A Hard Thing About the Holidays


Here is a problem that a lot of people don’t have
: When you are a food blogger who has written extensively about how meaningful holiday rituals are, it can be a struggle to come up with new content and recipes for the salivating masses, i.e. you guys. By definition, tradition dictates that my Christmas menu is exactly the same year after year…and it is! By now, nine years into this blog, you’ve probably memorized that line-up yourself: Cranberry-Marinated Tenderloin, Curried Carrots with Pecans, Mashed Potatoes, and a blue-cheese-and-pine-nut studded pile of greens that has come to be known as “Sybil’s Salad.”

In case the blue cheese and pine nuts didn’t give it away, the menu was conceived in the 90s by my mother-in-law, Emily, and much of it was inspired by the magazines she was reading at the time — RIP Cooking Light — and from recipes swapped with her buddies in book club, hence Sybil’s Salad. Every year, we’d make the 5-hour drive down hellish 95-south to Northern Virginia a day or two before Christmas, pull into the driveway lined with string-lighted shrubbery; walk in the front door to Frank Sinatra crooning carols; open the refrigerator and see a 3-pound filet coiled like a snake in a wine-and-cranberry-juice filled Ziploc; then the freezer to find a ball of cookie dough that would later be shaped and frosted by the girls in ways that were delicious, and not the slightest bit instagram-worthy. You could set your watch to it. To all of it. And this is why we have rituals. They are our emotional touchstones, sensory reminders that allow us “our doorway into Christmas,” to quote Jeanette Winterson, even as everything surrounding them seems to be changing with dizzying velocity. The comfort I feel after crossing through that doorway is instant and practically physical. Add my kids to the equation, and me knowing they feel the same, and the gratitude I have for our traditions is immeasurable.

I don’t want to sugarcoat things too much here, though, because I know how rough the holidays can be — how inextricably linked with loss they are. For people dealing with aging parents or the deaths of friends and family, traditions might be comforting in their predictability, but also an exercise in painful emptiness, a way of simply going through the motions and hoping that eventually things will feel right again. It can be hard to know how to proceed. The other week, when I sat in front of the fire to address my 100-plus holiday cards, it felt like I was taking a kind of crass existential inventory — confirming the address of a college friend who moved to Pittsburgh, adding a neighbor I’ve always loved into the fold, removing the name of a woman’s husband of sixty years who died in June. (I use the word “removing” because “deleting” is horrendous and I moved his name to a separate part of the file.) I also had to remove my mom’s beloved 95-year-old sister, who died this past summer surrounded by family and was more at peace with death than most of us could ever hope to be. (Aunt Emily was fond of saying I think God forgot about me.)

Then I came upon Sybil, the namesake of that annual Christmas salad. Sybil died about a year ago from cancer, only a day after meeting and holding her first grandchild, and 2017’s holiday card was the last I’ll ever send her. She was one of my in-laws’ closest friends and one of my favorites. She hosted a bridal shower for me when I got engaged and made a point to come over with gifts for the girls any time we were in town visiting Andy’s parents. She was a world-class listener and friend, championing my career and books to anyone who would listen. This was especially true for the last book I wrote, How to Celebrate Everything, not only because she too loved the idea of infusing meaning into everyday, but because the recipe for Sybil’s Salad is printed right there on page 88 for posterity.

Anyway, that recipe is as good an excuse as any I’ll need to remember her, and many others, this holiday. I’ve made a few adjustments from the original — those pine nuts have been replaced with candied walnuts — but mostly it’s the same. Thank goodness.

Sybil’s Salad
This recipe is also in How to Celebrate Everything (page 88), along with the recipes for the rest of our annual feast. We pretty much only eat it on Christmas (no doubt adding to its appeal), but there’s no reason you shouldn’t eat it all year long. Besides being a very sentimental dish, it also happens to be delicious. (NOTE: I have edited this recipe to include pears, which should’ve never been omitted in the first place. Forgive me!)

1 bunch Boston or Bibb lettuce, rinsed and torn
1 bunch arugula, rinsed and torn
1 bunch sprouts or watercress
2 ripe pears, chopped into bite size pieces
1 cup candied walnuts (if you want to be faithful to the original, you can use toasted pine nuts instead)
1/2 cup chopped scallions, white and light green parts only (2 bunches)
4 ounces crumbled blue cheese (or more to taste)

Dressing:
1/2 cup good-quality olive oil
1/4 cup white wine vinegar
1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice
1 clove garlic, finely minced
kosher salt and freshly ground pepper

In a large bowl, combine all of the salad ingredients. In a small bowl, whisk together the ingredients for the dressing and toss. Sometimes I like to reserve a few sprouts, cheese, and nuts to distribute on top, post-toss, so not all of the good stuff sinks to the bottom.

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31 Comments

WG

This post about holiday traditions and the loss of loved ones hits home. My FIL died not quite two weeks ago, and through helping my MIL with sorting and all that, we’ve been processing it our own way. She’s decided to come over for Christmas, which is great. But it’ll be bittersweet this year. We’ll continue keeping the tradition of letting the kid open one gift on the eve, but I don’t know that anyone will want to do the tradition of singing and “playing” Christmas songs on the kazoos, and slide whistles this time around.

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Jenny

I’m so sorry about your father-in-law WG. Whatever you manage to do, I’m sure it will be an enormous comfort for her to be with you and her family. Best to you all.

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dana

Jenny, what a beautiful post– I got teary while reading it at work. The holidays make me sad in a way that I’ve never quite known how to explain, but somehow you’ve captured it perfectly. Best wishes and happy holidays.

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Joanne Richman

Emotional touchstones…sensory reminders..holidays being inextricably linked to loss… your words couldn’t possibly be any more poignant.
Thank you for such a meaningful post.

