A bit of Churchillian wisdom was a famous quote used by my parents “a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.” If either parent quoted it, they looked to the other seeking corroboration. Most often, it got trotted out when they chose not to answer some question I had asked or didn’t want to admit directly to ignorance, and so wrapped it all nicely as a mystery.
As a child, it worked nicely. I had no idea what an enigma was, and with the solemnity with which it got used, I became certain that ignorance was blissful.
This time of year, with presents appearing under the tree, Churchill had to work overtime in our house. ” Daddy is Santa going to….”, “Louis, it’s a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.” So I could shake, look and measure, but not poke. Besides, as I later realized, my parents only put the decoy presents under the tree before Christmas.

As a child, I did have an ally in snooping. Honey, our family dog, was a chronic poker, pryer, and digger out of closets. Additionally, there was also little that she would not do for treats. So there was a reciprocal arrangement she poked and pried, and I discovered. Our technique and the partnership worked best from Thanksgiving till just before Christmas, while presents were stored but not wrapped. Then, after wrapping, we could confirm size, shape, and weight – but not contents.
Of course, the contents were of interest to me, and Honey received no treats if the hunt was not on. We were both very frustrated until the cat entered the picture. Wrapping paper and boxes were what motivated Daisy. She was curious about contents too, but the wrapping paper and bows were her absolute pleasure.

We were back in business. No present was safe. Even my older sister, too mature to poke and pry, would inquire about what Daisy had torn open. But, of course, our success couldn’t continue. So my parents found more secure ways to store presents away from the three-year-old ( me), the dog, and the cat.

What came of all this was an enduring sense of partnership with my furred siblings. These days I am above shaking, poking, and prying. But if Xenia should tear, claw or chew something open, I am not above taking a quick peek. Xenia frequently strolls into the kitchen afterward for a treat. After all, one partner should help the other, right?

Holiday Spirit

I moved away as fast as possible. The couple in the parking lot were having a loud argument over Christmas presents. They disagreed over the fluff while ignoring the fundamentals.  

There seems to be a tendency for holidays to drift away from their anchorage. Memorial day is about hurrying to the beach, and Christmas is about consumption.

We seem to perpetuate hollow holidays – eventually stripping away the original meaning and adding in heaping doses of ordinary celebration. 

If you think about it, that’s why the Puritans in Massachusetts did not celebrate Christmas. The day had ceased to be an observance of Christ’s birthday and had become a good excuse for a long party. Not that I think there is anything wrong with a good party.

Admittedly, the extended nocturnal portion of our twenty-four hours in the day tends to get us down this time of year. The Romans knew this and partied heartily at Saturnalia. Imagine the conservative among them complaining that Saturnalia just wasn’t what it used to be when they were a child. Well, why not?

So here is a holiday assignment for all of you. Make a hollow holiday out of an as yet uncorrupted winter holiday. I recommend Festivus.

To remind you that Festivus was designed to be a non-commercial holiday – and should provide lots of opportunity for corruption. Remember you will be graded on the originality of the ideas you bring to the holiday, and how far from the original intent you can get it to drift. This will be an open book exam, so have fun. I will not be marking on a curve, and the final will count towards one third of your grade.

Some points about Festivus:

  •  there is a Festivus dinner, 
  • a plain aluminum Festivus pole
  • an Airing of Grievances
  •  Feats of Strength
  •  and the explaining of Festivus miracles

 Remember Festivus was to be a ” Festivus for the rest of us.”

Okay, Festivus is December 23rd. So get out there and start corrupting. The winner becomes a Youtube influencer and wins the most toys before I die competition.

The Christmas Tree & The Cat

Most cats I’ve known love Christmas. There are boxes, decorations to bat around, paper to roll in, gifts to chew open, and lots of holiday food. There is a strong synergy of things they love in one place at one time.
Playing catch with little balls hung on the tree, and of course, the tree itself helps make a drab house a cat wonderland. What mighty jungle cat doesn’t like dashing out and snagging a passing ankle? Such acts of daring prove that puissance is actually spelled “puss-ence.”

It’s the fumble-fingered humans that make life difficult. They detach claws from ball ornaments that you’ve been playing with. Then, when you bat an ornament out into the living room, they don’t understand that it’s not like playing catch with the dog; picking it up and placing it higher on the tree is not the game’s objective.

Still, they bring your tree in at Christmas, place the toys on it, and all the nice boxes and wrapping paper under it.

Sigh, humans. Can’t live with them, can’t live without them!


The Washington Post had a reader submission request out. What was the best last-minute Christmas gift you ever gave? But initially, I read it wrong and took it to mean presents I had received. OK, selfish me. But some impelling experiences came to me.

