WHAT'S IN A TRADITION? by Ellen Donker
Updated: Nov 22, 2019
Every family has its own way of celebrating holidays. In our home, the most eagerly anticipated gathering is our Christmas Eve luncheon. We held it for the first time in 1997 after Rob and I got married, as a way for family to celebrate Christmas with Leah, his 9-year-old daughter, who would only be with us on Christmas Eve. We invited family from both sides and were pleasantly surprised when everyone came.
Twenty-three years later, we still host an annual sit-down dinner for 20-plus family members and close friends. It’s a bit fancy, with proper china and silverware – no paper plates allowed. Eating from real dishes helps set the day off as special.
For a main course, I serve what I made that first year: standing rib roast. At the time, I had no idea how to entertain, so I turned to the Silver Palate’s Good Times cookbook and made exactly what Julee Rosso and Sheila Lukins recommended: roast beef laurels. I have stuck with that dish, adjusting the rest of the menu with new additions and whatever contributions my guests make.
By now it's a ritual for me to complain that my lowly kitchen has but a single oven that can barely hold all that beef, never mind the other menu items. It’s forced me to make dishes ahead of time and cook what I can on the stovetop. I tell my husband: “Just imagine what I could crank out if I simply had a wall oven!” Apparently, he’s not convinced because 23 years later I still have one oven, not counting the toaster oven that I sometimes employ.
Although I try to hold to custom and maintain standards, I’ve had to deal with my family trying to chip away at them. That includes my own mother, who after seeing the mountain of dirty dishes one year, suggested that next time I switch out the china for those really nice plates you can buy at Costco that are sturdy and hardly look like plastic. I pretended I didn’t hear her.
Rob and the boys have taken their shots, too, smuggling in potato chips and onion dip. They took great pleasure in seeing our guests consume the chips faster than the shrimp cocktail, cheese plate or whatever other appetizers I was serving. I’ve let the chips stay, provided that they are only served in the family room.
And then, a few years ago, the boys begged me to switch out the roast and serve ham instead. I know I can be rigid, but nix the standing rib roast? Once again I compromised, allowing the ham to be served with the roast, if it could be brought to the house warm and not take up valuable real estate in my lone oven. We drafted our friend John to bring the ham and it was a great success.
Our luncheon stands out in memory in other ways. Like when I was sauteeing my haricots verts and heard the smoke detector in the basement go off. It turns out we had a little fire from the fireplace’s ashpit. Within minutes, the Maplewood Fire Department was at our house, sirens blaring. They evacuated us to the front lawn while they put out the fire and ran fans to rid the house of smoke. Thankfully, the firefighters were snappy and my 15 pounds of roast didn’t burn. I can’t remember what happened to the haricots verts.
And then there are the difficult memories. In 2015, the day before the luncheon, my beloved father was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Although my family said I should probably cancel the gathering, I felt that I’d rather grieve with my loved ones than by myself. I felt cushioned by everyone’s care.
And that’s the nature of life: Even beloved traditions can take on the weight of painful passages. But we keep on coming together so we can walk with those with whom we have history, sharing the good and the hardships alike. As in past years, I look forward to all of us being under the same roof once again, eating standing rib roast alongside ham and a side of potato chips – on proper plates.