Save the Bows

It’s early and you’ve barely put in your teeth and combed your strawberry blonde hair with a plastic comb made at the factory where you work, but your velour robe and house slippers are perfectly matched.

The author's grandmother at 18 years-old

The author's grandmother at 18 years-old

Gifts are opened in order by age. There is a big, black trash bag into which all the spent wrappings are collected, and you repeatedly call out over the bustle to save the bows. You will use them again next year and the year after. Sometimes you will save the boxes and flatten them to use again. You don’t call this recycling, you just have seven children.

After gifts are opened, you will leave the boys to put on football, the children will play with their toys, and the food will come out - shrimp dip, sweet mix pickles with cheddar and pepperoni, meatballs, and ham. People will yell at the television and yell at each other because that’s how you get heard in a big family. Your house is warm and full.

The author's grandmother and mother on Christmas Eve

The author's grandmother and mother on Christmas Eve

Two days before Christmas you will be taken off of life support. Your children will be gathered around you. You will be cremated over Christmas, and share your mass with Saint Stephen. Your children, their children, and their grandchildren will all gather in your house every year to carry on your traditions. There will be shrimp dip, sweet mix pickles with cheddar and pepperoni, meatballs, and ham, every year. They will save the bows.


- Tamara Oliver is great at banana bread but pretty awful at Twitter. Find her there and admire her socks @sensoryoverlord

Ginny's Magic Cookie Dust

Roll-out cookies are the wild child of Christmas goodies. The dough can be temperamental and sticky, but Ginny Snyder, who was practically a second mother to me, used her gentle ways---and a neat little baking trick--to tame the flour, butter and sugar.  Beneath her large, capable hands, cookie dough relaxed and became a docile, calm collaborator.

Ginny concocted a sweet, silky dust from an equal  mix of flour and confectioner’s sugar to keep the dough in line. She’d pinch a tablespoon or so between her long fingers and thumb and sprinkle it over the work surface to prevent unruly stickiness.  And with each creaky, back-and-forth of the rolling pin, she coaxed the dough into a thinner and thinner canvas.

I marveled at her firm, tender technique. With a grainy swipe, she slid a metal spatula underneath the freshly-cut shapes, lifted them off the board and onto the cookie sheet, not a tear, wrinkle or deformed Santa in sight. Even the leaping reindeer’s antlers stayed intact.

Image via Chauncer/Flickr

Image via Chauncer/Flickr

With her long torso bent over the cookie sheets, Ginny’s fingertips moved with care and lightness, and each piece of raw dough got a smidgeon of affection.

When the timer pinged and they emerged from the oven, those cookies loved her back. They required only a slight nudge to break free of the pan. No breaks or crumbles either.

- Linda Miller is a freelance writer and memoirist who has worked in newspapers, higher education public relations and magazine publishing. She's a Baby Boomer from Slatington, a small town in southeastern Pennsylvania, and grew up with the quickest, funniest Dad ever, a former RN Mom who created a loving and beautiful home, and a younger brother who never missed an episode of Combat! on Tuesday nights. 

Christmas Day

Wake up early, but don't get up until your children do.  Your father-in-law would have woken everyone, but you'll wait. They will be up soon.

When you hear them, turn on the Christmas lights and the music; Christmas morning is incomplete without Donny Hathaway. Go to the kitchen to get some coffee. If your grown daughter has already made it, thank her. She doesn't drink coffee, and this looks like tar, but try to drink it anyway. Don't let your elderly father near this stuff. Make him a fresh pot.

image by Ulysses Campbell

image by Ulysses Campbell

Ooh and ahh over the presents. You are an excellent shopper and it pleases you when you get the gifts right. Take lots of pictures. Play with the toys.

After breakfast, get started on the meat for dinner. Your wife and daughter will be working on the side dishes. Trade one-liners with your daughter until the two of you are laughing like fools and your wife puts you both out of the kitchen. It's temporary; that standing rib won't season itself.

When you sit down at the beautifully decorated table for dinner, take a moment to give thanks. There is an abundance of food, your family is healthy and joyful. Soon there will be in-laws and grandchildren, cancer and funerals, but today it is just the five of you, eating by candlelight. Today all is calm, and all is bright. 

- This is the finale of three Christmas entries by contributing editor Jacqueline Bryant Campbell

Choosing the Perfect Christmas Tree

“Let's get the Christmas tree tonight!” You and your wife have discussed this, but it should sound spontaneous to your three children. The right time to go is about two weeks before Christmas. If you go much earlier, the tree will dry out before Christmas; much later and what would be the point?

Visit several lots. Ask for the Douglas or Fraser firs; you’re not interested in the white pines. Walk around each tree, checking to be sure the trunk is straight. All trees look straight in the lot. Was that tree at the first lot fuller? Have your family run their hands over the needles to see if they are soft and springy. Shake it a little to see how many fall off. No one wants a repeat of The Tree That Was So Dead The Ornaments Fell Off and You Had To Take It Down The Day After Christmas And There Were Needles In the Carpet For Months.

