by Julia Sneden
Christmas at our house is nothing if not traditional, both in the generic sense and in the keeping of our own, personal traditions. The decorations and timing of our Yuletide celebrations almost never vary. We follow the same schedule, and put up the same excessive but un-exotic décor year after year.
Edibles are a large part of our tradition, too. Our dining room sideboard boasts several kinds of cookies and candies, both homemade and store-bought. Our Christmas menus vary little from one year to the next.
Such consistency is comforting to old and young, and is cheerfully (and sometimes mockingly) referred to as “the same old Christmas:” same, that is, except for those years when fate takes a hand.
The first time that happened was the year that I slid on an icy road and put my car through a fence just days before Christmas. I was fine, but the car was definitely the worse for the experience, and we had to make do without it until well into the New Year. I hastily re-did some of the last-minute plans, and we had a rather restrained Christmas (no last-minute shopping) while we counted our blessings.
Then there was the year that one of our sons couldn’t be home for Christmas. It felt a bit bleak, but we survived it. I’m sure it was harder on us than on him. He was invited to spend Christmas Eve with a friend’s wonderful, Polish family, and on Christmas Day, he served at a soup kitchen, enjoying every minute of it.
There was the year that we had a Russian exchange student living with us, and he invited his mother to join us for all of November and December. She didn’t speak English, but that didn’t seem to matter. We all got along just fine with smiles and gestures.
Less pleasant was the year that I came down with stomach flu in the middle of Christmas Eve dinner, followed serially over the course of the next three days by seven more family members. Only one son and the baby managed to escape. That was the year we discovered that there is no such thing as a house with too many bathrooms.
But the strangest Christmas of all was the Christmas of the Goose. John, my husband, was born in the wrong century. His vision of Christmas is informed by a heavy dose of Dickens and merrie olde England. It’s not enough to watch every version of A Christmas Carol that is shown on television, year after year. He hangs an Advent wreath over the center of the dining table. He sings along with the Advent hymns on a CD of the Canterbury Cathedral Choir. He sings The Boar’s Head in Latin as I carry in the roast. He reads Dylan Thomas’s A Child’s Christmas in Wales aloud to the family every Christmas Eve. He puts Christmas crackers at each place at table. He has even been known to remind us about Boxing Day.
One year, as we were cleaning up from Thanksgiving, he suddenly said: “Let’s have a goose for Christmas this year.” I was stunned. “Yes,” he said, agreeing with himself where I could not, “a Christmas goose would be an adventure.”
(My only previous experience with goose occurred before we were married, in 1960. I was in Denmark, visiting with friends, and was invited to share the goose-liver stew that was made up of leftovers from their Christmas dinner of a few days before. It was absolutely delicious, but no one thought to enlighten me about the digestive effects of over-indulgence in such a rich dish. I wondered why I was the only one who took second helpings. I soon found out. The dinner was followed by an attack of flatulence that could have powered one of the rocket engines of our fledgling space ships).
“I don’t know how to cook a goose,” I whined. John smiled and held out a page from one of those glossy cooking magazines.
“Here,” he said. “It’s all set out for you.”
“But even Scrooge thought that turkey is best,” I said. “That’s what he sent to Bob Cratchit’s house.”
“There’s a whole menu here,” he replied. “Should be fun. I’ll make the pies.”
I gave in to what seemed like a handsome offer. I promptly farmed out a couple of the side dishes to my teenage sons, and sat down with the goose recipe to scope it out. There were lots of caveats about controlling the amount of fat, thoroughness of cooking, proper basting, etc., but it didn’t look too hard. I figured I could handle it.
John made the pies a day ahead, which proved to be wise, since he woke up Christmas morning looking like death itself.
“I think it’s flu,” he said. He made it through the presents, and then betook himself to bed.
Came dinner time, I pulled a gorgeously browned, sizzling, picture-perfect goose out of the oven.
“See if Dad is up to dinner,” I told the son who had just set out his contribution of marzipan-and-nut-stuffed baked apples. Another son was wrestling with a huge pan of wild rice with chestnuts, and the third was tossing a fancy autumn slaw that contained zucchini and nuts and had taken hours of chopping (pre Cuisinart).
John crept into the dining room in his bathrobe, and sat quietly in his chair. His shoulders were drawn up as if he were cold, and he was very pale, but he stood up and began to carve the goose.
“Oh,” he said suddenly. “It’s all dark meat, and I don’t like dark meat.”
“It’s a game bird,” I snapped; “of course it’s dark meat. And it’s delicious dark meat, too.” He served himself a small portion, and we began to eat. Soon the boys were discussing their parts in the meal. They began by arguing the merits (or rather, the lack of merits) of sweet side dishes that had marzipan in them
“That was a lot of WORK,” my sous-chef growled. “Eat it and shut up.”
“This rice is hard and funny,” said another son, “and the chestnuts look like little brains.”
“I made it exactly the way the recipe said to,” said his brother.
“Eeeew!” said the third as he poked at the slaw. I looked down the table in an effort to enlist their father’s support in quashing the rebellion. John was sitting hunched over, eyelids at half mast, face quite green. He hadn’t touched his food.
“I think I need to be excused,” he said, and crept off to bed.
“Some Christmas dinner,” came a mutinous murmur from one of the boys.
I tried to look at the bright side.
“At least we’ve got pies,” I said cheerfully. There was a chorus of “ No Ways!” from my sons.
“Flu germ-pies?” said the youngest. “I’ll have ice cream, thanks.”
We cleared the table and I wrapped the leftover goose to give to our local soup kitchen. I checked John’s temperature. It was 102.5. The boys and I ate our ice cream at the kitchen table and fed the pies to the garbage disposal, since they refused to believe that the hot oven could have killed the germs, and I wasn’t about to sit down to two whole pies. The house was eerily quiet. It didn’t feel like Christmas at all.
The kids went off to a movie, since John wasn’t up to the annual read-aloud of A Child’s Christmas in Wales. That lovely little book begins:
“One Christmas was so much like another, in those years…that I can never remember whether it snowed for six nights and six days when I was twelve, or for twelve days and twelve nights when I was six.”¹
Well, I thought to myself, not in this house this year. And I hope there will never be another one like it. This year will go down in history as The Year of the Goose.
And so it has.
¹A Child’s Christmas in Wales by Dylan Thomas
©1954 by New Directions Books