I love Christmas.
My mother LOVED this time of year. I was the first born, a June baby, meaning at the crawling age of 6 months I was immersed in the holiday traditions that my mom and dad began for me. Although I don’t remember those early “once upon a time” days, I have many photographs to reminisce with, and memorabilia that, to this day, grace my home. These special memories bring me both comfort and joy. This is the first year without my mother, and the pain is unbearable at times; much worse than I imagined. Of course with her passing in April, I have experienced many holidays, birthdays and other events without her, preparing me for the most wonderful time of the year. But it’s so different. Christmas was our holiday. I find myself shaking my head at the fact she’s not here with me anymore. And it’s the little things I miss the most. Like baking her famous fudgy oatmeal bars, shopping at Walmart in the wee hours of the night, wrapping presents, cooking for Noche Buena (The Good Night, AKA Christmas Eve), finding the perfect Christmas tree, and decorating the outside of the house with all white lights. I can still picture her favorite metal light-adorned reindeer sitting in the front yard. We would decorate the house then walk out to the street to admire our work. Everything around this time of year was a big deal. My mom made everything special, and fun.
I believed in Santa Claus way longer than I’m willing to admit. One year when I was 5 or 6, my father got a red light and went to our backyard, pretending to be Santa and Rudolph. My mother rushed into my room, woke me up and told me to look outside my window. She ran the water in the bathtub and told me that’s where dad was, while I gushed about Santa coming to visit. I always left cookies and milk for him. We never lacked the sweet stuff around this time of year. My mother’s good friend, Mary Kelly, would come over and bake, bake, and bake until almost dawn. Dad would take some to work, as would Mom, then the rest were saved for Noche Buena festivities and Santa.
My family is of Spanish and Cuban decent, so our Christmases revolve around The Good Night, instead of Christmas Day dinner. The traditional meal consists of a roast pork (sometimes an entire pork!), black beans, white rice, yucca, Cuban bread, salad and lots of pre-dinner snacks like a crudite platter, and Turron, traditional Spanish candies made of honey, nougat and nuts. My Abuelita would bake her famous Panatela cake for dessert. I just found the recipe for this and decided to bring back the tradition this year (recipe below).
Our Noche Buena takes place at my grandparent’s (Abuelo and Abuelamom) house where we’d eat, drink and be merry until almost midnight in the carport under twinkling lights. My grandparents had three children, my mother, and my uncles Marty and Glenn. Both of my uncles married and have a total of eight children all together; ten grandchildren when you count my brother Jason and I. There are also three great grand children, girlfriends, boyfriends, spouses and extended family members that celebrate with us. It’s definitely a crowd whenever we all get together!
After dinner, our party would then move indoors where we would gather in the great room and exchange gifts while my Abuelo walked around with garbage bags making sure we all cleaned up our torn wrappings. He would always be the last person to open his gifts, as he was too busy playing trash police! We loved it though, because we enjoyed watching him open his gifts after the craziness had settled.
Well after midnight, we’d pack up our cars and go our separate ways, wishing everyone a peaceful and happy Christmas morning with their immediate families. The four of us (mom, dad, my brother and I) would venture two blocks down the road to my other grandparent’s house (Abuelita and Abuelit0) for more gifts! That tradition ended a few years ago after my grandmother’s passing (my grandfather passed a few years before her), but I still hold those memories so close to my heart. Each of us had a bear stocking that my Abuelita would fill to the rim with goodies, while perfectly wrapped gifts would surround their tree. By this time we were exhausted, but we’d exchange gifts, taking in each and every moment. When I was three, my grandfather and father built me a full-sized playhouse, which still stands today. Before we’d head home, my brother and I would leave cookies for Santa on the small table that was in the playhouse. There would always be a little something in the stockings that hung in the playhouse for my brother and I, and we couldn’t wait to get there in the morning to discover what Santa had left us.
One of the gifts my grandmother would give me each year was a pair of Christmas pajamas. When she passed away, my mother took over this tradition. This year, I bought myself a pair. I always wore new pajamas on Christmas night. I don’t have any children, so even as an adult, I’d stay over at my parent’s house for Christmas. Last year Brian and I slept there and spent the morning opening and exchanging gifts, while my mom made waffles and bacon. She was weak at this point, but in high spirits. Even though my brother and I had greatly exceeded the Santa days, my mother would still play the part, not letting us open gifts until the morning. My brother and I would give our parents their gifts at that time too.
For my very first holiday season, my mother found this giant, 5ft. tall stocking from Woolworth’s at the mall. I’ve had it ever since, and every year she’s filled it to the brim with gifts from Santa. My brother has one too, and this year I’ll be filling his, just as my mom would have. Although my stocking will remain empty for the first time in 33 years, it is overflowing with memories that I’ll never erase from my mind.
Before my mom got sick, we had started a new tradition. We began taking a trip early in December to the North Georgia mountains to cut down a fresh Christmas tree. My mother didn’t get a chance to go last year, and it was the first tradition Brian and I made sure to begin with our new lives.
Even though she’s no longer here, her spirit is here. It’s in the Kitchen Aid as it mixes batches of Christmas cookies. It’s in our big stockings that now hang by my fireplace. It’s in the photographs that adorn my tree, and the decorations that I grew up with. It’s in the recipe that I’ll use to roast the pork. It’s in the twinkle lights that will illuminate my grandfather’s carport tomorrow night. It’s in the energy that we all feel when opening gifts at Abuelo’s. It’s in the Christmas pj’s I’ll wear on Christmas morning and the extra hugs I’ll get from Brian that morning, just because.
I miss you so much Mom. I wish you were here with us to celebrate this year.
Where ever you are, whatever you celebrate, spend time with loved ones. Enjoy the season and togetherness.
Wishing you a peaceful and happy holiday!
Panatela (soaked sponge cake) recipe
6 eggs, separated
1 cup self-rising flour
1 cup white sugar
1 tsp. baking powder
2 tablespoons of ground cinnamon
Beat egg whites until stiff peaks are formed (meringue). Add sugar and egg yolks. Combine well. Gradually add flour and baking powder. Pour cake batter into an non-greased non-stick 9 x 14in pan and bake at 350 for 40 minutes, or until toothpick test proves done. Remove from oven and cool. Cut into squares and sprinkle cinnamon all over the top. Using a ladle, pour cooled syrup over cake, and refrigerate overnight. Serve cold.
3 cups water
1 cup sugar
1 anise seed (or a tablespoon of real anise extract)
1 tsp. vanilla extract
Bring all ingredients to a boil 20 minutes, or until a thin syrup begins to form (thinner than the consistency of pancake syrup).