The Canadian Food Experience Project – The Christmas Edition – Walnut Crescent Cookies
In our family, Christmas changes little, year to year. Once the New Year arrives and the decorations are packed away, all Christmases Past roll together into a single, hazy holiday scenario to be repeated next year. There are goodies, and a tree so laden with ornaments you swear it will crumple if anyone breathes on it. Snowy boots fill the front foyer, and there’s a traffic jam under the mistletoe as we collect hugs and kisses from relatives we see twice a year at most. Dinner includes a bird, and stuffing and potatoes, and a nod to something green. It’s all capped off with Mom’s trifle and Dad reading a Child’s Christmas in Wales while we digest our meal. Everyone knows the routine and it brings us Yuletide comfort and joy.
I cannot tell you which year Mom mistakenly put banana pudding in the raspberry trifle or when Santa filled a stocking for everyone — except Allison. But I can tell you about Christmas 1968.
Earlier that year, The Prague Spring sent tanks into Czechoslovakia. Many people fled the country with nothing. Many came to Canada. Some even came to our sleepy little, nothing-happens town. Their arrival was big news. The local paper asked families to host Christmas for new arrivals from Czechoslovakia. Dad called the agency and Mom specified the families should have children. After all, it was Christmas. So the agency arranged for us to host two families, both couples with children.
Because none of the guests spoke more than a few words of English, my father purchased A Guide to 25 Languages of Europe. It contained useful phrases like “How much?” “Come in!” and “At what time does the boat leave?” Mom used the dictionary to look up the Czech words for the food we were serving and labelled all the dishes with both Czech and English.
I was five and was taught to say “please” and “thank you” in Czech. I might have learned “The bathroom is down the hall,” but I think I just pointed. Good thing I was too young to teach myself from the book or I would have greeted our guests with “Bring me a small flask of brandy and some fresh tea. These eggs are bad.” (See below for proof that I’m not making this up.)
Jan, one of the fathers, spoke a bit of German, and my Aunt Helen spoke some Pennsylvanian Dutch, so she agreed to come over after dinner and translate. This aunt never came on Christmas. She was one of the Post-Christmas Aunts we saw at the extended family gathering between Christmas and New Years. Her appearance meant this was A Big Deal, indeed.
It was also a big deal in numbers. We lived in a tiny war-time house. Our small dining room, which was actually a usurped bedroom, barely held our family of five. To accommodate 13, Mom pushed the dining room table against the wall to serve as a buffet table. She gathered chairs from various rooms and wedged them around the existing living room furniture. There wasn’t enough space for even a card table. “Everyone will just have to balance dinner on their knees,” Mom said. New guests and lap eating? Nothing this exciting had happened at Christmas dinner. Ever.
With the furniture rearranged, the food labels written, and Czech phrases dancing in my head, I went to bed Christmas Eve excited about dinner. To me, once the stockings were opened, Christmas was over. Dinner was just another family meal, only with more dessert. For once, the best part of Christmas would happen after the gifts were unwrapped.
The next morning we opened our stockings and gifts. Dad took us to visit relatives while Mom began her annual battle with the bird. At 3 PM Christmas afternoon my father returned his three children home and set off to pick up our guests.
When he arrived, they were surprised to see him. Why? Didn’t they know they were coming to Christmas dinner?
Oh, they knew. And they had been waiting. The night of December 24th.
Their first Christmas in Canada and they thought we had abandoned them. What did they do for dinner? How did they feel when no one showed? For once I am glad we couldn’t speak each other’s language and that I was too young to be told the truth until much, much later. Even today this part of the story makes me queasy.
While they gathered their coats, my father could see most of their one-bedroom apartment. There was a mattress on the bedroom floor — pillows and blankets but no bed frame. A card table with 3 chairs — one for each of them — served as their dining suite. They had a set of four dishes. It took bare bones to the extreme.
Back home, “helping” Mom, I was oblivious to our mistake. By the time they arrived in our tiny foyer I was bursting. Dále! (Come in!) We were introduced. I thought the women had the most beautiful names in the world. Drahomira and Zdena. The men? Even Jan was far more interesting than its English equivalent — John.
The adults ate from their laps. But a plate of food and the excitement of foreign guests was too much for my 5-year-old balance. I slid to the floor and ate cross-legged, cranking my neck to make sure I didn’t miss any of the excitment.
After dinner Aunt Helen arrived, and the 1968 equivalent of Bing Translator began. After the niceties, my father delved into the important things. “What do you need?”
The answer came back. “Nothing.”
Confused, my father asked again. “What do you need?”
Again, the answer came back. “Nothing.”
Thinking the English-Dutch-German translation was being misunderstood, my father asked a third time. With my aunt interpreting, Jan expanded his answer. “I understand. We want many things. We need nothing.”
They had no bed, no kitchen table, no couch. There were no toys, no TV, no Christmas tree or decorations. How could they need nothing?
“I have freedom.”
The next year, the two families hosted us, treating us to a full traditional Czech Christmas meal. On December 24th. We arrived on time. We didn’t make that mistake again.
This recipe for walnut crescent cookies is from Zdena. They are a classic Czech Christmas dessert. She shared the recipe with my mother, giving her the ingredients in weight, not volume. I pass this recipe on, converted thanks to my trusty scale. I have also expanded the instructions which simply read, “Mix quickly. Bake lightly. Cover with icing sugar while still hot.”
May you enjoy them surrounded by friends and family. May you never want for anything — at least not anything important.
- 2 cups all-purpose flour
- ⅓ cup vanilla sugar
- ¾ cup butter, softened
- 1 cup finely chopped walnuts
- 1 large egg
- icing sugar, for sprinkling
- Preheat the oven to 350°F. Line a baking sheet with parchment.
- In a large mixing bowl blend all the ingredients together until they form a mass.
- On a clean work surface, scoop 1 tablespoon of dough and form into a log about 2½ inches long. Bend the log into a half-moon and place on the baking sheet. Repeat until all the dough is used.
- Bake for 12 to 15 minutes. Dust with icing sugar while still hot. Allow to cool before serving.
The Canadian Food Experience Project is a monthly series of themed posts from participating Canadian food bloggers across the country. By sharing our personal stories and regional food experiences, we hope to answer the elusive question, “Just what exactly is Canadian Cuisine?”
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