I was penniless and frequently on the road in the 1960s. There were times when getting enough to eat and a couch to surf upon were the overriding concerns on my mind. So I reflect on some of the things that meant so much at the time:

  • An animal hospital forgiving the cost of vet care on the Grey Menace one Christmas – needless to say, I’ve repaid that many times in annual gifts since, happily.
  • The gift of a set of guitar strings; the ones on my guitar were dying or dead, and I had a gig to perform.
  • A Christmas evening dinner when the Gray Menace and I were too poor to buy groceries that week;
  • My first real girlfriend gave me a set of earmuffs because I was on the road in lightweight clothing.

The best things do not have to be the most expensive, nor the ones you asked for. Instead, they are the ones you need and never thought to ask for.

The Poppyseed Roll

Today I have the train going around the Tree to prepare, prep the evening buffet, wrap presents, and…bake grandma’s Christmas Poppyseed bread!.

Grandma was Hungarian and German. An exceptional woman, she spoke five languages fluently – Hungarian, German, English, Spanish, and Yiddish. Her culinary achievements included traditional American cuisine, Hungarian, German, and married to my grandfather – Spanish. She was why the Carreras household consumed Borsht, potato pancakes, Saurkraut, and tons of Spanish food. My mother dutifully learned all this to please my father, but she taught no one the poppyseed bread.

The poppyseed bread played a role in family holidays and politics. Not all of the long rolls of poppyseed bread were created equal. Some had voids filled only with air, not poppyseed filling, and some have ends which are only bread. Displease grandma, and your part of the family got empty ends and voids. Grandma knew.
To be clear, I should say that I am talking about the “lost” poppyseed bread. When grandma died, it went with her. It wasn’t that she never talked about it, she just was forever vague about it, and when she died, a hurried conference within the family failed to come up with a consensus of how the excellent stuff got made. After a year or two and dozens of failed attempts, interest died down. Around 1972 I began a new tradition of making rum-soaked fruitcake ( don’t eat this stuff and then drive). I think the family liked the rum part of it mostly. The poppyseed bread remained a part of our family holiday lore, like the little German Santa that we’ve had since forever. We talked about it like it was a beloved missing relative. I’m sure that my uncle Lenny would have died a happier man knowing that I had eventually reconstructed the recipe.
Having assumed the role of family holiday baker ( twenty rum-soaked beauties every Christmas), I couldn’t let the “lost” poppyseed bread rest. Periodically I’d try a new recipe. At last, I found a few leads online from Hungarian women with the same traditions. The result? Poppyseed bread that my sister and mother couldn’t tell from Grandma’s.
So now comes the question. How vague should I be about the secret? Who gets the voids? After all, it is a tradition we are talking about here!

A Mouse Was Stirring

The book is The Ships Cat. It’s all about the courageous cat serving aboard an Elizabethan Privateer. It also was the favorite book of the Grey Menace. A cat’s favorite book? Well, it all had to do with Christmas.

I found the book at a downtown Boston bookstore and buying it took a good portion of the available free cash. I was living in my studio by the railroad tracks, and Christmas was grim that year. I was barely employed, and had no orders in the shop. I bought a Charlie Brown Christmas tree and carried it home to the studio by the tracks. A few bare homemade decorations later, and we were all set for the holiday. Seeing no need to wait till the morning, Clancy tore into his stocking at midnight. The hi-bounce balls and catnip mouse were hits, but the loose catnip was a big success. We finished the night in front of the tree, as I read the book to a rather drunk but interested cat. It was the start of a Christmas tradition. And the mouse, who was stirring in the kitchen, could rejoice the Grey Menace was too intoxicated for a chase.

Christmas Tree Hunts – III

Chapter four

As a kid in Manhatten, the hunt for our family Christmas Tree consisted of a trek three blocks over from where we lived to where someone from Maine had set up to sell trees. My sister and I would eye every tree in the lot until our father that, great urban forest ranger, would select one, stomp it on the pavement, watch how many needles fell off, and pronounce the choice sound.

Later on, I got introduced to much less urban hunts that led to woodlots. Through I would still stomp them onto rocks to see how many needles fall off. Old habits die hard.

I remarried in the 1980s, and we soon started a family. The kids accompanied us to the local wood lots on sleighs as soon as possible; before they could walk. We have four children, but this story features our oldest Nick and our youngest, Louis,

It had been a very snowy early December in Central Massachusetts that year, and the snow was deep on the high slopes of the woodlot in which we were tree hunting. We had been coming to this tree farm for years, and our children already knew the routine which brought them the most joy:

  1. Run around.
  2. Check out every single tree.
  3. Walk up as high as the farthest meadow and tree copse.
  4. Finally, pick a tree in the most inaccessible location.
  5. Cut it and have dad put on the sleigh.

That year there was a hitch in the plan. Louis, junior, our youngest, had pretty much reached the limits of his endurance. He would have to ride the sleigh back down the hills, and dad would have to carry the tree by himself. Mom would have her hands full, shepherding our twin girls. Nick, the oldest, was detailed to pull the sleigh with Louis on it. We started back towards the bright red barn with everyone assigned their job. The goal was to get down the hill to where the hot cider and free candy canes were. With the winter light failing and the snow deep, we had a harder slog of it than we had expected. At the rear of the convoy, Nick was fuming about pulling Louis.

