When I was five, I celebrated Christmas with my friend, Phoebe, and her family. My mother must have had to work that night, and, being a Jew who didn’t quite jump for holidays anyway, she didn’t have too much stake in it. But even then, I was so fascinated by Christmas as it seemed it should be. My memory of their house is only tiny lights and lots of evergreen, and, being small, I experienced every room as huge and warm and full of so much. There were candles and gingerbread and mountains of presents, and I was at once happy to be there and so overcome with want that it would magically become part of my life, and that all the warmth, sweet smells, and promise of presents would be mine, too, year after year. In the morning we had hot chocolate, and there was a present for me under the tree. I unwrapped it slowly, making it last as long as three or four of Phoebe’s presents, and under the paper, a box held a tiny blue bag that held a book the size of my small hand. It was The Little Fur Family by Margaret Wise Brown, and the cover was made of soft, grey fur. Thirty years later, I still have it.
Maybe it was from that time on, or maybe it was in me from even earlier, but after that, I’d convince my mom to get a tree. Every year, she’d go through it all with me, layer the tree in lights, hang a stocking from a nail under the window. Some years, I’d fill the space under the tree with presents, wrapping every crayon and book I had in construction paper with the label, “For mom. Love alana.” She would always buy me a calendar for the next year, a can of olives (a family tradition, apparently), and a few treats. But mostly, the biggest gift was that she’d go along with it all, even enjoy it. She’d let me work the holiday into our own family. I bought a cassette tape of Bing Crosby’s White Christmas with my allowance money, and she’d listen and sing along.
What is that feeling of pulling and wanting and wishing we could have that thing? That experience, that tradition, that pile of presents? Then, when I was little in my nightgown at Phoebe’s house, I felt it. Desire was, and still is, that feeling hurts and pulls and makes my heart beat fast. Especially at this time, with all this pressure to find the gift that will mean everything to someone, to craft and bake, and create meaningful moments and traditions for our children that they’ll remember FOREVER, I sometimes forget how much, and why I love this month.
This weekend, snow finally fell. It wasn’t much, but it was enough to change the color of our bedroom walls from their usual yellow to an almost blue from the snow reflected outside. Cold outside, warm inside, noise in the rest of the house all in a hum. I took a minute to sit there, and it was only then that I remembered this light, and how I miss it the rest of the year. The girls went out in the yard in search of a tree. I had told them to find one that sang to them, and although they both laughed and grumbled about how we should just go and buy a tree, they did indeed find the one that sang to them. And then, humming along, they dug through the box of ornaments, finding only the favorite and lightest ornaments for its delicate branches.
5 cups milk
3-4 tablespoons honey (start with 3 and add more if you need it)
the seeds of 1 vanilla bean
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
Optional: 1/2 teaspoon cardamom or cinnamon
Heat the milk until hot and steamy. Add the honey, vanilla bean seeds, vanilla extract, and cinnamon or cardamom (if using), and whisk to combine.