What do you remember most about your childhood Christmases? For me, it is one unusual ornament that stands out above all else.
As soon as my mother made turkey sandwiches to dispense with the Thanksgiving leftovers, she mixed up batches of anise-flavored cookie dough, whose pungent scent wafted throughout our house for days. In no time, dozens of stars, bells, reindeer, angels, trees, and Santas were baked to a golden brown and stacked between layers of waxed paper in our blue-speckled roaster, just waiting to be adorned.
On a Saturday morning in December, Mom cleared the kitchen counter and table, whipped up big bowls of vanilla frosting, and set out dishes of red and green sugar. My sister and I donned aprons and went to work. As we iced, decorated, and stacked cookie after cookie, the levels of joy spread through me—the brilliance of the colors, the happiness of sharing the experience with my mother and my sister, the anticipation of savoring these dripping, festive treats. We spent the entire day on our project. My sister and I went to school on Monday with red- and green-stained fingers.
Cookie Day was significant because it also heralded the decorating of the holiday tree. We breathed in the sweet fragrance of pine as my father set the tree in the stand to let it settle. The branches dropped, making room for the decorations we brought down from the attic. Unwrapping each ornament was like visiting an old friend. We unpacked the new box of perfectly moulded plastic characters—the laughing blue Santa, the quirky red-and-green elf with his pointed cap and slippers, the delicate white angel with her golden halo and wings, and, of course, Rudolph with his jingling harness and bright red nose. We oohed and aahed over the exquisite handmade antique glass ornaments from Germany that had been passed down for generations in our family. There were fragile bells that actually rang, long ropes of tiny glass beads, handblown glass balls with “Merry Christmas” and “Happy New Year” written on them in glitter, and globes with sparkling winter scenes etched into the surfaces.
Then there was the apple core. The moment this ornament first appeared in our house, it became the favorite of both my sister and me. It was the size of a medium McIntosh apple and looked as if someone had eaten all around the middle. Both the top and the bottom were red, and the inside was a pale green. There were indentations around the edges that resembled bite marks. Why, of all things, should we take to this odd decoration among the vast collection of whimsical elves and beautiful angels, the seasonal Santas and reindeer? Who knows why something captures the heart of a child? We loved it, and that was enough.
The first year, the ornament hung exactly in the middle, on the front of our tree. During the Christmases that followed, we took turns—one season, it graced my sister’s side and the next, mine. And so the years passed. The day finally arrived when I moved into an apartment of my own and my sister was married. Mom and Dad offered to give us some holiday ornaments for our respective trees. We went through the boxes and each made our selections.
Then we came to the apple core. Now what? We had been sharing this favorite of all favorites for more than a decade, so we decided to continue the ritual. My sister would take it for five years, then she would give it to me for the next five. I, in turn, would pass it back to her, and so on.
It has been more than thirty years now that we have been exchanging the apple core. It has its own special box with its own personal schedule written on top. I always say that I’m going to remember when it’s my turn to get it back, but I always forget. Last Christmas, when all the gifts had been opened, my sister gave me one more. I knew immediately what it was. Everyone joined in laughter as we celebrated our family’s Yuletide tradition of sharing. This year, I will proudly hang the apple core on the front of my tree for everyone to see and enjoy.
Text Carol Pouliot