There weren’t any holidays growing up that my family made a big deal of. Not that we didn’t celebrate – we just didn’t have the same fervor and protocol and fanciness that some may have. I didn’t really even know how intense people got about the holidays until I married my husband and met his family… and christmas exploded in my face.
We got to celebrate every few birthdays growing up (10 kids, people – that means hiring a full time party planner if you’re gonna do the annual circuit). Sometimes we got to invite friends, but just a few. There weren’t that many to choose from, let’s be honest, and who needs friends when you have 9 adoring siblings just dying to make a day all about you??
Birthday celebrations really meant just one thing – choosing your favorite meal to be served. Since we lived on a farm and mostly ate the same rotating, fully farm-sourced menu every week, we would naturally choose things like – you guessed it – boxed mac n’ cheese (called Kraft Dinner in Canada, because no one knows how to turn a box (or 12) of mac n’ cheese into a coma like a Canadian).
Christmas was low key and the highlight was usually smuggling the conference room TV out of my dad’s work and binge-watching Star Trek for a week. Happiness is in the little things, like the comforting sound of a dozen people fisting potato chips into their mouths in serial fashion, knowing that potato chips won’t be around again for awhile. This, and stringing popcorn for the Christmas tree, and washing dishes all day long in shifts, and playing games until 3 am and bleary eyed mean Christmas to me.
Clearly, these are traditions of their own, just not very alike those of culture at large. There were no plate chargers or dinner courses, no perfectly coiffed tree and no trips to bowling alleys or ski lodges for birthday celebrations.
I dare say that there was a lot of love, in most of the ways that count. Gift giving, always meager but heartfelt, truly taught us that giving was better than receiving. The time it took to hand-make an elaborate Star Trek Clue game for dad on the back of a Cornflakes box, complete with my sisters’ careful renditions of the cast from the original series, was better spent than all of the times we played it. And to this day, the best gift given may be the deck of cards (representative of so much in our family) made by my sister which features photos of each of us in character during one of our epic games of Mafia.
We might not have fancy cocktails but my God we know how to execute an innocent townsperson with unanimity and moral impunity on Christmas Eve, drunk on the kind of tribalism only generated by a small village or a family resembling one.
I do also love the new traditions I’ve learned as I’ve gotten older, but I would say that most of them that I have latched onto have to do with the sharing of food. I love to set a beautiful table, and the art of a perfectly coursed and plated meal, but only because of who I’ll share it with. And mostly, I love to bake.
We did love to bake growing up. Simple things, usually, that didn’t require a lot of precision or perfection, considering that measuring cups and spoons were profoundly prone to disappearance. This did gift us with a handy ability to “eyeball” ingredients and come out (mostly) ahead, something that still serves me to this day. If I text my mother to ask how much of something to put in a recipe, I am not looking for an exact measurement but instead rough approval of the deviation or assumption I’ve already considered. And that’s just what I’ll get.
I can’t exactly recreate the formative chaos of my childhood for my son, nor the specific experiences that became tradition (or lack thereof). My husband can’t do that either – and neither of us would want to pass every bit of it on. But there’s a lot to pass on, still. Now, with a 7.5 year old, there is suddenly so much opportunity. Nostalgia, you guys. He’s capable of it now. He talks wistfully of memories and experiences, and can start to sense the connection between the people you love and the things you share again and again.
He wants to bake with me, and doesn’t bail after the first batter tasting opportunity.
He asks Gramma if she can make him “eggie in a hole” when she comes to visit.
He only plays Speed with Grammy.
He wants to build a fire every night with Chase.
He’s forming his own sense of what tradition is, and what the feelings are that come with it. It’s amazing how tradition just becomes something we do (even if we enjoy it), without really thinking about what the purpose of it is. Watching a child form their relationship to tradition really shows you how it’s about those connections. With people. He feels something in each of those moments, with these specific people, and is starting to realize that those feelings are desirable. Pursuable. Repeatable.
This year, he asked me back at the beginning of December, “are we gonna make those things again, the ones with the raisins? What are those called?”
Oh hell yes, son. We are going to make butter tarts. We are going to make so many butter tarts you will be sick of them. Until next December, of course.
Butter tarts are a traditional Canadian pastry – and my family recipe is the best. Yes, they have raisins in them but trust me that you just don’t know yet why this is what you’ve been missing your whole life. This is one of my families only translatable traditions – and if you are still wondering what to make for that holiday party or christmas day treat, then all I have to say is do not pass go. Do not collect 200 dollars.
Make these butter tarts. Aside from them being the most delicious thing you’ve ever had (let alone easy to make! and bite-size! and totally glutinous! with a recipe to follow!), perchance you will better imagine a small glimpse of the chaos of a farm table set with mismatched dishes and crowing youngsters backlit by mostly burnt out christmas tree lights and the blue glow of the TV in between The Search for Spock and The Voyage Home. They don’t know it, but they are about to have the best feast of their lives.
Butter Tarts (my family recipe, or so I am told)
makes 24 mini tarts
I hands down recommend using this recipe from Smitten Kitchen. All butter, extremely flaky, and impossible to mess up. Make sure to refrigerate for at least an hour before rolling! I use a water glass about 2.5 inches across to get the perfect sized circle for mini muffin tins.
Butter Tart Filling
1/3 cup butter
1 cup sugar
1 TBSP vanilla
2 TBSP cream
pinch of salt
1/2 cup raisins
Preheat your oven to 375. Now, here’s the best part. You literally put all of these ingredients into a medium sized saucepan (I am usually doubling the recipe) and on LOW heat, mix together until butter has melted and all ingredients have come together, stirring constantly. This is important so that the egg white doesn’t cook and separate from the mixture. Once everything has come together, turn up the heat to MEDIUM, and continuing to stir, bring to a gentle boil for about 1 minute. The mixture will thicken an
d darken and become like caramel. I will take this opportunity to instruct you that you will be basically be eating caramel. Inside of flaky, buttery pastry. Remove from heat.
Place your pastry rounds into un-greased, non-stick mini muffin tins. Using a small spoon, fill each pastry round with filling between 1/2 and 3/4 full. The filling will bubble while cooking and likely spill over the edges, but this only improves the caramelized bits, in my opinion.
Bake for 14 minutes or until filling has bubbled and you can see that the pastry rim is slightly golden. After cooling for 5-10 minutes, remove from tin and let cool on a cooling rack. These will “last” for about 2 days at peak deliciousness, but can be frozen for later if you’re Canadian.
Finally, try to share with friends but if that just doesn’t happen don’t be too hard on yourself.
Happy holidays to each of you!