The Christmas season is a time to savor present joys and to remember. And what is remembering? It is history. Memories of home and family, good days and hard times, times of peace and times of war. Personal memories intertwined with world events — a favorite Christmas gift received, a Confederate Christmas in 1864, mama's turkey dressing, and World War II rationing — all these recollections together weave a tapestry of images in a person's mind. Christmas can be a time to weep for departed loved ones, for vanished homeplaces, for long-gone dolls and cap pistols, for one's own lost youth; but what's the use? Why not just enjoy the pleasant aspects of the holiday and try to recall only the happy times?
Here is a evocative Christmas recollection written during the American Civil War. — The Harrison family of Richmond was able to leave the city and its deprivations, and find respite in a Virginia country home:
“… [W]e were in enjoyment of intense physical relief, seated around a fire of generous logs sending out a glow that wrapped us in its warmth; and in half an hour we sat down to a table heaped with old-time luxuries: partridges; a sugar-cured ham; spareribs; and sausage … corn pone; biscuits; fresh, delicious butter; pitchers of mantling cream; and coffee, hot, rich, fragrant, tasting of the bean! We had literally no words!
“Dear, cheery little ‘Cousin Nannie,’ our hostess … did not stop lamenting over us till we had eaten a disgraceful amount of supper. As soon as possible, she insisted that we girls should go to our rooms, and there, sinking into lavender-scented, linen-spread featherbeds, with a fire dancing itself out upon the hearth, and a smiling Negro woman waiting to extinguish the candles, elysium was attained. Was it true — could such home comforts still be for us war-worn children of the Confederacy? …
“Next day, a quiet, cosy morning on a sofa wheeled up before the fire, with winter sunbeams glancing through crimson curtains into a room bowered in Christmas garlands ….
“[Then:] Such a dinner! Served at three o'clock P.M. (after a luncheon, at twelve, of cordials and cakes), the host at his end of the long table dispensing an emperor among turkeys, ‘Cousin Nannie’ at hers, engaged in carving another ham (that of the night before having already gone to its long rest among the house servants) — a ham befrilled with white paper, its pink slices cut thin as shavings, the fat having a nutty flavor — with cloves stuck into a crust of sugar. I remember a course of game, and then the plum pudding, with a berg of vanilla ice cream and a mould of calves'-foot jelly, together with many little iced cakes and rosy apples in pyramids.”
Southerners certainly do enjoy Christmas. An 1861 report states that Northern soldiers confined in a Richmond military prison were “in a high state of enjoyment, singing, laughing and shouting, as if their present position was an improvement upon anything they had been accustomed to at home.” Even a war could not squash the Virginia holiday spirit!
The following recipes will help you create an old-timey Christmas dinner to remember.
Soak a ten- to twelve-pound ham for twelve hours, then boil, cooking very slowly for four to five hours, until tender. Cool in the cooking liquid. When cold, remove the skin and make crisscross gashes in the top of the ham with a sharp knife. Sprinkle on top of the ham two tablespoons of cracker crumbs, two tablespoons of brown sugar, and a little black pepper. Stud the ham with whole cloves and pour a wineglass of sherry over the top of the ham. Bake in a hot oven (450° F.) for twenty minutes until brown. Garnish with watercress and parsley.
Mix the suet and sugar thoroughly, and then add the other ingredients, adding the lady fingers and flour last. Fill tin molds (or large cans), cover with waxed paper, and put on close-fitting tops (or aluminum foil). Steam in a covered pot 3/4 full of water 6 hours. Keep for 2 weeks in a cool place, and steam 2 hours before serving. Serve with Hard Sauce.
Cream the butter and sugar together and work in the flavoring. Serve cold.
Copyright © 1993–2009 Patricia B. Mitchell.