The satin luster of ribbon candy resembles the reflections from the Christmas tree lights on colorful glass ornaments; it’s not clear enough to actually reflect anything but the surface gives the illusion. My grandmother always had a pressed-glass bowl of ribbon candy set out for the Christmas holiday. I don’t remember her having a tree those last few Christmases but the overflowing bowl of ribbons was a tradition during the holiday. As a teenager no one else I knew set out a bowl of ribbon candy for their guests; candy canes, mints, mixed nuts or a box of chocolates replaced the fragile old fashioned treat that had a propensity to get sticky with moist air. The intricate patterns of colored sugar were fascinating as they wove the length of the candy. How did they make it loop back and forth so precisely?
The McNeill family had grown so large that no one had a house big enough to hold everyone for the Christmas Day gathering so a small church hall was rented. My oldest aunt was twenty years older than my mother and her children were close in age to my Mom. Each of the oldest aunts had five children each; the older of my first cousins were married and had children while some cousins brought their dates to the dinner. Knowing at least one hundred and twenty five family members plus guests would pile into the rented hall meant hours of food preparation on Christmas Eve with only a pause for steamed chestnuts dipped in butter and a strong cup of Lipton tea. Grammy, Mom, Dad and I worked KP duty bent over heaps of vegetables. My hands ached from the effort. Huge kettles were gradually filled with peeled carrots, potatoes, parsnips and turnips. The green beans would be heated the next day. The pies were already baked during the day along with date bread, corn bread and soda bread. Grandma made her creamed onions, dates stuffed with peanut butter sprinkled with coconut, and a lemon pie of two whose meringue was already weeping.
The food preparation wasn’t something for the faint hearted. Once in the church hall earlier than most of the family, my Uncle Blake, Aunt Marge, my cousin Nancy, my parents and I would put the huge kettles of vegetables on the commercial stoves to cook. The turkeys, at least seven twenty pound birds, had been cooked in the wee hours of Christmas day at family member’s houses. Pausing in the kitchen, aunts and uncles unloaded their food cargo before proceeding with presents for under the tree. The large commercial ovens were soon overflowing with turkey waiting to be sliced. The condiments were typical: both green and black olives; sweet, kosher, mixed vegetable pickles; canned cranberry sauce; pounds of butter and salt and pepper. Nancy and I popped open jar lids, turned the can openers and unwrapped pounds of butter as we set out the condiments on the rows of paper covered tables while the vegetables cooked. Two thirty cup coffee pots were perking and the one for hot tea water was warming. Dad and Blake started slicing the turkeys after pulling out the steaming stuffing. Next Nancy and I set out the plates and silverware while the younger kids raced around. Such a juggle, such teamwork to pull off that huge meal… once the tables were burdened with the momentous amounts of food, my grandmother in a warbling voice would say a blessing. This was the time of clattering silverware and moderate quiet while the family enjoyed the repast. It always amazed me how fast it was gobbled up by our raucous clan of young and old. It seemed within minutes that the serving bowls were bereft of their load and the individual plates were empty.
Santa made a visit hinting of how tired he was from all the delivering last night. His faded red suit and fake beard was worn and tattered; the padded cotton was squished flat from storage. Aunt Marion was such a funny Santa; her rotund body did the suit justice and her sparkling eyes were magnified through her glasses. After Santa left for a well-deserved nap at the North Pole, it was time for games, cleaning up the wrapping papers and lots of laughter. The children took advantage of the basketball court or played with their new acquisitions. Clustered around the large folding tables, the older members reminisced. Their voices would ebb and flow creating a multi-part harmony as members joined in the chorus. A litany of voices tinged with sadness that Granddad was no longer present, filled with hope because Jane’s children were recovering from a car accident, touched with concern over Grammy’s failing eyesight, dismayed over teenage behavior and in general they all commiserated about the onslaught of middle-age. Meanwhile back in the kitchen the cleanup included storage of left overs and washing all the dinnerware, silverware and serving bowls by hand to the accompaniment of coffee perking and the whistling tea kettle boiling..
Eventually the ribbon candy was passed around. Just as inevitably someone would knock against the tree sending a fragile glass ornament crashing to the hardwood floor. Tiny shards and splinters of glass went everywhere. Bits of reflections scattered across time. Ribbon candy is like that when you hold it in your hand and rotate it. The color changes as the light moves across the surface. Break a piece free, shards and splinters of sweet reflections scatter everywhere. The echoes of laughter, the rustle of wrapping paper, the smells of a Christmas dinner, the small talk while cleaning up the kitchen are suddenly brought back as clear as the pressed-glass dish overflowing with colorful ribbons. Ribbons of memories looped together revealing their prism of color. Some pieces are broken evenly; some remain whole, while some are just splinters; all in a bowl waiting for selection. Memories made of broken promises and disappointments, of life’s fulfillments and joys, or of pain and sorrow. Every life has a little of each in varying intensity and hue. All entwined, these colorful ribbons are passed around the family gatherings in a transparent glass dish for all to share and feel.
*Growing up in rural Connecticut kept Miffitt close to the earth and nature. As a visual artist and as an art instructor, she has over forty years of experience. Miffitt’s art may be seen at The Gallery, Bainbridge Arts and Crafts on Bainbridge Island WA, Gallery Boom in Tumwater WA and exhibits regionally and nationally.