by Bobbi A. Chukran
Right after Thanksgiving, Jewel Moore, my aunt, proclaimed: “What we need is some good old-fashioned Christmas spirit, with lots of peace and quiet, no drama, no chaos, or I’ll have a hissy fit!”
I didn’t hate the idea. There was dire news about the “supply chain” and everybody was all “woe is us, doom and more doom” because there would be No Christmas. It seems disruptions in the inventory supply chain caused by the current pandemic would kill holiday shopping.
“That’s a load of malarkey,” Jewel said.
At first, I wasn’t sure how we’d pull it off, but the answer came from my best friend, Jeremy Clifford. He got busy and made a list of things we needed to do to have a simple holiday.
We made paper ornaments for a small tree we bought from a local farm, put the final touches on the outdoor decorations just the week before and the place looked lovely. We strung fairy lights across the gables and the railings on the porch of our 1930s farmhouse here in Nameless, Texas. The boxwoods were festooned, bright red bows were attached to the porch posts, and the front door had a huge wreath with red ornaments. No giant manger scenes with Snoopy, no inflatable Santas with helicopters and no abominable snowmen from the Rudolph cartoon cluttered our simple decorations.
Three days before Christmas, I was pulled out of a deep sleep by the sound of sleigh bells. I stumbled to the kitchen and found Aunt Jewel slaving over the stove, stirring something that smelled intriguing and very spicy.
In the background, the radio was tuned to all-day Christmas instrumentals. Cookies lined the countertops and two steaming pies sat to the side.
He was wearing “Grinch green” pants, a red and green plaid sweater with a bow tie that lit up with tiny lights. Oh, and a pointy green elf’s hat.
He bowed, we hugged and poured coffee. He tweaked Mr. Peabody’s tail, stalked around the kitchen sniffing like a bloodhound, then peered over Aunt Jewel’s shoulder.
“What is that delectable aroma? Do I detect a hint of…cardamom?”
Jewel swatted him with a dishtowel, he scampered backwards into me, Mr. Peabody jumped into the air, bounced around the room and knocked over the poinsettia sitting on the sideboard. I caught it just in time.
Jewel frowned and pointed. “Sit! Now!”
“If you MUST know, Nosy Green Pants,” she said, “I’m cooking good old-fashioned Christmas food.”
“Just like Betty Crocker?” Jeremy asked.
“No, I was thinking a little farther back than Mrs. Crocker. Think, Dickens.”
“Oh, pudding!” he squealed. “I’ve always wanted to taste Christmas pudding!”
“No, but close. I’m making mincemeat. For pies.”
I could feel my face turn green. Before I could comment, she said, “Don’t worry, I’m not putting suet in it. This is vegetarian mincemeat, with green tomatoes. I made a slight change to the traditional recipe.”
Better than suet, I suppose, but I’d reserve judgment.
Like everyone else, we’d gotten obsessed in doing DNA testing to find out where our ancestors came from. Sure enough, our great-great-greats had indeed come from jolly old England. So we were having an old-fashioned English Christmas.
The food was Aunt Jewel’s department. “There’ll be no fancy gourmet foods. Just old-fashioned things. Food that everybody likes and . . .”
“Won’t poison anybody?” Jeremy mumbled.
Two years before we’d had a spot of bother with a purloined pork loin then there was an incident with a pot of poisoned greens and a death at Do-Lolly’s Diner.
Jewel gave him a murderous look and he shrugged.
“Jeremy, I need to show you something in the living room,” I blurted, yanking him out of the kitchen.
“Did you get it?” I whispered.
“Yeah, it’s hidden safely in my car. I’ll bring it by later.”
“I think she’s gonna love it!” I grinned and we high-fived.
Back in the kitchen, he grabbed cookies and ducked out the door, mumbling about work he had to do.
I spent the rest of the day rolling piecrusts and working on my ghost story.
The next morning our kitchen was in chaos. Pots and pans were on the floor. The refrigerator had seemingly exploded onto the table.
Aunt Jewel looked mad enough to spit. “My recipe box is missing!”
The timer on the stove was beeping so I ran over and turned it off. A puff of smoke billowed out of the oven vent.
Jewel was actually wringing her hands. This was serious. “If that pie is ruined, I’ll have a conniption. I picked and shelled every one of those nuts by hand. I have callouses to prove it. And my knuckles ache!”
“More pies?” I asked. “Not a complaint, mind you. So…what happened here?”
She took a breath. “I couldn’t sleep, so got up, and decided to find my grandmother’s English pudding recipe, to make it for Jeremy. That’s when I realized my recipe box is missing!”
“Wait, what? The one with all your grandmother’s handwritten recipes?”
She nodded. “That’s the one. Am I losing my mind?”
I poked around for a bit, but couldn’t find the rusted tin box. “If you’ve lost your mind, I’ve lost mine, too. I can’t find it, either.”
“Wait until I get my hands on that woman!” Jewel said.
She blew out a breath and plopped into a chair. “Cynthia Bradbury, from the garden club. She was just here, claiming she wanted my opinion on roses, got “lost” in the kitchen looking for water. I knew she was up to no good! It had to be her…”
“OK, calm down. Why would she take your recipes?”
“She’s wanted my chocolate pecan pie recipe for years. Just last week she begged me for it. I’ll let her have it, all right! She told me she would do anything to get it, and it looks like she kept her promise. Old cow!” she sputtered.