At last, we hit the high spot from which we could see our destination. We were standing on the brow of a high ridge. There are two ways down. The trail to the right snakes gradually down, or the steep descent straight ahead. The steep slope is not a safe way down, so we turned to the trail after a short break. Everyone except Nick and Louis, As I turned to make sure that everyone was following, I saw a gleam in Nick’s eye. He gently put his foot on the back of the sleigh, and before I could say anything, he softly pushed the sled down the steep slope. I heard my wife yell as she realized that her baby was hurtling towards the bottom of the hill. There was a small satisfied grin on Nick’s face Until he realized that only a snowbank separated his brother’s path at the bottom from a road. By now, we had hurled ourselves after the sled. We reached the base after the sled had slammed into the snowbank. We had to dig to extract Louis because all that was exposed was the sled’s back tip. Luckily the snow was fresh and soft. He was shocked, had massive amounts of snow all over him and in his clothes, but was unharmed. Louis was in better shape than Nick, whose look of panic suggested that he got much more from his impulse than expected.

The story became memorable in the family, and luckily the two brothers are close friends.

Christmas Tree Hunts – II

Chapter three – The Quilted Woodlot

 A few years after the “Shotgun Christmas,” I was introduced to another Christmas tree hunt style. My first wife’s family was from a small island on the Maine coast. It was their tradition to go to their wood lot and hunt out a tree. They were teetotalers, so I expected no Schnapps, and nobody in that family hunted, so shotguns were out. We walked into the woods equipped with snowshoes and bow saws. This family was quite particular about their tree. Only Balsams deserved consideration, and those had to be perfect. My family’s criteria for trees were out of place here. It seemed that every tree I pointed out had some fatal flaw I couldn’t see. This pattern worked out to be an ongoing theme in the marriage, but I was not yet aware. In any case, the wood lot became quilted by our snowshoe tracks that afternoon. By dusk, it looked rather like one giant spruce covered waffle.

At last, on the very edge of the lot, we spotted the perfect tree. Then came the final test: would Mommy like it? I was cold and wishing for some of George’s schnapps by this time; hell, I’d of been happy to have a shotgun. I listened to them, discussing whether Mommy would like the perfect balsam. After about forty minutes of this, they decided to hike through the lot to the other side to view several other candidates. I decided to stay and watch the sun go down. As they traipsed away, I thought about my frozen feet, hands, and nose. I looked at the saw; I looked at the tree. I went to the perfect tree and started cutting. Sometime later, they traipsed back through the lot and said: “We decided to take this one” as the tree fell. After that, I avoided spending Christmas with my in-laws.

The Feast of Saint Nicholas

Saint Nicholas of Myra is the patron saint of children, sailors, thieves, Bankers ( wait, that seems to be real close to thieves), pawnbrokers, scholars, travelers, perfumers, and a multitude of others.
My father was an “Easter and Christmas Christian,” and my mother was about the same. Dad did note that there was a tradition of naming boys in the family Nicholas after the Saint. And, when I started researching the Carreras family history, Nicholas’ were everywhere. Our Carreras’ originate in Girona, Catalonia. So many Nicholas Carreras’ were baptized in the same churches that it becomes challenging to differentiate potential ancestors.
I have a personal attachment to Saint Nicholas, and although woodcarvers got neglected in the calendar of saints, I would nominate Nicholas patron saint of sailors and woodcarvers.

The photo accompanying this post is of our family Santa. This Saint Nick dates to the early 1940s, and I don’t recall a Christmas in our house without it. Note that it is not a jolly richly attired Clement Clarke Moore Santa, nor a Coke swizzling, cooking slurping overweight Saint Nick. It’s a tired older man with a walking stick and a basket full of presents. It is a type of Saint Nick that could found in German, or in my Grandmother’s case, German- Hungarian homes. And that is where the preference for this Santa comes. My father bought it in a German delicatessen in New York one Christmas, and no Christmas in the Carreras home would have been complete without it. My Grandmother, who could get most of whatever she wanted from my Dad, tried without luck to get it for her apartment. There would have been an instant mutiny if it had changed households. If Grandma wanted to appreciate it, she had to come to our house to do so.
After my father died, Santa migrated to Virginia. It was at my sister’s house for many years. But, a few years ago, Santa came north to New England and now graces our display at Christmas.
Santa is not richly attired in plush or velvet, does not have a vast flowing beard – and has no magic sled pulled by flying deer. He’s the sort of Santa that complains loudly about his aching feet after a trudge through the snow getting kids their presents. He has no Santa Hot Line, and NORAD does not track him. He represents simple goodwill and love. We do not need more during his feast day or at Christmas.

Happy feast of Saint Nicholas.

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