The View from My Kitchen

Benvenuti! I hope you enjoy il panorama dalla mia cucina Italiana -- "the view from my Italian kitchen,"-- where I indulge my passion for Italian food and cooking. From here, I share some thoughts and ideas on food, as well as recipes and restaurant reviews, notes on travel, and a few garnishes from a lifetime in the entertainment industry.

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Wednesday, January 4, 2017

A Good Time To Take Down Your Christmas Tree?

Why Not Participate In The Season Right Up Until The End?

O Christmas Tree, O Christmas Tree,
Your branches green delight us!”

One of the cool things about being old(er) is that you get to mystify and amaze the under 30 or 40 set with some of your stories. For instance, I'm often met with slack jaws all around when I tell “kids” that when I was growing up back in the 1950s and '60s, the Christmas tree at our house didn't go up until Christmas Eve. “Wha-a-a-a-a-a-t?” Yeah, and it wasn't because my parents were Scrooges. That was the norm in our neighborhood. The oddballs were the people who put their trees up a week before the Big Day. I was told that Santa himself brought the tree and all the trimmings along with the gifts.

Fast forward a few years. I'm eleven years old and my dad has died, taking notions of Santa Claus with him. Things are starting to loosen up a bit as Christmas merchandise begins appearing on store shelves in early December and new-fangled artificial Christmas trees – the kind you don't have to worry about watering or having them catch fire and burn down your house – are starting to make the scene. As a result of this revolutionary new technology, folks are beginning to deck the halls way earlier than they did in the “old days” a few years ago. A week? Pah! Some rebels have their trees up as early as December 15! When I suggest to my mother that we become part of the “in” crowd and push the envelope to two weeks before Christmas, she adamantly refuses. One week out is enough. So I took to the streets. With clipboard and pencil in hand, I stationed myself in front of our town's thriving five and dime and polled shoppers on whether or not two weeks was too early. I stood there in the cold and snow for about two hours before triumphantly returning home with my results: ten responders thought two weeks was too early, but an overwhelming majority of twelve people said two weeks was okay. Faced with the facts – and bearing an admiration for my determination – my mom relented and the Christmas tree went up in our house that year two weeks before the holiday.

I'm like pretty much everybody else nowadays: the Christmas tree goes up the weekend after Thanksgiving. I'm not at all in favor of seeing Christmas displays in stores in September, but that's a battle I can't win. And I've found to my chagrin that if I wait until Thanksgiving weekend to buy new lights and décor, the selection is already picked over. So I suck it up and buy my Christmas lights along with my Halloween candy.

And now we come to the question at hand: how long do you leave it all up? The answer to that one is all over the calendar.

I actually know a couple of people who rip it all down after the gifts are opened on Christmas Day. One of them says, “I'm so sick of looking at it by Christmas that I just want it gone.” Another one says, “I'm just ready for everything to be normal again.” To those Scrooges I say, “Bah! Humbug!” If you are that lacking in holiday spirit, why bother putting up a tree at all? Tell your friends and neighbors you've become a Jehovah's Witness or converted to Judaism and enjoy your dull, drab, cheerless and treeless existence. That way you won't get “sick” of things not being “normal.” You could really display glad tidings by dangling a dummy Santa Claus from the eaves by his heels or putting a sign in your yard advertising fresh deer meat. To paraphrase Darth Vader, “I find your lack of cheer disturbing.”

Then there are the superstitious lot who believe that leaving the remnants of Christmas up into the New Year brings bad luck. These are the same weirdies who believe that doing laundry or dishes on New Years' Day will result in a family member being “washed away” in the coming months or who fling all their doors open at midnight on New Years' Eve so the old year can escape unimpeded. As a quaint custom, it's okay, but if you actually buy in to any of it, might I suggest therapy?

Around our place, we begin the “de-Santafication process” (remember that delightful Tim Allen movie?) the weekend after New Years. Since it takes about three days to put all the holiday stuff up, it usually takes at least a full day to take it all down and the first lazy weekend of the year is as good a time as any. Having lived with the festive clutter for about six weeks, my wife and I generally wander through the undecorated house for the next few days saying, “Wow, look at all the space!”

Now if you want to go cultural, religious, or historical, you're looking at a whole different ballgame. See, in days of yore – a term we writers use to refer to anything that happened more than a few weeks ago – there was a tradition called The Twelve Days of Christmas. You may have heard the song of the same name with all its birds and rings and leaping and dancing lords and ladies. Contrary to current misconception, however, the song is not about gift-giving in the twelve days leading up to Christmas, but rather refers to the traditional period of celebration in the twelve days following Christmas, culminating on the eve of the Feast of the Epiphany, or “Twelfth Night,” on January 5th. All but forgotten in the United States, this festive interlude is still observed in much of Europe, especially in heavily Catholic-influenced countries like Italy. In fact, in early Christian times the Feast of the Epiphany, observed on January 6 in commemoration of the visitation of the Christ child by the three magi, often superseded Christmas Day itself in importance. The day marking Jesus' birth was more of a time for solemn reflection while the day the “wise men from the East” came bearing gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh was considered to be like the original birthday party, a time of celebration.

Twelfth Night was a very big deal. People gathered for large parties and feasts in which they played games, sang songs, and consumed copious amounts of wassail. The Twelfth Night cake, a rich concoction of eggs, butter, fruits, nuts, and spices roughly analogous to modern Italian panettone, was consumed. If you displayed a nativity scene or creche, this was the night you added the figures of the Three Kings or Wise Men to the scene. The Christmas wreath, constructed of boughs of greenery with fruits or berries and hung on Christmas Eve, was taken down at the conclusion of the Twelfth Night festivities and anything edible remaining was eaten. Thus Twelfth Night marked the official end of the Christmas season, thereby also becoming the day on which to take down the tree and all the attendant holiday baubles. Some cultures left everything up until Candlemas Day in February, but those people were clearly insane.

I'm going with Twelfth Night this year, not because of the influence of tradition but rather because I was too lazy to get everything taken down after the New Years' holiday. I have partially un-decked my halls, taking down the outdoor lights and removing trees and trimmings from my office, my kitchen, and other parts of the house. The living room, however, remains refulgent with lights and fragrant with the artificial scent of pine emanating from a warmer near my artificial tree. And it will remain that way for a few more days because I pulled the “Twelfth Night” card on my wife, who said, “Why not?” Despite the pressure of ad agencies that would bring us Santa in a Speedo sometime in July, Christmas still comes but once a year, so why not enjoy it to the fullest? You've got forty-six weeks to be “normal,” so why not participate in the season right up until the end?

Ooops! Gotta run. It's the eleventh day of Christmas and I think I hear pipers warming up in the other room. (“Excuse me, m'lords, could you stop leaping on the dancing ladies? And would you maids mind moving the cows out of the carport? Whaddaya mean the rings are brass? Hey! Who's gonna clean up after all these birds?! What? Make room for the drummers? Oy vey!”)

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