...and it isn’t just political correctness

Eva Murray: I know why they call it ‘the holidays’

Sat, 12/16/2017 - 6:45pm

Tuesday night, December 12th, was the first night of Hanukkah this year. I lit the menorah in the window, which I do informally in honor of a heroic Jewish great-grandmother who walked out of eastern Europe lugging babies, and because I like the very idea of a holiday about standing up for yourselves against ridiculous odds, and because I like the candles. I also can rustle up a decent latke.

That afternoon, my husband, Paul, came in the door and remarked that the meat cooking for supper smelled good. Yeah, that would be the Hanukkah pork chops.

Authentic, this aint.

Wednesday the 13th was Saint Lucia Day, which is a big deal in Sweden, the northern Great Lakes region, and parts of Aroostook County. I am not Swedish, to my knowledge, but that has never stopped us. You can ask our daughter about those real candles in that pine-bough headdress back when she was a kid. No kidding. Anyway, part of the tradition on Saint Lucia Day is saffron buns, "Lucia Buns," and I am always eager to engage in a little harmless cultural appropriation if it means good food.

We had no saffron in the house, and this being Matinicus I could not simply go to the saffron store. A couple of highly skilled cooks out here might have had saffron on hand, but neither was home. I added a pinch of cardamom to the recipe as that spice is popular in Swedish baking. We found the result delicious.

On Thursday the 14th, one of my editors was hosting Festivus ("for the rest of us...") You've heard of it: Feats of Strength, the Airing of the Grievances, all that — an old and revered custom I am assured (although dangerous at office Christmas parties).

I must confess that some of my grievances are with newspaper editors, so I would be well advised to keep still. Coincidentally, and awkwardly, the editor (a.k.a. "my boss") who is hosting the Festivus party has also requested a moratorium on adverbs in submissions (maybe that's her grievance, aired openly and authoritatively to us writers).

Truly, and dangerously, I am reasonably rugged and could possibly acquit myself admirably in traditional Feats of Strength against the host at said party, but sadly, and predictably, I may not be able to attend on account of, well, being on Matinicus. Usually.

Happily, I may still be able to send a culturally sensitive and appropriate holiday dish. Sincerely, and defiantly but politely, I freely offer salutations of the day to my editors. Seriously.

On Friday the 15th, taking a breather from all the adverbs, I am scheduled to bake and decorate holiday cookies in school with the kids of Matinicus Elementary, after which they'll host their one-room school Christmas open house for any who might like to stop by. The kids learn early that socializing on Matinicus is mostly about the food, which is generally homemade, with love--and tradition.

There is more to this season than food, however. There is music.

On Saturday the 16th, I might climb aboard the little Cessna and cross the bay to Rockland, to sing in the Barroom Messiah, at the Fog Bar on Main Street (come at 2:30 p.m. to rehearse a little, if you're interested, and they have the music.) One could do worse than to join in singing such a masterpiece as Handel's Messiah, on a cold afternoon in Rockland, while nursing a draft brew or a glass of something elegant. We'll have to see what the weather brings. All welcome, by the way!

Sunday the 17th is the third Sunday of Advent, and indeed, there is a wreath with four candles on our table. The candles are not the purple and pink which are customary among those who attend to the liturgical calendar. I have never been accused of following any church schedules. I do, however, appreciate the approach to Christmas, the build-up to the solstice and the New Year, and the many aspects of the extended festival that is December in my kitchen.

Our advent wreath contains bayberry candles of a dull, woodsy green, and in the wreath of greenery are clusters of bayberries from this island. No, don't get any ideas: we do not make the bayberry candles. As I understand it, it takes about a truckload of bayberries to make a very small candle. But it has been Paul's custom for many years to give bayberry candles for Christmas, despite the real ones being sometimes hard to find. In 1987, when I was the new island teacher and he was the repairman who lived up the road, he gave me a pair.

On Monday the 18th, I'll start to thaw a turkey, and make egg nog--a great deal of egg nog--hopefully including some excellent local eggs, large and yellow and richer than the "boughten" ones. Sometime around then, although the exact day is yet uncertain, somebody will cut a large balsam fir on the island, and we'll put it up in the island church, and decorate it with the glass balls upon which are written names of neighbors, regulars and guests, relatives and ancestors. The ratio of island ancestors to neighbors is shifting rather noticeably over the years, which makes this an increasingly sentimental activity. That's a good thing.

On Tuesday the 19th, if the weather allows, which is in no way a given--the Maine Seacoast Mission vessel Sunbeam will make a stop at the island, and they've offered to hold a service in the island church should there be a congregation. This time of year, that is also not a given, but we'll turn on the heat in the church early that day if the marine forecast looks at all promising.

The 20th for me is all about cooking, especially desserts, and especially baklava, of which I produce an estimable version using local honey. I am entirely without any Greek or Lebanese ancestry that I know of. On the 21st, the winter solstice, we host a greater or lesser crowd of island neighbors, and sometimes our kids' friends from high school, or the crew of the Sunbeam, or a couple of pilots. There will be homemade egg nog and that aforementioned turkey, and the baklava, for the longest night of the year is celebrated here with an absurd excess of sugar.

The solstice is my kind of celebration; it is owned by no particular culture, except that they be of northern enough latitude to care. It does appear that all of my known ancestors endured short, dark December days and long, gray northern winters.

Back on the 13th, my husband was tucking rather eagerly into the Lucia Buns.

"They'd traditionally be for breakfast," I mentioned, having pulled them out of the wood stove as the afternoon began to wane. "Well, we eat breakfast for supper around here all the time," he observed.

That's true; we'd had French toast just a couple of nights ago (the day before we had the Hanukkah pork chops).

So here's to borrowed holidays, inauthentic observances, an abundance of candles, and other people's national dishes. Orthodox Christmas falls on the 7th of January. If we celebrate that for our family gift-giving, it'll give me extra time to get the knitting done.


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Old fogeys, twitchers and stowaways: a birder's evolution (May 22, 2017)
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Christmas on Matinicus, back a ways and these days (Dec. 19, 2016)
Remember civilian heroes – A Christmas tree, two guys named Coleman, and a lot of other people (Dec. 19, 2016)
Eva Murray: Haul away, haul away, boys... (Nov. 23, 2016)
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• Fish Factory (posted Sept. 9, 2013)
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