I have many, many childhood memories of Christmas Eve that are wonderful:
Flying to California on Christmas Eve (fares were cheaper if we left that night), and finding that there were only seven passengers, including our family of four, aboard the entire 747. There were fourteen people working, and my sister and I, who were probably about 5 and 7 years old at the time, had the run of the plane, upstairs and down. First class food for everyone, and at one point, we heard the captain on the speaker overhead:
"Sharon and Diane, we have just spotted Santa and the reindeer off on our right hand side. He's headed for San Francisco, and it looks like he had quite a few things for you on the sleigh!"
My uncle Daniel spending about 25 minutes arranging the entire extended family into a group for the annual Christmas photo. The kind where he had to push a button on the camera, run like mad to get into the picture, and then everybody froze for what seemed like another hour until the flash finally went off. Then we could have ham, dinner rolls and butter.
Rushing up the stairs to find my cousin so we could flop down in her room, try out all her video games (Pong!) and listen to Casey Kasem's Top 100 countdown of the best songs of the year, giggling and dancing around like maniacs.
Making and decorating cutout sugar cookies every year*. Once, I decided to only make dove shapes, and decorated our entire Christmas tree with nothing but a huge flock of frosted birds and sparkly white lights.
Lou Rawls singing Little Drummer Boy.
All the Rankin-Bass Holiday specials, especially Rudolph.
In the midst of all this joy, there is one memory that makes me ill to this day: Oyster Stew at midnight. We would all gather at my aunt's dining table, and my grandmother would lift the lid on a silver soup tureen and ladle the steaming stuff into porcelain bowls for each of us. I stared down into a pool of warm cream, with flecks of melted butter scattered through it. Floating languidly within were at least three and maybe six grayish black chewy globs of gelatinous fishy grossness: Oysters. The grownups around me would sip and smile with pleasure at the rich and decadent treat. I would look longingly at the dessert tray filled with little cookies and wrapped chocolates and hate my life. My mother glared at me until I hesitantly lifted my spoon and allowed a drip of broth into my mouth with a grimace. My sister was gagging silently beside me. It was torture. To this day, I avoid oysters like the plague. But I'm all about dessert trays filled with cookies and wrapped chocolates.
As a mom, I've tried to avoid giving my children Oyster Stew memories, and focused on making positive ones. We write a note that everybody signs. We bake snickerdoodles and pour a big mug of milk for Santa**, leave hay and carrots for the reidneer, and the kids and my husband camp out on the floor hoping to catch the jolly fellow in the act.
And if I do make a Christmas Eve dinner that features a stew with fish in it, we have a grilled chicken alternative available.
Christmas Eve Seafood and Sausage Gumbo
1 pkg. hot Louisiana sausage links, cut into slices
About 1/2 c. olive oil, divided
1 lb. okra, stems removed, sliced into 1/2 " pieces (perfectly fine to use frozen)
2 c. onions, diced
1 c. coarsely chopped red bell pepper
1 c. coarsely chopped green bell pepper
4 cloves garlic, minced
5 c. chicken stock
3 c. loosely drained canned diced plum tomatoes (meaning you keep a little of the juice)
1 tsp. ground cumin
1/2 tsp. cayenne peppe
freshly ground black pepper
1 bay leaf
2 Tbs. butter, divided
1 tsp. Cajun or Creole seasoning
1 lb. rock shrimp, peeled and deveined (can use regular shrimp)
3 Tbs. flour
1 lb. boneless skinless chicken tenders, cut into 3/4" pieces.
12 oz. lump crabmeat
2 Tbs. Italian parsley
Start the gumbo base:
In a large pot, saute the sausage over medium heat until brown, about 15 minutes. Remove from pot and set aside. Add 2-3 Tbs. of olive oil to the pot. Add the okra and cook over medium heat until slightly soft, about 10-15 minutes. Add another 2 Tbs. of olive oil to the pot, then stir in the onions, bell peppers, and garlic. Stir and cook another 10 minutes. Add the chicken stock, tomatoes, cumin, cayenne, 1 tsp. salt, 1/2 tsp. black pepper and bay leaf. Simmer, uncovered, for about 30 minutes.
As that simmers, get the add-ins ready.
Toss the rock shrimp with the Cajun seasoning in a small bowl. In another bowl, combine the flour, 1 tsp. salt and 1/2 tsp. of black pepper. Toss this mixture with the chicken tenders. In a large saucepan, melt 1 Tbs. butter. Saute the shrimp in the butter until pink. Add the shrimp and any juices in the saucepan to your gumbo. Add 1 Tbs. of olive oil and 1 Tbs. of butter to that same saucepan. Add the contents of the chicken bowl (including any extra flour) to the saucepan, and cook over medium heat until chicken is browned and just cooked through. It is OK if the flour browns and clumps, too. Scrape every little bit into the gumbo pot, and this will help thicken the gumbo.
Add the sausage back into the pot, and stir in the crabmeat and parsley. Allow to heat through, taste to adjust seasonings, and serve. Goes well over rice with crusty french bread.
Note: Use this recipe as a guideline. Feel free to change up the types of seafood or sausage that you use, go overboard on an ingredient that you love, or add your own spin on it. That's what I do!
* We still make these cookies every year. It's the fifth constant of the holiday open house that there is always cookie decorating.
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Christmas Cut Out Cookies
1 lb. butter
2 c. sugar
1 Tbs. vanilla
3 Tbs. milk
1/2 tsp. baking soda
5 c. flour
Cream butter and sugar. Dissolve baking soda in a mixture of the vanilla and the milk, then blend this into the creamed mixture. Gradually blend in the flour. Refrigerate dough for several hours. Pre heat oven to 350. Working with portions at a time, roll out on lightly floured surface until 1/4" thick. Cut into shapes with cookie cutters. Bake on parchment paper or silicon mat covered cookie sheet for 6-8 minutes, or until edges are just beginning to brown. If you are making ornaments, poke a hole with the end of the skewer in the top of the cookies right when they come out of the oven. Decorate and enjoy. Makes lots and lots of cookies.
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** I am envious of a friend's tradition, which holds that Santa likes a nice glass of red wine and fine chocolate.