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Four Years at the Mount

This month, we asked our intrepid Mount writers to remember and reflect upon their most special holiday traditions as the winter season draws near.

Holiday traditions

December 2016

Christmas at Home

Angela Tongohan.
MSM Class of 2020

My best Christmas was spent with a man I barely knew.

In fact, until this day, I still do not know his name. I met him when I was in the eighth grade, when my church decided to host an event called Feeding for the Homeless. Members of our community were to come in on Christmas Eve, set up cots and prepare food for individuals experiencing homelessness, seeking shelter from the cold. My mother, who never was one who enjoyed the formalities of Christmas dinners, decided it would be a fulfilling way for us to spend our Christmas.

Of course, being the angst-y adolescent that I was, I grumbled and complained about not having a traditional Christmas dinner like everyone else. When my grumbling didn’t subside after she plainly ignored me for a good few minutes, my mother curtly spun around and said to me, "Maybe it’s about time you stop thinking of only yourself."

To that I responded with a loud huff and proceeded to sit down in the corner of the church hall where I planned to stay the rest of the night.

My mother did not care much about that. In fact, I believe she preferred that I stay out of the way while they were preparing. There was so much food! There was ham and turkey and steak, pudding and cupcakes and custard, pasta and bread and potatoes! I was full just watching them cook. They set out five rectangular tables and placed them end-to-end to form an incredibly long dining table, which they then covered with multiple stark-white tablecloths.

A man arrived carrying a portable piano, and after a few minutes of setting up, the hall was filled with the jolly sounds of Christmas music.

He was in the middle of Jingle Bells when the first of the anticipated guests arrived. Most of the men and women wore worn clothes, usually washed out and without color. Their hands were rough and cold and their jackets not nearly thick enough to protect them from the freezing snow outside. Many of the men had hair that grew far past their eyes and beards that hung low to the bottoms of their necks. Many had shoes with wide holes or with the soles falling off.

I frowned. I had never interacted with homeless people before. They all bumbled in, confused and obviously hungry. The members of my community, including my mother, led them in the direction of the food. I watched as they eagerly took spoonfuls of this or that until their plates were filled.

My mother caught my eye and waved me over. I shook my head. I admit, I was a bit of a brat. By the time everyone who arrived had helped themselves, they sat down at the tables. They were all rather wary of each other, sitting a few seats apart from the next person. I watched as they ate and talked to no one. I shrugged to myself and prepared to wait until it was time to go home when my mother grabbed my hand and dragged me to the food table.

"I need your help, Angela," she said to me. I groaned. The minute she let go of my hand, I immediately made my way back to my corner. She grabbed my hand again, "Angela, I’m serious!"

"What do you need?" I asked as disinterestedly as possible.

She nodded her head to someone behind me.

"I need you to help that man. He doesn’t want to get food."

"Mom," I grumbled, "I can’t make him get food."

"I think he doesn’t know that this food is for him too," said my mother, "He doesn’t speak English, Angela."

I looked up at the man who stood silently by the doorway. He was looking hungrily at the people at the table.

"He speaks Spanish. But I don’t know how to communicate with him. Didn’t you take Spanish in school?"

"Mom—" I began.

"Please, Angela. Just invite him over to eat."

Reluctantly, and after a great many groans, I made my way over to the man.

"Hola," I said, forcing a smile. My Spanish wasn’t the best.

"Hola," he said back.

"Quieres comer?"

His eyes lit up, "Sí, sí," he said.

I led him to the table.

"Pan?" I asked pointing to the bread, "Pollo? Todo puede…" I internally facepalmed. However, the man was too busy getting food to notice my poor Spanish. After he finished preparing his plate, he began to walk to the table.

I sighed a breath of relief. Just as I was about to head back to my corner, he turned around and asked, "Y tu?"

I was confused. Me?

"Yes, she will eat with you," my mother butt in, quickly preparing a plate and shoving it into my hands.

I shuffled my way to the man. He chose a relatively empty spot at the table and held a chair for me until I sat down.

He took a few bites before turning to me and asking me questions. He asked my age, what grade of school I was in, and what I wanted to be when I grew up. It was pretty casual talk, and I tried as hard as I could to understand what he was saying to me. From the bits and pieces, I did understand, I learned that he had a family, but that he lost his job. He had a wife and daughter, who was a little younger than me, but they had moved away a few years ago.

Despite not knowing anybody, the man seemed particularly jolly. His face often lit up when he told me stories, and when he talked he waved his hands around while simultaneously taking in spoonfuls of food. The members of my community had also scattered about the table, starting conversations with those who seemed lonely. The music started up again as well.

