Tasting the Holidays: Simple Gifts of Goodness

Orange mandarins with their leaves attached always remind me of Christmas.

I recall them bulking up my holiday stocking on Christmas morning when I would find it propped on a chair, filled with little wrapped presents and chocolate. I would set the fruits in a pile on the floor next to my haul of gifts, and later carry them up to my bedroom. Oddly I always liked that they usually had their leaves attached, marking them as somehow special and different from the fruit of the remainder of the year.

With the door to my room closed to maintain a boundary against a loud, hyperactive younger brother, over the next few days I would eat the tangerines one by one, usually while sitting on my bed and curled up with a book, attempting to denude each fruit in a single, connected piece of rind. I savored the citrusy zing and aroma, the sweet tart juice, working my tongue around the seeds and spitting them out onto the scraps of orange peel.

Along with my stash in the Christmas Day stocking, a bowl of them sat in the living room of our Pasadena house, another in the dining room as well. I think my mother enjoyed having them as pretty, edible decorations set about. After my private holiday hoard disappeared upstairs, I would help myself to those in the bowl when passing through (usually heading back to my room to close the door and return to a book).

Shopping at the grocery market the other day, a mountain of orange mandarins with their shiny dark tongues of leaves caught my attention. I smiled, feeling a twang of holiday sentimentality, and placed several into a bag.

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Edible holiday goodness

Later at home I liberated them, arranging the fruits in a handmade sky blue bowl that rests perpetually on the table by the front windows, flanked by a pair of rustic, ceramic candleholders. The vessel’s glazed white spiral covered by a pile of leathery orange orbs and dark leaves, it was my first nod toward any sort of decoration for the year end holidays.

Appealingly pretty in the artisan bowl, their leaves a picturesque celebration of nature, I found a certain childhood nostalgia and cheer rising in me. For various reasons, I often feel a bit of resistance towards decorating for the Christmas season. It was already the 8th of December and not a single ornament or bauble to be found in the house. Somehow the leafy tangerines convinced me it was time; I put on a favorite holiday album by Loreena McKennitt to enhance the festive spirit, and went out to the garage to fetch the lone box of holiday decor. (We keep things simple here, thank you.) 

Like Fujis, Galas and Honeycrisps are all apples, tangerines, satsumas, and clementines are all mandarins, a diminutive orange that originated in China (hence the name). Just as from my childhood, these are tangerines as they have seeds (clementines do not and their rind is much tighter, more difficult to peel in just one piece). After eating several over the next day or two while I sat writing at the table, savoring the zesty fragrance of them on my fingertips, the bowl looked depleted so I placed a pomegranate in its center to cheer things up.

My mother adored pomegranates. Persimmons, too. The large ruby addition to the bowl not only changed and enhanced the display, but somehow tipped me deeper into an appreciation for being in central California where both these fruits grow nearby, along with the walnuts I just purchased.

Putting the nuts in a small ceramic dish, I briefly wished that I had kept my mother’s classic, nickel-plated, spiral-design handled nutcracker and accompanying long picks—the ’60’s sort that everyone had. (Surely I could pick one up on eBay for a few dollars but I’m not really that attached to the memory.) These walnuts, while creating a pleasingly old fashioned, edible display like the mandarins, are destined for more than simply cracking open and snacking upon. Half have already found their way into a walnut and parsley pesto that I swirled into a creamy celeriac and jerusalem artichoke soup the other night, and I suspect that the remainder will end up in a classic Italian salad of chicory (endive) and pecorino I’m yearning for lately.

I lingered for a moment at the bin of Italian chestnuts at Whole Foods Market, feeling tempted (though certainly not by the price) and simultaneously catapulted back to living in France and later England, recalling the taste of their roasted, warm goodness. Yet despite the Christmas carol pastime of chestnuts roasting on an open fire, the glossy dark nuts always speak to me of autumn, remembrances of kicking their spiky green pods down the road or footpath, and putting shiny ones free of their hulls into my coat pockets. Walnuts were always in our house at the holidays for eating, and thus they are the nut that most embodies Christmas in my mind and memory.

Mandarins, pomegranates, walnuts. Heralds of the holidays. Bearers of memories. As a youth I could neither appreciate them as ‘seasonal’ (in the Los Angeles suburbs I was very disconnected from any sense of ‘nature’, equally so from farming and agriculture) nor appreciate that such bounty didn’t have to travel far to reach us. As I so often did, I simply took the abundance of life for granted.

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Festive evening glow

Not two weeks ago I sat at this table and was seduced by the sweet fragrance of golden quinces in a white French bowl, gifts from a Thanksgiving dinner that spurred me to write about (and later to cook) them. These mornings I sit with my requisite pot of tea and gaze at the mandarins and pomegranate—in the evenings, too, illuminated by candlelight— feeling a pleasant swirl of nostalgia, cheer and gratitude. Such simple, beautiful, local goodness. 

Sweet, the flavorful memories of childhood holidays. Yet I value these humble gifts so much more than I did as a youth. Now I salute the farmers that grew and tended them, the unknown hands that gathered, and the endless generosity of the earth itself. More than presents wrapped in festive paper and affixed with a silver bow, these are the real rewards of the season for me, instilling a smile—delight, even—as I eat them plain or add them to our meals.

Ruby pomegranate seeds scattered atop crisp, bitter leaf salads. Creamy, fresh young walnuts, not yet tannic or bitter (as they so quickly become), adding crunch to plates of fresh greens, pulverized to sauces, or simply cracked open and eaten out of hand. And those dear little mandarins, perfuming my fingertips, their miniature segments clustered together offering more of a taste of sweetly tart juice than sustenance to assuage hunger. I’m thinking that a few of them I will roast with another duck (albeit a significantly swifter affair than last week), tucked alongside apples, prunes, and parsnips.

Simple treasures and tastes of winter holidays, these. They are timeless gifts of the very best sort, like friendship, holding hands, smiles, and warm kisses. Each is a golden thread stitching me to childhood memories, yet also now hemming my soul with ribbons of gratitude. So much about Christmas is off the mark these days: crass materialism and frenzied spending, buying presents and ‘stuff’ that people don’t need or want, the crowds and steadily building chaos. Sadly it has become mostly a commercial season rather than one of sharing and genuine good cheer, and that is part of the reason I celebrate the Winter Solstice, instead.

Yet that underlying holiday soul is still there if we choose to embrace it: opting for less rather than more, slowing down, bowing out of the traditions, celebrations and obligations that don’t really speak to our hearts. Favor and savor that which truly nourishes. As with everything in life, when we take time to appreciate something simple—the fresh scent of the evergreen wreath on the door, a bowl of pretty fruit, the fading light in a winter sky, our beloved’s smile—it completely shifts our frame of mind and brightens our spirit, steering us back towards gratitude.

Society seems to have mostly discarded any real sense of the sacred at the holidays. Regardless of our chosen religion, spiritual path, or absence of one, I offer that sacred need not mean religious; like love, it can be whatever touches the heart and soul, instilling a sense of connection to something larger. Mystery, wonderment, awe, inspiration, beauty, gratitude, a sensual appreciation of conscious breath and embodiment—these are all felt experiences of the sacred, each worthy of celebration.

Friend, the ordinary, everyday sacred exists everywhere—especially at the holidays, I think. Like the unexpected but welcome guest at the front door, we have only to open our hearts and invite it in.

If we have a leafy, fragrant mandarin in our hand to share, so much the better.

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