December 6, 2009

Holiday Shopping, Part IV: Cooking & Parties

Earlier this fall, I was asked by The Blushing Hostess to write about my family’s Christmas traditions. This is the article. This isn’t about shopping, but about other holiday traditions in my family: cooking and parties.

My memories of the holidays have always been ones of my American mother and my English father, combining their traditions to make new ones, ones which their four children have continued in their own unique ways.

About five weeks before Christmas, my father began making the traditional Christmas cake, an English fruit cake steeped in loads of booze. Currants, raisins, fruit peel, molasses, brown sugar, white sugar and eggs were all mixed in a huge yellow-ware bowl that my parents found on an antiquing trip. My father used his father’s recipe, which my siblings and I all have now. The cake was wrapped in a cloth and every few days, it was soaked with brandy or whisky. xmas2In mid-December, my mother went into major cookie-making mode. She would usually make the same cookies each year – gingerbread, sandtarts, oatmeal lace, Florentines and Jan Hagel. {Click for recipes} Some years, she’d try a new variety, and if we liked it, she’d add it to the list. We had a lot of tins where we stored the cookies, and they were marked with the name of the cookie, so we’d know which one to grab for a late night snack.xmasWhen we moved to our house at St. John’s, the site of our huge family and friends party on Christmas night, we always took extra care to decorate it beautifully. I was always the child who helped with the decorations. 1041On the large front porch, there were several sets of columns, which we wrapped in pine garland. For several years, I made a Williamsburg style lemons and oranges, apples and pineapple and a magnolia leaf display. One year, it was unexpectedly warm and all of the fruit started dripping.1044In the front hallway, we had two mahogany columns, which were also wrapped in pine garland. 104 1A swag of garland was hung over the large fireplace in the living room. For many years, we would go cut our tree, which we placed in a corner of the living room. My parents collected ornaments during their travels, and they knew and shared the story of each one. Other ornaments were handmade by their children and grandchildren or by artistic friends.

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On Christmas night, we always had a huge party, each of the children inviting their friends and our parents inviting theirs. It was a multi-generational gathering, with everyone arriving festively dressed and bearing small presents.

We always had a fully-stocked bar set up in the butler’s pantry and there was beer for the kids and their friends, usually something like Bass in a nod towards my father’s heritage. My father would mix up a batch of eggnog, spiking it with bourbon and sprinkling the top with freshly-grated nutmeg.10411Here is a close up shot of the wallpaper in the dining room. It was a hand-printed paper and the chintz curtains matched, but in a darker colourway. It’s killer, isn’t it? 104 2The food was a mix of traditional southern and English fare. We’d get a Smithfield ham, but we’d also have roast beef with English mustard, which looked pretty tame, but had a real kick. There would be artichoke and crab dip in a silver chafing dish and a family favourite, celery with bleu and cream cheese piped into it and sprinkled with paprika, served in an old cut crystal dish.

The table was set with china, silver and crystal and all of the candles were lit. There was always a fire in the fireplace in the living room and also in the library. 10410On the sideboard, there would be an assortment of my mother’s cookies and my father’s Christmas cake. By this time, the cake had been coated with a layer of marzipan or almond paste, and then a covering of pure white royal icing, with silver dragees strewn across the surface.

Looking back, I realize that one of the reasons the party was always such a success for so many years was because of the multi-generational mix of guests. It was not unusual to see one of my brother’s friends chatting with my 90-year old cousin who was a Federal judge, or one of my parents’ artist friends telling my friends stories of her life in Paris. 1049Mixing and mingling with a guest list that ranged from nine weeks old to 90 years old helped us become comfortable having conversations with all ranges of people. It helped us all learn how to host a party and understand all of the work that went into making it special for our guests. 1047Most of all, it showed us what the holidays are all about – spending time with family and friends.


  1. What a gorgeous house and a fun holiday tradition to grow up with! My family moved out of New England where all the relatives were before I was born and we didn't come back for fifteen or so years. So, we didn't have a tradition of spending Christmas with cousins, which would have been nice. My father made quite a bourbon eggnog as well - it was practically flammable! As a child you couldn't drink it without coughing! But it was tasty!

  2. Oh that photograph of you and your sister should be the cover of a cookbook!! Write one now, so you can use it!! Marvelous.

    And what IS that DIVINE wallcovering in the dining room???? I adore it.

  3. Holiday traditions and memories are so important! I loved reading about yours Meg, so much of it is very familiar.....

  4. Linda... we were just talking about potent eggnog last night, after the local eggnog crawl! It was very potent.

  5. Pamela...
    The two girls are my older and younger sisters. I am off somewhere getting into trouble!

    The wall covering in the dining room was handprinted paper and the curtains, which were probably a chintz, were printed to match. They were both stunning.

  6. Karen... I thought we were unique, but apparently not! I've heard of other families with similar stories.

  7. What sweet tribute to your family home and your lovingly preserved memories of your parent's ability to celebrate in their unique style.
    As I get older, I realize the significance of creating memories,rituals and the chance to celebrate life in the circle of family and friends. Those memories are so precious later in life.
    Gorgeous house! Are you still going back there for reunions?

  8. Love the house! We had similar homes over the years. My folks also had inter generational parties. They had a huge one Christmas Eve!! I don't know how our toys got put together and the tree decorated since we had potent egg nog too. We were sent to bed, but peeked. Never caught Santa. Wish I had more old pictures.

  9. I have been stalking your blog for months...I found you after visiting Houseworks ( I think I spelled that correctly.) I love your blog and the wonderful pictures you post.
    Thank You

  10. Love this post, Meg. Thanks for sharing your precious family traditions. The Christmas Cake sounds so much like one my grandmother used to make. I'm going to print your recipe and possibly give it a try!
    Thank you!

  11. GSG... If you're doing the cake, do it now. It needs time to sit and mellow. And to have copious amounts of booze poured over it!

  12. This has got to be the best Christmas blog post I've seen. I love all of the photographs, but the one of your Dad is the best; especially those little hands reaching out.

    I have that bowl. It was made by a pottery in Zanesville, Ohio, I think. It's really heavy.

    One year I did a very detailed decorating of the front of my house--the Williamsburg arch...all of that, and my new neighbor (one who would never find work in the foreign service,) walked into my yard as I was constructing this design that took days to put up, and she said, "Well. You think you're quite the little Martha Stewart don't you?"

    Welcome to the neighborhood....and oh yeah...Merry Christmas.

  13. Meg- What wonderful memories. This is exactly what Christmas should be- spending time with family and friends and enjoying family traditions.

  14. how did I miss this???? that dining room!!!! i love your house. I wish it was still in the family - you could move back in!
    any luck yet?


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