This morning, my husband was like a little boy at Christmas, running into the kids’ rooms yelling, “Last day of school! Last day of school!” Meanwhile, it was crickets from the sleepyheads — they still have finals to get through and a few hours of school. But I think we’re all feeling that excitement, finally. Having the kids on vacation will make the holidays feel more real to us, since we’ve all been operating at break-neck speed since October.
I think back to my mom a lot this time of year, and our first Christmas without her. I was 19 at the time, and I realized at that moment that she was the magic of Christmas for our family. She was the one who wrapped all the presents, sent the cards, cooked the food, hosted the family, and it was her handwriting on all the tags. She was the one who planned, and executed and made it special.
I distinctly remember thinking about her as I took up the slack, as I drove to the mall with my little brother and sister to do the shopping, and organized with my aunts about what dishes would be prepared for our annual family party, decorated the tree and made sure the table had a fresh, new holiday tablecloth.
It was one of those pivotal moments, those learning moments when you realize just how much your mom did for you, and just the beginning as I entered my adult life.
What I remember, too, though, is how it wasn’t just her. There were all my Titas — my aunties who all helped to pitch in over the years. I have memories of my younger aunts locking themselves in the basement, helping my mom by wrapping presents. How my grandmother would be orchestrating in the kitchen those Christmases when she was in town. All the women in my life were like Santa’s elves, making the magic, so that we kids could focus on having fun.
Before we lost my mother, the holiday season was not about worrying about shopping lists and menus, but about watching Christmas specials on TV, with a warm kitchen towel of freshly roasted chestnuts on my lap. Cracking, peeling, and savoring the toasty nut inside. It was about singing in the back seat of my uncle’s car, belting out Silver Bells with my cousins, as we drove into the city to see the tree in Rockefeller Center. It was about seeing my breath in front of me mingle with the steam from the chestnuts roasting on every street corner. It was that hustle and bustle of the city, punctuated by the Salvation Army ringing their bells as you passed by. It was about waking up to the magic my mother created on Christmas morning, and how despite all she did for us, she was the most joyful among us, that same happiness that I heard in my husband’s voice this morning. I miss her terribly, but I am reminded of her in all these things.
I get nostalgic during the holidays, and when I do, I want to recreate everything she did for us and create new memories for my own children. I want them to remember how we save the “tree cookie” – a sliver of the tree trunk from each year’s Christmas tree, and transform it into an ornament. I want them to remember baking teddy bear bread for Santa, and his yearly letters in their stocking, and the silly elves, and our hilarious get-togethers with our Bay Area family. I want them to remember Christmas movies and I want them to remember chestnuts, too.
If there’s one thing that means Christmas to me, it’s chestnuts, and perhaps they are more special to me these days since they seem harder to find out here on the west coast. When I see chestnuts, I treat them like precious commodities, and I can never pass up the chance to roast them in the oven. There may be lots to do, but there will always be time for chestnuts. Besides, Santa’s elves are at work. It will all get done, eventually.
Oven Roasted Chestnuts
- 1 lb fresh chestnuts (see notes)
- Preheat the oven to 400° with the rack placed in the center of the oven.
- With a sharp paring knife, very carefully score an “x” on the flat side of the chestnut. Be sure to cut through the layer of skin below the shell.
- Roast the chestnuts on a rimmed baking sheet, scored side up, for about 20-30 minutes, or until the shells crack to reveal the tasty meat inside, shaking the pan about halfway. Overcooked chestnuts may explode, resulting in fireworks in your oven.
- Transfer the chestnuts to a clean kitchen towel, wrap, and let it sit for a few minutes. As soon as it is cool enough to handle, peel and enjoy.