” of the Christmas story. Not that any part isn’t good! Good heavens, no. What I mean is that on Christmas Eve every year Dad strung together several gospels to tell the whole story including Gabriel’s visit, Joseph’s dream, Mary’s trip to see her cousin Elizabeth, the decree of Caesar Augustus, the manger, the shepherds grazing their flocks in the fields, the angels singing “Glory to God!”, King Herod plotting, the wise men traveling, and that magnificent star that drew them all to the King of Kings. For the sake of six squirming children my dad read this fabulous story with drama and joy, and I was enraptured.
But we not only listened, we got involved.
Francis of Assisi, the thirteenth-century mystic, is credited with having created the first “living crèche”, the Christmas manger scene with real people and animals. In general, medieval folks adored acting out the stories of Jesus’ life. That’s when pageants really got going. And that’s what my family did with the Christmas story. As Dad read, we acted it out, each kid and parent taking on a different role each year and sometimes more than one role, with costumes contrived of Mom’s old dresses, table cloths, scarves, pipe cleaners and bathroom towels. We didn’t have an oxen or donkey at my house as a kid (alas!), so we divvied up the animal roles too. Until my brother brought home his first dog, my sister Anne was the best horn-rimmed-glasses-wearing-sheep ever, bar none.
Today my family is a bit smaller—just my son, husband, and me. But we get our dog involved, and when friends are with us for the holiday we drag them into the pageant too. It’s still my favorite part of Christmas.
The recipe I’m sharing today is also Christmas Eve-related. My parents’ next-door neighbors, the Gleasons, threw a Christmas Eve party every year, with yummy hors-d’oeuvres and cocktails. When I was a kid I never understood all the fuss over Mr. Gleason’s Philadelphia Fish House Punch. But boy, when I grew up did I see the light.
Sounds gross, doesn’t it? The thing is, it’s not made of fish. And let me tell you, it’s mighty tasty and wicked strong.
In those days when some of us “kids” didn’t yet have houses and kids of our own and we went home to be with Mom and Dad for the holidays, sometimes we’d go to the Gleasons’ party before doing the pageant. If later in the evening, as we read the story of the first Christmas, the shepherd listed a bit to one side and we giggled a little more than usual when the angel’s pipe-cleaner halo bent or the sheep abruptly got up and went to find his squeaky toy, well that just reminded us that we were human, and that’s what Christmas is all about—the Almighty taking our weak and fragile form for the sake of us. And after all, if there’s anything the story of the first Christmas teaches us, it’s that life never goes the way you plan it, and that’s a pretty joyful thing indeed.
Fish House Punch
This is my favorite of the recipes I’ve tried. I found it on Epicurious.com in 2008.
Preparation time: 30 minutes*
*Make the ice block the day before the party, and the punch 3-6 hours before the party.
1 cup sugar
3 ½ cups water
1 ½ cups fresh lemon juice (6 to 8 lemons), strained
1 (750ml) bottle Jamaican amber rum
12 oz Cognac (1 ½ cups)
2 oz peach brandy (1/4 cup)
½-gallon juice or milk carton, empty and washed
Ice block preparation: cut off the top/spout end of the carton, fill with 2 inches to spare, and freeze. For a clearer ice block, boil the water first, then cool it to room temperature before freezing.
Punch preparation: Stir together sugar and water in a large bowl or pot until the sugar is dissolved. Add lemon juice, rum, Cognac, and brandy and chill, covered, at least 3 hours. Put the ice block in a punch bowl and pour the punch over it. Garnish with lemons.
That’s it for my holiday traditions, the sacred and the spirited! Now for the 5 books I’d like from Santa:
1. Melissa Marr’s Graveminder (not very Christmassy, it’s true, but I’ve been dying to read it)
2. The Arabian Nights (I’m in the mood for fabulous tales)
3. A.S. Byatt’s Possession (one of my favorites, time for a reread)
4. Any of Percy Shelley’s poems (book research!)
5. Connie Willis’s Miracle and Other Christmas Stories (best collection of Christmas stories ever)
Katharine Ashe is an award-winning author of Regency-era romances full of wit, adventure and sensuality. Amazon chose her How To Be a Proper Lady as one of the Ten Best Romances of 2012. Katharine loves to hear from readers. Please visit her at www.KatharineAshe.com .