IT WAS TWO weeks before Christmas and, at the Treadwell house, the family was beginning to pull itself together for the push toward celebrating the year's most traditional family holiday. The children, 10-year-old Josh and 7-year-old Glennon, were looking forward to an upcoming expedition to cut a tree for the living room. Their parents, prompted by the visit of a reporter, were planning a menu for Christmas dinner.
Tradition is an important word to Peggy and Jay Treadwell. They use it frequently, but perhaps most often these days in terms of coining new Christmas traditions to replace or augment old ones that can't be kept up fully.
This year, as in many other homes, both Treadwell parents are working full-time. Peggy is a family worker at the District's Department of Human Resources. Her husband, director of food services for the U.S. Senate, had been keeping long and unpredictable hours as Congress struggled toward the holiday recess.
The time required to prepare fully for and enjoy a traditional Christmas is just not there.
Furthermore, with one pair of grandparents in Spain and another in Alabama, the relative-filled, family Christmas of story and song isn't possible. In this, too, the Treadwells are not alone. The inflated cost and increasing difficulty of travel mean fewer and fewer families are choosing to make long trips for brief reunions, even on holidays as significant as this one.
Christmas dinner at the Treadwells' this year will be prepared only for the immediate family.
There will not be, as there has been in the past, a Christmas-day open house for friends.
On Christmas Eve and on the day following Christmas, Peggy Treadwell is scheduled to work.
None of this inconvenience, Peggy quickly points out, should be measured alongside the sorrow and sadness experienced by some of the children and families she comes in contact with at the Child Protective Service. But it is her first Christmas as a full-time working mother and she feels keenly the gap her absence leaves in a child's portrait of Christmas.
"I resent the lack of time," she said. "But I also appreciate so much more the plight of people who have nothing at all. So I've tried to involve the children in a different way and to make their own values about Christmas different. We've been working together to make things, breads and cookies, for teachers and special friends. I've found some recipes that they can make. Last week we went to see two friends, much older people, and took their gifts. Maybe these will be more important than what we eat for Christmas dinner."
Peggy Treadwell grew up in Sheffield, Ala. "Christmas is really a big deal in Sheffield," said her husband with some admiration."People bake and bake and bake. The same people are around each year. Even the same plates are used." Jay Treadwell's Christmas Past image is a collage of New York City apartments and a home on Long Island. "I don't remember the holiday there as much as I remember my brother and me working to earn money for presents. We were paid two cents for each log we split and one year I managed to earn $4 and I don't know how many blisters."
They talked about traditions and what Jay calls the "symbols of celebration" that make them stronger.
Each year Peggy's Aunt Beth in Mobile sends a box of pecans that Peggy delights in serving as snacks, in a squash casserole, atop ice cream or to decorate her mother's version of charlotte russe. Once, with sufficient pecans on hand, she put the unopened box in the freezer. Only months later did she discover that it also contained presents for the children. Jay recalled that his grandmother left them her collection of antique Christmas tree decorations and some old, hand-painted outdoor lights. "But we need a new cord," interruped Josh. "Remember last year . . . BAM!"
Of the new traditions, one the children seem to like especially is the Christmas tree cutting, which is followed by a party at friends' with other families. Another of recent origin is the ritual surrounding the trimming of the tree. "We always listen to Feliz Navidad ", Josh said. "It's the only Christmas record we have," his father explained. "My parents sent it from Spain."
Christmas Eve follows a set pattern. "We read stories and listen to carols and sing," Jay Treadwell said. "Then we go to the service at St. Columbia (Episcopal) church to hear Josh sing in the choir. We're always late." But Christmas day is less structured. Between work pressures and the absence of Peggy's parents, who brought lots of food with them from Alabama, the open house has been abandoned. (For adults as food-oriented on the holiday as children are toy-oriented, this meant the loss of cheese straw, pecans, peanut brittle and cookies, not to mention ham and biscuits, Jay's white wine sangria and dessert treats such as fudge and orange cake.)
"Thanksgiving was the ritual meal I remember," Jay Treadwell said. "We don't change the menu for that dinner, but we aren't committed to any one dish for Christmas although somehow Peggy and I always manage to have champagne with the meal.
"What do you want?" he asked his son.
"Deep dish pizza," Josh responded hopefully. He was ruled out of order.
