Christmas memories and recipes | The Harvard Press | Features | Feature Articles – Harvard Press


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This was just after Christmas, 1953. We lived on a few acres in southeast Kansas outside of Fort Scott (population 8,500 or so). Though both my parents’ families were farmers, my dad had a white-collar job in the regional insurance company. We weren’t poor, but we lived carefully. We pasteurized milk from our Jersey cow and slaughtered a calf every year or so; I fed the chickens and livestock, gathered eggs, and fished in the pond. We raised a lot of vegetables and canned them; one summer we had so many tomatoes that we sold them to the grocery store in town for 25 cents a pound. At Christmas we cut a cedar tree from the pasture and decorated it with paper chains, popcorn strings, iced cookies, a few ornaments, and tinsel (!) icicles. Our presents were typically a couple of toys, some candy, and something homemade, usually pajamas. My mother wrapped everything, even the smallest item, so it seemed as if we got lots of gifts.

My brother and I went to Bunker Hill, a country school on a gravel road 3 miles from home, since tuition in town for out-of-district students was $50. Bunker Hill had two rooms for eight grades; the bus was a panel truck. It also had a basketball hoop, a long springy seesaw, two big chain swings, two outhouses, and a concrete tornado shelter.

There were three girls and two boys in fourth grade. My friend Marilyn was slender, quiet, meticulous, and smart. Her blouses and skirts were faded but always sharply ironed. She wore two hair clips pinning back her straight bobbed brown hair and nibbled at a lone peanut butter sandwich (every day) held in her long, delicate fingers. We were just back at school after Christmas and talking about our vacations. “What did you get for Christmas?” I asked. “An orange, some hair clips, and two new pencils,” she said and returned the question to me. “Not that much,” I fibbed, and described one of what suddenly seemed like a wealth of presents.

Kathy Hewett

Elm Street

When our daughters were young, we spent Christmas in my wife’s small home town in Kansas; I grew up in an apartment in Manhattan. She has about 20 first cousins on each side, most of them with spouses and kids, so it was a very busy time. One Christmas Eve, when the girls were 5 and 2, we sat in the living room of the house where Kathy grew up, the four of us and Kathy’s father and sister, as Kathy read the Christmas story. A fire flickered; the girls were calm and engaged; our stockings were tacked to the mantle with care. After the birth in the manger from the Gospel of Luke, Kathy read the story of the wise men from the Gospel of Matthew. They said: “Where is he that is born King of the Jews? For we have seen his star in the east, and are come to worship him.” As she continued, I saw that our older daughter was crying softly.

“Sweetie, what’s the matter?” I asked.

“I know Dad is Jewish and Mom is Christian, and I know Jesus is God for the Christians, so I don’t understand how Jesus could be king of the Jews.” We briefly explained the Jewish Messianic tradition and how Jews who thought Jesus was the promised Messiah became the first Christians.

She was satisfied and our sweet ecumenical Christmas Eve went on. Soon we put the girls to bed.

Christmas day we went to lunch with 30 or 40 Hewetts, from toddlers to octogenarians. That evening, we had early dinner with 40 or 50 people on the other side of Kathy’s family, again from toddlers to octogenarians.

Billy Salter

Elm Street

I received the best Christmas present I ever got, a Flexible Flyer sled, a few days before the actual day, because my father was wise enough to know that it’s wonderful to get a gift when you can really use it, and he suspected that the snow might not last until Christmas Day.

Sledding down (what seemed then) that huge hill across from my house was inexpressibly fun and so fast that I felt completely free. I was amazed at how well I could guide it and maneuver that last bump at the bottom of the hill and maybe go a little bit farther than before. It was so joyous to be one of a pack of kids feeling the same way.

I even took it to college. There was a big hill near my dorm. One night a boy from one of my classes asked if he could use it to go sledding with his frat brothers. But when he didn’t bring it back, I had to confront him and ask for it back. He said he couldn’t give it back, because they had wrecked it.

That was the second time the sled was a gift because I realized then that it was time to grow up, and that the pack of kids had changed.

Margaret Kusner

South Shaker Road

When we first moved to Harvard, the police had a nice custom of driving Santa around town to make home visits on Christmas Eve. Families could sign up in advance and count on a visit in the early evening before bedtimes.

