Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Christmas Traditions - Chapter 12 begins

Do you ever wonder how and when your family's Christmas traditions began?  Many come from an ethnic origin, or even a religious belief, but some come simply from a special memory, cherished from one generation to the next.

One such tradition in my family was the baking of Anise Cookies a day or two before Christmas.  The recipe hailed from my Grandmother on my Dad's side, but it is said that she got the recipe from her husband's side of the family, and the making of these hard little cookies hailed all the way from Switzerland with my grandparents ancestors.

I only have to smell these cookies baking, and I am transported back to my own childhood.  The tree is up, the lights are lit, there are no presents under the tree for Christmas has not arrived yet.  My Mom is in the kitchen doing the last of her Christmas baking, and probably trying to decide where to hide this last bunch so it survives until Christmas.  You see these cookies are the family favorites, and whether you like the taste of Anise or not, you just can't help popping one of these hard round cookies into your mouth, sliding it into your cheek and letting it sit there until it melts.  

When I married I continued the tradition of making these cookies, and if I happen to skip a year once in awhile, it is frowned upon by my family.  When I talk to my brothers, most who live far away, they always ask if I made Anise cookies for a Christmas treat.

I thought I'd share this family recipe with you.  If you are not familiar with Anise, it tastes like licorice, and believe me, when it is in the oven baking, your whole house smells wonderful.  So if you would like to try a Swiss tradition this Christmas, give these little cookies a try... kids love them.. enjoy!

Anise Cookies
"Mom Fischer's recipe"

4 cups flour
4 cups powdered sugar (icing sugar)
4 eggs
4 drops Anise oil (or) 4 teaspoons Anise seed.

Separate eggs.  beat yolks and add sugar, beat well adding sugar gradually.

beating continuously add flour and egg whites.

knead batter and roll out in long thin log-style strips on wax paper. Cookies should be a little larger than a quarter when sliced raw..

Place rolled strips in freezer and freeze overnight.

remove from freezer and slice about 1/4 inch thick and place on ungreased cookie sheet.

bake in moderate oven (350) until tops are gently brown.

(I use Anise oil, when I can get it or Anise extract.  It is becoming difficult to find here, but you can usually find it in a cooking speciality store.  If you use the extract, which is more commonly found, I would use up to a teaspoon in this recipe)

Chapter 12 begins...

