George Winston’s December has been one of my seasonal favorites for years. The album, which starts slow and contemplative is a perfect opening to the holiday season. I usually start my holiday prep on a day much like yesterday, rainy, chilly, but hardly freezing. The fall color has just peaked and the trees are dropping their leaves at a steady pace. There is so much to do before the end of the semester. But I take the holiday as permission to take a pause. I turn on George Winston and get started.
I usually begin my holiday cooking with my mother’s cranberry sauce, a dish my younger son would consume by the gallon if he were allowed. There’s no magic ingredient, just water, sugar, a little orange juice and zest, and of course the cranberries. Combine and simmer until it’s a consistency you like. The result is tart and sweet on the tongue and a deep, satisfying red flecked with orange for the eyes. My mother used to bring it on the airplane in a Ball jar wheedling her way through TSA screening. Believe me, it was hard to tell her no… Eventually, I explained that I could probably make it too, particularly with proper supervision. And six or seven years ago, that baton was passed and I became the one charged with making sure this condiment was ever present at the holiday table.
This year I had hard time finding the recipe nearly disassembling my recipe box in the effort. Along the way, I chanced upon so many other recipes infused with holiday memories. One grandmother’s ice-box rolls the other’s fudge, and the cookie dough that my older son, just home from college, will soon begin to beg for. Note: Like me, he prefers to keep the whole loaf of dough in the ‘fridge and cut off a delicious cold slice here and there. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention be dammed; some things are worth the salmonella risk. Sorry, I digress…
As I chopped and boiled, salted and whisked, and listened to melancholy George Winston, I began to get texts from friends sending good wishes for the holiday. One, an only child like me, who is also away from her failing 90 plus year old father this holiday. Another from a friend who will move her mother into assisted living the day after having the last family holiday in her childhood home. The list goes on. This middle age season is both brutal and beautiful; we have to make so many hard choices for those we love. Choices that often leave me feeling inadequate to the task. But at the same time we finally learn exactly who loves us as the web of friendships that we’ve woven over a life-time comes into view and lifts us up.
I think my favorite song on December is Winston’s version of Pachelbel’s Canon in D. I know as a piece of music it as become ubiquitous to the point of being almost mundane. It’s not and I love it anyway. And his version layers the joy, the longing, the peace, and the complexity of the season. As the music began to soar through the kitchen, I began to suspect that my mother’s cranberry sauce does have a secret ingredient, one she never told me about, but that I’ve learned for myself: the tears, not a lot, but just a few to acknowledge the love and loss we feel in equal measure as the leaves fall and the smell of the bubbling cranberry sauce fills the air.