"We've even grilled steak outside," Peggy Treadwell continued. "This year, though, we are going to have leg of lamb. But it won't be part of a feast. I couldn't think of a fancy first course the kids would like, so we won't have one. We'll probably serve broccoli and rice or squash cassrole with the lamb and charlotte russe for dessert. Jay will make bread. If there were more adults, I'd probably do my spinach salad, but I won't just for us."
At this point, Josh reminded his father there was a need for new hooks for some Christmas tree lights and his father remember that the lights he had strung on a tree outdoors last Christmas were still in place.
It isn't easy keeping rituals and traditions up to snuff, even when they are needed only once a year.
Some Treadwell recipes used for this and other Christmases follow. AUNT BETH'S SALTED PECANS 1 pound or more pecan halves Salt Butter
Spread nuts in a single layer over the bottom of a baking pan. Sprinkle with salt and dot with butter. Place in oven and bake at 300 degrees for about 1 hour, shaking the pan and turning the nuts from time to time. Serve warm or at room temperature with cocktails. AUNT MARGIE'S SQUASH CASSEROLE (10 servings) 1 pound yellow squash, diced 1/2 stick (2 ounces) butter 1 teaspoon sugar 1 egg 1/2 cup mayonnaise 1/2 cup chopped onion 1/2 cup chopped green pepper 1/2 cup chopped pimento 1/2 cup chopped nuts (pecans, if possible) 1/2 cup grated cheese (mild cheddar is best) Salt and pepper to taste Buttered breadcrumbs
Simmer squash in boiling water until tender. Drain. Place in a mixing bowl, add butter and sugar and mash together. Combine remaining ingredients except breadcrumbs in a separate bowl. Add to squash and mix well. Pour mixture into a 2-quart casserole, top with breadcrumbs and bake in a pre-heated 350-degree oven for 35 to 40 minutes. JAY'S WHITE SANGRIA (About 40 servings) 1 gallon dry white wine (Italian preferred) 1/2 pint Curacao liqueur 3 lemons, sliced 2 bottles (8 ounce-size) club soda 3 tablespoons lemon juice 2 oranges, sliced Strawberries, if available*
Mix liquids in a large punch bowl. Add fruits and a block or chunk of ice. Stir from time to time during service.
*Jay Treadwell likes to freeze whole strawberries in a ring mold with water. The mold then becomes a centerpiece in the punch bowl and keeps the punch cool at the same time. JOSH AND GLENNON'S MAGIC BARS (Makes 16) 1/2 cup butter 1/2 cup graham cracker crumbs 1 cup chopped nuts 1 cup (6 ounces) semi-sweet chocolate chips 1 1/3 cups (3 1/2 ounces) flaked coconut 1 cup condensed milk
Melt butter and pour it over the bottom of a 13-by-9 inch baking dish. Sprinkle crumbs evenly over surface, then nuts, chips and coconut. Pour milk over all. Bake in a pre-heated 350-degree oven for 25 minutes or until the top is browned.
After removing from oven cut into 3-by-2-inch bars. IDA B's CHARLOTTE RUSSE (12 servings) 3 eggs, separated 3/4 cup sugar Pinch salt 1 pint heavy (whipping) cream 1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract 1 1/2 packages powdered gelatin 1/2 cup water 2 packages lady fingers Salted pecans (optional)
Whip egg whites with pinch of salt until stiff. Refrigerate. Whip cream until stiff and refrigerate. In a large bowl using a wire whisk or electric beater, mix egg yolks with sugar until light and lemon colored. Dissolve gelatin in water. Add to yolk mixture. Place bowl in pan containing ice cubes and water and stir mixture until it begins to set. Add vanilla. Fold in egg whites, then whipped cream. Line a 2-quart baking dish with lady fingers. Pour the mixture over the lady fingers. Even surface with a rubber spatula and place in the refrigerator to set for at least 3 hours. Before serving, top with optional pecans. JAY'S MUSTARD-MINT SAUCE (Makes about 1 cup) 3 tablespoons water 1 1/2 tablespoons confectioners' sugar 1/3 cup chopped fresh mint leaves, stems removed 1/4 cup tarragon vinegar 1/4 cup white vinegar 1 tablespoon Dijon-style mustard
Heat water in a saucepan and dissolve sugar in it. Place mustard in a mixing bowl and slowly stir in tarragon vinegar. Add white vinegar and mint leaves. Transfer mustard-mint mixture to saucepan and steep over low heat for 15 minutes. Do not allow to boil. If sauce separates, stir vigorously with a whisk to recombine ingredients before serving with roast lamb.