Cookies, cakes, trains precede the holiday tree


NO, MY TREE will not be up, lighted and decorated by this Thursday. I've got another three weeks. My attitude has nothing to do with procrastination. In the household where I grew up, the Christmas tree never went up before Dec. 24. A wreath went on the door about five days before, but no sooner.

The weeks before Christmas werea time for something else.

Christian tradition brings us a season that begins today, the first of the four Sundays of Advent. Advent is the time "when the faithful are admonished to prepare themselves worthily to celebrate the anniversary of the Lord's coming into the world," says my ancient edition of the Catholic Encyclopedia. It's a period of reflection, hope and anticipation.

Advent derives its name from the Latin verb "to come to." It is one of my favorite times of the year, a short, fervently spirited interlude, when the hours of daylight grow even more precious but the stars in the sky seem to get brighter. The sun grows less powerful; and the cruelest part of the winter is still weeks away.

During my childhood, the notion of spiritual preparation was reinforced with getting-ready rituals. These began immediately after Thanksgiving -- with the clatter of sturdy tin canisters and heavy stoneware crocks being removed from the cellar.

My grandmother and her sister were accomplished bakers, and the weeks before Christmas were their busiest. They filled one container after another, resealed them with wax paper and put them away until Dec. 25, maybe Dec. 23 if my grandmother was in an expansive mood.

This baking frenzy began with another ritual -- the annual opening of the wall safe to get out the family recipe for fruit cake.

For some reason, our Guilford Avenue home had a real wall safe, set in the plaster and bricks and hidden by a picture of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. Besides the cherished recipe -- a copy of which Aunt Cora kept in her silk-stocking and kid-glove drawer -- the safe held insurance policies, the deed to the house and old report cards.

The two sisters discussed the fine points of this complicated fruit-cake recipe in the first week of December. They chuckled about some of its quaint measurements -- a gill of French brandy, for instance. They complained about the price of ingredients.

The fruit cake was always first from their baking oven, to be followed by hundreds of butter and nutmeg-rich sugar cookies. Then came the cakes, always the massive Christmas pound cake, to be followed by one each of chocolate, orange and coconut.

The sisters didn't put nearly as much work into decorating. We had a tree, red candles, a fancy tablecloth, fresh Maryland-grown holly, and a nativity set on the dining room sideboard. The star of Bethlehem was a blue electric bulb attached to one of the wall sidelights.

The more elaborate efforts at decorating began when my father and uncle retreated to their section of the cellar. From a berth behind the oil furnace they dislodged the wooden platforms for our Christmas garden, the miniature village that Baltimoreans once set up.

Like the Christmas tree that magically made its debut on the morning of Dec. 25, the Christmas garden was another surprise whose presence was suppressed until the big day.

I knew full well something was going on in the back half of the cellar, now blocked off by a big curtain. The preparation may have been clandestine, but some things couldn't be totally hidden.

After all, I had ears. Tantalizing sounds accompanied the nightly preparation. The hammering. The shrill blast of the train whistle being tested. The noise of an electric train motor running. Was it really a vacuum cleaner (as I was told) or maybe a new Lionel engine?

There were other signs, too. The scent of pine wood being sawed for the platform legs floated upstairs. All the lights in the house might blink -- or the whole house would go dark. Blame a short circuit or a blown fuse when the trains and miniature street lamps were being wired.

Then one night my Uncle Frank Bosse called at the house. He carried a big tin box full of the paint tubes he normally used for his Sunday painting expeditions. He too disappeared into the cloistered part of cellar. Soon the pungent smell of oil paint pigment floated from behind the curtain.

Only on Dec. 25 was I allowed to see Uncle Frank's lavish artistic tribute, which one and all agreed was worthy of Haussner's. He had painted a big canvas background, a bucolic world of pastures, cows, streams, lakes, distant mountains and blue sky suspended from the ceiling and hung 6 inches behind a roaring freight train, which, let me tell you, was no Electrolux.

Pub Date: 12/01/96

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