My mother’s mother followed the German tradition of not decorating until Christmas Eve. My other grandmother, my parents, and everyone else in town were finished weeks in advance, but Annie would never budge. The tree would be closed up behind the sliding doors of the “big living room,” which I now remember as being as big as a ballroom. Early in the evening the doors were thrown open, revealing the fait accompli. There were wonderful old Victorian and German ornaments, as well as strings of those lights that look like candles with boiling colored liquid inside.
When we were very little, we would be taken there for the great unveiling, given supper, and put to bed upstairs, because many of the adults would be going to midnight Mass and all of them would be coming back later for supper. For a small Southern town New Bern had a large Roman Catholic congregation. We were seen as an exotic bunch, there were Syrian and Lebanese immigrants who came to live in eastern North Carolina in the thirties as well as Yankees who often came to us by way of nearby military bases. It was at church that I first met Italians and Poles.
A midnight church service was considered sophisticated and elegant. People who didn’t see eye to eye with the faith were nonetheless pleased to be invited to this service. I remember that my great-grandmother was somewhat put out when the Episcopalians took up the custom, stealing some thunder.
In those days, church law required fasting in advance of Holy Communion, so by the time church was over at 1 a.m., everyone was starving. There was always a houseful, even though everyone had Santa Claus to see to and would probably be getting up very early.
The buffet was limited and heavy on sweets. Remarkably for that hour, coffee was always served. The crowd was festive, noisy, and very dressed up. Protestant friends stopped by as well and we wondered what they had done to pass the time until church was over.
Later we would be taken home, half asleep in our parents’ arms, and put into our own beds. This is one of my pleasantest childhood memories.
With the exception of the baked ham, these recipes were all gleaned from my grandmother Shields’s handwritten book. Instructions were sparse, ingredients have changed, candy making is considered arcane now, and beaten biscuits are almost unheard of. Many other recipes have been lost. Grandmother’s rum ball recipe has disappeared, and while everyone remembers that Anne Lucas had a recipe for sweet cheese biscuits, we can’t find that either.
All of the above proved to be a particular challenge for my friend and recipe tester, Sheri Castle. I gave her all these right before I disappeared into the snows of Quebec this winter. Her e-mails were hilarious. After a third try at the fudge, she resorted to drink. However, now they are all deciphered for the modern kitchen and they all work. Candy making is precise, so follow the instructions carefully, but don’t be afraid.
A Christmas Eve Supper after Midnight Mass
Baked Ham for a Big Brunch
Date Nut Roll
Candied Citrus Peels
For these recipes and more, check out Bill Smith‘s Seasoned in the South: Recipes from Crook’s Corner and from Home.