December 24th, Christmas Eve. The tree went up. We had a big house with a music room for my mother's piano and the tree would go in there, it was massive. The trimming of the tree was an all day event culminating with the traditional placing of the star at the top. That honor went to me. My father would ceremoniously lift me up over his head and I would place the star on the top of the tree, lopsided I'm sure. Everyone would ooh and aah and clap and then we'd stand there and admire it before going on to the traditional Christmas Eve dinner which went on into the wee hours.
December 25th, Christmas Day. Jesus Christ is born in Bethlehem and the celebrating begins. The three wise men or kings, Melchior, Gaspar and Balthazar (my father's middle names, believe it or not) set out on their camels to find the savior and bring gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. Very appropriate for a baby if you ask me.
The festivities continue for the next two weeks with the New Year celebration in the middle and then the arrival on the sixth of January, 12 days later, at the manger. And this day was the day we would wake up and find our gifts that the wise men had left for us under the tree, which kind of makes sense. I was always a little concerned that they would leave frankincense and myrrh and I was also concerned that they wouldn't be able to come in since my father always locked the door the night before, but when I expressed this concern he would explain to me that since they were magicians they would make themselves very small and come under the door. He was smart enough to walk away after that explanation to avoid lots of other questions brewing in my 5 year old head.
When we moved to the US I was very confused about the chubby guy in the red suit, the elves and the reindeer. Who was this man and what did he have to do with the birth of Christ? However, we adapted the custom but still celebrated on January 6th until that too faded away.
I still put up my nativity though
and try to keep the tree up until then,
with it's bright star to show the way.
We used to leave three buckets of water out for the camels and something to eat for the wise men, not cookies...
Gambas al Ajillo adapted from Tapas by Penelope Casas
(Shrimp in Garlic Sauce)-serves 4
1/2-3/4 lb. shrimp, preferably small, shelled
8 tablespoons, olive oil
3 large garlic cloves, peeled and coarsely chopped
1 dried red chili pepper, stem and seeds removed, in 2 pieces
1/2 teaspoon paprika, preferably Spanish pimenton
1 tablespoon minced parsley.
Dry the shrimp well and sprinkle with salt on both sides. Let sit at room temperature for 10 minutes.
Heat the oil in four ramekins or one shallow 8 inch casserole, preferably earthenware. Add the garlic and chili pepper. When the garlic starts to turn golden add the shrimp. Cook over medium-high heat, stirring, for about 2 minutes or until the shrimp are just done. Sprinkle in the paprika, parsley and salt. Serve immediately. Provide lots of bread for dunking.
(Spanish Bean Soup with Beef and Kale) Serves 6
OK a bastardized version!- don't want my Spanish friends getting mad at me.
1/4 lb. of bacon, preferably slab cut into 1 inch strips
1 cup cannellini or Great Northern beans, soaked overnight
1 prosciutto end 3/4 to 1 lb.
3/4 lb. beef chuck or brisket
1 medium onion, chopped
1 bouquet garni
2 quarts of beef or chicken stock or water
1 teaspoons of salt
3 medium sized potatoes, peeled and cut into thick slices
2 medium sized turnips, peeled and cut into 6 wedges
2 lbs of kale, or Swiss chard, stems removed and coarsely chopped
In a 6 quart pot, combine the bacon, bean with their soaking liquid, prosciutto, beef, onion, bouquet garni and broth. Bring to a slow simmer over medium heat. Cover the pot and simmer slowly for 30 minutes. Add the salt and simmer for 1 1/2 hours until the beans are almost tender. Add the potatoes and turnips and simmer for 15 minutes, then add the greens and simmer for another 15 minutes until all the vegetables are soft. Season to taste. Serve in deep bowls.
but a meal worthy of a king...or three.
...or a savior