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OPINION: Holiday memories conjure up magic celebration of food and family

December 22nd, 2017 | Carey Restino Print this article   Email this article  

The boxes would start arriving in early December. As the light dwindled, the trips up the big, concrete steps of the post office were filled with excitement. My sister and I eagerly clutched the slips of paper heralding some cardboard-encased wonder from far away.

They came from our grandparents, of course, big stamp-filled, tape-entombed boxes that looked like they had journeyed from another dimension. My mother used to joke that there was an elephant they kept in the back of the post office just to sit on the boxes. "The elephant was working HARD today," she'd say, as we gingerly carried our bedraggled treasure home to the farm. Other boxes were smaller, but no less special. There was one great aunt who always sent us the most exquisite decorations for our tree, if the elephant spared them.

In a way, these gifts had come from another dimension. Our small farm on a remote island sticking out into the Atlantic Ocean was light years away from the bustling New England streets filled with shops, electric lights and indoor plumbing. Christmas was one of the few times those worlds intersected, as our tiny, lamp-lit cabin filled with gifts from afar. The boxes were packed with crisp, shiny newness, not yet dulled and dirtied by farm life or recycled from others' cast-away piles.

But those gifts were only part of the magic of Christmas for our family. What we lacked in material possessions, we made up for with time. This was one of the few times of year when the pace of life on our subsistence farm slowed to a trickle. The woodshed was full of neatly stacked, chopped wood, a month of work that would heat our cabin through the winter. The vegetables had all been harvested and stored in our dusty log root cellar, where daddy longlegs the size of my hand crawled by when I tiptoed in to pull carrots from the sand-filled boxes or potatoes from the burlap sacks. The animals were bedded down for the winter, their vast pastures reduced to a small yard, where the horses and goats trampled down the snow each day to breathe in fresh air and feel a ray of sunlight.

Inside our tiny cabin, the wood stove crackled and pots of stew simmered. Huge icicles hung down like stalactites from the roof past our single-pane windows, but inside we were warm. On Christmas Eve, my mother would start the holiday bread; a braided wonder that was slightly sweet, golden and topped with honey and candied fruit. In the afternoon, we would all tromp out on snowshoes in search of our tree, my father's big beard glistening with icicles as we pushed through the drifts looking for a spruce just the right size and shape for our small space.

We carried it back and set it up to dry off, raining spruce-filled raindrops onto the floor and filling the cabin with the intoxicating scent of the forest. Once it was dry, it was decorated with a strange collection of ornaments — a tiny, carved baby nestled in a walnut shell, a handmade felt crimson bird and a punched metal star on top. I loved the tinsel, but was cautioned to hang it like icicles, one at a time.

At the end, my father put on the candle clips, each one with a small candle, positioning them just right so they wouldn't cause a holiday disaster. After dinner, we would gather around the tree and light the candles, just once, and sing carols while they burned. Then we opened one gift, often the one from our great aunt, adding the treasure to the tree. The candles were blown out, and it was time for bed after reading one of the carefully selected holiday books, which only came out once a year.

In the morning, our stockings were filled with impossible treasures — the rare candies and chocolates in small, metal tins, toy airplanes and something to read. In the toe there was a tangerine.

Then we had breakfast, the cabin rich with the rare scent of bacon. And then, the impossibly long wait for the barn chores to be finished. Finally, we would sit down to open the presents. From those tattered brown boxes came new clothes, books and toys, and some strange things that showed the obvious disconnect between our lives and those of our far-away relatives.

One year, we each got a giant, red, monogrammed bath towel. Another year, my sister and I got matching stuffed Snoopy dogs. When it was all over, my mother smoothed out each piece of wrapping paper, putting it away for future use, and we sat nibbling on nuts and Christmas bread and feeling extraordinarily, deeply fortunate for gifts from afar — but even more, for the gift of togetherness.

From our home to yours, may you all have the very happiest of holidays.


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