Bound by Tradition

Have I mentioned that I grew up holiday-free? It’s one of the defining aspects of my character — now, as an adult, I love holidays like a kid because they’re all new and exciting, but I’m never sure how important they are to other people or whether I’m celebrating them quite right. Half the time, I only remember after the day has passed. Both this year, in kindergarten, and last year, in preschool,  Niko had no Dr. Seuss-themed shirt on Dr. Seuss’s birthday, and last year he failed to wear green on St. Patrick’s Day, because I forgot each time that the holidays were approaching. This year I did manage to purchase some St. Patrick’s Day green for the kids and me, and I did remember to get it out on the day, but only because I set two reminders on my phone.

I grew up as part of a Christian commune in Northwestern Ontario, and abandoning both secular and religious holidays was a choice we embraced as part of freedom from the chains of tradition, worldly entanglement, and religious law. Of course,  non-celebration then became a religious law…but that’s a topic for another time. Suffice it to say, our abstinence from holidays was a practice that derived from a sincere desire to have lives characterized by simplicity, with our focus on God rather than getting caught up in the frivolity and materialism of celebrations.

However, Easter is a holiday that was embedded in my psyche from a young age, albeit loosely. There were no visible trappings of the celebration in our community; we had no egg hunts, no frilly pastel dresses or spring hats. We did have giant, revival-style church services in the spring near Easter time, forever connected in my mind because of the abundance of seasonal candy for the event, but they had nothing to do with the holiday in reality; they just happened to be scheduled in the spring.  Despite our church’s eschewing of holidays, though,  Easter Sunday generally did feature Resurrection-themed songs and sermons, though the word “Easter” wasn’t necessarily mentioned. After all, unlike Christmas, Easter is celebrated at the historically correct time, just after Passover; and its celebration is much less gift-centered than Christmas, thus contributing less to the corruption of the soul. Occasionally someone would get unusually enthusiastic in the delivery of an Easter Sunday message, with a jubilant cry of “He is risen!” from the pulpit, echoed by a wide array of responses from the congregation — from a few sober  Amen’s, to a rousing Glory hallelujah! or two, to a few rebelliously traditional calls of He is risen indeed!

Anyway, what with the appearance of the best candy of the year, the onslaught of songs featuring imagery of rising from graves, and the occasional Easter sermon, Easter is a holiday that has remained on my radar — in the distance, anyway — from childhood on.

In past years, Aaron and I have let Easter pass with barely a nod — we often had a family dinner with his parents, but we didn’t do much ourselves. When we moved to our current home in Oregon, though, we realized that our move-in date would coincide with Easter. The first night we spent here was the Saturday before Easter. So we celebrated with Easter baskets for the kids (Sofia was just a baby, so hers just had enough in it to satisfy three-year-old Niko’s need to include her), and we had an egg hunt — Niko’s very first.

The next year, Niko discovered the joys of dyeing eggs. And decorating cookies. We did both with friends, which made it just that much more wonderful. Sofia was now big enough to tear into her own little Easter basket and even collect a few eggs, with help. We had a special Easter breakfast — Finnish pancake, a childhood favorite of mine. And Tradition was established.

Last year, we went all out in preparation — Aaron and I found Easter presents for the kids together, we bought them both clothes for the occasion, and I, wanting to continue Tradition but caving to exhaustion and a bad cold, bought a sugar cookie mix for Niko. I even made the kids silly little sock bunnies, which I stuffed with rice and barley scented with an essential oil blend of warm orange and cinnamon. DSC01213 (1)

I loved Niko’s excitement leading up to the big day. “Guess what’s happening NEXT WEEK!” he said to me for an entire week, after Aaron had whispered the surprise to him, and “Guess what’s happening THIS WEEK, Mom! Guess!” for another whole week. He kept asking about the Easter Bunny and what he might bring, and where does he get the eggs, anyway? He knows, intellectually, that the Easter Bunny isn’t real, but his heart isn’t in it. When we read Jan Brett’s new Easter Bunny story, he confided that he really did believe in the Easter Bunny.

Niko flung himself into Easter preparations with delight. He was thrilled beyond words when I showed him the shirt I’d gotten him to wear on Easter. He reveled in the anticipation of the egg hunt and Easter basket. Not in the least disappointed by making cookies from a mix instead of from scratch, he happily stirred, rolled, and cut. When I got out the little tubes of writing icing to decorate them (another shortcut that was so very helpful), he authoritatively instructed Sofia in the correct ways of decorating them. We didn’t decorate eggs, sadly — I ran out of both time and energy.

Then, on that Easter Saturday (Aaron had a business trip for which he had to leave on Sunday),  I followed our year-old tradition and made a batch of Finnish pancake, my own recipe this time, which was so well received we ate almost the entire dish within half an hour. Niko and Sofia got dressed in their new Easter finery, and then we presented the toy-filled baskets. The kids loved their aromatic bunnies and springtime treats. While they explored their baskets and played with their kaleidoscopes, Aaron disappeared outside, as per Tradition, to hide eggs in artistic locations. Niko and Sofia hunted enthusiastically, filling their  baskets with candy-loaded eggs. They ate the decorated cookies. They read Easter stories. In short, they celebrated Easter thoroughly.

And now comes the conundrum. I haven’t just established Tradition. No, it’s worse: I’ve become entrenched in Tradition. My holiday-eschewing self is now trapped in the need to make Easter perfect for the kids — but this need is at odds with the reality of my personality, my history, and my health and general energy level. The obvious solution is to tone it down, little by little, year by year, until the kids are content with a handful of chocolate eggs and a store-bought, pre-decorated sugar cookie.

