I’m not ready to pack away the holidays.
Never mind the Christmas dishes stacked on the buffet, the silverware tucked into its velvet-lined wooden case, the tablecloths (yes, plural) in a heap in front of the washer.
I am not ready — not at all — to set aside what to me is the most important gift of these past few weeks (and even longer if I think back to Thanksgiving).
That would be the gathering of friends and family, shoulder-to-shoulder at the table (really, there is room for one more if we all squeeze together), surrounded by candlelight, laughter and refreshments.
Every December it’s the same: I throw myself into cooking for big gatherings and, despite the multiple trips to the grocery store, the planning and making of lists, the time in front of the stove and the cleanup, I am content, even giddy. This is my happy place.
(I was in the middle of prepping something for a holiday meal when one adult daughter whispered to the other, “Does she need help?” The other shook her head. “No, it’s a Mom thing. Just let her cook.”)
Then the page on the calendar turns, the daily routine gets more routine, and before you can say, “The year is half gone,” those gatherings are a distant memory.
It’s time for a change.
Shortly before this year’s marathon cooking began, I read “The Year of Living Danishly: Uncovering the Secrets of the World’s Happiest Country,” by Helen Russell. She and her husband moved from their home in England to a rural part of Denmark, prompted by a new job prospect for him. Russell was faced with finding her place in a different culture.
In the dark of midwinter, she found herself enveloped in a concept the Danes actively promote, a moment that’s more mood than object, something called hygge, roughly defined as “coziness.” It’s the warm, fuzzy feeling you get when surrounded by those who make you happy, or when you’re wrapped in candlelight, or relaxed in front of a fire. The word comes from the Norwegian expression for “well-being,” which also intrigues me, as it reflects the sense of letting go of life’s worries even momentarily. Sounds good to me, any time of the year.
Those holiday meals certainly were hygge, as were the candlelit evenings before and after, and I think the weeks of twinkling lights on the Christmas tree count. So was my day of making lefse with friends and the afternoon of decorating cookies with granddaughters, both under 5 years of age. (I will be sweeping up green sprinkles until June.)
Hygge. When you give something a name, it exists.
That’s what I’m looking for, holiday joyfulness that extends throughout the year. In my home, that leads me to the kitchen and the dinner table.
Call it a resolution, if you will, given the timing. This will be my year of entertaining, big and small.
But why stop there, especially during the cold days ahead? My resolutions extend to the accoutrements of mealtime.
Candles at dinnertime. I bring out the candles when there’s company, but tend to forget how much I like them anytime and especially around food. Consider the impact of a lit votive at a restaurant. It changes the mood of the meal. And let’s be frank: We all look better in candlelight. Let there be flickering light at dinnertime throughout the year!
Good dishes and everyday. I am old-school enough that I have dishes I use for company and those I pull out for everyday meals. Mostly, it’s practical (when feeding a family, those everyday dishes were well used and sometimes chipped). Infrequent use of the fancier dishes ensured they were intact for guests, still a worthy goal, but perhaps it’s a bit foolish to have unused dishes solely for maintaining their perfection. Why not bring out the best dishes on occasion to dress up everyday meals? And the good flatware, too. (Old school, indeed.)
When my children were young, I would use the holiday dishes throughout December because it added a sense of festivity to our meals. There are plenty of other “good” dishes to give a workout throughout the year.
Cook with friends. For the past few years in December, I have gathered with several women to make lefse as a fundraiser for my church. It’s a daylong event that leaves us — and the host’s kitchen — in a dusting of flour. By the time we leave, several hundred rounds of lefse later, we are aglow with the silliness and camaraderie of working together. Some would call that team building; the Danes would say hygge. I call it a great day with friends.
We could have been baking cookies, or bread, or prepping dinners to be frozen later for our families. The specific food is incidental; what matters is our time together. And for me, there’s no need to limit this to December.
Time for soup. I’m a soup maker at heart — waste not, want not, especially in the kitchen — which was practical when young children meant there was a hungry crowd around the dinner table every night. That meant there was often a pot of soup simmering away on the stove during evenings when I supervised homework.
Last week I was back at it again, with a house full of grown-up children who were, not surprisingly, just as hungry as always. As I chopped vegetables and diced leftover meat to add to the rich broth, it struck me that this was our family’s go-to food, a dish that provides as much comfort making it as eating it. I don’t need a full house to bring out the stock pot.
Family recipe collections. I had to call my mother to get her puffed potato casserole recipe. It’s a holiday favorite, and I couldn’t remember all the ingredients. Fortunately, I could reach her. But it was a reminder there’s no time like the present to collect those family recipes, whether they’re favorites my own children have or those that bring back memories from meals past. This year I’ll write those recipes down.
The new year is already looking tastier.
Follow Lee Svitak Dean on Twitter: @StribTaste