Christmas is a time to make memories, and hopefully, the kind of memories that still make you laugh, giggle and smile sixty years later.
Unless it was the Christmas of 1986, when “Santa” had the bright idea to leave all his Christmas gifts in one 10 foot long black plastic bag so that our family could open their gifts one at a time in an orderly fashion. Our kids were 13, 11, 9, 7, and 5 in 1986. The orderly distribution plan lasted about 2 minutes before the Christmas Riot of ’86 ensued. My children have never let me forget that fiasco. Orderly should never be a word used to describe anything Christmas, or so I was informed.
On a more jolly note, Patrice and I returned last week from Callaway Gardens, a resort located an hour southwest of Atlanta. For the second year in a row, we met some of our grandchildren for a ride through Callaway’s Festival of Lights. This dazzling, magical one-hour-long trip through an illuminated forest is rated by National Geographic as one of the Top 10 Light Displays in the world. Watching the awestruck faces of my grandchildren was proof positive that the trip was worth it. Making memories has never been this much fun – maybe because no long black plastic bags were involved.
In my recent post about “The Simple Joys of Christmas,” I encouraged readers to hold fast to their family traditions, but, not be afraid to start new ones. Visiting light shows like the Festival of Lights is just such a new tradition that makes a lifelong memory.
Family traditions at Christmas can range from mistletoe kisses to Christmas caroling, from Christmas cookie exchanges to lighting Advent candles, from sipping your favorite egg nog or hot chocolate to watching the movie It’s A Wonderful Life for the umpteenth time. As I ponder my Christmases past, I savor the memories and traditions I experienced as a child. But those traditions have changed over time as I became a husband, a father, a grandfather, a widower, and now a remarried man. Life changes, and by necessity, holiday routines are adapted to fit new families and new living locations.
One such tradition that changed over time involved how my family handled Christmas dinner. For a twenty-year period, our family mantra was If It’s Eggrolls, It Must Be Christmas! And therein lies a story.
When my children were still kids, our Christmas celebrations usually started the weekend before Christmas when my late wife’s side of the family would celebrate “Smithmas Christmas,” a time to come together, eat, drink and exchange silly inexpensive gifts. That served official notice that Christmas was almost here. Oh, how I recall the Christmases of the 1980s being much like a 48 hour Merry Marathon. Those are two words that rarely go together. Marathons are usually not very merry. Christmas Eve started with a birthday party since my late wife’s (Tootie’s) birthday was December 24th. That was always followed by dinner out with my parents before returning to their home to exchange gifts. Full of food and good cheer, we returned to our home so that the kids could exchange gifts among themselves before heading off to Christmas Eve services at our church.
Returning home around midnight, the kids were hustled off to bed. As soon as quiet reigned, Santa Claus would make an appearance and lay out the wrapped gifts in neat stacks of five around the living room. Then Mom and Pa Claus headed for bed – unless Santa had foolishly delivered items that required assembly.
We had a rule in our home for Christmas mornings: no one disturbed a sleeping mom and dad until 7 a.m. Tootie and I would wake Christmas morning to the not-so-quiet whispers outside our bedroom door as the girls would keep asking their two older brothers what time it was. At the stroke of 7 a.m., five energetic kids crashed through the door and jumped on the bed begging us to get up. Oh yes, one other rule: no one opened any gifts without mom and dad present. You have never lived until you have had five of your offspring drag you out of bed.
The next hour found the living room turned into a mini-disaster area as torn ribbons, scraps of wrapping paper, and squeals of delight punctuated the air. Bedlam reigned. When sanity and serenity returned, I would cook breakfast, only to watch the kids wolf down their pancakes, so they could return to their toys. As I cleaned up after breakfast, my wife started making Christmas dinner. Family would start arriving around noon and Christmas dinner looked much like a Thanksgiving feast with 12-15 family and friends gathered around our table. We faithfully followed this holiday routine every Christmas.
All to say, sleep was never a problem on the night of the 25th of December.
One Christmas in the late 1980s, exhausted after another two-day marathon of Christmas celebrations, my wife confessed how she struggled to enjoy the season. It was just too much work. She longed for a simpler Christmas, one she could spend more time with the children and less time in the kitchen. But how could we accomplish it?
For years, we had celebrated special events in our family by cooking egg rolls, lots and lots of egg rolls. After some thought, an idea was born. Tootie suggested we serve egg rolls for Christmas dinner. She could prepare the fillings the day before and when we were ready to eat, whoever was at the house could sit down, “roll their own” egg roll and I (the dad) would cook them in a deep fryer on our deck. This usually meant 100-150 egg rolls. As family and friends dropped by, they were invited to “roll their own” and enjoy a McElhannon Christmas treat while everyone sat around the kitchen table sharing Christmas memories. With hot mustard and sweet-and-sour sauce ready for the dipping, the annual tradition began. It was simple, easy to prepare and allowed everyone, especially Mrs. Claus, to enjoy the day. (See recipe below.)
The lesson we learned from this Christmas culinary change was that we should not fear or be reluctant to change traditions when they better serve the needs of the family.
Christmas memories come in all shapes and sizes, but for the better part of two decades, some of our most precious Yuletide memories came fried, crispy, and crunchy. And now you know the rest of the story and why in our family, if it’s egg rolls, it must be Christmas.
And that made one momma very happy.
Recipe for Christmas Egg Rolls
(use the same recipe for egg rolls at any time of the year!)
1 head of cabbage shredded (or 3-4 bags of pre-shredded cabbage)
3 cans of bean sprouts – drained
3 cans water chestnuts – finely chopped
3 onions thinly sliced
A few carrots – shredded- mostly for color
5-6 pounds ground beef(chuck) cooked and drained.
Soy and Teriyaki sauce
Salt and Pepper
Sweet and Sour Sauce, Hot Mustard, other dipping sauces as desired
6 packages of egg roll wrappers
1 Egg for sealing
Stir up egg and set aside
Combine all ingredients in a large mixing bowl and mix well
Add garlic and soy/teriyaki sauce along with salt and pepper. Be generous.
Lay out a single egg roll wrapper. Place a little mixture in the middle
Fold in corners to middle and seal with egg mixture.
Fry in peanut oil until golden brown. Drain well.
Serve with sweet and sour sauce, hot mustard or any other dipping sauce of choice.
You can freeze leftovers but they are not crispy when reheated…but still delicious.