Seventeen years ago, my wise friend Carole sat holding my newborn and asked me, "So what new Christmas traditions will you start now that you have Ben?"
I blinked. The usual, I supposed. The trek to the tree lot, baking cookies, setting up the Nativity. But the need for a fresh tradition stayed with me. Two years later, I found my new ritual in a magazine -- and it involved my favorite room in the house, the kitchen.
Wrapped in aprons, Ben and I spent an entire happy and messy afternoon making salt dough, rolling it out and cutting out little stars, Christmas trees and gingerbread men from the tin cookie cutters I'd used as a child. There was flour on the old wooden floor, on our faces and in our hair. The whole time, Ben smiled that sweet, crooked little smile of his. We poked a hole at the top of each doughy ornament -- Ben especially loved that part -- and then baked them until they were hard.
Later, I painted them with shellac, and the next day we threaded red ribbon through the hole in each ornament. Our small kitchen Christmas tree was perfect. It sat on the old hutch in the white, sunny nook of our drafty, tall-ceiling kitchen in Virginia, decorated only with a handful of old tin cookie cutters and 24 homemade ornaments. My mother provided the perfect tree skirt -- a little crescent-shaped apron she made me when I was a child -- white cotton with small red roses, red rick-rack and a ruffled edge. That little apron brought back sweet memories of snowy mornings baking bread and cookies with my mother in our kitchen in Pittsburgh, followed by an afternoon of sledding at the park.
Over the years, my collection of ornaments for the kitchen tree has grown, and so has the tree. The original kitchen tree is in the attic, replaced by a tall tree that stands in our large kitchen in Georgia bedecked with antique cookie cutters, kitchen-themed ornaments and garlands of gumdrops, sugary candies and peppermints. But my favorite ornaments are still the little salt dough ornaments I made with my little boy 15 years ago.
The original 24 have dwindled to 12. Our black lab Sophie decided they looked good enough to eat three years ago, but then just about anything edible and inedible is food to sneaky Sophie. I was heartbroken and have carefully wrapped and stored the remaining 12 as if they were museum reasures. They are to me.
I wonder why I never made salt dough ornaments with Sam, my younger son. Today, I'm going to mix up a batch of salt dough with Sam and make a dozen ornaments. He's old enough at 14 to shellac them after they're baked, and I bet he'll delight in a paintbrush dripping with a gooey, toxic substance. I'll fluff out that little artificial tree that belonged to my husband's father, decorate it with the boys' salt dough ornaments and my old cookie cutters, tuck the little apron tucked around its base and center it on the long farmhouse table.
I'll still happily trim a large, fresh tree with the collection of kitchen kitsch I love, but I need the ritual of that simple little homespun kitchen Christmas tree to comfort my occasional longing to turn back time so that I can once more cozy up with my adorable toddlers in a corner of the couch surrounded by a stack of their favorite books; to re-live a typical wintry Saturday when my parents and my sister and I walked to Grandview Park, pulling our Red Flyer in joyful anticipation of an afternoon of sledding with my Dad, the biggest kid of all.
Childhood is fleeting -- the bittersweet part of motherhood -- but a simple little tradition brings me quiet joy and helps me to re-live a little of the magic of their childhood and mine.
Laura Platas-Scott resides in Lawrenceville with her family and is a freelance writer and Spanish interpreter.