Sunday, December 29, 2013

Childhood Christmas carols, cookies and church

12/18/13 Chatterbox
Betty Kaiser

“How dear to my heart are the scenes of my childhood
That now in memory I sadly review:
The old meeting house at the edge of the wildwood,
The rail fence and horses all tethered thereto…”
James Whitcomb Riley

I was a city girl so I have no stories to tell about tethering horses to hitching posts at the neighborhood church like James Riley’s poem. Our church, Vermont Ave. Presbyterian, was located in the heart of Los Angeles. We rode to church in cars from around the city to sing, read the scriptures, worship and socialize.

Some of the most vivid scenes of my childhood revolve around Christmas activities at church. Although I certainly waited with great anticipation for Santa Claus to come and drop down the chimney with presents, the activities prior to that day were equally exciting.

Each Sunday evening in December youth meetings were cancelled. Instead, we kids donned our coats and mittens and went Christmas caroling. The area around our inner city church could be dangerous after dark. So we all jumped in cars (driven by parents) and headed out to nearby neighborhoods where we sang traditional carols and hymns for the elderly or shut-ins.

I still remember the delight and joy the recipients expressed as we sang, “Hark the Herald Angels Sing;” “Oh, Come All Ye Faithful;” Silent Night” and other requested favorites. After the last notes were sung we drove back to the church to warm up with hot cocoa and homemade Christmas goodies. (See recipes below.)

The highlight of the season was the Christmas pageant. Every year we kids re-enacted the birth of Jesus. It was a big deal. Altogether the church seated about 2,500 people and they came from all over the city to rejoice in the good news. Messiah had come! The large church interior was transformed for this event into a cozy theatre. The auditorium was darkened, and readers used flashlights to follow the script as children’s sweet voices filled the stage.

I was 14 years old when I was chosen to play Mary in the annual pageant. Oh, my. This was a huge honor. Over the years I had worked my way up through the ranks of shepherds and choirs of angels. As a seasoned performer, playing Mary was a piece of cake. While everyone else was running around in the fields of Bethlehem, I sat, head covered, dressed as a peasant girl with Joseph and the baby Jesus. We were under a spotlight in a tower above the stage that had been transformed—complete with hay— into a stable.

It was a memorable evening. A reporter and photographer from the Los Angeles Times covered the event. The next weekend, much to my surprise, my picture graced the front page of the newspaper. Unfortunately, my family’s copy was lost long ago or I would still be reveling in my (very) brief claim to fame.

Again, this being a church, refreshments were served after the pageant. Women from all over L.A. brought their best offerings. Coffee was black and strong; hot chocolate was made with real milk and melted chocolate. Cookies and cakes were all made from scratch. No store-bought or box mixes allowed!

As I recall, everything was simple but delicious. The pride was in the experience of the baker not in the complicated recipe. The different pastries represented the ethnicity of the providers. Sugar cookies took many forms and would melt in your mouth.  A gingerbread boy was a real treat. Spice cake was relished by young and old.

In the spirit of Christmas’ past, it seems only right to share a couple of those recipes. The first is a replica of a favorite in Chuck’s German family: Butterhorn Cookies. His mother and grandmother were wonderful bakers. In fact, his grandmother owned a bakery in Wisconsin during he early 20th century. The second recipe is from my mother’s recipe book written in about 1932.

Note: Since this will be my last column of the year I wish each of you a blessed holiday. Remember the reason for the season is love. So, as a wise man once said, “Little children, love one another.” Enjoy!

Grandma Sautner

2 c. sifted flour
1 egg yolk
1/2 lb. butter
3/4 c. sour cream
3/4 c. sugar
1 tbsp. cinnamon
1 sm. pkg. chopped walnuts (chop nuts really fine)

Sift flour into mixing bowl. Add butter, mix with fingertips until it looks like meal, then add egg yolk and sour cream. Mix until well blended. Shape into 4 balls on floured wax paper.

Store in refrigerator several hours or overnight. When ready, roll out like a pie. Sprinkle with the filling and cut into wedges, 8 to 1 crust. Roll up, starting at wide side. Bake at 375 degrees for 20 minutes. Remove from oven and roll in sugar mixed with cinnamon or when cool, sprinkle with powdered sugar.

LaVaughn Varner

3/4 cup soft shortening
1 cup brown sugar (packed)
1 egg
1/4 cup molasses
2-1/4 cups flour
2 teaspoons baking soda
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon cloves
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon ginger

Mix shortening, sugar, egg and molasses thoroughly. Measure flour and sift with dry ingredients; mix all together. Chill. 

To cook: Heat oven to 375° F.
Roll dough into balls the size of large walnuts. Dip tops in sugar. Place, sugared-side-up, 3" apart on greased baking sheet. Sprinkle each with 2 or 3 drops of water. Bake 10-12 min. Makes 4 dozen.

Betty Kaiser’s Chatterbox is about people, places, family, and other matters of the heart.

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