December 21, 2015 by Jean
Christmas morning. I will be up early, before the sun, to begin preparing Christmas dinner. I will plug in the lights on the Christmas tree to impart a festive glow to the house, turn on some Christmas music, stoke up the wood stove, and then head to the refrigerator to get out the turkey and stuffing. My 18+ pound, locally raised, heritage-breed turkey is less fatty than the supermarket variety and needs a longer, slower roasting time, which means an early start for a mid-day feast. Many of the preparations for Christmas dinner will have been done on Christmas eve. These include the pumpkin pie left to cool overnight on the kitchen island and the dinner rolls baked at a low temperature that will be put back in the oven at high heat for a few minutes to brown after the turkey is done. A casserole dish of pureed, seasoned butternut squash will also go into the oven to reheat just before dinner is served. Homemade cranberry sauce cooked on Christmas eve will have cooled and jelled overnight in the refrigerator.
All this advance preparation means that once the turkey is in the oven, I can relax for a bit. I will pour myself a flute of Christmas eggnog (non-alcoholic!) and take it into the living room where I will open a gift from under the tree. This is a ritual nod to the Christmases of my childhood, when we children would race into the living room at first light (or before) to tear excitedly into the pile of gifts under the tree. These days, most of the gifts under my tree are going out and will be presented to family and friends during a number of holiday celebrations in the week following Christmas. But I always have one wrapped gift, usually one that arrived in the mail from a distant friend, under the tree to open on Christmas morning. Once I shower and dress and linger over a late breakfast, it will be time to return to dinner preparations, setting a festive table, getting out the special serving dishes for the holiday, and preparing the parts of the meal that cannot be done in advance.
Some years, I share my traditional Christmas dinner with friends. Other years, like this one, it is a feast for one. I hesitate to write that last sentence for fear that others will find my solitary Christmas dinner pitiable. That’s not the way it feels at all. But the holidays can be a tricky time for those who are single, especially those without children. For me, it involves the need to balance my love of solitude with the convivial spirit of the season. It also involves negotiating a tension between my experience of holiday solitude and others’ reactions to it. My solitary Christmas dinners have been a secret guilty pleasure. When people ask, “What are you doing for Christmas?” I reply, “I’m cooking dinner at my house” – and let them assume I’m cooking for guests, whether that is true or not. Yesterday, as I picked up many of the ingredients for Christmas dinner from the winter farmers’ market, the farmer who supplied my turkey asked, “Are you having a big crowd for dinner?” When I replied, “No,” her reaction was awkward; she looked embarrassed, as though asking had been a faux pas, and said, “Oh…. I see.” I wished I had thought fast enough to reply, “No, it will be more of an intimate Christmas dinner.” That would have been technically true, it would have captured the luxurious, cozy feeling of my Christmas dinner, and she wouldn’t have pitied me – a more positive interaction for both of us.
My Christmas celebrations have changed over the years. For the first few years after my marriage ended, I spent both Thanksgiving and Christmas with my parents. But when they began going to Florida in the fall and enjoying holidays with their Florida grandchildren, I found myself at loose ends. There was a period when I helped to organize a “single women’s Christmas dinner” that had a flexible group of participants, was hosted by a different woman each year, and included a pot-luck strategy of everyone contributing a special food to the meal. I loved those dinners. The food was always delicious, the conversation was stimulating, and everyone could relax and not have to feel apologetic about being alone. For the six years after my father died and before my mother got too ill to live alone, I spent Christmas with her. I would drive down to Massachusetts on Christmas eve, bringing all the fixings for Christmas dinner, and cook the meal in my mother’s little mobile-home kitchen. This made it possible for her to host Christmas dinner without having to do all the work. Since my mother’s death five years ago, I have continued cooking Christmas dinner each year.
The first year I had Christmas dinner alone, it was because a snowstorm made it impossible for my invited guests to get here. I was surprised that sitting down to a big feast for one felt just fine. I don’t know why I was surprised; cooking for one and eating alone is my normal practice, and I regularly cook special meals for myself. (In the words of the old L’Oreal ad, “I’m worth it!”) My large Christmas turkey is part of a strategy for eating local food through the winter. It is often the only meat I cook all year; and in the days after Christmas, I will use every bit of it. Packages of leftover turkey meat and gallons of turkey stock will go into the freezer to form the basis of delicious meals for months to come.
I love holiday rituals, especially those of Christmas: buying and trimming a Christmas tree, finding just the right gifts for family and friends and wrapping them, and all those wonderful holiday foods. As I’ve gotten older, Christmas, like my birthday, has become less a special day and more a special season. This is why solitary Christmas dinners don’t feel lonely; the solitary day is embedded in a season of conviviality. Yesterday, a friend dropped by with a gift of delicious holiday cake that she had made. On Christmas eve, I will have a casual supper and exchange gifts with my neighbor. After Christmas, I will travel down to southern New England for a holiday dinner and gift exchange with my siblings and their families. While I am away from home, I will also catch up with some old friends. After I get back to Maine, I will be hosting a festive lunch and gift exchange with a group of friends and visiting another friend for a similar event. By the time the holiday season has ended, I will be replete with good food and good company.