In those days our family’s tradition was to spend Christmas Eve at a friend’s home across town. We were in the habit of arming our trusty Jasonics alarm whenever we left the house, and normally we would turn off the alarm’s motion detector because our lively cat could set it off. One snowy Christmas Eve, however, the cat was at the kennel since we were about to travel the next day, so we didn’t bother to turn off the detector when we left to go to our friend’s home. Little did we know that the air movement in the house would cause the ornaments on our Christmas tree to move, setting off the motion detector, triggering the alarm. We were, of course, unaware since we were with our friends.

We learned later that Harvard’s finest came roaring up our very steep driveway, and they just happened to have Santa in the cruiser with his list of addresses, ready for home visits. After confirming that there had been no intruder, they headed back down the hill, which that afternoon had accumulated ice and snow. The cruiser proceeded to skid off the driveway into a snowbank and couldn’t get out, and Santa had to wait for a tow truck to take him to the police station, where a different cruiser took him on his rounds.

The kids who were waiting for Santa that evening are now adults and are probably still grumbling about Santa’s late arrival that Christmas Eve.

Sue Robbins

Mass. Ave.

When my son was a toddler, he really didn’t love the idea of Christmas trees. It wasn’t the tree he opposed, it was the fact that it had to be cut down. I remember heading out for a tree one year and him innocently asking, “Oh, so you’re going to kill it?” (We bought a very expensive tree with a root ball that year, which is now a 30-foot tree on our property line.)

About the same time, we started a tradition of stringing lights on a “live” hemlock in our front yard. It was connected to a light switch well on the other side of the house. Every night before bed, one of us would bring our son over to the window to wave goodnight to the “magic Christmas tree” while the other parent stealthily turned off the switch in the other room. To this day I can hear his sweet 3-year-old voice saying, “Night, night, tree!” before he headed off to bed.

Lisa Aciukewicz

Depot Road

The Christmas I was 6, I woke up while it was still dark outside. I looked at my wind-up alarm clock and saw it said five minutes after 6 o’clock. Not too early to get up! And I could see lots of lights on at the Calhouns’ house across the street. Clearly other families were already awake. Time for Christmas to begin!

I trotted downstairs to the Christmas tree. Yes—Santa had been there! In our house, Santa did not wrap the presents he left by the fireplace, and I was allowed to play with them before my parents got up. So I set about inspecting my gifts.

Santa had given me a large baby doll that squawked “Mama!” when it was turned over. I hurried back upstairs to show my parents this amazing new toy. “Mama! Mama! Mama!” it blurted loudly as I scrambled onto their bed.

“Go back to bed,” my father mumbled and put his head under the pillow.

“But it’s after 6 o’clock,” I objected.

“No,” my mother said. “It’s only 1: 30—it’s the middle of the night.”

Oops—that pesky problem with the big hand and the little hand again. “But the Calhouns are already up,” I said hopefully.

“No,” my mother said again. “They’re having a big party, so they just haven’t gone to bed yet.”

Something here wasn’t making sense. “That can’t be,” I argued. “Santa has already been here, and he doesn’t come till everyone is asleep.”

Some well-known facts about Santa did not seem to be matching up with the current situation. Could it be that he circled the neighborhood, making several passes depending on the bedtimes at different households? Well then, how did he ever get all the way around the world, with irresponsible people like the Calhouns slowing him down? The whole Santa thing seemed to be unraveling.

“Go back to bed,” my father said more emphatically.

I stopped arguing and headed for my own bed. I wasn’t as sure about Santa as before, but I had a strong sense of where my self-interest lay. And the following year, when I was 7 and Santa came again, I knew I’d made the right choice. It pays to believe.

Marty Green

Old Littleton Road

The recipe for these cookies comes from Jennifer House, a compound of stores in Great Barrington that also did business as a catalog retailer. Back in the late ’80s, Jennifer House was a lovely, non-mall shopping and lunch destination, with a beautiful view to the Berkshires. My sister was surprised and happy when she asked for the recipe and it was given to her on the spot. It’s a nice big recipe, so note that the cookies keep for more than a week in a tin and freeze beautifully.

Preheat the oven to 350 F and use ungreased cookie sheets. The baking time is keyed to single-layer aluminum sheets; add a few minutes baking time for insulated sheets, and avoid using black pans.