Karl was gone the next morning when Emilie went down to the kitchen to prepare breakfast for the family.  His bedroom door stood ajar, his unmade bed and tangled sheets a testament to an obvious restless night.  Emilie wandered into the living room and noted that his heavy sheepskin coat was missing from the peg where it usually hung by the door.  
Her night had also seemed endless and she had barely slept at all.  She had tossed and turned for most of the night, her mind filled with thoughts of her family back home in Germany, and of her new family here.  She had mulled her thoughts over and over in her mind and she still was no closer to a decision about what to do with her future.  Try as she might, she could not erase Karl’s plea for her to stay from her mind.  She was confused about her feelings for Karl; she liked him, and now that she had gotten to know him better, she felt that she finally understood him.  He was a good man, a good father, and she had no doubt that he had been a good husband to his wife.  Since his return from the mountains he seemed so much more relaxed and tolerant, and she had not missed his warm glances directed her way from time to time.  She felt herself responding to those moments when their glances seemed to catch and hold even if only for a few seconds, and she wondered at times if there would ever be more to their relationship than there was now.
She knew that he relied on her for the care of his children, and now, also for the care of the Bell children, but now he seemed to want to share decisions that affected the well being of the entire family with her.  They worked together as a team in everything concerning the children; they thought alike, and at times they seemed to know just what the other was thinking.  She was becoming closer to him and his family every day, and it hurt her unbearably to have to think about the possibly of leaving them behind.  She knew for everyone’s sake that she could not put off her decision for too long, but even so, she was extremely glad that she did not have to face Karl right away this morning.     
George was stoking the fire when she walked into the kitchen, and as he straightened from the wood bin, his warm smile brightened her otherwise gloomy thoughts.
“Guten Morgen, Emilie,” he said as he bent over the kitchen sink to wash up.  
“Guten Morgen, George,” she answered his greeting with a smile as she acknowledged his use of the German language.  George was overly diligent about his appearance these days, and Emilie knew that her presence had a lot to do with his recent fixation.
“Karl said to tell you he had to go to town this morning.  He will be back sometime before nightfall,” George put the final touches to his already well-slicked hair and turned to face her.  “He said to also tell you he was taking ten pounds of butter in to the Mercantile.”
Emilie nodded and prepared her heavy cast-iron frying pans for cooking their breakfast.  “I guess we will have to go ahead and decorate the tree without him, then.  It’s Christmas Eve and the children will want to decorate the tree as soon as breakfast is over,” Emilie told him, as she sliced large slabs of bacon, and dropped them into one of the hot frying pans.
  “We’ll manage all right,” George insisted as he reached for a stack of miss-matched plates and began to set the table.  
Emilie knew they would manage, but Raymond and Anne-Marie would miss their father’s presence.  Christmas had become a very important event to the young children over the last few weeks, and Emilie knew that for Karl’s children this happy time of the year was a new beginning.
One by one the children emerged and congregated around the table.  Sue immediately went to work washing faces and hands while George continued to help Emilie place the hot breakfast on the table.  The kitchen became crowded and noisy and with all the commotion around her she smiled and realized that she had never been happier than she was at this particular moment.
She had to make a decision about going home to Germany, and she had to do it soon, but she didn’t have to do it today.  Today was for the children – no, today was for all of them.  She would do everything in her power to make this a Christmas Eve that they would never forget; so she served her usual large breakfast of potatoes and bacon and eggs, with just as much excitement and enthusiasm in her voice as the children’s.  She plunked herself down at the table to join them for breakfast and the day began in earnest.
First on the agenda for the day was the completion of the children’s daily chores.  Everyone had their own job to do, and Emilie made it very clear that all the chores would have to be completed before the decorating began.  The children eager to get to the decorating, quickly and quietly went about their chores and only when the chores were done and the kitchen was cleaned, did the decorations make an appearance on the kitchen table.  Each child located their own creations and made their way into the living room where the large balsam tree stood waiting in the corner of the room.
They took turns placing their decorations on the tree, and with the addition of each individual ornament a collective sigh swept through the room.   They worked tirelessly until the tree was completely filled, and then they all gathered before it in a semi-circle to wonder at its perfect beauty.
“It’s the prettiest tree I have ever seen,” Raymond breathed reverently.  His eyes shone with excitement as he gazed at the pretty tree, and without conscious thought he rushed to Emilie’s side and wrapped his scrawny little arms tightly around her legs, almost toppling her with his force.  
“Raymond, be careful Lieben,” Emilie chuckled as one by one the other children followed suit.  In seconds she was completely surrounded with the arms and legs of all the children and her delighted laughter became as loud as theirs by the time they fell to the floor in a huddled heap of human flesh.
“Oh you children,” Emilie giggled and picked herself up off the floor.  “You are too much for me!”