“Don’t worry, Aunt Jewel. I’ll find your recipe box,” I promised, glancing around at the mess in the kitchen.
Over the next week, Jeremy and I tore the house apart, but the recipe box wasn’t there.
In spite of the fact that Aunt Jewel didn’t have her recipes, we had more than enough to eat on Christmas Eve. The menu was simply elegant. Roast prime rib, a traditional English pudding for Jeremy (after some grumbling Jewel looked up a recipe online), roasted vegetables, and an assortment of pies, including mincemeat.
Jeremy brought a bottle of mead, his first batch of homemade honey wine he’d ever made. It was very tasty and we drank quite a bit of it.
We had just finished the main meal when the doorbell rang.
“Ah,” Jeremy said, “let the entertainment begin! Here we go a’wassailing!”
“I never knew…what IS wassailing, anyway?” Jewel asked.
“An old English tradition of drinking a large amount of alcohol and enjoying ourselves in a noisy way,” I said.
“And going from house to house, singing carols!” Jeremy explained, jumping up and opening the door. Members of his theatrical club, dressed as mummers, sang carols, we fed them cookies and cider and they went on their way.
Jeremy warbled, “Sleigh bells ring. Are you listenin’?”
The back door opened and there stood an honest-to-goodness Father Christmas, AKA Sheriff Tinker, Aunt Jewel’s sweetheart.
“I am Father Christmas!” he boomed. “The official taste tester of all food that’s simple and proper and English!
Sorry I’m late, Jewel. The traffic is horrible out there. All those insane people at the mall!”
I have to say I was feeling a bit smug for avoiding all that craziness.
Jeremy and I watched Aunt Jewel closely as she opened hers.
Her new oversized reading device was loaded with a recipe app and a special e-book titled GRANDMOTHER’S RECIPES. Scanned and cleaned up with the ability to enlarge the text so it could be seen from a distance, while cooking.
It was illustrated with photos of her grandmother, mama and daddy, cousins, cats, and her childhood home.
“Don’t worry, the originals are safe in the kitchen,” Jeremy said.
“So it was you?” she asked and we nodded.
She burst out in tears. “I guess I have to apologize to Cynthia Bradbury now.”
Uh oh. “Aunt Jewel, what did you do?”
“Uh, never mind, honey. She’ll forgive me once I send her a copy of the file. Thank you so much! I love it.” She kissed Jeremy and he blushed.
“Now, open your gifts!” she urged.
Jeremy tore into the brown paper wrapped package tied with a yarn bow. He held up an object. “It’s a willy warmer!” Jeremy chirped. “Just what I wanted!”
“It is NOT!” Jewel said, blushing. “It’s a mask…to keep you safe when you’re out and about. I crocheted it myself!”
He pulled the mask over his face, the pointy nose dangling, and I laughed my butt off.
My gift was a crocheted cap and a book of handwritten poetry from Jeremy.
The clock chimed the half-hour. It was almost midnight. “Time for a ghost story!” Nervously, I took out my pages and was about to start reading, when Aunt Jewel spoke up.
“Actually, I have a short ghost story of my own,” she said, “if you don’t mind.” I shook my head and sat back down.
“Mine goes like this… “Once upon a Christmas Eve, there was a lonely ghost.”
All of a sudden, the back door creaked open, then softly shut.
“Hello, dear,” Aunt Jewel called. “Come on in, get by the fire. Just in time for the story.”
“I’d like y’all to meet Idalou, from next door. Poor thing, she was going to spend Christmas alone, so I invited her to join us.”
We shivered as the air in the room got chilly and I wrapped my arms around my shoulders. I felt the air shift, as if somebody brushed by me. There was no one. No one I could see, anyway. How much mead did I drink?
“Come sit down,” Jewel said.
“Idalou, meet my family. This here’s Kendra, my niece, that’s Jeremy, her best friend, and the cat is Mr. Peabody.”
Peabody chirped and wrapped himself around the legs of the chair, gazing up at it with squinted eyes.
“We’ve met before,” I muttered. “A few years back, at Christmas when I almost got into the hemlock behind the shed.
She warned me. That was her, right? I thought I was hallucinating.”
“That was Idalou!” said Jewel. “We can’t let her spend another holiday alone,” Jewel said. “I think the least we can do is offer her some mead.”
“Oh?” Jewel said, talking to the chair. “If you’re sure…” She turned to us. “Idalou says she never drinks.”
I felt dizzy. Was I dreaming?
I looked at Jeremy and he shrugged, turned towards the green chair, and raised his glass. “Welcome to the asylum, madam. Here’s to a really old-fashioned Christmas. Now, how about that ghost story, Kendra?
I glanced at my notes, shook my head, ripped them in two, and threw them on the fire. “We don’t need my story.” I took another big gulp of mead and raised my glass to our visitor. “Here’s to a real Christmas spirit!”
“Happy Christmas!” we all said.
Background on this story:
Idalou Murphy first appeared in Holly, Hemlock and Mistletoe, published in 2014.
I was remembering the holidays we had when we were kids, and living in a rural part of Texas we shopped from places like JC Penney’s catalog with things mailed to the bus depot and picked up every two weeks, Western Auto (who had two shelves of things like tricycles and dolls), perfumes, and hair bows from the Five-and-Ten store. Paperback books and comics/magazines were from the corner drugstore. And of course, food was simple. Then I started thinking about the concept of an old-fashioned Christmas. And of course, the tradition of the English ghost story followed soon after.
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