There’s a Christmas tree in my dining room. You can’t see it from the street, or even when you walk into the house, but you can smell it. In less than two weeks, that woodsy pine scent will be covered by the scent of fried latkes; perhaps we’ll do parsnip ones this year.
I put up a fight over the tree. I was worried the strings of lights would out-shine my Shabbos candles, turn the kiddush wine to eggnog and the challah into gingerbread. I wasn’t exactly on board with having one the first year we were together, even though we had agreed to share things we loved from our religions with each other. (Rich dances a very good hakafa, by the way.) But then December came. I flinched, I argued, I put up the good fight. But I wasn’t doing the sharing that we had agreed to.
I worried about my future children. Could they be good American Jews if there was a tree in the house? And what about Santa? I don’t know if I would call myself cynical about the jolly old elf, but if you asked a seven year-old me if Santa existed, I would probably have rolled my eyes. If you had asked me if it was possible for one drop of oil to last for eight days, I would have been as certain about its existence as my husband was about Kris Kringle. Not yet sure how we’re going to tackle that one, but Rich has pointed out that our children will have very well-behaved Catholic cousins who will certainly believe in Santa, and we will teach them nothing to the contrary.
The first year we had the tree, I refused to have anything to do with it. I told Rich it was entirely up to him to find it, bring it back to the house and decorate it on his own. But when I came home from work to find a tree covered in blue, silver and white tinsel, I let out a gasp. “It’s the colors of Israel!” Rich explained. “I thought you’d be happy.” Tinsel is not my style, and so, as I do with most things, I took over. Looking back, I realize I was being ungrateful, but oh Lordy, that was an ugly tree.
I was secretly happy when we skipped having a tree during Rich’s lay-off, and the next year I decided not to bring it up. Rich didn’t either, but by early February he let out a sigh and said he wished we’d had one. My good friend Shira put things in perspective: “Your husband can’t even have bacon in his own house. The Christmas tree makes him happy and reminds him of happy moments in his childhood. He needs the tree.” So this November, I found a sparkly bacon-shaped ornament and brought it home for Rich after a particularly hard week at work. “Does this mean we are having a tree?” he asked, wide-eyed. “Yes.” “Does this mean I can make bacon?” “Don’t push it.”
I told some of my friends a few weeks back that we were gearing up for our tree, and they all said the same thing: “Oh, I always wanted to trim a tree. It looks like so much fun.” And so I decided to start a new tradition: My Jews-only tree trimming party. I invited about a dozen friends, all frequent Shabbos dinner guests. (Rich was allowed one gentile guest, as if it were a birthday party for one of his younger brothers.) They were all thrilled to come, except one who explained he had no problem with a tree but didn’t like the idea of Jews feeling they missed out on something.
I plotted and planned my party. Rich was in charge of the drinks – eggnog, coffee, mulled cider and holiday beer — and I would take care of the cookies. I made whole wheat chocolate chip cookies, pumpkin whoopee pies, peanut brittle, popcorn, and some ginger snaps. I was going to make a macaroon from a recipe I found in last month’s Food and Wine, but when I ran the recipe by my classmate Joyce who is a professional baker, she shook her head. “Not enough egg whites to make a decent macaroon. They are going to be like lead.” I ended up making Molly’s macaroons – which translates to a great Pesach recipe, by the way – and Joyce gave me this recipe for fudgy cookies to use up the can of sweetened condensed milk I had purchased. (Side Note: If you’re as worried as I am about BPA, you can make your own sweetened condensed milk from scratch.) Because these cookies were so fudgy I left the ganache off the macaroons.
Our guests started trickling in after 8 last Saturday night. The table was covered in cookies. As our friend Sarah put it when she walked into the dining room: “This is the platonic ideal of what a tree trimming is supposed to be.” I smiled, happy to know I had achieved what I set out to do. Friends brought their own ornaments: Some had made their own. One friend brought a fancy glass ornament of Yoda holding a light saber. One friend brought me an ornament with a striking likeness to our cat. There was a Barack Obama ornament — “soon to be a collector’s item” Rich quipped.
One friend brought his new girlfriend who joked she thought she was going to a melavah malka – a special gathering on Saturday nights to escort the Shabbos Queen on her way out, which usually involves singing, dancing and tasty bites. We drank eggnog, and strung popcorn and cranberries. By the time everyone left, the most perfect Christmas tree that ever was stood in our dining room. Each ornament was perfectly placed, every rope of popcorn and cranberries was evenly hung.
I actually halved this recipe and had great success with it.
24 oz. bittersweet chocolate
4 oz. butter
2 – 14oz. cans of sweetened condensed milk
2 tsp. vanilla (optional- could use mint or orange for the holidays)
2 cups flour
1 pound of nuts, chopped (optional as well).
Fill a saucepan halfway with water and bring to a simmer. Place a metal bowl on top, making sure the bowl does not touch the water, to create a double boiler. Melt the butter and chocolate and remove from heat. Stir in milk and flavoring, then flour and nuts. Using a small scoop, drop onto a parchment-lined baking sheet. Bake at 350F for 7-8 minutes.
Cookies will not look done, but take them out any way. Let cool before removing from sheet. They should be like a ball of fudge when you bite them.You can freeze these cookies for up to 3-4 months with good results, otherwise keep in air tight container.