“Did you hear that?”  Raymond’s voice rose above the others,  “She forgot to say Kinder this time!”
“Well I should learn your English words too, don’t you think?”  Emilie teased lightly and helped the children off the floor one by one.  “We still have a lot of decorating to do, but first I think we need a break.  Who’s in favor of cookies and hot chocolate?”  
“We are, we are!” the children all yelled at once and in a rush of wiggling bundles of energy ran excitedly to the table and hurriedly took their seats.   
“Emilie, are we going to hang stockings for Santa Claus?”  Richard asked as his small jaw worked around the biggest cookie he could find.
“Nah – I think we should set out shoes for the Der Wein- guy”  Raymond insisted before he took a steady gulp of his chocolate drink.
Emilie noticed a lively discussion forming as the other children tried to swallow quickly around the food in their mouths.  “I don’t know.  What do the rest of you children think we should do?”  she put the question back to the group.
“Didn’t you say that Der Weinachtsmann came on December sixth?”  Charles Jr. asked, and Emilie was not surprised that he not only remembered the correct name for the Christmas Saint, but also the details of his coming.  Although the child struggled with his school work he could recall stories almost word for word as they were told.  Emilie thought Charles Jr. was exceptionally bright and attentive, even if his teacher did not agree.
“I did say that, Charles.”
“Well it’s December twenty-fourth already - kinda late for him to come now, isn’t it?”
She smiled at his logic.  “I guess you could say so, what do the rest of you think?”
“Too late I guess,”  muttered Raymond under his breath,  “But I wanted to see if he’d leave sticks in my shoes!”
The children all laughed at his silliness, but Emilie knew they wondered about the Christmas Saint just as much as Raymond did.
“And he might not know where Canada is either,”  Sue piped in, not to be outdone by the males in the room.
“Well I guess then, stockings it is,”  Emilie announced and then a frown replaced her smile.  “But you know - the stockings must be clean and without holes.  How would your Santa Claus feel if the stockings he was to fill were soiled?”
“Good thing Fred’s not hanging his stocking near ours this year,”  George announced cheerfully,  “He has the stinkiest feet of anyone I know!”  he crowed about the brother next to him in age, who now lived with the Barnes’.  “Santa would get one whiff of them and then none of us would get presents!”
“Can we get our stockings now?”  Raymond wiggled on his chair impatiently.
“Off you go then– but remember – not dirt and no holes!”  she smiled as she watched them tear out of the room in pursuit of the perfect Christmas stocking.
The first one back was Raymond, who proudly held a large stocking in his small hands.  “I got me one, Emilie,”  he held it up for her inspection,  “How’s this?” 
“Raymond that’s not your stocking,”  she scolded gently and her eyes took in the large foot of the garment.  “Where did you get that stocking?”
“In Dada’s drawer.”
“Well you go put it back in his drawer, and go upstairs and get one of your own.”  
“But this one’s bigger than mine are, I’ll get more stuff if I have a bigger stocking!”
“No you won’t, Raymond.  Santa will know that you have cheated and he will give your presents to the children who were honest and did not try to pull a fast one on him!”  Emilie stood hands firmly fixed on her hips, her displeasure evident by the deep frown on her face.
He shrugged, defeated and chastised, and slowly made his way back into his father’s bedroom to return the stocking where he had found it
The children returned to the living room with their odd assortment of sizes and shaped stockings and one by one they nailed the stockings to the wooden mantel of the fireplace, starting with the youngest child and continuing to the oldest.  George rolled his eyes at the motley display of hose that adorned the fireplace, but Emilie noticed that even though he probably no longer believed in the legend of Santa Claus, he too produced a stocking and hung it at its rightful place at the far end of the row.
They decorated the front door with a spray of dried asparagus branches that Emilie had found tucked away in the barn.  The berries of the bush had dried right on the twigs, giving the branches a festive look.  Red ribbon tied around the stems finished the spray off just beautifully.
Sue tied a bright red bow on the post of each kitchen chair, and a long red ribbon draped the tops of the cupboards like festive streamers.  Along with the pine scent from the tree; the scent of fresh baking and cinnamon; and the glow of the cheery fire; the house was transformed from a simple farm dwelling to a place of Christmas dreams.
When they were done, the house became quiet, and instead of the giddiness of before, the mood became peaceful, tranquil; solemn even.  They stood crowded around the tree, arms wrapped around the person next to them, so they resembled a human chain.  In each of their hearts was a loved one who would be missed this Christmas Season.  It was the delicate filament that bound them all together; it was the golden thread that made them a family – mismatched as they were – but a family none-the-less.  
“I wish my Mamma could be here to see this,” Sue whispered softly, her eyes misty with unshed tears.
None of her siblings uttered a word, but they all nodded their heads in agreement their eyes also wet with tears.
“And Father too,” George whispered.
“And my Mamma,” said Raymond, so quietly that Emilie barely heard his words.
“And Wilhelm . . .”  Emilie added in a whisper.  She knew that no matter where she would be this time next year, she would never forget her first Christmas in this new country.  Wherever she went she would take with her the very special memories of these dear children.  They were her heart and they had become her soul, and she would never ever forget them.

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