By the time everyone had finished eating, my mother stood up and pleasantly asked the man I was talking with to dance. And he did. Soon enough a good number of my community were dancing with the guests. By that time, I started to see them differently. I no longer saw the ratty torn up clothes. Talking to the man made me realize that there was not much different between us. We were both human. He was just down on his luck.

We all have different stories, and it was wrong to judge a person because of their status or their appearance. I may not have realized it at the time, but this was the beginning of my understanding. This was where I realized that not everybody has an easy journey.

Christmas is a time where we value the company of our family and friends, but there are people who have nobody. During this season of joy and cheer, I urge the spread of love and acceptance as well. Though we may not understand everybody else, we lose nothing to hear their story.

I always wondered what would have happened if I did not talk to the man by the door; if I had refused to try and help. Every Christmas, we now spend our time in the church hall, celebrating Christmas with those who have no one else to celebrate with.

Read other articles by Angela Tongohan

Sibling Season

Michael Kenney Jr.
MSM Class of 2019

It snows in Michigan. A lot. In fact, if snow shoveling qualified as a holiday tradition, my article would extend far beyond this page. Luckily, however, my family’s holiday traditions are much more enjoyable, as they make for some of my favorite memories each year.

Our Christmas traditions begin the day after Thanksgiving. On Black Friday, our family meets up with our cousins to make blankets for a local children’s hospital. From that day forward, we are in the full Christmas swing — my mom decorates the entire house, Christmas music plays nonstop, and we binge on all of our favorite Christmas movies.

Some of our traditions are unconventional. A few years ago, my family went through a random Food Network Channel phase. We were particularly riveted by cooking competitions, so since then, we began an annual Christmas Bake Off. The six of my siblings and I break into teams of two or three. We flip through our cookbooks in search of recipes that we would regularly not have the ambition to concoct, and we kid ourselves into thinking that ours will look as decedent as the ones in photographs. Once everyone has picked their recipe, we set the timer, and begin. None of us are passionate chefs, but we all have a competitive edge, so the juxtaposition of our skill and our will to win is probably quite humorous. We make our parents the judges, but they are too kind to state that one dessert is better than the others. "They liked ours best," each group will insist to the others, but ultimately we’ll never know. We save the desserts for Christmas Eve night and Christmas day.

My siblings and I also do a Secret Santa gift exchange. For nearly a whole month, each sibling searches for the perfect gift for the sibling they have selected at random. Everything from the style of the wrapping paper to the content of the card is carefully considered to match the recipient’s personality. Following our Christmas Eve mass, we all gather around our tree and begin the ritual. Each person goes around the circle, reveals the sibling they had picked, and talks about how they decided on the gift they purchased. Inevitably, each gift has a story behind it. It usually begins something like, "I thought of you immediately when I saw this in the store because…" or, "The store clerk must have thought I was crazy because…" or "My friend told me about these when…"

After all the gifts are opened, my dad reads us ‘Twas the Night before Christmas and then we deliberate on a time to wake up in the morning. The proposed times range from 6-9 a.m. but nevertheless, we wake up when my two younger sisters run into our rooms the next morning.

Christmas morning sparks blissful chaos no matter how old we get. We wake up our parents and then head to our Christmas stockings. My parents fill our stockings together the night before, and we can always distinguish which parent picked out the assorted trinkets. My dad gives the ones that are practical or educational where my mom gives the ones that are trendy or edible. Once my oldest sister and my dad have brewed up some coffee, we open our gifts. We love watching the Macy’s Christmas Day Parade. My dad whips up hash browns, sausage, eggs, and toast for all nine of us. We take our time eating and jamming to Christmas music. When the early afternoon rolls around, we change out of our pajamas and go on a family walk. We are also apt to pop in a Christmas movie. Some of our favorites include White Christmas, Polar Express, Elf, It’s A Wonderful Life, and Eloise’s Christmas.

The Christmas Eve and Christmas celebrations are almost warmups for the days to follow.

My sister’s birthday is the day after Christmas, and my dad’s is the day after hers. My mom decorates the kitchen the night before everyone’s birthdays, and we wake the birthday celebrant up by corralling in his or her room for an off pitched rendition of Happy Birthday. My mom and dad make up a special breakfast, and the rest of the day is dedicated to the birthday honoree. They choose the agenda and request their favorite dinner. Usually, my siblings have basketball games that we’ll go to, but after those, we will gather for a long dinner. The dinner usually takes a couple of hours as we laugh and talk and laugh some more. When dessert rolls around, we go around the table saying our favorite qualities in the birthday person, sing Happy Birthday, and open gifts.

