If I had to describe The Great Holiday Season with one word that would sum it all, I’d say “pressure”. Pressure, lots of it. Yeah, yeah, we’ve all heard about how commercialized Christmas has become lately, but the truth is, for many of us this might be the only chance in the whole year to spend some time with the family.
Family is complicated. We forever go on thinking that, hey, we didn’t pick them, they didn’t pick us, so it would behoove us to be civil and friendly to each other once a year, and whatever you choose to celebrate this time of the year is the perfect opportunity to do just that: forget your earthly troubles and relax with the family, sipping hot cocoa, all wrapped in checkered blankets. If only it were so easy!
We dread our family; we love them to death, but we dread the day we have to spend more then five minutes with them. So we buy gifts. We shop at unthinkable hours of the day and night (thanks to Internet), we make mile long lists, we find most ridiculous sales, and we clip coupons. We buy unreasonably priced, silly, impractical, lavish, obnoxiously loud gifts. We buy, worse yet, knit ugly sweaters. We painstakingly wrap every little bit of it – from bars of soap to bicycles (I swear I once wrapped two large pieces of luggage for my 85 year old uncle), we write our names on the labels, we stuff cash into pretty cards, and we mail and mail hundreds of our chubby toothless offspring photos to every relative on Earth, ever more surprised at how many of them we have (relatives, that is, not chubby offspring).
Having gone through this world of pain, you’d think you are done and can finally relax. But no, this is just the beginning if you are happen to host the festivities. All of a sudden you find yourself surveying your dwelling and find it absolutely hideous and unsuitable for entertaining. A cozy sweet home that your immediate family inhabits so happily the rest of the year, turns in your eyes into a stinky cave infested with dust bunnies, unreprimanded ever-shedding pets, unpolished silver, dusty stained wineglasses, and not a single white tablecloth (much less napkin rings) in sight! Everything seems shabby, unusable and smeared with your toddler’s sticky fingerprints. So you spend a few days in despair thinking to yourself How in the world am I going to have any guests over? Then you sigh and grab a scrub brush and sanitizing cloth…
If you are anything like me, the compulsion to have a very marthastewartly holiday may lead you god knows where. You may find yourself moving furniture, installing shelves, reorganizing closets, buying new sheets and towels, adorning your holiday tree with flowers and birds for ornaments, making origami cranes and hanging them from the ceiling, and doing other silly things like that. So after a few days of this personal hell, you come to a point where you say “Enough. They are supposed to love you unconditionally, so who cares if their pillow case doesn’t match the rug in the bathroom?”. Have you noticed how at this point in the game, all the pain you inflicted on yourself causes you to practically hate the people you are working so hard to impress?
And then it hits you. You are supposed to cook something! And not just cook, you have to smash everyone into pieces with your culinary skill. Yeah, rest assured, no matter how sweet your mom or mother-in-law, or aunt Flossy are to you the rest of the year, judgement will be passed upon serving them holiday meal. Unspoken, heavy, it will linger uneasily, marring The Great Holiday Season and beyond. This shall not happen in your house, not on your watch, you think to yourself, and start working on your culinary strategy, like a good war general. You draw a map of your holiday table and write a grocery list worthy of Catherine the Great, and scan every last recipe website for something original, yet surprisingly easy to make. And if you are like me, you always have a plan B.
And then of course you have to cook all of that in your freshly scrubbed kitchen, running around like the proverbial beheaded poultry until you hear your guests pulling into the driveway. You look over your feast table like Napoleon before giving the final battle, and rush into the shower to wash your last four-five weeks of pressure off. And then you come out into the living room, all shiny, smiling, and thinking to yourself Where is my big pitcher of vodka? Let me get drunk and pass out quietly somewhere in the house without being noticed. Gawd, I am never doing THAT again!
If any of the above sounds familiar then you are going to agree with me that “pressure” is the word. And you’d think that all of the troubles I listed would be perfectly enough for one person to endure during The Great Holiday Season. Well. Not me. The word was out that I will be working Christmas and about three weeks leading up to it, and maybe even New Year, too. No vacations allowed. So instead of going through the world of pain in the household realm, I went through just as much, if not more of it in my work realm, putting in solid 80 hour weeks, and working nights like it’s nothing. The problem is, no one sent a memo to Santa to postpone Christmas. And my kid wasn’t going to cancel her Winter Break, and mom was still coming from NYC to visit. So boo-hoo for me.
Fairly early in the process I decided that something’s gotta give and figured that since we moved a few months ago, I can use it as an excuse for not cleaning the house for The Great Holiday Season. There are boxes everywhere anyway, I thought, so I just arrange the boxes neatly, and clear some room in the spare bedroom for mom’s bed. This took care of the cleaning.
Cooking was dealt with differently. We had to invite ourselves to the in-laws’ house for Christmas, so I didn’t have to host the feast of the year. There was still New Year, but that’s way far away. I wasn’t going to worry about that.
Having dealt with the two biggest tasks of The Season, however, I found myself having a Holiday Itch. Don’t get me wrong, I was still working insane hours, and my butt was still firmly glued to my computer chair. But my mind started to wander. It started painting faint pictures of gingerbread houses, Christmas trees and other trifle from the worry-free-land of dreams unknown to a software developer working in sports. And before I knew it I was browsing the Internet for gingerbread house ideas. Most of them were the been-there-done-that kind of ideas, and while they didn’t require a lot of time to execute, didn’t appeal to me in any way. I had to do something crazy. It had to be impressive, different, yet simple. The holiday pressure bug got under my skin.
The next day, I sneaked out at lunch to the grocery store and purchased three flavors of chocolate chips. The rest of the lunch break was spent making the easiest possible fudge of three colors – chocolate, peanut butter, and white. Then I let them set in the fridge for a day or so. On other day, I sneaked another 45 minutes or so to make the windows and a door out of cookie dough with some caramel stained glass. I didn’t have a lot of time to think about it, I didn’t measure anything, just made sure all windows were the same size.
Next day, I cut the firm fudge into tiny bricks and the construction began.
I built a few first rows of bricks in a couple of hours. Then it was back to work for me. I shoved the construction site into the cabinet where cats couldn’t get to it, and went on with my work. (I work from home).
Next night I built another few rows, and made sure all windows were in place. There were eight windows total and one door.
I traced windows and the door around with store-bought chocolate icing. Things began to take shape. Then I got really really busy at work, and the house had to wait a couple of days. Meanwhile, I’ve looked up a recipe for the roof. This time I had to measure correctly to prevent construction failure. Once the roof was baked (it only took 30 minutes total to make the dough and cut and bake the roof pieces), I knew I was at the home stretch.
That night, I finished working on my assignment around 1 am. I rushed into the kitchen, determined to complete the feat of the insane. Two hours and some finishing touches later, the house was ready. I went to bed completely drained, but I knew that my Holiday Pressure was relieved greatly. There it was – my amazing Gingerbrick house, the love child of The Great Holiday Season insanity induced by sleepless work weeks and longing for a normal life.
It took us about 10 days to eat this thing. It was tasty, as tasty as fudge can be really. I wish I took better pictures of it, as, I think, I will never make another one again!