Bring home the freshest, fullest, straightest tree, and leave it in the garage overnight so it can thaw. This was necessary during your Ohio childhood, perhaps not so much in Alabama. It's the principle though. Let the limbs fall out an additional day once you bring it inside.

image by  Ulysses Campbell

image by Ulysses Campbell

Prepare something warm for the family to drink while decorating the tree. Play Christmas music -- The Temptations, Nat King Cole, Smokey Robinson. Set the spire on the top after all the ornaments have been placed. Admire the decorated tree. It's a little crooked.  It's the prettiest tree you've ever had. 

- This is second in a series of three Christmas entries by contributing editor Jacqueline Bryant Campbell

Christmas is Coming

Get the house decorations out of the storage area. You will put up the lights outside and your wife will handle most of the inside, but there is one indoor thing you should do yourself. That large box holds the illuminated Santa head that you painted brown because there were very few African-American Santas in the stores in the 70s. Hang that in the den. 

image by the author

image by the author

Consult with your wife about the menu. Pull out menus from previous Christmas dinners and look through some of those new cookbooks. You'll be responsible for the meat, maybe capon this year? Standing rib? Absolutely not turkey; seems like we just finished the Thanksgiving turkey. You'll also fix at least one dessert, something different, like a 24-hour plum pudding with hard sauce because Christmas deserves something special. Ask your daughter what breakfast she will prepare.

image by Ulysses Campbell

image by Ulysses Campbell

On Christmas Eve, pull out the fondue cookbook that is falling apart and the two fondue pots. There will be one cheese fondue, one hot oil, and a warm potato salad for dinner. Buy lots of sterno. You have done this every year and no one has burned down the house yet. There will be lots of laughter as food falls off of forks and is fished out, crispy. 

Hug your kids extra hard when they go bed, especially once they are grown. It's good to have them all here, under the Santa head and eating cheese fondue. 

- This is first in a series of three Christmas entries by contributing editor Jacqueline Bryant Campbell

Wine Trifle

Two weeks before Christmas, your nephew’s wife calls for a recipe. 

“Christmas isn’t Christmas without your trifle, Aunty Pauline!” she says. You agree.  

It’s your mother’s recipe. You make it faithfully each year, remembering her hands moving swiftly, the smell of her kitchen. You recall marvelling at how the cake, custard and gelatine kept obediently to their separate layers.

Your grown children remain stubbornly disinterested, and you’d worried who would carry this tradition. But this girl from another culture, another tradition, has called you. Heart filled, you recite;  

Use day old sponge cake, cut into squares. Spread jam over each one. Any flavour, but I like strawberry.

Dip each jammy square quickly into sherry. Don’t let it fall in, or rest too long. It’ll soak up too much sherry, and everyone’ll get drunk on dessert.

You can substitute 100% orange juice — for the kids and the wowsers.

Make up some custard with egg, milk, sugar. Thicken it with custard powder.

Line the base of your glass dish with the sponge squares, jam side up. Pour the custard over the top. Put this in the fridge to cool. That’s very important. You have to make sure it’s cool before you add the jelly or the gelatine’ll melt.

images by Asha Rajan

images by Asha Rajan

Use Port Wine jelly (or orange, for the kids’ version). Don’t buy the cheap stuff, you’ll taste the difference. Make it up, and let it set in a separate bowl.

When everything’s good and cold, when the jelly’s set, crumble it and fork it on top of the custard. Don’t mix it through. Separate layers are more festive.

“Give my love to my nephew,” you say, keeping your voice chipper, don’t let the loneliness interject.  “Tell him to call me once in a while.”

You put down the phone, and pick up your grandmother’s bible.  That too, you’ll pass on to your nephew’s wife.

- Asha Rajan

images by Asha Rajan

images by Asha Rajan


The pine-scented candles go on sale right after Christmas, and that is when you make your move. It always smells like Christmas at your house. Leaving the candles out all year is your version of never taking the tree and lights down. And pine scent is what you love most about Christmas.

Buy as many as you can carry out of the store. Buy as many different kinds as they have: glass jars, tea lights, giant pillars with pinecones imbedded in them, giant blocks with four wicks. Haunt the sale aisle all year long, just in case.

photo by  Sade Murphy

photo by Sade Murphy

Every surface in your house should have a candle on it. When they are spent, burned down to residue and charred glass, don’t throw them out. The jars or stubby candle rinds will still give off a faint pine scent. Just place another one next to the husk. There will be about 25 in each room of your small apartment. Light them all at once, just a few for mood, or gaze at their lovely un-lit greenness. Inhale deeply.

They will grow a fuzzy layer of dust. It will burn off when the candle is finally lit, or it will just sit like a sweater on the candle rind. Keep the extra candles in the coat closet on a shelf. Opening the closet door will be the best part of your morning. Your jackets, scarfs, hats and gloves will always smell of pine. This smell will cling to you and remind all of your friends and family of you, long after you are gone.


- Beth Dugan grew up in the suburbs of Chicago where she learned to fear mayonnaise and the suburbs of Chicago. She loves the great indoors and enjoys sitting in beer gardens, looking out of windows and having bugs not touch her. She works for the Man in various capacities as a writer and editor of words. Beth is an nationally recognized theater reviewer, a humorless feminist and a lover (not a fighter.)