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3 min

Giving presence

Sharing experiences, collecting memories

MAGICAL FRUITCAKE. Writer John Webster recommends making holiday memories by spending time with the people you love engaged in festive frivolity.

“Oh my, it’s fruitcake weather,” exclaims Sook, the aging eccentric cousin of seven-year-old Buddy in Truman Capote’s autobiographical short story A Christmas Memory. In the story it’s a tradition for the two kindred spirits, along with their dog Queenie, to bake 30 fruitcakes in late November for people “who struck our fancy.” It’s beautifully written and somewhat twee but I read it every year during the holiday season and the ending still gets me weepy. (Read it for yourself here.)

I love how Christmas is an experience for these two characters. It’s not about running around in a frenzy buying crap for people. There’s no stress here. The holidays are not a commercial venture (they’re broke, so it can’t be). The only running around they do is gathering the ingredients for baking. They love one another, make their presents and mail their home-baked fruitcakes. Save for having to eat the rotten fruitcake, that sounds like a lovely holiday to me.

I don’t know why, but this year I am leaving the Christmas gift-buying headache behind me. I’m done with it. Does the gift of, say, a coffee maker or some Urban Outfitters kitsch item really prove my love? (Mind you, getting the Big Jim sports camper when I was eight was pretty close.)

Instead this Christmas will be about spending time with the people I love. This year my family Christmas dinner is at my home, a one-bedroom apartment near Trinity-Bellwoods. My parents are flying in from Manitoba and I’m hoping a few friends will be able to join in.

This year I’ll joyfully stroll Kensington and Chinatown, buy fresh ingredients at my favourite shops and drool at the Cheese Magic hotties. I’ll buy my fresh spices, nuts and chocolate for baking cookies and cupcakes for my friends. I’ll sit at home scouring all my cookbooks for new cool recipes that I will spring on my guests this year. I may even throw a few cocktail parties. I’ve got a homemade orange coffee liquor aging in a jam jar. I may have to make another.

I know what you’re thinking: Why don’t you get a life there, Martha? Well, I hear you, but I’m getting older and everything seems more precious now. It’s having my amazing friends and coolest family near that gives me warm feelings that make my heart grow three sizes.

When I look back at my favourite Christmas moments they’re not about the gifts, Big Jim aside. The memorable times have been things like coming home from school to the smell of mom’s buttery shortbread or the delicious pre-trans fat dinners at my aunt and uncle’s farm. Snowmobile rides and the toboggan races with my sisters. Listening to Bing Crosby sing “White Christmas.” My solo with the Frontenac Elementary School third grade choir in front of an audience of frazzled Eaton’s shoppers (“I am the cow, all white and red”). Then there was the time I was the lead Russian dancer and The King Rat (yellow paper crown with mouse ears, don’t you know) in our Grade 3 production of The Nutcracker. Gosh, Mrs Dealey really had our class working it during the holidays.

Not all of the memories are good, mind you. I remember when my cat Charlie got run over by my Uncle Mick in his Ford truck on Christmas morning and the family not telling me about it till we drove home that night (the vision of the northern lights eased the pain). Let’s just say I spent that whole Christmas Day outside on a sunny but freezing farm calling, “Charlie, Charlie!”

My more recent memories include both bio family and chosen family: Having a Christmas cocktail party with friends where we all ended up on my bed, trashed on Crantinis and giddily watching Pee-Wee’s Playhouse Christmas Special. A truly amazing moment. Or, last year, baking shortbread with my mom in the kitchen, as my dad fiddled with my Mac in the next room. It was a lovely thing; one of those family moments where the connection is solid and pure. My mom has a way with shortbread. She rolls it so perfectly, flours the counter just so and her cookies never stick when she picks them up to place them on the sheet for baking. We both had the idea of making mini bells, candy canes and tree shapes out of her Linzer cookie cutter shapes. This got us both very excited. Holiday baking with mom? It just doesn’t get better than that.

This year I’m aiming to create even more Christmas memories that will join all of the other cherished ones. That to me is what the holidays should be about.