“Do you know what’s in plum pudding?” Andrea, my daughter-in-law, asked me as she read the recipe from her cell phone.
“Just a wild guess, plums?”
“Half a pound of kidney fat, and get this, you have to cure the pudding for a year before you eat it.”
“Yummy. Kidney fat is one of my favorite things.”
Andrea’s planning a Charles Dicken’s Christmas feast, but I have my doubts about a 150-year-old meal. Lots of people are going “retro” this Christmas and looking to the past for holiday inspiration. For example, I’ve read there’s been a run on live, fresh Christmas trees. Apparently, plastic trees have lost their appeal despite the fact you can shake them open like an umbrella. Another sign of Christmas retro: the 1946 movie, It’s a Wonderful Life, is currently in the top ten list of most-watched movies. As I write this, the sixth most-streamed song this week (according to Rolling Stone magazine) is Dean Martin’s 1959 hit, Let It Snow, Let It Snow, Let It Snow.
One oft-cited theory about our fascination with Christmases of the past is that we all long for a “simpler” time. Not everyone agrees with this thinking though. I knew a man once who grumbled about fireplaces and wood stoves, the old-fashioned way to heat homes at Christmas.
“Why would anyone want to chop wood when we’ve got central heating?” he asked me.
Every time I’ve watched It’s a Wonderful Life I want to live in that quaint,1940’s town of Bedford Falls where everyone knows everyone else, and predictably, there’s a good guy, George Bailey, and a bad guy, the deceitful banker, Mr. Potter. Though people and life are much more complex than that, at Christmas especially, we still look for a hero, someone as pure and good as a babe in a manger. We want to BELIEVE. We don’t want to deal with ambiguous leaders who lie worse than Mr. Potter.
Christmases of the past have a certain aura. They always seem so gilded with joy. Maybe because the ones we remember the best, are those of our childhood. My mother tells the story in the 1930’s of wishing for a doll she saw advertised on a can of Clabber Girl baking powder. With enough Clabber Girl coupons, the doll was free. Mom told me she was thrilled when she discovered the Clabber Girl doll under the Christmas tree. I remember being five-years-old and excited for Christmas. I lay on my top bunk straining to hear Santa’s sleigh bells. One of my husband’s fondest memories is the Christmas he got an erector set. Happiness is such a bright, twinkling star. We want to follow that star no matter how distant and unreachable.
Our nostalgia this Christmas probably has a lot to do with the current pandemic. We relate to Dean Martin crooning: “Oh, the weather outside is frightful…” –because with Covid, the weather’s not the only frightful thing. The pandemic has left many of us craving a safer, more comforting past. But, that’s our fantasy. Charles Dickens lived before antibiotics when a simple cold could mean death. It’s a Wonderful Life was made during WWII. And, Dean Martin was popular when Russia threatened the U.S. with nuclear attacks. Even that first Christmas was not safe. Mary and Joseph, like all Jews, lived under Roman oppression.
No matter what happens in the world, it’s good to remember that Christmas really happens inside of us, in our heart and our head. For some, it only takes a old movie or a song to get into the Christmas spirit. For others, it’s a kidney-fat pudding from the 19th century–and to the pudding crowd I say, “Bon appetit!”