Originally published Dec. 24, 2006
By Greg Atkinson, former Taste writer
WHEN OUR SONS were very small, we went through the standard existential crisis about where to go with the whole Santa Claus thing. He is, after all, a quintessential part of the American childhood experience, but he is also unfortunately at the center of the vast consumer-oriented approach to the holidays that has never felt entirely right to us. As Lucy van Pelt in the Peanuts cartoon put it, “Everyone knows Christmas is run by a big syndicate back East!”
Basically, we downplayed the subject as much as we could and were determined to subject our kids to a minimum of Santa.
Had it not been for the grandparents, we might have succeeded. But a trip to the mall with Grammy to sit on Santa’s lap is a trauma that bears a certain amount of reassurance. And when a child asks, “Was that the real Santa?” far be it from my wife or me to mess the kid up any more than necessary.
“No son. He’s an actor,” we admitted. And when the inevitable questions about the real Santa backed us to the wall, we did the usual shuffling song and dance about Santa personifying “The Spirit of Giving,” and hinted that there was a “little bit of Santa in all of us.”
We tried to teach the boys the real meaning of Christmas. We set up the nativity scene. An ever-expanding collection of little Italian statues that my youngest son for years called “the fertility scene,” it started with Mary and her baby, and grew one or two pieces a year to include Joseph, an angel, some shepherds and at least two of the three kings, along with one contemplative cow and a reverent-looking camel. This year, we’re adding a little drummer boy.
We told the boys about the wonderful, ancient traditions of honoring the winter solstice with logs that burned all night, and bringing in branches that stay green all winter. We joined neighbors who light menorahs, and those who celebrate the ancient tradition of Yule, and stressed the importance of embracing the myriad ways that people get themselves through the dark days of winter with cultural and spiritual traditions that don’t involve shopping and gift-giving.
But when push came to shove and Christmas Eve rolled ever nearer, we were as guilty as anyone of perpetuating the core fairy tale of capitalism. We encouraged them to write lists for Santa. We read aloud “The Night Before Christmas,” and chided the boys with warnings: “Now get into bed and go to sleep, so Santa can come and fill the stockings. Santa never comes to houses where little boys are still awake.”
Even though I’m not entirely sure they ever bought into the myth, the boys played along, humoring us. When my younger son, Erich, was 3, his 7-year-old brother, Henry, whispered in my ear, “I know Santa’s just the spirit of love and everything, but Erich thinks he’s real, so we better tell him about the snacks.”
“You tell him,” I said. And Henry told Erich that we had to leave a plate of cookies in the living room and a glass of milk so Santa could refresh himself after all the hard work of hauling in the toys.
“Let’s leave something for the reindeer, too,” said Erich. And the boys agreed that a handful of nuts probably would do the trick.
Now that both our boys are teenagers, Santa has graduated from cookies. And milk? Forget about it. Mrs. Claus and I want something with a little more kick. If indeed we manage to find a few minutes alone together on Christmas Eve, I don my antlers and pour us a little glass of Madeira, then we enjoy those cocktail nuts that the boys still leave out for the reindeer.
Makes 8 cups
There must be a dozen ways to apply a sugary coating to toasted nuts. Some methods call for the nuts to be simmered in a syrup, then baked. Other techniques involve a presoak in egg whites before a roll in the sugar. This method, which calls for toasting the nuts ahead of time, then coating them in a very light glaze before tossing them with sugar and salt, has become one of my all-time favorites. The coating is subtle but distinctive, and the finished nuts are suitable for snacking or sprinkling over salads. The nuts can be prepared several days ahead. They make great hostess gifts and a perfect snack for Santa.
8 cups whole pecans, walnuts, macadamia nuts or almonds, or a combination
¼ cup sugar
1 tablespoon kosher salt or 1½ teaspoons table salt
For the glaze:
1 tablespoon brown sugar
1 tablespoon water
2 tablespoons honey
2 tablespoons walnut or canola oil
1. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F, and toast the nuts until they are golden brown and smell toasty, about 8 minutes.
2. While the nuts are toasting, stir the sugar and salt together in a large bowl, and set aside.
3. When the nuts are toasted, remove them from the oven and make the glaze. In a very large frying pan over high heat, combine the brown sugar, water, honey and oil, and stir until the mixture is boiling. Immediately stir in the warm, toasted nuts and cook, stirring or tossing just until the glaze is stuck to the nuts and the pan is almost dry, about 2 minutes.
4. Toss the hot, glazed nuts in the sugar and salt mixture to coat, then return them to the baking sheet and spread them in a single layer. Pop them back in the oven for 1 minute to set the glaze and the sugar coating, then remove them from the oven and let them cool completely on the pan before you move them around. Tossing or packing them before they cool might cause the coating to come off. When the nuts are completely cooled, store them in an airtight container.
Copyright Greg Atkinson, 2006