Ephemeral Magic: A Christmas Reflection

a stern-looking Stahlbaum Family, Memphis Ballet, 1971

The dog needs bathing and his hair is all over the bed, the human bed, whose sheets need changing and the rest of the bedding washed. But there is also baking to do, gifts to wrap, packages to ship, a tree to be gotten, and Christmas decorations to haul out. And there are bills to pay, checkbooks to balance, laundry to fold, and all the other burdensome toil that in spite of the holidays has the audacity to insinuate itself in the day to day. Magic, though, demands extra work, and Christmas, we are told, is magical.

When I was a kid my ballerina mom somehow managed to entertain an entire neighborhood full of people in our annual Christmas Day open house, right on the heels of a run of Nutcracker rehearsals and performances, and while parenting two children—I was nine or so around the time I’m remembering, and my brother would have been toddling around as a two-year-old in his stiff, white corrective shoes. I also danced in the same performances with my mama, so that added extra layers of complexity to our family life and demanded agility from my dad. It was not just that he found himself the primary caregiver of a toddler during those weeks, but also that he spent a fair amount of time schlepping me to our home way out in the Memphis suburbs from the midtown ballet school or the theatre downtown, just about a block off of Front Street. During theatre week, anyway, rehearsals ran late and I had school in the morning. I couldn’t hang around to wait through my mama’s Act II Chinese variation, although I really wanted to see her do all those échappés and pirouettes with fisted hands and pointy index fingers.

There’s plenty of downtime during theatre week between rehearsals, though. Hanging around in an empty auditorium exploring forbidden passageways, playing on idle escalators that would soon ferry elegant people from the orchestra-level lobby to the mezzanine, or milling about on an empty stage bedecked with scenery and props was its own kind of magic for children in the cast. Don’t touch the pink confection that looks good enough to eat, warned the grownups, as it is made from asbestos fibers and will slice through your skin. Here was an epiphany: Realistic-looking sets are potentially hazardous to one’s health. Gigantic lollipops are cut out of plywood, and the Stahlbaum living room, the Land of Snow, and the Kingdom of Sweets are in fact only two-dimensional, reduced by burly stagehands to carpet-like rolls after the final curtain, thence to load out and haul off to storage for another year.

Anyway, I honestly don’t know how my parents managed, and ultimately they did not. Still, the Christmas Day open house was a mainly joyous occasion for a few years while our family held tight. Not long ago my brother reminded me of the days leading up to the occasion, when we were pressed into service icing the sugar cookies. Mom baked them from scratch some years and others used slice-and-bake dough, but the icing was always that abomination that comes in a cannister from the likes of Duncan Hines or some such. Into one each of two tubs of vanilla buttercream went several drops of green or red food coloring, which yielded colors more akin to lime and pink if we’re being honest; it looked its best with marbled streaks before the colors had fully blended into the white. Working under the light at the kitchen table, my brother and I were tasked with schmearing on the icing and then sprinkling some of the cookies with colored sugar. It was fun for about a minute, and left our fingers stained a muddy hue that resulted from the comingling of the dyes.

But the other thing he reminded me was just how terrible those cookies tasted, especially by, say, the third one. Prefabricated icing sprinkled with sugar on a sugar cookie left a cloying film on the palate that lingered for a while, and sometimes made the gut a little queasy. Maybe it was also hazardous to one’s health like those fake confections that added dimension to the Kingdom of Sweets.

In fairness to my mom, the buffet table was spectacular, par-homemade sugar cookies notwithstanding. She also baked a Christmas tree-shaped cake in chocolate (more unfortunate green icing applied there) and piped on the garland, to which she affixed sugary, pastel-colored disks as stand-ins for ornaments. There were biscuits and country ham, glass dishes filled with nuts and candies, a fancy little caddy that held jelly jars we used only on this occasion, gingerbread with lemon curd, homemade fudge, and lots of other treats, some of them gifted to us from faraway family and set aside for this day. It was all laid out on a heavy, ornate table that was really out of scale for our small suburban dining room, but a source of pride as it somehow once belonged to the Postmaster General in Knoxville, went the story. Once the buffet was complete, there was scarcely a square inch of tabletop left.

Neighbors started arriving around 2:00 in the afternoon, just like the guests at the Stahlbaum home, with other friends from across town and occasionally dancers from the company stopping by, too. My brother and I enjoyed the din for the most part, but when we’d had enough could retreat to our bedrooms to entertain ourselves with the spoils of Christmas that still held their glossy sheen.

In spite of the work I knew it required, I decided to resurrect the Christmas Day open house in my own grownup family life, retaining some of the best elements that lingered in my mind’s eye, but with crispy homemade chocolate chip cookies in place of those crusty green and red iced cookies. I baked and froze batches of biscuits in the days leading up to Christmas; my in-laws supplied the ham. We set out an entire smoked salmon with cream cheese and capers, along with dishes of pistachios, pecans, black walnuts, and sliced pears with soft cheeses. I made fudge too, some years, and always baked brownies from Katharine Hepburn’s recipe. We uncorked and set out bottles of Beaujolais Nouveau, and for guests who lingered offered a glass of brandy or Port. Everything was served on the good china and polished silver—this is what my own kiddo will remember now as an adult.

A few years later the tradition continued at the small ballet school I founded, where I laid out the Kingdom of Sweets on a buffet together with hot tea and cocoa, and on the big screen where my students were transported to it, a different version every year, whilst nibbling and sipping. It was a much-anticipated occasion that continued until the school’s demise that coincided with the end of my marriage in 2011. Magic is ephemeral, after all.

Chef David and I will mark ten Christmases together this year. Like the ones before it, this one will most likely be quiet, not Stahlbaum-like at all, but there will be a few tasteful decorations and some exceptionally good cuisine in this house like there is every year. Our new North Carolina neighborhood pulls out all the stops for holiday celebrations, it seems. The people who live down on the corner have a colorful T-Rex statuary in their yard, festooned just now with holiday lights; a little over a month ago he stood there shamelessly devouring a human skeleton in plain view of passersby, part of an impressive diorama that included a lifelike zombie bride, skeletons at various stages of emergence from the lawn, transformed for the occasion into a makeshift cemetery, and a colorful light show projected onto the side of the house. I can imagine this scenery living on forever in the memories of the children growing up here.

The dog bath will wait another week. Asbestos pastry, ugly cookies, metal dinosaurs, and twinkling lights, though, have more urgency to them, because they are magical and ephemeral. And entirely worth the effort.

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