  • 4 sticks (1 lb.) unsalted butter
  • 3 cups sugar
  • 1 cup molasses (NOT blackstrap)

Beat in:

  • 3 extra-large or jumbo eggs
  • Sift or whisk together the following ingredients and add to creamed mixture:
  • 8 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1½ tablespoons baking soda
  • 1½ tablespoons ginger
  • 1 tablespoon ground cloves
  • 1 tablespoon cinnamon

If possible, chill the dough for a few hours or overnight. Form the dough into balls about the size of a walnut and roll each ball in sugar. Drop the cookies 2 inches apart on the ungreased sheet. Bake for 10 to 13 minutes.

Valerie Hurley

Candleberry Lane

Christmas brings back fond memories. Why, I wonder? Why is Christmas so special, even after so many years?

It’s midnight in Flanders and I’m sitting in the church with my family. We are close to the Nativity, and the choir is singing the songs sung only during these holy days. The story of Jesus born in a stable is a joyous story, one that I don’t dread like the one we will have to listen to in a couple of months.

I’ll go to bed after walking home in the cold night and wake up a couple of hours later looking forward to family visits, cookies, and hot chocolate.

My three siblings and I didn’t get any presents, we didn’t even know that there was a Santa Claus. But we knew all about Sinterklaas, who had visited us children on Dec. 6. If we had been good, we got a lot of toys. Waking up on that day was always earlier than usual, full of excited anticipation. We came down the stairs, opened the door to the living room, and there was an abundance of chocolate, mandarins, and toys. Sinterklaas’ helper, who came down the chimney, didn’t bother with wrapping paper, but he took special care to showcase our gifts. If Dec. 6 was on a school day, tough luck, we had to go to school, but we couldn’t wait until 4 o’clock to return home so we could play.

Sinterklaas never went as far as Germany, but my grandfather knew about the Weihnachtsmann, and he had told him about our arrival for the holidays. And lo and behold, that Weihnachtsmann had left presents for us under the tree. Opa lived far north of us and there it was usually an idyllic Christmas—everything covered in a white carpet and ice on the ponds.

Meetje and uncle Henri at the Belgium Nord Sea had a huge Christmas tree, decorated with real candles. It was like a fairytale—until the tree caught fire. We had to get out of the room as quickly as possible. The house didn’t burn down, so all was well, but the tree didn’t look as festive anymore after its bath. Poor tree, but a memory nonetheless!

Marijke Vallaeys-Oplinus

South Shaker Road

Like so many other things, my family’s 40-plus years’ tradition of having a new Christmas theme every year and hanging the appropriate decoration on the barn was a bit off this year. First, we always pick the new theme the day after Christmas, but we never talked about it last Dec. 26—or for the rest of that month, or the next. As the calendar turned to November, once in a while someone would ask, “What’s the theme this year?” I just stuck my head back in the sand.

The week before Thanksgiving, my older daughter called and said, “I have an idea for the theme, but it’s up to you.” I liked her suggestion, even though it was a bit of a stretch—like snowflakes, penguins, and cardinals had been. But we have long since used every item traditionally connected with Christmas and even anticipated the popularity of new ones, like tree-in-a-red-truck and gnomes.

Although I get the final say on the idea, the construction of the theme decoration on the barn is largely in the hands of my son, Don. Again there was a break in tradition when my younger daughter, who usually sketches out the idea, was away. Then Don couldn’t get the usual wood, and the lights were a problem. We missed the traditional Sunday-after-Thanksgiving, all-hands-on-the-ladder effort to raise the decoration on the side of the barn. During the next two weeks I could hear the electric saw under the barn on several evenings, but nothing appeared.

Finally, on the evening of Dec. 12, it was time for the ritual drive-by. As always, we circled up Old Boston Turnpike and started slowly down Oak Hill toward our house at the bottom. The dialogue followed tradition.

“What is it? What have they done this year?”

“I can’t tell yet. Can you see?”

“I see the lights, but I can’t figure it out.”

“It’s a . . . a . . . “

“A pair of tennis rackets!” I shout to tease Don, even though it looks just like what it is. Despite the bumps, it has all come together once again.

