Monday, December 15, 2014

Mikulas and the Enduring Joy of Family Traditions

Several studies have found that a big key to family happiness and closeness is the practice of having traditions. In that arena, my mom was an expert! We had daily traditions like prayer and scripture study, weekly traditions like journal time and Family Home Evening, but our very favorites had to be the annual traditions which circled around "the most wonderful time of the year," Christmas. I think all my siblings can agree that the tradition we were most excited about was the one granted to us by our Hungarian ancestry. My mom's maternal grandparents were Hungarian immigrants, and one of the traditions they brought with them from their homeland was the celebration of Saint Mikulas Day (or Saint Nicholas) on December 6. Grandma and Mom grew up celebrating it, and now the fourth and fifth generations are continuing that tradition.

The thing I remember most about my great-grandmother Block was that she baked lots of cookies and she always insisted on us having a big glass of milk and as many cookies as we wanted when we visited. I got the feeling that cooking for her family was a way she expressed her love for them. Grandma and Mom were the same and making Mikulas dinner was definitely a labor of love! Even though the dishes seem a little plain, almost peasant fare, most of them took practically all day to prepare. I have often wondered how the Hunagrians used to do it wihtout all the fancy kitchen gadgets we have today.

One dish we learned from great-grandma was the Krumpli Noodli, or potato noodles. After boiling and mashing potatoes and kneading them into a dough (which mom often did at least in part by hand), she would roll out long snakes, cut them and roll each noodle between her palms to taper the ends. These would be laid out on floured sheet pans to dry a little, then be boiled in batches and tossed with toasted buttered bread crumbs. It took forever and made a big floury, sticky mess, but every year we'd roll up our sleeves and do it again. There was also the Palacinta Ham stack, a dish mom never recalled her mom or grandma making which she found in a Hungarian cook book. It incorporated a traditional Hungarian crepe, called a Palactinta, which grandma did make quite often and is now a breakfast staple among all my siblings. Normally we ate them rolled up with jam, but for Mikulas dinner mom would layer the crepes flat with a creamy ham sauce and cut it in wedges like a cake. She also served red cabbage sauted until tender and stirred with sour cream. I never ate it when I was a kid, and now I crave it but rarely bother making it because no one will eat it with me.

But the crown jewel of the feast was always the dobos torte, or drum cake (visit my cooking blog for the recipe!). It was traditionally a 9 layer cake (though we usually just did 8 layers) spread with a silky chocolate icing and topped with a hard golden candy top. The layers were a delicate sponge cake baked in swivel pans. I remember the old tarnished sliver pans mom used only once a year to make the cake, unless one of us had a heritage or cultural foods day at school, and then the dobos torte was the usual choice we were all proud to share. The story was that it was called a drum cake because you had to smack it hard with a knife to cut through the candy top. A true officianado could make a perfectly straight crack rather than shattering the surface, and a well cracked cake seemed to be symbolic of good fortune in the coming year. Later we did some research and found out it was probaly just called a "drum cake" because the baker who invented it was Mister Dobos, a name that just happened to mean drummer. Misinformation aside, the cutting of the cake in our home was always attended by great ceremony, and a well placed smack was met with a hearty cheer. 

After dinner was over, sometimes while enjoying our cake, mom would read a chapter of Kate Seredy's classic, "The Good Master." The story tells of Márton, a well-to-do yet humble and generous rancher who lives with his wife and son on the pastoral plains of Hungary. His sickly, feisty neice whose mother has passed away comes to stay with them for an extended visit. Her shenanigans keep her aunt, uncle and cousin hopping, but they eventually tame the little savage and she snuggles her way into their hearts. Mom would skip to the ending chapters and read the one that takes place on Mikulas. The two cousins, Jancsi and Kate, start off talking excitedly about the aniticpated night-time visit of the mysterious St. Mikulas and what he might leave in their shoes, when Márton tells them both that they won't have to wait or even wonder about him because they are picking him up at the train station that night. The astonished children bundle up for the snowy sleigh ride and travel with father to the station. They can't believe it when they really do pick up a white bearded man in a red and white fur trimmed suit and escort him around the neighborhood delivering toys to all the children they know. At the last house they have run out of presents, and the two cousins choose to give up their own cherished gifts because they know these children are very poor and may not have anything otheriwse. That part always made mom's voice quiver a little. But the part that always got her was when they return to their cozy house and the children discover that "Mikulas" was in fact Kate's father, come from the city for a visit. Mom's tears were Kate's tears as she is reunited with her father. After Kate's father expresses his wonder at how his little girl has changed and matured, the children ask about who the real Mikulas is, and he gives one of the most beautiful explanations I've ever heard about the tradition of Santa Claus. Try as she did, Mom could never prevent the crying, and sometimes I vainly thought I could at least keep it together if I were to read it. The first time I did I was far from home and sharing this cherished
tradition with some new friends. Despite all my expectations, I bawled. I think mom's tears came because of the deep love she had for her family, the sweetness of reunions like that of Kate and her Father, the joy that comes from seeing the goodness in each other, and the infinte joy that comes with this season and the knowledge that thousands of years ago, a little baby came into the world as the greatest gift of all. Those emotions are powerful and I suddenly understood why mom had such a hard time holding back the tears. Knowing this story was so precious to mom, my sweet brother Joseph thought to read it to her a few days before she died. I recently came across this photo, where you can see the well-loved and weather-worn copy mom always used.

The final part of our Mikulas tradition was just before bed, we would each make sure our best Sunday shoes were standing in wait near the fireplace or the front door. In the morning, they would be filled with little gifts and lots of chocolate. It was never anything as big as what we'd get at Christmas, just a little a little "appetizer," something to tide us over until the big day arrived.

I'm so grateful that my husband has fully adopted this tradition with me, and helps make sure it is special for our children. I imagine they will all do it with their families. This year, the first without Mom, going through the process helped me feel her near, and I know she was happy to see the legacy being handed along to the next generation. It is not about the presents, or even about the food. It is about the people, about the ties that bind us, about the sense of family and what makes us unique. It's having a mutual secret delight, something to look forward to that only you and the people you love the most could ever fully understand. I'm sure it wasn't always easy to do one more intensive thing at this busy season, nor is it any easier for me with two added birthdays in December to also plan for. But mom always came through, and now I don't think any of us would skip it for the world.

I hope each of you has a very special something that you always do with your families, and if you haven't got one, that you'll be inspired with a great idea! I'd love to hear a little about your traditions in the comments if you'd like to share. Merry Christmas everyone, and may the love and joy of this season fill your hearts every day of the year!