Our family usually spends New Year’s Eve exercising, reading, and lounging around the house until the early evening. We go to mass in honor of the Solemnity of Mary, a Catholic feast day celebration. We then have dinner, where we reflect on the past year and reopen a jar where we stashed our goals for that year. We talk about our progress on them, create new ones, and then put them in the jar. My dad then picks out a family movie. We try to catch bits and pieces of the televised New Year’s Eve Celebration in NYC. We count down to midnight, and my little siblings run around our front yard, banging pots and pans in jubilation.

Read other articles by Michael Kenney Jr.

A Plate of Cookies

Sarah Muir
Class of 2018

It starts early with the sweet smell of candied orange and ginger, coupled with the lingering scent of anise. The air seems laced with powdered sugar and a thin layer of flour is on some table, somewhere. Baking is all about timing. The first cookies to be made are the springerles followed in quick pursuit by the pfeffernüsses. Both, I know are odd sounding names for Christmas cookies, and both have German backgrounds and a traditional standing in our family. Springerles are made with anise, a licorice tasting spice that no one in my family cares for except for my dad, which is why only one batch is made for him and are set aside to dry and harden. The pfeffernüsses, on the other hand are powered sugared pillows of Christmas heaven. Each little crumb carries the sweet smells of cardamom, nutmeg, cloves, ginger, anise, cinnamon, and molasses.

The next cookie in line isn’t really a cookie, rather, an old family recipe of the Nut Roll. Every year my mom makes an excessive amount, and every year we do not complain. Nut Roll is essentially a sweet bread dough, rolled out in a rough square, and spread liberally with a mixture of crushed walnuts, sugar, and milk. Afterward, they are rolled up and baked until they are perfectly golden brown and the house is filled with the rich smell of yeast, butter, and sugar. Every year, while they are cooling my mother will launch into a small oration of how perfect her grandmother’s cookies were and, as the rest of us shove our faces, we assure her that they are the best we’ve ever had.

The closer to Christmas, the more intricate the cookies become. The tea cookies, are usually next followed by the labor-intensive lady locks. The tea cookie are small, delicate, and flaky with a small amount of sugar crystalized on the top followed by a liberal coating of butter cream. The lady locks are a labor of love since they take about two-three days to make. First, the repetitive process of making the homemade filo-dough, which takes several hours. Then, rolling and cutting of strips that are wrapped around small round, wooden dowels. After they are baked and the small fragile shells are removed from their little rods, they cool and are filled with cream and covered in powdered sugar.

I do not think it has always been solely about the cookies. I remember my mom teaching me how to bake, distributing jobs that were appropriate for whatever age I was at the time. She still has the same maroon binder that contains the various secret recipes handwritten by my great grandmother and magazine clippings of other delightful confections that she conjures in her kitchen. Because of her, I know the recipes that have been in our family for generations and why I will continue this tradition for whoever comes after me.

Now, I try to help out where I can, but to be perfectly honest, my mom does the majority. I never understood how my mom could finish making all of them and I could not tell you where the tradition of making too many cookies came from because it seems like it has always been this way. Luckily, the wedding in June has made this year easier. That and the chest freezer in the basement that has been storing countless cookies and frozen dough that my mother does not have to make this Christmas.

My mom is not the only member of the family that bakes this way. Every year, my sister and I make the quick pilgrimage up to grandmother’s house; traversing over rivers and through woods. While we are up there, we help her bake at least three different types of cookies. They are not as intricate as those my mom makes; mostly, they are sugar cookies, chocolate chip, and Pecan (substitute: walnut) Sandies. My favorite bit is decorating the sugar cookies. With red, yellow, green, and blue glazes and a vast assortment of sprinkles close at hand, we set to work. While our creations are a little more subdued now that we are older, we take time to make at least one cookie to pay homage to our inner child. The result of this is a gingerbread man shaped cookie that looks as though it was decorated with Woodstock in mind.

While the cookies are, in my opinion, the most delicious cookies ever to grace an oven, they are not what I love most about this particular tradition. Rather, what I hold deep in my heart is the baking. I will forever associate Christmas with a warm kitchen made heavy with the scent of vanilla and melting butter. I will remember my grandparents’ house, our colorfully dyed hands and kaleidoscopic cookie creations. I will forever picture my mom, hair frizzing slightly, standing over the oven as Christmas music plays from the radio. One day, I hope to be half the baker she is and have the privilege to complain how my cookies cannot compare to hers.

