Grandma and Jaime lean over a batch fondant, wondering about the texture of a pot gone not quite right. My mom and Jen deliberate over the flavor of a batch we forgot to label. I’m at the table rolling the coconut flavored fondant into balls for dipping. My fingers work quickly and easily with the cold, sticky substance—familiar with the fondant as a potter is familiar with clay. This isn’t my first year working in our homemade chocolate factory with my mom, my grandma, and my aunts.
When not discussing the consistency of chocolate or the lack of room in the refrigerator, conversation among us turns to books and classes, concerts and plays, plans and wishes. We talk about my sister’s latest theatrical endeavor or my cousin’s successful football season. We discuss how busy my aunts have been since they all went back to school to become speech pathologists.
Beneath the conversation I hear the rustle of wax paper and the timer on the microwave. I also hear the sounds of my own methodical dipping. I go through the motions over and over again. Drop, plop, dip, plunge, spin, up, tap, splat, drip, drop, plop, dip…
Hours pass on in this manner with only minor interruptions. Kids rush through the door after school, pleading for a sample of the chocolates. Sometimes my mom or my aunts slip away for a bit to chauffeur their kids around town. We work until every surface in the kitchen—all the space on the tables, the countertops—is covered with neat rows of chocolates drying and waiting to be placed in decorative little cardboard boxes. We take a few of the deformed candies with us to munch on. Everyone returns to their own homes and their own Christmas trees to await and prepare for the upcoming holiday.
The next day, I scuttle up the iced over driveway, a box of chocolates in hand. Standing in front of the door I take a moment to smooth down my hair and straighten my posture. I ring the doorbell and then hold my breath. A minute later the door squeaks open.
Oh my gosh, it’s him. Be cool, Kyra. Be cool!
“Hey, I was just, um, stopping by to deliver this,” I stumble over my words. “It’s for your family. From my family.”
“Oh, thanks,” he says, with little actual emotion in his voice.
“Yeah, sure. I’ll, uh… I’ll see you later.” The twenty times I mentally rehearsed this conversation as we drove here have not managed to make me more articulate.
“Yep. See you later.” He starts to close the door.
“Merry Christmas,” I blurt out before the door is completely closed.
“Merry Christmas, Kyra.”
He’s gone now, shut up inside his warm house. I penguin waddle back down the driveway, trying not to slip. I hop into the front seat of my mom’s big red Suburban, and we drive off to go deliver the rest of the chocolate boxes.
I flip the seat warmer on, and sit tight as we finish making the rounds. After we drop off all the boxes, we drive over to Candy Cane Lane, a neighborhood in Billings which prides itself on its annual Christmas lights display.
“Why don’t we ever put up Christmas lights?” My brother, Colton, asks.
“Because so far we haven’t managed to talk your dad into it,” Mom tells him. It’s the same answer we’ve been getting for years.
No matter how much pizza we manage to scarf down at our annual family gathering on Christmas Eve, there’s always room to eat more of the left over chocolates. A row of Tupperware containers sits on the countertop, with each container holding a different flavor of chocolates. The candies we have left at this point are cracked, spotted, or poorly dipped. Not that we mind. The ugly ones taste as good as the pretty ones anyway.
I’m stuffed, but the strawberry chocolates start calling my name. I talk myself into eating one (it’s not very hard). After all, the strawberry ones are almost gone, even though there are still plenty of almond and coconut. And also plenty of mint, but that’s probably because nobody in the family likes those.
I bite the piece of candy in half, and then I just let it sit in my mouth. I try to absorb all the delicious strawberry flavor, savoring the feel of chocolate melting on my tongue. I want to memorize the way it tastes, because once the chocolates are gone it will be another year before I get to have any again. I eat the second half even slower.
And then I convince myself I should have an orange flavored one too, since those are also almost gone. Besides, it’s like my grandma always says. No matter how full you are, you can eat a piece of chocolate because the chocolate melts and seeps into the spaces between all the other food. I accept this as perfectly valid logic. Who would know better than Grandma, after all?
After pizza we start herding all the kids downstairs. It takes about ten minutes, but finally all the aunts, uncles, cousins, siblings, parents and grandparents are gathered in the basement, with all the kids sitting cross-legged in a circle on the floor. Right now, I feel blessed that everyone in my dad’s family lives close enough to come for Christmas.
Grandma brings out this year’s Yule Log, a bundle of paper slips and small treats wrapped up in party streamer. It’s a family tradition that’s been going on for as long as I can remember. We start with my cousin McKenna, the youngest family member, who unwraps the party streamer around the Yule Log until a slip of paper falls out. The paper will ask a question or request that certain members of the family sing a song or tell a story about something.
When the heap streamer covered treats reaches little McKenna, a huge smile stretches across her chubby cheeks. McKenna unwraps until she finds a piece of paper, which an older cousin helps her read aloud. The paper asks all the children to sing “Silent Night.” When the song is over, McKenna continues to unwrap the Yule Log until a little treat falls into her lap. Then she passes it to the next child, and the process is repeated.
The Yule Log moves along through the children, youngest to oldest. We follow the instructions on the little slips of paper. We sing Christmas carols. We answer questions about our favorite flavor of Christmas chocolate or how many stores we shopped at this year. We attempt to recite “The Night Before Christmas.” The first couple verses go well, but then it devolves into people shouting out whatever lines they remember. After a couple minutes of confusion all of us call in unison, “Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night!”
Amidst all this I hear adults recruiting children to run upstairs and fetch them a piece of chocolate. Consequently, somebody else requests the child snag them a piece while they’re upstairs. The child ends up taking a couple more orders and returning downstairs with both hands full of chocolates.
The maturity of age has not managed to make me any less excited for my turn. When the bundle arrive in my lap, I unwrap until a paper slips out. My paper asks what my favorite part of Christmas is.
“Making chocolates,” I answer. There are a lot of favorite parts, of course. But that’s the one that comes to mind first. I unwrap the streamer around the now small bundle. My gift is a little cow keychain that moos when you press a button. Despite how old I am, I find it inexplicably cool.
By now the kids are getting restless and playing in the unwrapped party streamer. Several have wrapped themselves up as streamer mummies. Some of the kids are sneaking off and returning with chocolate stains on their hands and cheeks.
One person left. Everyone knows that the last paper asks Grandpa to read the Christmas story from Luke. With the story read, there’s only one piece of business left. All the grandkids have to open and put on the pajamas Grandma made for them. My pajamas have rubber ducks printed on the flannel. This is the third year in a row I’ve gotten duck PJ’s. I love it.
People start to file out, eager to get home so the kids can be put to bed. I’m eager to sneak a couple more chocolates before my grandma takes them back to her house. And then somebody starts the game.
“Merry Christmas, Colton,” one uncle says to my brother.
“Merry Christmas, Sherry,” my brother passes the salutation off to my aunt.
Sherry glances around the room and calls out, “Merry Christmas, Jaime.”
“Merry Christmas, Mom,” Jaime says to my grandma.
Grandma hasn’t been paying attention. Frantically she looks up and says, “Merry Christmas Sherry.”
We all groan. Repeating a name ends the game. It’s okay, though. We’ll get together tomorrow evening for a Christmas dinner. Afterwards we’ll finish off the chocolates while we hand out presents to each other. We’ll have other chances to try and wish everyone in the room Merry Christmas without any repeats. And if not, there’s always next year.