Hear Irena in her own words (MP3 download: 3.15mb) from WAMC
The holidays are upon us. Santa is arriving in the nick of time so once again we can strengthen old links in the chain of memories and forge new ones. We all like to conjure up Currier and Ives, real or imagined remembrances of skating on the just frozen pond followed with hot chocolate, spiced cider or mulled wine.
‘Tis the season to be jolly. Songsters raise their voices with sounds of in Dulci Jubilo, Adeste Fidelis and Silent Night. Other merry makers are more likely to hum, All I Want for Christmas Are My Two Front Teeth or Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer.
We all yearn for a nostalgic holiday in which we symbolically hold hands from one generation to the next.
Of course it is memories of childhood that determine whether the holiday feast includes Swedish gravlax or Norwegian baked cod, Mediterranean roast goat or stuffed whale skin (if you grew up in Greenland).
My own earliest memories of Christmas dinner recall England during the war years, when, in order to help our country, in some way that was never entirely clear to me, we were all supposed to raise chickens.We were the only family in the neighborhood who heeded this particular call to patriotism.
Our chickens were always escaping from the hen house and running into the neighbors’ gardens. It was my task to try to corner them, cower them into submission and carry them home, quivering in my arms. They needn’t have been afraid — we never ate any of them.
One chicken in particular became our family pet. Her name was Lucy. She was very tame. I used to wheel her around in my doll’s pram. She would lie there quietly, her head resting on the frilly pillow, one beady eye watching me. I covered her with a soft blanket to keep her feathers warm.
We always had roast goose, not chicken, for our Christmas dinner. My mother, a woman of tradition if ever there was one, followed the hallowed custom by English cooks from time immemorial.
No sooner was the goose committed to the oven than the Brussels sprouts were set to cooking. (In England, it is said, we have only three vegetables and two of them are Brussels sprouts.) How, now, I yearn for those lumpy mashed potatoes, greasy gravy and gooseberry relish…
Plum pudding is the symbol of an English Christmas. It represents the good and abundant earth. The attendant holly berries symbolize the blood of Christ, the flames of doused brandy are the flames of hell that are rapidly burned away as goodness triumphs over all. Or, at least that is what is supposed to happen.
Some families still make their own plum pudding, remembering to stir it clockwise, as the earth moves on its axis, for this will bring good luck and a wish may be granted. And even more good fortune will come to the diner, who finds in the pudding a coin of the realm or a ring or a silver charm. The notion is that a coin will bring a year of wealth, a ring forecasts a wedding in the future and a thimble predicts a happy life, though a solitary one as a spinster.
Queen Victoria was the monarch who introduced the idea of burying assorted trinkets in the pudding, (an early British version of the fortune cookie perhaps).
A new recipe for plum pudding was created to celebrate Queen’s Victoria’s 50th year on the throne. The recipe required:
- 50 sweet almonds, equal to the years of Her Majesty’s reign,
- 5 ounces of bread crumbs, representing Her daughters,
- 4 ounces of flour, numbering Her sons,
- 3 ounces of coconut, cut into 32 pieces, being the number of the Queen’s grandchildren,
- 2 ounces of sugar, being the number of Her great-grandchildren,
- 5 ounces of suet, chopped into as many pieces as Her Majesty has subjects in every town,
- 5 eggs, well beaten, representing England, Scotland, Wales, Ireland and our Colonies—now, alas, our former Colonies.
All the ingredients were mixed together with ½ pint (4,980 drops) of milk representing the ages in months of Her Majesty and Her children. Boil 2 hours, 16 minutes or twice 86 minutes, the age of Her Majesty in her Golden Jubilee Year.
The current Queen’s Christmas pudding will be borne blue and blazing with brandy by Her Majesty’s principal page to the dining table at Windsor Castle. It will be made this year as is customary from a 17th century recipe. Ours will be bought online.
However you celebrate the holiday feast, may I wish you merry. As Charles Dickens’ Tiny Tim exclaimed, “God bless us every one”—especially those who are watching over the stock market!