There were mixed messages about Christmas when I was growing up. My mother always set out a four-inch-high tree with Lilliputian bulbs that she’d found in a crafts shop next to her obstetrician’s office on the day she learned that she was pregnant with me. The baby nurse when I was born stayed friends with Mom and knitted a stocking for my first Christmas, which was hung from a doorknob since there was no fireplace in our small apartment.
After we moved to a house with more space, my dad would bring home a real tree. And we had Christmas dinner at the home of a great-aunt and great-uncle, who were sort of surrogate grandparents. They were affluent, which my parents were not, and dinner was served by their wonderfully maternal housekeeper named Amy. Although my name was spelled the Frenchified way, for a long time I thought I was named for her.
Then, when I was five, my parents explained that since we were Jewish and I would be starting to attend what was called Sunday School at our temple, I could still decorate a Christmas tree, but would have to donate it to the children’s hospital.
I thought it was a raw deal and declined.
So for a while, Christmas was replaced by Hanukkah. We lit candles on a menorah; my mom made potato pancakes; my stocking and the tiny tree were retired.
Fast-forward about 20 years. My beloved dad had died, much too young, my mother always spent the holidays with me in New York City, and a lot of my friends were the wandering Jews on December 25th, somewhat bored with the ritual of Chinese food and a movie. I still lit the menorah, but I decided to resurrect Christmas.
Mom was my sous-chef, even though that meant putting up an ironing board for counter space in my apartment as we shredded Brussels sprouts, and the menu always included her cranberry conserve, which requires ginger preserved in syrup. It was great to be ecumenical, celebrating the bounty of family, friendship, and food, and our new tradition continued every year, with a changing guest list that always reflected the melting pot of New York. One year I wrote about it for The New York Times.
As I was doing my marketing for Christmas dinner that year, I couldn’t find the ginger anywhere. Rather exasperated after trying half a dozen different stores, I ended up at Zabar’s, the famous food emporium on the upper west side of Manhattan. I asked the manager if they carried ginger preserved in syrup.
“What is it about this ginger?” he practically shouted at me. “Why is everybody asking for it? Was there some sort of article?”
“Well, yes,” I said sheepishly. “There was, and actually I wrote it.”
“Lady!” he said, really yelling now. “You gotta tell us these things ahead of time!”
When I told my mother that story, I think it was the happiest I’ve ever seen her.
Aimee Lee Ball is a journalist whose work is at www.AimeeLeeBall.com.
1 c. white wine
1 c. sugar
12 oz. cranberries
grated rind of 1 lemon
1/2 c. golden raisins
1/2 c. ginger preserved in syrup, finely chopped, plus 3 T. of the syrup
In a stainless steel or enamel saucepan, mix wine and sugar with 1/2 c. water.
Bring to a boil.
Add cranberries, cover and simmer about 5 minutes, until cranberries pop.
Add lemon rind, raisins, and ginger with syrup.
Simmer 3 more minutes.
Let cool and refrigerate overnight.
Makes about 6 cups.