I had the best hot chocolate last week. I took a break from outlet shopping and went into a Godiva chocolate shop. Seeing an enticing photo display of a giant drink with mounds of whipped cream and caramel drizzle, I pointed to the photo and said, "I'll have that."
"Hot or cold?" asked the sales clerk. "Umm, hot," I replied.
I was somewhat disappointed, therefore, when five minutes later he handed me a small, covered hot beverage cup that looked no more exciting than an ordinary cup of coffee.
"But I ordered the caramel hot chocolate," I said, pointing at the sign.
"That's the cold version. You ordered the hot version."
Live and learn. So I took my small, hot beverage, took off my gloves and went outside in search of an outdoor bench. And I was surprised to find that this ordinary, no frills cup was quite possibly the best cup of hot chocolate I have had in years. It was exactly the right temperature, not scalding to hold in bare hands but still hot enough to warm you up on a cold day. The mix of caramel and chocolate was smooth and perfect, seamlessly blended to create one flavor, one experience. The best part of all was that it tasted . . . real. It did not have that after-taste of powdered flavoring, nor was it dwarfed by mounds of sweet accompaniments. It was, simply, a good cup of deliciously warm caramel hot chocolate. I drank it all.
That simple cup got me thinking about simple holiday moments. There's a lot of fanfair that unfortunately accompanies the winter holidays. For instance, my black Friday shopping experience at a local department store this year featured a loud and chipper DJ spinning tunes at 5:30 in the morning. My inbox practically screams at me every day, announcing the biggest sale yet, the best present yet, a fabulous new recipe, and that anxiety-inducing countdown. None of this, of course, has anything to do with the real reasons for the Christmas season or the Hanukkah season, but we are all lured in, caught up in the frenzy, rushing around to nowhere.
The holidays mean different things to all of us; maybe it's Christmas Eve church service that means the most, or opening presents with the family, or the lighting of candles. Maybe it's a delicious holiday meal, or good wine with good friends. I have found, as I have gotten older, that amidst the pressure of getting it all done, taking advantage of those sales, trying really hard to get presents that actually mean something and don't just take up space underneath the tree, that small moments stand out. And of course, they have nothing to do with the aforementioned frenzy. One year, it was sharing one of our beloved holiday traditions with my son's second grade class--telling the tale of our treasured replica skating pond, complete with miniature plastic skaters, inherited by me from my grandfather, and not found anywhere else in the world but my family room. One year it was singing O Holy Night at Christmas Eve Mass, several steps too high because the organist had forgotten the right setting, and feeling like my voice was soaring as I sang better than I ever thought I could. Another year it was sitting down amidst the chaos of preparations to sing, really loudly, arm in arm with my three kids, a song from our beloved Partridge Family Christmas album. Another favorite moment for me, always, is that first taste of a spinach crepe or pepperoni pinwheel or stuffed clam at my childhood home which for me, are the hallmarks of happy childhood memories of the holidays.
One holiday moment that I would like to share happened the first year that I did not return to my childhood home for Christmas Eve, which had always featured a cast of thousands and food that went on for days. I was newly married, and we had devised a system where each family would get its share of the holidays, and then the next year it would rotate so that we would eventually spend each holiday with both sides of the family.
So, for my first Christmas Eve away from my childhood home, I was doing something new. It was to be a small formal dinner at my husband's grandmother's house, to begin after the four o'clock Mass. There would be only ten of us in attendance. Somewhat homesick already, I believe I asked if anyone else would be coming. My husband replied, in a somewhat perplexed manner, that no, why would anyone else be coming?
"No one drops by? Long lost friends? More relatives?" I asked.
"Nope, just us. That's the way we always do it."
We went to Mass, and had a very nice dinner, and I got to participate in someone else's tradition that year, which involved a formal dinner followed by presents and holiday stockings which apparently dated back to my husband's childhood, and I was happy to find that I now had a stocking too. It was all very nice, but still very new, and still, not how I had grown up celebrating.
At some point that night, my husband and his brothers and their girlfriends were in the kitchen and an old fashioned, 1940's holiday song was playing on the stereo. I don't remember how it started, or who's idea it was, but at some point, we all started dancing, almost waltzing really, right there in the kitchen. It was Christmas Eve and I was sharing a dance with the person that I was going to spend the rest of my life with.
And as we were twirling around the kitchen together I remember thinking, this, this moment right here, is a great way to celebrate Christmas.
Have a sweet week!