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Maryann

What a lovely tribute to Sybil, and beautiful post in general. I’m always glad to read your words, but I’m particularly glad I stopped by today. All the best to you and yours this season.

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AnneL

This was oddly timely for me.
My 16 year old daughter Nora was diagnosed with cancer in her liver and lungs out of the blue at the end of August and we’ve been on a nonstop rollercoaster of chemo and hospital visits ever since. My sister-in-law is taking over hosting the big Christmas Eve bash for all of my husband’s family this year and I’m feeling oddly bereft of not having all the plans to make the mini Italian beef sandwiches or the butternut squash soup.
It’s funny how important it is to Nora though to have me make all of the normal Christmas dinner menu so I’m sitting here at the hospital planning the smoked trout dip, the beef tenderloin, the Yorkshire puddings even though my gut is that she won’t be able to eat more than a bite or two. And trying to decide whether her dad and older brother and I will really eat everything on this menu. But I’m making the list and planning the shopping and crossing my fingers and toes.

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Jenny

AnneL – I don’t know how to reply to this in a way that will be sufficient, except to say that I would do the exact same thing and understand on the deepest level both why Nora’s asking and why you’re obliging. I will be pulling hard for you guys this holiday and beyond. Thank you for sharing your story.

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AnneG

AnneL, I hope you had a good Christmas despite the very obvious challenges. Sending strength and hugs to you and your family — my 15 year old son (now 18) was also suddenly diagnosed with cancer a few years ago. It’s a hard road to walk, but please know that you are not alone. xoxo

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Amanda

I am so glad I checked in today and got to read this gem – you captured the bittersweetness of the holidays beautifully. Happy Holidays, Jenny.

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JS

What a beautiful post. The first Christmas after the loss of my mom, we found many of the traditions too much to bear and so did things a bit differently. Those “things” have become new traditions that have helped to ease the heartache we still feel 6 years later.

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Uncle Doug

Candied walnuts??? Bah, humbug! Only pine nuts will do.
And thanks for the post; I would have forgotten to buy scallions

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Jenny

Haha. I would expect nothing less from a purist! Let me know what I can bring, besides the scallions. xoxox

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Lynn BB

My mom’s birthday was Christmas Eve. I’m an only child and we don’t get together with my husband’s side of the family at Christmas so after my parents both passed away 14 years ago, we started a new Christmas Eve tradition. We have fondue with filet, shrimp, scallops etc. It’s special and the only day of the year we have it. I got the idea from a dear friend who growing up had fondue on Christmas night.

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Kim

One of our Christmas traditions is making the “Santa-Endorsed Cookies”. We eat these while decorating the tree, listening to music, watching Christmas movies, etc. My kids look forward to making these every year. (They are also the same cookies I make for bake sales, garage sales, and practically any other cookie-demanding occasion, but no one seems to have figured it out yet!)

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Jenn in GA

Thank you for speaking about Sybil and your neighbor’s husband who passed away earlier this year. Our culture seems to reserve grief for the week or month after someone passes, and while people may expect those who lost loved ones to be sad, they don’t necessarily “hold space” for them. We go on with our lives and have to be reminded, oh yeah. So-and-so died.

I was one of those people until this year. My mom passed away suddenly Nov. 3, and the holidays are very different this year. The sparkle has gone out of them. So, thanks for using your platform to remind everyone in your gentle way that grief shows up as an uninvited guest at holiday gatherings, and one way to make peace with it is to celebrate the person who is no longer with you.

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Barb

I agree with so much of this, lovely post, Jenny.
When I was a child, I rarely got exactly what I’d hoped Santa would bring (youngest of 8 kids in a working class family, that just wasn’t possible). Now in my 50’s, Christmas seems to point up who’s no longer here… I know people literally have happy holidays, but I know a lot of people who are as glad as I am that the holidays are almost over. On a Tuesday night in February I can be mindful of my blessings, grateful for my family and friends, and tucking into a ham dinner with gusto without the nostalgia/regret/surfeit of emotion that attends Christmas.

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Pepper

You’re a rock star…thank you for the beautiful content you always provide! I’ve never commented before, but I read your blog all.the.time and adore it.

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Ingrid

I made Sybil’s salad this Christmas, from your book. I will think of her now every time I make it. Some of our losses are coming. So are tears.

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Kathy

What a beautiful story. I appreciate the fact that traditions and family meals are important to you. My grandson, age 13, wanted to bake cookies with me this holiday season. It surprised me but he informed me it was tradition. I didn’t realize it was that important to him but I was absolutely delighted.
As for family meals my daughters always tell others how important it was that we were all around the table for meals – no books, no TV, no newspapers. You can learn alot from & about your children in that setting. It’s just my husband & I now at our kitchen island for meals but the same rules still apply.
Thank you for making family your priority. I will be following your blog from this day forward. And shopping for your books!

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The MOUSE

My family has a table filled with nibbles (hot and cold) along with the Christmas Punch (also known as the purgative punch for, um, obvious reasons).
It’s a 2L of 7up, 2L of ginger ale, 2L pineapple juice, 1 can OJ concentrate, and either a jar of maraschinos with the juice or about 1/2 cup grenadine. There is never any alcohol in it, I am deathly allergic. We’ve always had this punch at Christmas and New Years, for as long as I can remember.

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My Christmas table is also the same every year, maybe the only difference is salad. Thank you for all the beautiful post! I’d love to see anything, with or without a recipe 🙂

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Carrie

Catching up on blogs today (nothing says “back to work” quite like internet procrastination!) and simply loved this post. It is everything I’ve loved about your blog for so many years. Thank you for sharing and hope your holidays were lovely!

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