Just at the start of the Christmas season, I was out stretching my legs with my canine companion, Xena. It was nearing the end of a good forty-five minute high-speed jaunt and both of us were looking forward to an ice-cold bowl of water. Um, make that a glass for me! As the two of us crested the last hill before our final descent towards the house; something appeared out of the corner of my eye.
An older gentleman, slightly hunched over by the ravages of time, was trudging down the sidewalk. As he tried to maintain his balance on the slippery sidewalks, he held a plate outstretched in his hands. Watching him, as Xena had taken a brief reprieve to sniff out some new buried hound treasure; I could tell he was walking from his home towards a neighbor. Reaching the doorstep and ringing the bell, the elder man stepped back from the door.
A porch light came on, the oak door was opened, and a smiling young woman appeared. It was obvious she knew her older neighbor as she pushed the glass screen door open. The man offered her the plate, tipped his hat, and began to turn away against the icy wind. Momentarily, the woman was surrounded by a pair of children bouncing up and down like young kangaroos.
My thoughts were interrupted as my right arm was almost yanked out of its socket. Xena was at the length of her leash, eagerly tugging towards the house. Man with plate in hand, pleased woman at door, children hopping up and down, hound dog pulling me towards the house as she sniffed the air; it could only mean one thing, fresh-baked cookies!
I watched the stooped over senior meander down the sidewalk and into his house. Turning to guide Xena back to the warmth of our hearth; a smile came across my face. In his younger days, this would have been the man who anonymously shoveled your walk and driveway in the predawn hours. He also would have been at your door two days before the New Year to gift you a festively wrapped bottle!
Xena was crumpled up on her dog bed in front of the fireplace. Walked and well-fed; she was snoring like a freight train. I laid back in the couch and stared into the fire. The older man from earlier in the evening kept popping into my head. It had been some time since I last saw somebody delivering Christmas cookies to a neighbor. I could barely remember seeing anyone drop off a holiday bottle, at least in the last quarter century or so!
My mind began to drift back into the past as a I stared intently at one particular bluish-yellow flame. In the mid-1970’s it was not unusual to find the streets of our neighborhood littered with people the week before Christmas. Families would take high stacks of paper plates from door to door. Inside were baked morsels and home-made chocolates and candies. Culinary pride was on the line as mothers shared their generations-old recipes with one another in the annual Christmas cookie competition. I remember standing by the front door, just waiting for the doorbell to ring. Before you knew it, the entire dining room table was littered with macaroons, oatmeal and sugar cookies, and all kinds of homemade chocolates and candies.
A week later it was the neighborhood fathers that took to the streets. Armed with bags full of champagne and wine; they made the rounds from house to house. At each stop, well wishes for a prosperous New Year were exchanged; and a festively wrapped bottle was dropped off. During that week, I was not allowed to answer the door and the thought of hanging around the counter filled with glass bottles of all sizes and shapes was not tolerated.
I slowly drifted out of my nostalgic journey to the sound of Xena’s deep sigh. She was in the middle of a puppy dream; tail wagging ever so slightly and her front paws twitching rhythmically. As an adult, I realize now that the cookies were not necessarily so great. Some were terribly overfrosted, others tasted like cardboard, and most were burned around the edges. The champagne was always some cheap version of Andre Cold Duck and the wine was in the Riunite class at best!
Still, there was a certain pride behind the entire ritual. Families spent hours baking, shopping, and wrapping; all so that well wishes could be shared. Door bells were rung, hands were shaken, and a sense of mutual caring surfaced. It then became a family event, taking to the streets and spending a few minutes with those people who mattered in your life. There was a certain beauty and majesty to it all.
I live in the typical suburban setting. The neighborhood sits up on a bluff in a mountainous setting that can only be described as majestic. I only know a handful of my neighbors, and people keep to themselves. Sure there is the occasional wave as a car goes by; but it is little more than two strangers sharing the most superficial of greetings.
Other than the sole older gentleman several weeks ago; I saw nobody working the streets with simple gifts for their neighbors this year. The sad part is that I am not sure any of us missed this time-honored tradition. Tonight I will be sitting on the couch, secretly hoping the doorbell rings. I do not know about the rest of you; but I sure could use a plate of burned sugar cookies and a bottle of cheap wine!