There was a ritual around the Christmas tree. We would drive the hour a Saturday morning shortly after Thanksgiving to the same tree farm every year. As we drove the towns became smaller and further from each other. There was more farms and more tackle shops and far fewer strip malls. The bars looked friendlier than the adult-only ones my parents visited and advertised Coors on tap.
Once we got to the farm a worker in a bright orange vest would greet us, and offer a saw to borrow. Dad always brought his own, so instead the worker would tell us where we could and could not cut. Then we would drive our minivan, since we always seemed to have a minivan no matter if the memory is from age 5 or age 15, deep into the trees.
There was a wonderful variety of trees available. There were three foot trees for the couple just starting out. There were twenty foot trees for the family who had everything. Evergreens, as far as the eye could see. It reminded me of the historical novels I loved to read, about girls a hundred years ago walking in winter forests.
Dad was the one who chopped the tree but Mom was the one who decided. She had specific criteria. She didn’t want it to be too tall, because she didn’t want to pay for a height we’d have to cut off at home. Round needles, because they shed less than flat needles. It had to be full, although she also had a deep love for the Charlie Brown trees. And it had to have a true point, so we could top it with the angel. It took forever.
And then after we found one, we had to pose for a Christmas picture.
When Dad finally cut the tree he would remove one glove, and hold the tree in his ungloved hand while furiously sawing with the other. Mom’s job was to tilt the tree in the ever-changing direction Dad indicated. Our job as kids was to stay out of the way. We were not very good at this job.
After we had loaded the tree onto our car, and then had it bailed and paid for and trussed on top, we stopped for lunch at The Polka Dot Diner, which was filled with 1950s kitsch. The women’s bathroom was filled with pictures of Elvis smoldering at the inhabitants. It made me feel uncomfortable. I tried to avoid using the bathroom when I could. But I still loved it there, with the grilled cheese and hot chocolate I always ordered that tasted so much better than at home.
Back at home Dad always had to cut down the tree, and Mom followed the progression of the tree into the house with the vacuum cleaner. Then The Music of a Victorian Christmas CD was put on, and Mom pulled out the ornaments from storage, and I helped Dad tighten the Christmas tree into the base. The handmade ornaments always went up first- Abby’s angel made from a spoon, my triangular 1st grade picture frame, Mitch’s handprint Rudolph. Then the gift ornaments, then the baubles, then the 1970s Christmas light. The angel was always last. By now the music had switched to Nat King Cole and Dad was building a fire. We had popcorn and hot chocolate as we put up the nativity and the nutcrackers and stockings.
There were other Christmas rituals. Moving the wise men closer to the manger every day and lighting Advent candles. Chinese food and a Christmas Story on Christmas Eve, followed by midnight Mass. Cinnamon rolls, always from Cinnabon, for breakfast on Christmas morning while Mom and Dad took their coffee with Bailey’s. We’d open gifts in the morning and linger in our pajamas until it came time to shower and visit family.
The sad and beautiful thing about rituals is that they evolve. My parents no longer go out and hunt for a tree every year, having switched to plastic three years ago. There’s no more scent of pine perfuming the house and no more quite-possibly-toxic 1970s Christmas lights. The Cinnabon closest to my parents closed and they serve strata for breakfast instead. And the Polka Dot Diner closed, replaced with a space themed restaurant serving the exact same menu.
But when I go back to my parents I know there will still be fires, and Nat King Cole, and ornaments made from our elementary school pictures. I’ll likely make these cinnamon rolls for Christmas breakfast and my parents and Aaron will drink their coffee with Bailey’s.
But for the next week we’re making our own traditions. And this year that involves Hipster Holidays on Pandora, collecting ornaments for our non-existent tree, and eggnog french toast.
Eggnog french toast is the perfect breakfast when you want something celebratory but not too decadent or sweet. It feels special- thick slices of bread are soaked in eggnog and eggs, then fried so they’re crispy on the outside and custardy on the inside. I added vanilla to my batter, but if you want to move into the truly decadent category you could add whisky, brandy, or rum. It’s sweet, but not tooth-aching. It suggest holidays and celebration, but doesn’t demand it. It would be perfect for a lazy, weekend brunch, or a breakfast with friends. And it’s simple, although you’d ever know it- perfect for slowing down during a whirlwind Christmas season.
Eggnog French Toast
inspired by Burg’s French Toast from A Homemade Life by Molly Wizenburg
In order to get the crispy on the outside, soft on the inside, make sure to use a loaf of bread that’s got a bit of crust, but isn’t too dense. I used a batard that I got from my local grocery store, but you could even use one of those thick breads labeled as “Italian bread” that hangs out near the produce department. Additionally, make sure you fry the bread in enough oil. If there’s too little oil, you won’t get the nice sear on your bread.
12 slices (total weighing about a pound) of thick cut white bread
1 1/2 cups eggnog
1/2 cup milk
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
enough canola oil to cover the pan
In a shallow pan, such as a cake pan, whisk together the eggnog, milk, eggs, and vanilla until well combined. Place the bread slices in the egg mixture. The longer the bread soaks, the more custard-y the texture and eggnog-y the taste will be. I recommend soaking for 5-10 minutes and turning the bread once.
Place a large pan over medium heat and cover the bottom with canola oil.
Add the bread to the pan and let sit until golden brown, about three minutes. Turn the bread and let the other side cook, another two minutes or so. Repeat with remaining bread.
Serve with butter and maple syrup.