Last-minute guests. Unanticipated guests. Unanticipated messes. In my family, the holidays mean icing and flour from special baking projects everywhere, and if you’re lucky, the winter-sloppy footprints of many houseguests and visitors as well. These are days when I’m grateful for my mother’s implicit teaching that how you keep house is much less important than how you keep your home.
Vaccuuming … sweeping … dusting … how could they possibly take priority over creating the treats that defined (and still define) the holiday for us? My mother never considered cleanliness to be next to godliness. Though she never put it into words, the main homemaking lesson I learned by observation was: “If the floor’s not clean enough to eat off, don’t eat off it.”
Once she’d heated the steaming molasses syrup to hard crack and quickly stirred it into quarts and quarts of popcorn we’d popped earlier in the day, all five of us kids pressed together the molasses popcorn balls we would share with neighbors and relatives. We decorated sugar cookie cutouts with colored icing, sprinkles, and silver dragees. We watched Mom hand-dip Needhams — the traditional New England coconut candy square covered in dark chocolate, with a secret ingredient stabilizing the fondant: mashed potato.
Our Christmas tree was always the skinniest Charlie Brown tree you ever saw (she didn’t want to take up a lot of floor space, or block light from the windows, or to cull a good tree from her wood lot). The same decorations came out of the same cardboard boxes year after year, including the ones we’d made from red and green aquarium backing foil when we couldn’t afford to buy any.
Into adulthood, our families have carried those lessons. Dusting tends to get short shrift in our houses, but every child and adult is creatively engaged in making a home. When I talked to one of my brothers on Christmas day, he and his wife were hosting in-laws, two stepkids and their spouses, and eight grandchildren in the house he designed on the family farm when he was still single — the one where the “great room” and kitchen together comprise roughly 500 square feet. Another brother was out taking photographs in the new fallen snow. We were hosting my husband’s brother; both sisters had their stepchildren at home. And I’d be willing to bet that preparations in every house looked like ours: make sure there’s great food … and vacuum if there’s time.
So from my mother, my sisters, my brothers, and I: Messy Christmas to all, and to all, a good bite!