It seems this season people get warmer as the weather gets colder. Perhaps it is just me wishing to see it, but everyone smiles more and laughs more and are closer together. It is the time of year humanity appears softer than powdered sugar. Christmas means so much to so many people, but to me it will always be peace on earth, goodwill towards man, and a plate of cookies.

Read other articles by Sarah Muir

Late Start

Leanne Leary
MSM Class of 2017

For my entire life, the holiday season began much earlier for the rest of the world than it ever did for me. The streets all throughout the neighborhood were lined with lights, Christmas trees lit up the windows, and snow lay on the ground all December long, but in my living room, it was still October for all intents and purposes.

First, I would like to make something clear. I do not live in a family of Scrooges. My family has (too many) truly beautiful Christmas decorations from a Nativity scene gifted to my parents on their wedding day to a kitchen set covered in snowmen and sets of trains to match. We love Christmas music although we can never agree on a station and all sing horrendously. Nonetheless, December 18 rolls around every year and any sign of this is hidden away in boxes lining our garage shelves serving only as the homes of the stink bugs that have found warmth there this winter.

You see, my birthday is December 19. Not too close to Christmas, but being the same week often means your personal celebration gets lost in the midst of holiday madness. I’m sure many of you can relate.

I’ve never been one for birthday celebrations as I’m much too awkward to be the center of attention for more than a few minutes. My last birthday party was an indoor cookout in fourth grade. When I was young, I was incredulously shy, a shocking reveal to anyone who knows me now, but I was. Because of this, I would have easily gotten lost in the swirl of holiday activity if my dad hadn’t made it a point from my first birthday to keep the two separate. My birthday happens every year, and only after that does it become Christmas in my house. There is absolutely no seceding to the pleas of my brother with a September birthday for Christmas music or to the constant casual hints of a Christmas tree coming from my sister who has another September birthday, my dad never broke this tradition.

December 19 is never anything crazy. I typically ask for steak, mashed potatoes, and canned corn for my birthday dinner. For dessert, it is always Rutley’s Peanut Butter Meltaway Cake. I’m sure the name sounds delectable, even to the inexperienced eye or ear, but to those of us who have experienced it, it becomes almost a Pavlov’s dog reaction of drool and joy. Layers of rich chocolate cake, peanut butter, more chocolate cake, baked to perfection and topped with peanut butter and chocolate icing. The aroma fills the house from the basement to the top floor bedrooms and signifies the end of my birthday and the start of the Christmas magic.

And so, on December 20 every year begins a flurry of activity. Now, we can wrap presents, buy a tree, switch the silverware and plates and dishes, and crank the Manheim Steamroller Christmas music throughout the house. All on this day, we will bake cookies (all of which will include some variation of chocolate) dip pretzels, and cook pizzelles. Simultaneously, my dad will start pulling boxes down off of the shelves and we will run between the garage and the dining room, setting all the boxes down before opening them. With the cookies coming out of the oven and the instrumental "Deck the Halls" sounding throughout the house, it is finally time for us to join the rest of the world.

We are, naturally, overwhelmed with Christmas spirit, but we are now on a strict time limit. We effectively have three days to feel the joy until Christmas comes and goes. Because of this, we have another tradition. Nothing comes down until we have had our fill. If I’m being honest, this tradition is a combination of laziness and lack of motivation to climb ladders for lights and dispose of a tree that was just set up less than a week before. However, we will call it a tradition. The lights stay up, as does the tree. The holiday cookware, plates, and silverware become "winter" sets and the trains stay out as a result of nostalgia.

This tradition, the former, not the obnoxious latter, didn’t become apparent to me until I was old enough to realize that somebody was making a conscience decision to hold off Christmas in our house, and I was not pleased. When I finally came to this realization and announced my distaste, my mom let it go until that night. That night she told me that my dad always wanted me to know that my birthday mattered as much as my siblings’ did and that this had been his doing. The insight in that moment made my 11 year old self feel not only proud, but also loved.

A combination of things happened here. First, I felt my middle child syndrome wash away, if only for a moment. Second, I realized that in a way, we are actually celebrating the holidays, just not in a traditional manner. Third, I realized that although my birthday had never felt too important to me, it was to my dad and so it became so to me.

Really, I should have seen this much sooner – my birthday is a part of our holiday tradition – our tradition that starts late, continues its course in love, joy, and chocolate, and ends just a little past its natural lifespan.

Read other articles by Leanne Leary

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