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Christmas Traditions: Or, How Jell-O Joined Our Holiday table

Christmas is almost tangible right now; it’s just days away. Hopefully, your shopping is close to complete. Mine is not. There are presents to be wrapped, cards still to be sent and ugly sweater parties to attend. I hear a lot of moms talking about creating traditions for their families during the holidays; just the other day, RMB contributor Bethany took us on a trip to cut down her family’s Christmas tree.

Christmas morning sometime in the 70s.
Christmas morning sometime in the 70s.

Today I want to let moms know that they are already creating memories, and no Elves on the Shelf are needed. In fact, you can create traditions just by giving your kids a great holiday. I remember that my mom loved Christmas music, but those records and radio stations were not allowed until Dec. 15. And our tree, it really never went up until around that time either. I always thought my mid-December birthday marked the kick off of the holiday season, which to me made my birthday all the more special. See, in our Polish, Ukrainian, Spanish and Puerto Rican home, Christmas was celebrated from December 24 through January 6, the feast of the Epiphany. Christmas was a season, not a day. The celebration continued with gifts and meals for days, and seemed a little less frantic.

I never considered how much work the Christmas season was for my mom, what all went into the planning, shopping, wrapping, cooking and the Christmas dinner invite list. My mom made it seem effortless. All these years later, I don’t remember a lot of the gifts we exchanged. I do remember having an M&M fight, the story about the Christmas tree falling onto a babysitter (poor Jamie), and a house full of relatives. I remember our trips to cut down our own tree from the Boy Scout lot, my mother scrutinizing each pine. I remember lying on the living room floor with my brother and sister playing with my toys for hours after everything had been unwrapped.

Mostly though, I remember the family meals. Like most families, our kitchen was the center of the house. As the relatives would arrive late on Christmas morning, they would sit at the kitchen counter, nibbling on that crab, cocktail sauce and cream cheese dip  Mom always served with Triscuits. There was a small plate of dates stuffed with walnuts and rolled in sugar for my Grandma Judy and Uncle Ruben to share. Eggnog was laced with Bacardi rum and whipped cream. All the while, 24 hours of commercial-free Christmas music would be playing in the background with the sliding glass door open so we could enjoy the 80-degree Southern California December day.

Find the recipe for the Bacardi Rum cake at TheBakingPan.com.
Find the recipe for the Bacardi Rum cake at TheBakingPan.com.

Trays of Christmas cookies included those Black Walnut Brandy balls, peanut butter blossoms, a chocolate chip variation and some bar-like creation. Pies, a cheesecake and a Bacardi rum-soaked cake, that was made just for my uncle, were ready to be enjoyed after dinner. In some ways, it really felt like Barcardi sponsored Christmas at our house.

However, no holiday meal, Thanksgiving or Christmas was official unless we had Jell-O salads to pass around. There was the electric orange one with carrots, walnuts and pineapple in it. My brother still makes it each year, carefully placing the grated carrots and walnuts just so inside the green and white Tupperware mold my mom got as a party hostess gift in 1971. He will be here on the 23rd at my house with that Jell-O mold, ready to make that salad.

There also was one we made with pistachio pudding, Cool Whip and crushed canned pineapple mixed together into a light green amalgamation. There must have been a major push in the late 60s and early 70s from either Jell-O or the Del Monte companies to get people to eat more of these gelatin and pineapple salads. Here is a similar recipe called a Watergate salad with pecans and marshmallows. Seriously, it’s called Watergate salad – can this be any more of a 70s dish?!

Our Jell-O salad never looked this fancy. Image courtesy Simply Recipes
Our Jell-O salad never looked this fancy. Image courtesy Simply Recipes.

Either of these two creations went perfectly with the meal, whether we were having turkey, baked ham or an amazing Puerto Rican style roast pork studded with garlic and extra crisp skin. If you have a Jell-O mold and the need for an orange and pineapple infused side dish for your table this year, here’s the recipe.

