Tuesday 10 November 2015

Domestic Priestess

Hello, it's Traddy Tuesday, the day set aside for discussion of traditional Catholic liturgy and belief, and I am later than usual because I have been making the Christmas Cake. I am sure you don't want to think about Christmas already but Pentecost is speeding to a close, and Christmas Cake must sit in its brandy-soaked swaddling cloths for a minimum of five weeks, preferably more.

I was going to write about how beautiful Requiem Masses are--how solemn, how sober, how appropriate for everyone. A few years ago a very popular English priest was, around the time of his death, accused of historical child abuse. Victims were very bitter about the five-ring "celebration of life" held for him weeks after his death; if only he had had a trad funeral, black and gold, accompanied by stern chanting of the Dies Irae, and sacerdotal hinting that without serious prayer the departed would sizzle under Purgatory's grill like a toasted cheese sandwich, and it was left at that, those he had hurt would not have been so upset.

But my thoughts have turned kitchenward, as you can see, and so I would like to write about women and Christmas, which falls under the category of women/religion/food, for it is an example of how women stress religious observance through food preparation. Traditionally, observant Jewish women keep a kosher kitchen. Traditionally, observant Muslim women prepare the sun-down meals for the Ramadan fast. And traditionally, Eastern Christian women cope with a complex fasting-and-feasting-schedule while we lightweight Westerners sigh over our Friday tuna casseroles. (Full disclosure: I never make tuna casserole, actually. Fresh fish is cheap and plentiful in our island nation.)

I posit that Anglo-Saxons are not particularly talented at fasting foods-- when it comes to fasting we could most definitely learn from the Greeks--but we are absolute geniuses at Christmas. At Christmas old-fashioned rituals suddenly become very important. Millions of people in the British Commonwealth even tune in for the Queen's Christmas Message, and thousands who don't make a habit of it actually go to church.  Christmas trees--completely unheard of in the UK before Queen Victoria married a German--are bought despite the mess they make of the carpet. And then there's the food. The food. The food.

"Dear Lord," I prayed at Mass the other day, "I've never had Christmas without Mum's Chelsea Bun, and this year we are going to Italy and I may not be able to make the Bun. Will it still be Christmas without the Bun? Please help me be less emotionally attached to the Bun."

I didn't bother asking to be less emotionally attached to the Christmas Cake. Like a bird sensing it was time to go South for the winter, I walked to Tesco and bought half a pound of candied peel and half a pound of candied cherries. For lo, such is the custom of my tribe. My mother has made an enormous Christmas Cake every year of my life, and now that I can't eat hers, I make my own, and if it doesn't taste exactly the same as hers does I feel I have failed as a woman, etc.

Actually, my Christmas baking obsession, this unbridled feminine business with butter, sugar, eggs and flour, cinnamon, nutmeg and candied cherries, unnerves my only-child husband so much that he eagerly embraced the idea of going to Italy for Christmas, thinking that this would make us more relaxed. I wouldn't say that he is actually frightened when suddenly I turn into a Christmas-cooking-and-baking-automaton, but as he comes from a Scots Protestant background (and Christmas was all but illegal in Scotland before 1950), it's not what he's used to. I explain that I can't really help it, which he did not believe until my mother came for Christmas last year and make several million cookies. Great was her wrath when she returned this summer and found a dozen chocolate-mint pinwheels still in their tin. (I explained that, being only two middle-aged people, not five adolescent carpet beetles, we could not eat them all.)

I must say that it was awesome having my mother come and do her baking instead of me doing her baking while she also did her baking, if you see what I mean. Of course I had to do the Christmas Cake myself, as it has to be done in November. But I did not complain or flinch or even think about it all that much. I just went about mindlessly buying ingredients, washing the raisins, mixing the batter in our biggest bowl with my right arm and buttering brown paper.

"What is the point of all this mad seasonal baking?" you may very well ask. "Your mother had five children and three of them are still within comfortable driving distance of the cookie tins. There is also a grandchild within cooky-stealing range. Her enormous fruitcake will not outlast Epiphany. You will have to give large chunks away. Why bother?"

And I keep falling back into faux-Biblical sentence structures, for lo, I must make the Christmas Cake, yea, unto the rolling out of the marzipan between two sheets of wax paper dusted with icing sugar, for such is the custom of my tribe. To eat exactly the same foods as my family in my youth is to continue to celebrate Christmas with the family of my youth, be they living or dead. To taste the Christmas Cake in 2015 is to taste it in 1985, 1995, 2005, and perhaps 2025. To eat the Chelsea Bun with B.A. is to eat it with my grandmothers, who have died. To make the Chelsea Bun is to honour my mother, yea, she who got up every Christmas morning to bake the risen dough.

Tradition is a form of time-travel. Or, better, tradition is a way of escaping mundane time and the demands of time. Tradition creates a sacred space in which we can honour our ancestors and even, in a mysterious way, be in communion with them. And that is why I used such a click-bait title as "Domestic Priestess." Silly people wail that women have been robbed of sacral roles in the Church. How ridiculous. At Christmas time, especially, home becomes another church, and traditionally the women are in charge of the kitchen. We create the smells and tastes of Christmas that our men and children will remember for the rest of their lives and will help them slip the surly bonds of time.


  1. "Tradition is a form of time-travel..." - Yes, yes, yes! A masterful paragraph; spot on.

  2. :) I love some of the lines you've written lately. I am totally dying for the chance to work 'You're not an impoverished Moabite widow with a mother-in-law to feed' and 'adolescent carpet beetles' into a conversation. :)

  3. There have been some great lines here lately! I particularly liked: "..sacerdotal hinting that without serious prayer the departed would sizzle under Purgatory's grill like a toasted cheese sandwich."

    One quick thought I had (unfortunately a bit tangential to the main theme of today's post) is that while Western Christians might rightly seem a bit wimpy when it comes to traditions of fasting, in a general way we might be described as tougher when it comes to the value of continence. For example, the Roman Catholic Church is the only one that categorically requires a celibate priesthood, and Roman Catholics have more vocational "options" for a life of celibacy. E.g., we have active religious life and a variety of lay ecclesiastical movements in addition to cloistered contemplative life, whereas consecrated life in the Eastern Churches tend to focus primarily on one "flavor" of traditional monasticism, Also, Eastern Orthodox Churches do allow actual ecclesiastical divorce and remarriage in some cases, which of course does not happen in Catholic Churches!

  4. Lovely post! This year, for the first time, we're not doing the 20-hour drive (or 2.5 hour expensive holiday-season flight) to my parents' house, nor the 5-hour international flight to my husband's parents' home, so it's my first time being "in charge" of Christmas in my own home. It will be strange, but it's comforting to think of the ways in which I can participate in some of the same traditions as always.


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