Carlene Phillips

Oak Hill Road

When it comes to holiday entertaining, I prioritize ease and efficiency. Between shopping, decorating, and wrapping gifts, there’s no time to fiddle with complicated food and drink recipes. In that spirit—pun intended—here is a simple, yet effective, large-batch cocktail that will leave your guests feeling merry and bright and your kitchen smelling like the holiday season. This is more a set of guidelines than a prescribed recipe— take inspiration from whatever you already have in your house and, of course, do ample taste-testing!


  • 1 bottle dry red wine (Have a bottle that’s been languishing in the cupboard? Now is its time to shine. Don’t spend big bucks here, since you’ll be mixing the wine with other ingredients.)
  • 1 cup apple cider (Carlson’s, naturally)
  • 2 oranges (one whole and the juice of the second)
  • Juice of half a lemon
  • 1 cup spiced rum (Cointreau or brandy are also great choices)
  • ¼ cup honey (or maple syrup or sugar)
  • 2 to 5 cinnamon sticks
  • 2 to 5 whole star anise
  • 5 to 10 cardamom pods
  • 1 inch of ginger root, sliced
  • Handful of whole cloves
  • Mulling spice blends always work well here too; adjust to taste.


  • Press whole cloves into the skin of the reserved orange. Combine all ingredients in a stovetop pot. Simmer until warm, about 20 minutes. Do not allow the pot to boil or all the alcohol will boil off! (That is, unless you want a booze-free beverage.) Using a crockpot is a good alternative.
  • Pour through a fine-mesh strainer into mugs and garnish with fresh cranberries and an orange slice for some extra fruitiness, or a cinnamon stick and star anise for additional spice.
  • Enjoy with friends and family.

Helen Kilian

Cambridge, Massachusetts

We started making this warm artichoke dip during the pandemic. Turns out it’s like a hug in a bowl. Who doesn’t need that right now? I know I do. There is passive time to allow for soaking cashews and cooking in the oven; otherwise it comes together very quickly. I’ve tried many versions of vegan artichoke dip and this one is not only my favorite in both flavor and texture, it also has the most whole food ingredients (rather than vegan mayonnaise or commercial nondairy cheese).

If you have not used nutritional yeast before, note that it is not bread-making yeast. It is flaky and flavorful and can be found everywhere from Trader Joe’s to Market Basket (keep it around to sprinkle on popcorn—you’ll thank me later). The recipe is from “The Superfun Times Vegan Holiday Cookbook” by Isa Chandra Moskowitz.


  • ¼ cup bread crumbs (I use Ian’s gluten-free panko bread crumbs)
  • 2 teaspoons olive oil
  • 2 garlic cloves, peeled
  • 1 cup vegetable broth
  • ½ cup raw cashews, soaked in water for at least 2 hours and drained
  • 1 (15-ounce) can navy or cannellini beans, rinsed and drained, or 1½ cups cooked beans
  • 3 tablespoons nutritional yeast flakes
  • 1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
  • 1 (10-ounce) jar or can of artichokes, drained and roughly chopped
  • Handful or two of roughly chopped baby spinach (optional)
  • ½ cup finely chopped fresh chives (I use green onions)
  • ¼ teaspoon salt
  • Crusty bread, crackers, chips for serving


  • Preheat the oven to 350 F. Lightly grease a 6-inch round casserole dish. I use a small rectangular pan that fits in the toaster oven.
  • In a small bowl, mix the bread crumbs and olive oil and set aside.
  • In a blender, pulse the garlic gloves to chop them up a bit. Add the vegetable broth and cashews. Pureé until completely smooth; this can take up to 5 minutes depending on the strength of your machine. Periodically stop the machine to keep it from overheating, and scrape down the sides of the blender jar with a rubber spatula. Add the beans, yeast, and lemon juice and blend again until smooth.
  • Transfer the mixture to a medium mixing bowl, stir in the artichokes, spinach, chives or green onions, and season with the salt. Transfer the mixture to the prepared baking dish and sprinkle with the bread crumb mixture.
  • Bake for 40 minutes. The dip should be browned and bubbly. If the breadcrumbs have not browned sufficiently, you can broil it briefly, but be sure to keep a close eye on it and check every 30 seconds or so. Serve warm.

Jen Manell

Stow Road

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