By Hook or By Crook, We Kept Christmas

The story below was included in the anthology What Mennonites Are Thinking 2001 (Good Books).

“By Hook or By Crook, We Kept Christmas” by Shirley Kurtz

Unfortunately I got only the Christmas tree cookies baked and one long pan of chocolate-raspberry bars before, whoosh.

While the cookies—beaten butter, egg yolks, flour, and powdered sugar, rolled out and cut into fancy shapes—were still hot from the oven, I’d poked the holes for the strings. Some cookies crumbled, and more than just the ruined ones got devoured, but plenty were left to hang on the tree. Up close, it smelled faintly sweet.

I’d not let the boys and Paulson, my husband, sample the chocolate-raspberry bars. “Not yet,” I said when they wheedled. “Aw, c’mon,” protested Christopher and Zachary, but I stuck the entire panful in the freezer to take to the relatives in Pennsylvania on Christmas day. I’d started with a chocolate cake batter, adding dollops of sweetened cream cheese and a cup of chocolate chips, and after this baked I’d layered on top a raspberry sauce spread thinly and dark chocolate drizzled in crisscross lines. Um, um.

I’d planned to make pies yet, rich crusted and full of pecan chunks in thick goo. Also cinnamon-orange buns; nobody was supposed to eat the orange I’d bought and stowed in the refrigerator. I would slather the flattened dough with butter, brown sugar, cinnamon, and orange-rind snippets, and roll it up. After the buns came out of the oven I would ice them with a runny orange-rind glaze. The aroma would be heavenly.

Or so I expected. But December 14, Saturday lunchtime, with everybody’s cheese sandwiches toasting in the skillet on the stove, the oven knob suddenly ignited and flames  whooshed a foot high. I’d thought I smelled leaking gas! At least I wasn’t hovering right then, flipping the sandwiches. But so much for my oven gone kaput—it would be several weeks till the part needed for repair could be obtained.

On the phone with our newlywed daughter living in Virginia, I bewailed my plight. “Poor you,” Jennifer clucked. This close to Christmas, I would have to do some finagling to maintain our usual level of holiday revelry and keep our senses and cravings sated.

Sunday afternoon I badgered Christopher about inviting his friends over. Bethany and Kristin at church had told him about their plans to bake cookies. “Say they have to bring cookies,” I urged, “if they want to come.” After he telephoned, I dashed around straightening up the house. Goodness, I hadn’t put up the nativity scene yet.

Hastily unpacking our wooden set, I arranged the tiny carved pieces on the windowsill above the kitchen sink. I sticky-tacked the angel to the windowpane, positioned above the baby. I placed a red candle near the baby, too. It flickered and cast a holy-ish glow, and now we looked ready for Christmas, anyway. And wonder of wonders, when the girls arrived they were bearing not frankincense and myrrh but a big Tupperware container full of spicy gingerbread people decorated to look like our family. There was also a plateful of other gingerbread cut-outs, some thickly frosted. We eagerly consumed every last crumb. Since Jennifer and John weren’t here we could gobble their “people,” too.

By hook or by crook we would manage to keep Christmas—and my birthday as well, which falls close and always adds to the merrymaking. During the week, while I was in town or somewhere, Christopher mixed up a cake with coconut in it and whipped egg whites, and he carried the batter in layer pans down the road to the neighbors’ to bake in their oven. I was flabbergasted when I learned of this.

We feasted on the cake, and then a few days later we stocked up on donuts, boxfuls from the grocery store: glazed, sugared cake, apple fritter, plus an assortment of especially gross jelly- and pudding-filled ones. We were planning to Christmas carol that night with Yoders and Brennemans—we would go around trumpeting the news of the Child born to deliver us from our sins—and we’d promised to feed everyone afterwards at our house. So at least, now we were back to celebrating Jesus’ birthday. Well, so to speak. Gathered around the table with our friends, we crammed our bellies. Zachary ate himself sick.

Only a few donuts remained, the day before Christmas. The boys worried that these wouldn’t be enough to hold us over till we got to Pennsylvania. In the afternoon at Wal-Mart (this is getting really embarrassing), the woman’s voice blaring over the loudspeaker announced a donut special in the bakery, one dozen for $1.87.  Zachary, pushing our cart, grabbed pleadingly at my arm. “No!” I snapped. And then, “Oh, well. Sure. I don’t care.” He and Paulson hurried off to pick up our dozen.

We went to bed stuffed, again. Christmas morning I laid bags of candy beside everyone’s plates at the breakfast table. Christmas evening in Pennsylvania at the Bainbridge relatives’ house we gorged on raisin-filled cookies, chocolate chip, sugar, and thumbprint, and on lemon squares, cartwheels, snickerdoodles, Mennonite Community Cookbook date pinwheels, and More with Less molasses crinkles. Everybody declared that if I entered my chocolate-raspberry bars in the Pillsbury Bake-Off I’d win the $25,000 prize. The next morning at Grandma’s we oohed over her iced apricot-cherry bread. Lunchtime at Millers’ there was cranberry-cherry pie. At Stoltzfuses’ in the evening, chocolate-frosted chocolate cake with globs of whipped topping and cherries. We drove back home to West Virginia with my pan of chocolate-raspberry bars only half emptied. I plunked it back into the freezer.

Eight precious pieces were still left when Jennifer and John arrived New Year’s Eve. “What shall we bring?” Jennifer had asked on the phone the day before, knowing I still couldn’t bake, and now they were merrily hauling in breads, cookies, pecan squares as rich and sweet as any pie, and two cakes. We staggered around the house that night and the next day. “Your chocolate-raspberry bars aren’t all gone?” Jennifer exclaimed. “Oh, goody. Let’s have those, too.”

January 2 or 3 I pulled the butter cookies off the brittle Christmas tree. Soon after, I took the little wooden nativity pieces one by one from the kitchen windowsill, brushed off the dust, and rewrapped them in their scraps of tissue paper. The lambs. Cows. Gaunt shepherds. The wise men, rather sober. The brooding angel. (When I tugged it loose from the windowpane it fell into the sink and got a bit damp.)  Joseph looked bemused, I thought, and Mary weary and swollen. Not from overeating. Last of all I tucked away the little Lord Jesus, carved oddly out of proportion, it seemed to me, the body too small for its head and old-person face.

Jesus’ expression seemed careworn, almost pained, as if he was grieving. But perhaps I was just imagining things. 

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