Orange, Carrot and Pineapple Jell-O Salad

  • One six-ounce box of orange Jello-O
  • Two cups boiling water
  • One cup cold water
  • A nine-ounce can of crushed or diced pineapple, drained (don’t use fresh)
  • One cup of fresh peeled and grated carrots
  • ½ to 1/3 cup of walnuts

In a large bowl, combine the Jell-O and boiling water until the Jell-O dissolves. Add the cold water, drained pineapple, carrots and walnuts and mix. Pour the mixture into your mom’s Jell-O mold.

Place in the refrigerator, as the Jell-O thickens over the next hour stir it gently from time to time, maybe every 15-20 minutes, so the carrots don’t sink to the bottom of the mold. Let set for several hours to harden.

To unmold, dip the bottom of the pan in warm water for a few seconds, then invert onto a serving platter, shaking it until it makes that sound Jell-O makes when it releases. It is a sucking sound; you’ll know it when you hear it.

Garnish with parsley, if you are feeling Martha-like and slice to serve. This goes with every holiday meal, according to my brother, and serves a table full of relatives. Special thanks to Elise Bauer at Simply Recipes for the lovely photo. Our Jell-O salad never looked as fancy as the one pictured here from her site. Her grandmother made a similar recipe with lemon Jell-O which can be found on Simply Recipes.

The Christmas meal meant the need to dust off the folding chairs from the garage, find the tablecloths, count the silverware and decorate the table with the same little Christmas tree candles that we used each year. We had a box of these and other decorative holiday candles with the Christmas decorations. They were never lit. It wasn’t until I was an adult that I realized people actually used their candles.

A Puerto Rican Christmas at my house meant Arroz con Gandules or Roast Pork. Image courtesy of Goya.
A Puerto Rican Christmas at my house meant Arroz con Gandules or Roast Pork. Image courtesy of Goya.

The holiday dinner started after my Grandfather said grace and was punctuated by the occasional food fight, typically started by my Grandmother when someone asked her to toss them a roll. She had amazing aim for such thick glasses. One side dish was always forgotten in the kitchen; it might be the stuffing that was left in the turkey or the yams or the arroz con gandules.

I have these memories of my mom and Uncle Ruben sitting at the table still littered with used plates, half empty wine glasses, a can of Reddi-wip and dessert forks hours after dinner was over enjoying a slice of pumpkin pie or rum cake and coffee while having an in-depth conversation half in English and half in Spanish, with the Christmas music playing in the background. The music and meals would continue for days more, until we ended the season on January 6 with one last Puerto Rican feast filled with more pork, pasteles, arroz con gandules, maduros and, yes, maybe that Jell-O again.

To me, the sound of Christmas echoes through my mind at this time of year as much as the smell of Christmas. Our tree will be up until at least January 6. I only hope that my nephews will remember the sound of laughter as being the soundtrack of the day and season when they get older.

What are some of your favorite Christmas dishes or memories?


About Shelle Murach

Shelle Murach
Shelle Murach has been an Aunt since 1985. She specializes in saying things like, “Should that child be doing that to her brother?” “Where did that juice box go?” "Can Aunt Shelle have some of your Cheez-its?” She is an expert at attending dance recitals, soccer games and ice skating competitions all while clapping or cheering at the appropriate moments.While she is very good at passing out cake at birthday parties, due to an unfortunate incident with a stick, her husband has made her promise to never again help with piñatas. Something about lawsuits and personal injury nonsense. She precariously balances being a full-time Aunt with a career in PR and has found that many of her client management skills can also be used on her various nieces and nephews. She is very excited to be part of Reno Mom’s Blog where she will focus on the Reno food and events scene, booster seats and face paint are optional. You can check out her blog at Care & Feeding in Reno, where she desperately needs to post some new stories and recipes. Trust me, she knows, it is on the list.

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