A lesson most of us don’t learn until adulthood is that the waiting is the best part. This is true for almost any long-anticipated event or activity; it’s a life skill, acquired over accrued time, learning to squeeze the most juice from the clementine of life, before we down the Mimosa. It’s not actually the swallow that’s the thrill.
And so, to me, the best part of Christmas is the run-up — shopping for velvet ribbons in the sewing section at Sag Harbor Variety; dog-earing catalog pages that showcase gourmet towers of pear and walnut-shape marzipan from San Ambroeus and langues de chat chocolates from Teuscher (even if we cannot afford such delicacies); leafing through supermarket cooking-and-decorating magazines in the bathtub and tearing out damp recipes for tricolor Neapolitan cookies in cherry, chocolate, and vanilla (even if we never bake them). Here’s a little holiday hint: There is nothing more tantalizing to children in the final-countdown week than a festively decorated box filled with a surprise lunch and sugary treats.
I’ll have to catch you by the elbow and transport you backward in time, for a mini-jaunt to the past — like the Ghost of Christmas Past (and you are Mr. Scrooge, in this analogy) — in order to explain the origin of this box-lunch idea, which may sound somewhat less than exciting on the face of it.
Once upon a time, you see, in the way-back of the 1970s when I was 6 or 7 — and we rode the empty highway between Amagansett and Bridgehampton in a station wagon, the whiff of pesticide from the potato fields creeping through the gaps between the windows’ rubber and glass — the Hampton Day School of Butter Lane held a countrified party for all the school community families in which every attendee had to bring a small, decorated box (a shoebox or the like) that contained an undisclosed special meal, including dessert. The decorated boxes were piled on tables, and once everything had been gathered and all had bought their ticket, we approached the tables to pick out a box without knowing what was inside.
Some of the boxes were painted to look like jungle animals; some were done up with glitter and tissue. Surprising guests with unmarked boxes of mystery food wouldn’t work nowadays, when so many people have an allergy or intolerance — why didn’t we have allergies and intolerances in the 1970s? Why were we all so much skinnier then? — but there was something about the combination of “gift” with party nibbles that completely enthralled me, to such a degree that I still remember what was in the shoebox I chose: fried chicken and a whack of yellow cake with fudge frosting. (I think we may also have square-danced at this fund-raiser, modeled as it was after the petticoat-and-surrey-with-the-fringe-on-top era “box socials” of the American Midwest a century ago. We children were constantly asked to perform the Virginia Reel in the 1970s. Everybody promenade!)
These days, I have a favorite Christmas tradition with my own two kids, informed by my own childhood ideas of a good time. Nettie and Teddy and I spend two December nights in a hotel in Manhattan and do all the touristy things that a real New Yorker would never do. We wander around regretting we didn’t bring mittens, looking at the window displays on Fifth Avenue. We have “brunch with Santa” at Stella 34 or at Rockefeller Center. And we use a combination of wiles and promo codes to get discount orchestra seats at the “Radio City Christmas Spectacular.” (Hint number two: You get the best view of the 500 dancing Santas from the side of the orchestra, section 6, row WW, by the emergency exit.)
To the kids, however, the pinnacle of this annual outing is the little box lunches I prepare for the Friday afternoon trip westward on the Long Island Expressway. I buy bakery boxes printed with stockings or snowflakes and pack them with Christmas napkins, the gaudier the better, and small sandwiches — pimento cheese, and Nutella with bananas — cut into star shapes. I wrap those in decorative waxed-paper sleeves (sleds or holly berries, preferably clashing with the printed theme on the napkins), and then tie sugar cookies with curly ribbon, and tuck in a few hollow-chocolate Christmas-tree ornaments made in Germany.
On a humdrum-normal day, both of my kids would shudder and recoil at the very mention of pimento-cheese sandwiches. Because they are spoiled and, clearly, egregious ingrates, they even turn their noses up at chocolate, normally, too. But when these dainties are wrapped, boxed, and presented as a series of small surprise gifts? Magic. Better than a singing snowman.
But my own juvenile pleasure in all this stuff — coordinating the sparkly pine cone paper with peppermint-striped ribbon, cutting foodstuffs into boots and gooses, eating foil-wrapped candies at midday — has, this year, run facefirst into a problem. An inevitability: My kids are aging out. Despite my announcement way back when the leaves were turning orange in October that I was planning our annual Christmas outing to the city for this weekend, Nettie announced on Monday that she cannot go, because she has organized a Secret Santa party for Saturday with her cohort of fellow 14-year-olds and has already purchased the fuzzy socks and micro-plush pajama pants for her girlfriends. She sends her regrets. Teddy, at 12, was ambivalent, too. He said he’d think about it. “But we’ll go to the Japanese department store near Bryant Park and I’ll let you buy a manga!!” I cajoled. “We can go ice skating!” I said, with mounting panic.
He said he still wasn’t sure. And then I drew my big guns. “Don’t you want the special, fancy box lunch? I will make the Nutella. I will make the pimento cheese.” That got him.
And so this year, the annual family tourist-quest to Manhattan will be a mother-son weekend. This is good news, in regard to the costs incurred — only two tickets to the Rockettes, only two half-eaten plates of excruciatingly expensive waffles and bacon at brunch with St. Nick, that jolly old thief. . . . Actually, Teddy would surely prefer dumplings in Chinatown to brunch with Santa, at this point, now that he’s jaded and in sixth grade, so perhaps we’ll go to dim sum on Saturday morning at Ping’s on Mott Street instead.
This year, 2021 — the second year of the Great Pandemic, my daughter’s freshman year of high school — has been a series of “lasts.” I’m constantly checking in with the calendar, and forcing myself to admit that my kids are no longer kids. The last year either will wear a Halloween costume, the last year of Easter baskets, the last bedtime readings of “Treasure Island” while a small gentleman falls asleep and starts to softly snore, the last birthday party with paper invitations and loot bags. (He didn’t even want a party at all.) My wish for the new year is that it be a year of “firsts.” I want to finally sell my first book. Maybe Nettie will even leave home and have her first semester away at boarding school — leaping from the branch and taking flight on her strong and graceful wings, my brave young red-tailed hawk.
No more rides up Macy’s escalators to the eighth floor to queue irritably among the costumed elves at Santaland. Au revoir, “Parade of the Wooden Soldiers.” I’m trying to look at all these endings as not just endings but beginnings. As my yoga teacher once said, when discussing the elephant-headed Lord Ganesha, the old has to die to make room for the new. December is the dying of the light. The sun will rise again in spring. Perhaps 2022 will bring something really new. Perhaps we’ll save American democracy in 2022, or science will wrestle Covid to the ground. Or, casting my expectations a bit lower — another important life skill, one I haven’t really mastered yet — perhaps my kids can at least learn to cook their own grilled cheese when they’re peckish, and put their own laundry in the dryer when they run out of underpants.