“Over the river and through the woods to Grandmother’s house we go…” is the popular carol we would sing on the long snowy car trip to my Mother’s parents’ house every December 24th as a child. It was a 4-hour journey that began very early in the day. Our vehicle was packed full of perfectly wrapped gifts, assorted goodies and a lot of excitement.
We would arrive mid-afternoon, and without fail the house was meticulously decorated and Grandpa was in his bright red wool cardigan with a glass of eggnog in his hand, and Grandmama, with her green satin dress, pearls and lace apron was in the kitchen. The large maple dining room table was adorned with a lace tablecloth and a beautiful floral arrangement that my Grandpa had put together. The soup tureen was out, the table was painstakingly set with the china and silver, and there were Christmas crackers at every place setting.
For those of you who may not know, Christmas crackers are a British tradition. They are beautifully wrapped tubes that you yank on and they pop open with a “crack.”They have various items inside such as a paper crown, small toys, and usually a fortune or a riddle, among other random objects. Being of British descent, we kept our heritage alive by following British traditions as much as we could.
While my father unloaded the vehicle, my mother went immediately to the kitchen to assist Grandmama. I was left to be entertained by my grandfather whom I affectionately called “Cutie Pie.” I would always greet my grandfather with a, “Hey Cutie Pie! Whatcha doing?” This was always our greeting, even into my adulthood.
My grandfather was always excited to see me; he told everyone I was the light of his life. The first thing we would do is sprawl out on the king-sized bed and take a nap. It was so comforting to cuddle up next to him. He smelled of Old Spice, soap and old leather. When we woke up he and I would lie on the floor of the dining room and turn on the radio so that we could listen to updates from NASA as to Santa’s whereabouts. Then he would put on a record. We would listen endlessly to Gene Autrey singing “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.” Oh how Grandmama would pray for the needle to break or the record to get dented.
She and my mother would make the most amazing clam chowder and garlic bread for Christmas Eve Dinner. My mother’s garlic bread was so wonderfully delicious that it is still a much asked for recipe in our friends and family circle six years past her death. This bread has come to be known as “Vickie’s Bread,” which we will share with you also in this article.
After much pomp and circumstance, the candles were lit, the overhead lights were switched off and the family gathered around the dining room table. The Christmas lights and the glow of the candlelight made Christmas Eve dinner perfectly picturesque. We ate, we drank and we were merry. We would turn to person on the right and “crack” our Christmas cracker, wear the paper hat and read the riddle. The days of my childhood have long passed, but I have maintained the rituals of clam chowder and Christmas crackers to this day.
We are going to share with you the recipe for the clam chowder that Grandmama made so special as well as “Vickie’s Bread.” We hope that you will enjoy these recipes and also always cherish and uphold special family traditions of your own for generations to come.
Christmas Eve Clam Chowder
6 slices of bacon, diced
1 medium onion, diced
4 ribs of celery
¾ cup flour
1 fresh lemon, juiced
½ cup good chardonnay
2 cans clams with juice
2 large potatoes, par-boiled and diced
½ gallon whole milk
In a large stock pot on the stove brown diced bacon. Add onions and celery and cook until translucent. Whisk in flour and cook until flour is dissolved. Whisk in lemon juice, chardonnay, clams in juice and potatoes. Bring to a boil for 5 minutes. Reduce heat to low and whisk in milk. Bring to a simmer, but not a boil, to heat milk through. Place in tureen and serve accompanied by grated cheese and oyster crackers.
1 loaf fresh baked French bread from your favorite bakery
1/2 stick of butter, softened to spreadable consistency, but not melted
1/2 cup mayonnaise
1/4 cup Parmesan cheese
2 cloves garlic, crushed
1 bunch scallions, finely chopped
Turn on broiler. Slice bread in half lengthwise and butter each half and place on a cookie sheet. Mix remaining ingredients in a bowl and spread over each half of the bread. Place under the broiler until the topping bubbles and is slightly brown, 3-7 minutes depending on where you place your rack and how hot your broiler gets. Remember to leave the oven door ajar so you can keep a watchful eye on your bread. Remove from the oven and let stand for 2 minutes and then slice to desired sizes.
What are your family’s Christmas Eve and Christmas traditions?
Image via Noel Barnhurst