When I was growing in Lewisville, North Carolina, it was a tradition that we would spend Christmas eve at my mother sister's house between Yadkinville and East Bend, North Carolina.
The location was a good one since it was only a few miles from the spot where my mother and her two sisters were born on the Styers Mill Pond. The pond has long since disappeared, but the memories are still there.
My mother and I were always considered part of her sister's family. Her sister, my Aunt Molly, had six children, and all but one, Sue, were older than me. It didn't take long before the Christmas eve celebration was crawling with grandchildren.
I can still remember the floor being ankle deep in wrapping paper as all the children unwrapped their presents. Even at an early age, I was a semi-official photographer for the event. Sometimes before the event, my mother and I would join Aunt Molly and Uncle Austin and attend the Christmas eve service at the Union Cross Friends Church. I enjoyed going because one of their traditions was to give "unusual" presents to each other at the end of the service. I think I remember Uncle Austin getting a pig's tail one Christmas.
When I was fourteen, I got shipped off to military school in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Many of my vivid memories revolve around coming home for Christmas. My first airline flights on Piedmont would have taken place in the winter of 1963 when I came home for Thanksgiving and later for Christmas.
Coming home to Christmas is different from being at home as Christmas is gradually unfolded. I cannot ever remember coming home to a tree being already up and decorated. That was always my job, and I started selecting trees well before I could drive. I still remember having to wire some of those early trees to the wall to keep them from falling.
In the summer of 1971, I bought an old farm and moved away to Canada. By the time my wife and I moved back to the states in 1987, the Christmas eve celebration at my Aunt's house was long gone.
I guess that makes the most enduring family tradition for me putting up the Christmas tree. Over time the tree has more often than not been a real tree just like this year's.
Another tradition with strong roots in our family is making homemade treats for friends and relatives. My mother made so many delicious things for the holidays that it is hard to remember them all. The applesauce cakes, rum cakes, mints, and fruit cakes that she used to make are beyond what our family is willing to tackle these days.
It is hard keeping up even a few of the cooking traditions, but we almost always have country ham and biscuits for at least one breakfast during the holidays. My oldest daughter made my mother's super easy fudge this Christmas. Sometimes we make her cheese straws, but this year we got ambitious and decided to make peanut brittle. It was a renewal of tradition that we stopped after my mother's death in 2004.
Making peanut brittle takes a little planning. In early fall we start watching for small bags of raw shelled peanuts. We never could find them in Virginia, but we always seemed to be able to find them in Mount Airy where my mother lived for years. This year we got them just before Christmas at the Ace Hardware in Swansboro.
Next is the hardest part, splitting the peanuts and getting the skins off of them. Obviously not everyone takes the skins off the peanuts for their peanut brittle, but it was a rule with my mother. It is a tribute to her authority as the matriarch of the Styers family that seven years after she died, no one in our family would dare make peanut brittle with peanuts which still have their skins.
We still have two of her peanut brittle slabs, one made of Mount Airy granite and another made of marble. The granite one is thicker and more suitable for a number of batches, one after the other, but the thinner marble one works for the couple of batches that we usually do. We put our slab out the night before we plan to make candy. We only make the peanut brittle on cool, clear days. Supposedly the process doesn't work well on damp days. It was another of mother's rules.
I was taught how to make peanut brittle at a very young age so I have never timed anything. I just do it like my mother showed me how to do it.
Once we have nearly a couple of cups of skinless raw peanut halves, I put one half cup of Karo Syrup or light corn syrup in my wife's four quart Dutch oven that was given to her by my mother. To that I add one quarter cup of water and one cup of sugar. I bring that to boil stirring continuously with a wooden spatula. When I can drop some of the syrup off the spatula and it "strings," I dump in almost a cup of peanuts and continue stirring them. It is approximately medium heat, but we cook on a gas stove top so I adjust as needed.
Today I sent my son out to get the slab while I was stirring the peanut brittle mixture. My wife put a towel on our granite counter top to prevent the slab from damaging it. When we could smell the peanuts, and they got to a light brown color, I added one teaspoon of baking soda to the mixture and stirred vigorously for a few seconds before pouring the molten hot candy onto the slab where my wife spread it as thinly as possible.
It is a two person job, and everything including pot holders need to be ready for action. You only have a few seconds to get the candy from the pot to the slab. Watching this YouTube video that my oldest daughter filmed today might be of some help. It starts just before we added the baking soda.
We immediately put the pot in the sink and fill with water which usually dissolves the remains of the mixture stuck in the pot. After the candy has cooled a few minutes on the slab, my wife takes a metal spatula and tries to work from the edge inward and lift big pieces of the peanut brittle off the slab. If the slab is cold, dry, and clean, it usually works very well. The idea in our family has always been to get the peanut brittle as thin as possible.
Once we get the peanut brittle off a slab, we spread it out on a cookie sheet and put it outside to finish cooling. The slab goes back out for a few minutes while we reload for another batch.
Hopefully we can get enough made tomorrow so we can have some for gifts.
These are links to pictures of the ingredients, peanut brittle on the slab, peanut brittle on the cookie sheet, and a close-up of a nice piece of peanut brittle. Peanut brittle is a lot harder on the diet than the other tradition which we renewed this year.
Playing a game of Rook with the special deck of Rook cards was a big part of growing up in the South. It was what our family did on cold winter nights. I can remember playing it with teenage friends when we wanted something to pass the time late at night. The times have changed a lot since then.
For Christmas 2011 my wife dragged out a new deck of Rook cards that she was given a few years ago. Our two older children were visiting so after a little persuading, we got together a foursome and had some great fun learning how to play Rook all over again. It came back to us pretty quickly, and we had a ball.
The last time we played Rook was over twenty years ago when my wife's parents, my mother, and her friend R.J. visited us in Roanoke. It was a magical visit, and playing Rook this year brought back a lot of those memories.
With a fresh tree, some homemade candy, and a few hands of Rook, we kept some traditions going that are as much or more fun as all the gift giving and cooking that wears us all out so much during the holidays.
Next year we are hauling out the Crokinole board. My mother would be proud.
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