When I realized I wouldn't be going home for the holidays for the first time ever, my family's many Christmas traditions suddenly felt precious, especially the ones I've taken for granted. Taking mental stock of the many events and recipes I've come to know as the holiday season, it occurred to me that it's quite a production. Some of our rituals are pretty typical—trimming the tree, decorating sugar cookies, and caroling. Others are more particular, like Christmas "boots" made from empty Quaker Oats canisters in lieu of stockings, and an idiosyncratic Christmas dinner, the centerpiece of which is the Flambo Jambo, our flaming ham.
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I don't know anyone else who sets their Christmas ham aflame, and in fact our jambo wasn't always flambo, either. According to my grandma, one year long before I was born or my parents were married, the family didn't have the requisite orange juice for the glaze and used an orange liqueur instead. It's unclear whose idea it was to bring fire into the mix, but it must have been a hit because they've been doing it every year since—setting it alight on the table, and sometimes dimming the lights until the flames die out. My grandma's written recipe (which I am so grateful to have) calls for brandy, but my parents have switched to Jack Daniels, which is what I will use this year, the first year I'll be making it on my own for my husband and our children.
For my debut flambo, I'm bringing back pineapple rings studded with maraschino cherries. I don't recall when or why we stopped, but 2020 requires the extra festivity. I'll also be sure to serve the ham with Durkee sauce, a tangy spread I've never been without at Christmas dinner.
While the ham may be the flashiest part, it wouldn't be Christmas dinner without the sides. Some might show up on other occasions, like whipped sweet potatoes, corn pudding, and potato rolls. Others are special because we only have them once a year, like Waldorf salad. My mom's version is a mix of chopped apples, celery, dates, and pecans, gently tossed with Miracle Whip. It's my favorite of all the holiday side dishes.
And speaking of Miracle Whip, it's time to introduce you to the most unusual part of the menu, a pea salad composed of exactly four ingredients: canned peas, American cheese, pickle relish, and, yes, Miracle Whip. Like so many of our holiday traditions, it is specific to us, and the point is not that it is the best version of the thing, but that it is the one we have shared year after year.
For dessert, we always have the same cookie lineup: butter balls, brownie drops, French buttercreams, Austrian chocolate balls, and sugar cookies. 2020 also has me craving a dessert that has fallen off the menu in recent years: vanilla ice cream with a generous splash of creme de menthe. The festive green liqueur was probably the first alcohol I ever tasted, and I remember as a child in one bite both grimacing at its sharpness and enjoying its juxtaposition against the smooth, sweet ice cream. I asked my mom why she stopped serving it and she succinctly said, "Everyone was stuffed." She and I agree it's time to bring back this refreshing treat.
I'm deeply thankful to my grandparents and parents for creating and passing on to me a holiday playbook so rich in detail, and if your family doesn't have your recipes and rituals documented, this year would be the perfect time to get it all down. Reviewing it in the lead-up to Christmas has often made me feel more at ease, because I know exactly what to do. I will decorate the cookies, sing the carols, and fill our Christmas boots. I will meticulously recreate the meal I would normally enjoy in my parents' home, down to the ‘90s store-brand china, but it won't make up for missing out on our most important tradition—being together. Until next year, we’ll do our best to keep the flame alive with our own flambo jambo.