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Mistress of the Mix: The Christmas Workaround

You remember, right? What it was like to be an excited little kid on Christmas morning? If you were like me, your eyes popped open as soon as the first whisper of dawn crept through the window at 6 am. Maybe even earlier. Whether you believed in Santa or not, you believed with all your heart that there was a cornucopia of presents under the tree, and some of them had your name on them.

If you were like me, waiting to open those presents was an excruciating exercise, not unlike being in the back seat of the car during a family road trip and needing to pee, but the next rest area isn’t for another 19 miles. Also not unlike the desperation of a kid doing the potty dance, I recall jumping out of bed and hopping around the room from one foot to the other, trying to wake my little sister so she could join me in the campaign to wake mom and dad.

Mom and dad didn’t cotton much to being roused by us kids before daylight. Not that my parents had been up all night assembling toys (they were summa cum laude graduates of the DIY school of thought, as in let the kids figure it out by themselves). But still, on the one night of the year they could coax us to bed without any stern warnings before 9pm, I’m sure my parents weren’t going to waste an opportunity to enjoy an evening without the girls running around underfoot, if you get my drift.

At the same time, my parents didn’t want to miss the looks on our faces when we opened up all our presents, so we weren’t allowed to go into the living room or even look in the direction of the Christmas tree until everyone was up, and breakfast had been consumed. That was a long standing rule in our house, one that was absolutely never ever broken. Or else next Christmas…. And that’s as far as anyone ever had to go with that threat.

And so my sister and I had to wait for what seemed like hours until mom and dad finally got out of bed, made coffee, and cooked up something for breakfast. And then, after all their delay tactics were extinguished, we were finally allowed to turn our attention towards the angel topped, ornament covered holy grail in the corner of the living room.

It was probably 1977, right after I turned 11 years old, when I finally figured out the Christmas Work Around, which is more commonly referred to in our house as the Christmas Morning Spread.

Every year my sister and I had a set amount of cash to spend on family presents. That year – the year I thought I’d out-thunk my folks – I probably had somewhere around $25 to spend on gifts for my mom, dad and little sister. I also had some babysitting money and my weekly allowance. I think this might have been the year I got my 9 year old little sister a shirt with iron on letters that said “Dana Ing, ” but to save money (because I was paying by the letter), I arranged the letters so that DANA was horizontal across the chest, and ING was vertical, using the N for both names. Some people thought the shirt said “I DANA G.” That shirt is still with us, and has been worn by both my sister, my daughter and now my niece. I got a shirt too, on sale. I think it was a two-fer. It was goldenrod (my least favorite color, but colors were limited if you wanted to do the buy one get one deal), and I didn’t know what to put on it, so I ended up going with “Wookie Power.” I am forever a Chewbacca fan, and the very first Star Wars film was still in theatres.

I’m digressing, I know. But I’d just like to point out that a Star Wars film is in the theatres AGAIN right now. It’s just eerie. So back to the story.

The crepe maker. It’s probably still in my folk’s closet.

This was also, if memory serves correctly, the year after we got a Sunbeam crepe maker. What a pain in the ass that was. There is nothing more aggravating for a 10 year old impatiently waiting to open presents on Christmas morning than having to wait until the crepe maker is unpacked, batter is made, fillings prepared, and enough paper-thin crepes have been cooked and assembled to feed the family. If you’ve never made crepes before, just trust me on this: crepes on a homemade crepe maker ain’t the stuff Christmas mornings are made of. If made perfectly, they are delicious, especially filled with gooey creme and dusted with powdered sugar and raspberry jam. But I found it way too easy to burn, rip and not stick the landing on more than half of the crepe attempts.

So whatever I could do to avoid the crepe gymnastics event, I was willing to do. And that’s how I came up with the idea of the Christmas Workaround. I told my sister that if we pooled our money and limited our gift purchases to really minor little trinkets, we could have enough leftover to buy a feast. A Christmas Morning Spread. A breakfast that my sister and I could put together and have ready on the coffee table, one that didn’t require cooking or waiting, or even any clean up until much later, post-unwrapping frenzy. A picnic right there, in front of the tree to nibble on all morning long.

