There's something magical about the Christmas season regardless of one's age. The "Christmas Song" with the simple phrase "to kids from one to 92" expresses how its warmth, hospitality, and love of family and friends affects everyone. Children look forward to Santa and almost everyone enjoys gift giving, the holiday lights, special foods, a myriad of Christmas songs, and time with loved ones. Many can recall specific Christmases of the past, from that special toy as a child to experiences into adulthood, but for nearly all people, rather than a favorite memory, Christmas evokes feelings that come from the collection of all our Christmases. It's those feelings that we look forward to each year as we carry on traditions. Sometimes these emotions can be bittersweet for those dealing with the loss of a loved one, whether recent or in the past.
This year is the first holiday season without a father, my father, who passed away the day before Thanksgiving. The blessing of a long life does not change the feelings of sorrow from separation. Along with the surrounding merriment of people at work or the store is a flood of memories that seem to surface at random times. A quick brush of a tear from the cheek may hide it from others, but the tender thoughts remain.
A Christmas tree is a reminder of how every year as a child we had a large, live tree in our home and yes, there was often some spicy language used when getting it through the door and standing straight in its stand. This was about the time of year when Dad took the five of us kids sledding to a well-known hill out in the country. An innocent walk through a hardware store is a reminder of the time we were there together not that long ago one summer day when he was looking for this or that for one of his projects; another store where he shuffled along getting his brand of cereal and bite-sized carrots. Our dog running up the driveway to greet me when I come home from work is a reminder of how fond he was of her and liked to rub her head. The Christmas music, almost all of it, conjures up more memories and emotions.
Decorating the tree brings back many memories of Christmases past. Photos above by Megan Deas-Halley.
Like a movie, recent images and thoughts run through my mind. How sweet it was to be with Dad in the last few days of his life. His stroke over a year ago softened him in a manner where he was more open about expressing his feelings. We held hands. Stories were retold and grandchildren spoke to him on the telephone with updates about their lives. In a reversal of roles, tender care was also given by his sons and much like a mother, I cradled his head and softly sung childhood songs and Christmas carols. Most fun was listening to the Bing Crosby Christmas CD on his Bose player with other Big Band music from his era. Knowing Dad's time here was not long, one of the hardest things ever done in my life was to turn my back on him and make a final walk out the door of his room. It didn't matter the amount of silent tears shed while waiting at the airport in California to come back home; emotions are emotions.
Is anyone ever really prepared for the message? Dad passed away just three days later. Even with the work of several siblings, many preparations had to be carried out. How can you sum up your dad's life in an obituary? What feelings surface when choosing from a lifetime of photos for display and finding the right scripture readings for church? The movie in my head will always include my family gathered around his casket with words of both cheer and sorrow, as well as pulling up a chair when all were gone to have my time alone with him. I will remember the goodbye at the funeral home when I shared his letter written to me many years ago when he expressed his love to his family and to me as his only daughter and the tender feelings he had in this unique relationship. I will remember the sweet tears shed as the Honor Guard of the Chautauqua County Veterans paid him tribute outside of church with a gun salute and the playing of taps for my father, a World War II hero. I will always remember what it was like to see his grandsons carry his casket, including to his grave site where his granddaughters and I waited with roses. Here, too, I finally had to turn my back and walk away, but not until after his casket was lowered and a lid placed on top with an embossed image of a saluting soldier and eagle. It was here in the cemetery that he told so many stories of ancestors as we planted flowers every Memorial Day just as his father also did for many years, and a tradition we promised to carry on in the future. Finally, I will remember all the extended family and friends who expressed their sympathy to us.
Christmas is a time of love. The feelings of sorrow come as a result of love. We can be happy at this time of year for what Christmas brings from shopping and decorating, but joy comes from recognizing our blessings, including our families. What joy there is to be found in realizing that this season celebrates the birth of Jesus Christ, whose ultimate sacrifice and resurrection made it possible for us to have eternal life and enjoy our families beyond the grave; with the Christmas wreath representing this never-ending eternal love and life with no end. For now, at the time of Christ's birth, as Mary, we might ponder all of this in our hearts. Make it a good week.
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Thickener in gravies: If you need to replace flour (wheat gluten) in a roux for sauces and gravies or corn starch, rice flour can be a god substitute. If you normally use corn starch to thicken gravy, make a roux instead by melting a tablespoon of butter to a tablespoon of rice flour. You may achieve better results with a rice flour blend which might also contain potato, tapioca or other starches. Potato flakes can also be used to thicken soups and gravies.
Cream cheese: Silken tofu (made from soy) can be an excellent substitute for cream cheese in equal amounts if soy allergies aren't an issue. Soft tofu can also be put through a blender or mashed if silken tofu isn't available. Add a few drops of white or cider vinegar to mimic the tangy flavor found in cream cheese. A paste made from chick peas or black beans can also be substituted for cream cheese in treats like canolis or other pastries.
Peanut butter: Any nut butter can substituted safely for peanut butter, as peanuts are legumes, not nuts. However, one can be allergic to both, so if you're cooking for someone else with a food allergy, make sure you know if they're allergies to nuts, peanuts or both.
Nuts: Coconut is not a tree nut and can be substituted for nuts in recipes.
Corn syrup: Simple syrup made from equal parts sugar and water heated until the sugar melts, then boiled for one minute is an easy substitute. It isn't quite as thick and sticky as corn syrup, but works well enough in recipes, although baking time may need to be increased.
Corn can be found in other common ingredients such as baking powder, so anyone with corn allergies needs to be mindful of hidden corn sources in foods. Similar risks
If you're visiting another household for the holidays and afraid to make food allergies known out of fear of being seen as burdensome, simply tell the host "I'll be bringing (insert dish here) to accommodate my (or family member's) allergies." This can open the door to conversation to determine how willing the host easy is to accommodating allergies. You may even learn others with allergies are attending as well.
If you're hosting guests with food allergies, please keep a few things in mind. First, with many food allergies, even a very tiny amount of the allergen can cause a severe reaction. Be mindful of cleanliness of surfaces and foods that may come into contact with each other during preparation. What a person with food allergies can't see or taste can hurt them.
Also keep in mind, when hosting people with food allergies or celiac disease, a reaction may not occur right away after eating or be visible to other people. Don't assume that a food issue is in someone's head if you don't see a visible reaction. With celiac disease, the reaction is internal and can take four to 24 hours to cause symptoms. Even if a person with celiac disease exposed to gluten has no symptoms, damage to the small intestine can still occur. Please take the safety of your guests seriously, and if you are unsure if tiny amounts of an allergen may be present in some foods, make sure guests know the risk.
While living with food allergies can be frustrating, and can even leave one feeling "on the outside" of many gatherings, don't forget how lucky we are to have access to many choices and substitutes. Be thankful for friends and family and remember the holidays are not about the many foods we'll see before us, but family and friendships and our ability to share what we have with others.
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