We have to make Christmas happen. I remember when that staggering thought occurred to me. I was 25, and it was my first Christmas in Chicago. Cold wind and nothing but darkness outside my window save for the unfeeling light of streetlamps. Sidewalks full of people, but all of us strangers.
I’d been in the city only for a few months. My life was in such disarray. I came home exhausted most days — mentally, physically, and spiritually. I was homesick, broke, and yet I was in the midst of my annual wrestling match with an old artificial Christmas tree, dredging it up from its cardboard hiding place once again.
“Why are you doing this to yourself?” I asked. “Why are you putting up a tree? Pulling out all this gaudy stuff?” I kept decorating, but I kept puzzling, too.
I thought back to my childhood Christmases. Back then, Christmas always seemed to happen on its own, as inevitable as sunrise. But, that night, as a grown man hanging ornaments on my sad little tree, it finally occurred to me that my parents had made Christmas happen for me. All those years, I’d thought the “gifts” were in boxes under the tree, but the real gifts were the experiences and memories made possible through my parents’ care and sacrifice.
It really wasn’t about money. They watched the TV specials with us even though they already knew them by heart. They acted surprised each time the tree lit up with all the colored lights. They put aside their weariness and sang along. They made special meals even though it took a lot of effort and time. They helped me believe in joy by leading me through it.
My parents weren’t setting me up for some big let-down. Everyone knows life isn’t always going to be easy. But, if we can dig down deep and find even the smallest bit of ourselves to share, sometimes the joy we’re missing actually turns up, even if for just a few moments. That’s what my parents were doing: finding their own joy by sharing it with their children.
So, I decorated that year even though it probably would have seemed silly to anyone else. And you know what? That Christmas was not great at all. Things got a little worse, in fact. But, I made it through that dreadful season thanks to a very small handful of friends. And seeing the tree lit up reminded me of my family, connected me to happier times. When I let myself bob along to “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree”, I accidentally felt a little happy in spite of myself. When the little boy turned around and hugged The Snowman before going inside, I cried my eyes out. And when “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas” came on, I finally understood lyrics I’d only half-listened to before.
I guess there are some lessons we have to learn over and over. Maybe this is one of them: After all the gifts have been unwrapped, the tree put away, the calendar turned over — years after the presents have all been forgotten — it’s only the love and kindness we share that remains. It really is true: we have to make Christmas happen.
I created today’s recipe inspired by the idea of a homemade Christmas and the notion of sharing joy with family, friends, and beyond. When it comes to homemade gifts, in my opinion, bread is about as heart-felt as it gets. So long as you’re firing up the oven, remember it’s just as easy to make two loaves of bread as it is to make one. Consider passing along a little homemade Christmas to someone who may need it this year.
Father Christmas Bread
Yields 1 loaf, 12-14 slices
1 1/2 cups chopped mixed dried fruit (apricots, candied orange peel, currants, cherries, raisins, etc.)
1 cup boiling water
1/2 cup whole milk
2 1/4 teaspoons active dry yeast (1 packet)
2 tablespoons ground anise
2 teaspoons ground ginger
1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon ground mace
zest of two lemons
1/3 cup brown sugar (light or dark)
4 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
2 large eggs
1 1/2 teaspoons sea salt
3 1/2 cups (16.25 oz) all-purpose flour, divided
1/4 cup granulated sugar
5 teaspoons ground cinnamon
a pinch of sea salt
milk for brushing
TO MAKE THE DOUGH: Combine the mixed dried fruits and the boiling water in a large measuring cup or medium bowl; soak 20 minutes. Strain the fruits, reserving soaking water to equal 1/2 cup (you may need to add additional water).
Combine the 1/2 cup of reserved soaking water with 1/2 cup milk; microwave until just warmed (about 110 degrees). Pour warm milk mixture into the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment. Add next 9 ingredients (yeast through eggs); mix at low speed to blend. Add the salt and 2 cups of the flour; mix at medium speed until thoroughly blended. Switch to the dough hook attachment. Add the soaked fruits and all but 1/2 cup of the remaining flour; knead at medium speed 8-10 minutes, adding flour sparingly as necessary to keep dough from sticking to sides of the bowl.
Turn dough out onto a floured work surface. If still a bit sticky/tacky, knead in up to an additional 1/2 cup of flour until dough is smooth and elastic. Transfer to a lightly oiled large bowl; cover and let rise until doubled in size. (If you’d rather bake bread the next day: you can skip the first rise by placing the dough in a lightly oiled plastic zipper bag, removing the air, sealing it, and refrigerating it for up to 18 hours. The next day, you’ll need to allow the dough to come to room temperature before proceeding before rolling, filling, and shaping.)
FILLING & SHAPING: Combine the sugar, cinnamon, and salt in a small bowl. Grease the bottom and sides of a 9 x 5-inch loaf pan. You may also line the loaf pan with parchment for greater ease in removing the bread once baked (especially nice if some of the filling seeps out of the bread during baking!).
On a lightly-floured work surface, press the dough into an 8 x 6-inch rectangle. With a short side of the dough facing you, roll with a rolling pin into an 18 x 8-inch rectangle (lifting the dough, occasionally, to lightly spread flour underneath if necessary). Brush the dough liberally with milk. Sprinkle the sugar mixture evenly, leaving a half-inch border on the short side farthest from you. Starting at the side closest to you, roll up the dough, pinching gently as you go to make sure it is tightly sealed. To keep the dough from stretching beyond the dimensions of the pan, push the ends inward occasionally as you are rolling it up. Once it has been rolled to the opposite edge, pinch the lengthwise seam tightly to secure it. With that seam facing down, firmly pinch the dough at both ends while tucking under to seal the sides.
Place the loaf seam-side down into the prepared pan; press lightly to flatten and even as needed. Cover top of pan loosely with plastic wrap; set aside to rise. Allow loaf to rise until it crests a full inch above the top of the loaf pan (about 90 minutes or longer if dough has been refrigerated). Meanwhile, heat oven to 350-degrees.
Bake the risen loaf at 350-degrees for 35-50 minutes, until golden brown. The baking time can vary depending on tons of factors. You’ll know it’s done for sure when an instant-read thermometer inserted at an angle from one of the ends reads 190 degrees. If the top of the loaf starts to brown more than you’d like, shield it with a sheet of foil lightly crimped to the pan. Cool in pan for 5 minutes then remove to a wire rack to cool completely before slicing.
The bread can be wrapped (whole or sliced) and frozen for several months. An advantage to freezing it sliced is the ability to sneak into the freezer and steal slices whenever you like without having to use up the whole loaf in a hurry. Those stolen slices make excellent toast whether simply buttered or spread with marmalade or jam. Slices also make legendary PB&J sandwiches chock full of holiday sparkle. The absolute best way to enjoy this bread, in my opinion, is to dip it in your favorite french toast batter, fry it up, and serve with powdered sugar, fresh cranberry sauce, and a hefty dollop of real whipped cream… a Christmas Morning brunch you won’t soon forget.
This post is dedicated in memory of my dear friend Nicole Gonzalez (1978-2019).
She was a best friend and also my kitchen buddy — patiently teaching me, challenging me, and reliably cracking me up. Seeing her smile whenever she tasted one of my recipes was better than any blue ribbon. While I have more memories of our time together than photos, for as long as I live, whenever I cook, it’ll always feel like visiting with my friend. I’m so grateful to have known her.