This would serve a couple of purposes. First and foremost, once the food was out on the table, mom and dad would have no excuse to delay the mountain of presents waiting to be torn into. Second, and almost as important, we had the chance to claim this as our joint present to the parents, an act of love (well, that’s how we tried to play it off).

Even though I was just ten, I was already a veteran of the public bus system, and I paid the 35 cent fare to ride the bus from Fox Hollow & 46th all the way across the city to the Valley River Mall, where I visited the Hillshire Farms store to start amassing items for the feast, starting with a summer sausage and a smoked gouda. On the way home I stopped at Safeway for crackers and one of those loaves of  sliced rye bread that’s so tiny it looks like it was made for a doll’s tea party. I got a can of black olives, a giant wedge of brie, some orange marmalade, and peppered salami and pastrami. I’m pretty sure there were some chocolate truffles and mixed nuts, a tub of prepared dip and maybe some vegetables. There was also a bag of shortbread sandwich cookies with the chocolate orange filling. It really was a spectacular amount of food.

Our Christmas Morning Spread wasn’t this gorgeous. But you get the idea.

We didn’t tell our parents about the plan, opting instead to get up at the usual buttcrack of dawn, and creep out into the living room, dutifully shielding our eyes from the Christmas tree on our way to the kitchen. We semi-artfully laid out the food onto several platters, carrying them out into the living room (squinting our eyes to a hair shy of being shut, just so we could find our way to the coffee table without stumbling into anything), and then we raced into mom and dad’s room to roust them out of bed so we could eat and start opening presents at the same time. Only this year, the first present to be opened was the Christmas Morning Spread.

Looking back more than 40 years later, I totally get that it was my parents who really achieved their goal that Christmas, not me and my sister. We were willing to delay our gratification on Christmas morning by spending an entire half hour constructing a beautiful display of finger foods instead of whining at the foot of their bed. It was exactly what they were hoping to teach us. That in itself was a gift that we didn’t even realize we were giving them.

Funny thing. Now its 2019. My sister and I have raised our own children. But every year, no matter where we are, we still put together the Christmas Morning Spread. Whether we’re together or in separate houses, and whether we’re with our parents or not, we pull out the cheeses, the meats, the crackers and olives and nuts and all that other yummy stuff for the Mother Mary of all yuletide smorgasbords. The only thing that’s really changed is the quality of the meats and cheeses, and the addition of gluten-free crackers, now that these things exist. We don’t even ask the kids to do it for us, because this is our tradition, mine and Dana’s. Not that I’d really mind someone else doing the work for a change. But actually, I think I would. It’s my job, my gift to the family, and it’s a gift I love to keep giving over and over.

My other job over the Christmas holiday (besides making the best gravy in the world) is making sure there is music, that it’s holiday themed, and that it’s music everyone – young and old – will find palatable. Because there’s nothing more aggravating to a 53 year old woman than her dad shouting, “Will somebody turn that shit off?!” at the table just as you’re taking your first bite of Christmas dinner.

If you’ve got a big family holiday gathering planned this year (I’ll be hosting Christmas Dinner for 18 people, how ’bout you?), perhaps the Spotify Christmas Workaround playlist below will be just the thing to keep spirits up while you wait for the go ahead to open presents or take that first bite of mashed potatoes and gravy. Happy holidays!

Valerie Ing

Valerie Ing has been the Northern California Program Coordinator for Jefferson Public Radio in Redding for 14 years and can often be found serving as Mistress of Ceremonies at the Cascade Theatre. For her, ultimate satisfaction comes from a perfect segue. She and her husband are parents to a couple of college students and a pair of West Highland Terriers, and Valerie can’t imagine life without them or music. The Mistress of the Mix wakes up every day with a song in her head, she sings in the shower and at the top of her lungs in the car.

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