So, naturally, I’m amping it up this time. This year I started early! I purchased a spring dress for Sofia months ago, and successfully convinced her that it’s a special dress to be worn only on Easter — an endeavor that took more effort than all the cookie decorating and egg coloring of previous years. Finding an appropriate shirt for Niko (one that can be re-worn for school) was harder, as he’s at an awkward in-between size, but after patiently searching for just the right one, I finally found a reasonably suitable one. I have been researching egg decorating, and made an excursion to Goodwill a few weeks ago to find silk ties to dye extra-special eggs with colorful prints. I’m trying to learn how to empty eggs before dyeing so we can decorate eggs ahead of time and enjoy them as decorations, while not getting rotten egg odor. I’ve been eyeing the seasonal toy aisles for the best Easter selections. I’m pondering the virtues of mixing up a big batch of cookie dough and freezing it for later. I’ve halfway decided to sew the kids bunny stuffies from some of their baby pajamas, using a pattern I saw online. I even bought an Easter wreath at 50% off several weeks ago.

In short, I’m finding — somewhat to my surprise — that I’m anticipating the holiday almost as much as the kids are. Instead of the preparations being an energy drain, I find that they’re a bit invigorating. While I acknowledge that I feel somewhat bound by the tradition, I’m realizing that not all bonds and not all traditions have to be negative. As I’ve discovered over the last few years with Christmas celebrations, allowing myself to succumb to these formerly forbidden (or at least discouraged) activities is strangely freeing.  This formerly holiday-free mom is embracing the Easter spirit, and it’s so much fun.

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Finnish Pancake

When I was a little girl, my family spent seven years on a remote British Columbia trapline. With no electricity, refrigeration was only available in the winter, so eggs were a rarity — and when we did have them, they had to be used up quickly. Some of my favorite foods are the result of this sporadic need to consume eggs: quiche, egg gravy over biscuits, and my ultimate favorite, Finnish pancake. This last dish is like a beautiful marriage between a sweet soufflé and a custard. It can be served with fresh berries and powdered sugar, with syrup, or on its own.

We moved back to civilization, in the form of a group of communes clustered around a tiny village in Northwest Ontario, when I was eleven. Eggs were always available here, but they were portioned carefully: we did have refrigeration in the community kitchen and could store them, but since we didn’t raise our own chickens, the eggs had to be purchased. Cooking for thirty or forty people at a time uses up a lot of eggs when you’re making egg-rich dishes. So here, too, Finnish pancake was a rare treat. It was made even more rare by the fact that a lot of the people with whom we shared meals didn’t care for it, so when it was my mom’s turn to cook breakfast, she usually chose a more universally pleasing meal.

After I moved away and got married, Finnish pancake wasn’t a food I thought about much. I made it once or twice, using recipes I found online, but they were never the way I remembered my mom’s turning out. Why I didn’t just ask my mother for her recipe, I don’t know. It wasn’t until a couple of years ago, thinking it would be a great Easter breakfast choice, that I suddenly developed anew my passion for Finnish pancake. I tried all the recipes I’d tried previously, considering the possibility that I might have made a mistake when making them earlier. I tried similar dishes, like clafuti, and pannukakku or pannu kakku (which is Finnish for pan cake), and German oven pancake. They were all good, and my family ate them happily, but none of them turned out like my mother’s. All of them rose less dramatically, were much thinner, felt less firm and dense, and just… were not the same. They all had similar ingredients and methods, but one thing I noticed that was different among them was the inclusion of baking powder — some had it, most didn’t. Maybe if I could find the perfect amount of baking powder, I could make my mother’s Finnish pancake.

After months of failed attempts, I texted my mother. “Do you use baking powder in your Finnish pancake?” She didn’t, which destroyed that hypothesis, and I expressed my frustration at being unable to get my Finnish pancake to turn out like hers. She said, “Why don’t I just send you the recipe?” and proceeded to do so, after finding her worn recipe card that she had copied from a friend years before. Problem solved!

Except… it wasn’t. Even my mother’s recipe didn’t turn out like the Finnish pancake of my memory. However, it was much closer, and by comparing it to the other recipes I’d found, I was able to see how it differed from them and then adjust those differences. After more attempts than I bothered to count, all of them delicious but not quite right, I finally produced the delectable dish of my childhood. It took nearly a year, but by the next Easter, I had perfected it and scribbled it down.

Now it’s almost Easter again, and I realized this would be the perfect time to share this delicious breakfast favorite, which my kids devour like starving wolves and which my husband has pronounced “very good.”

This recipe fills a large casserole dish. I sometimes use a deep, 9-inch, round stoneware dish, and other times I use one that’s about 8″x12″. The depth and size of the dish will affect the texture and cooking time somewhat, but not enough to worry about. What is important is that the sides are high enough to allow the batter to rise at least double in the oven. It makes about 8-12 slices, depending on the size of pan you use, which is enough to feed my family of four with just a little left over. By the time Sofia is in school, Im sure I’ll need to double the recipe to satisfy everyone’s appetite.

First, collect your ingredients:

  • 6 eggs
  • 1 teaspoon of vanilla
  • 3 cups of warm milk
  • 6 tablespoons of melted butter
  • 2 teaspoons of salt
  • 1 3/4 cups of flour
  • 1/4 cup of sugar
  • More sugar, for sprinkling

Heat the oven to 425ºF.

Start by lightly beating the eggs in a large bowl, using a hand mixer.

In a separate dish, mix the warm milk (warming it a bit keeps the butter from congealing), vanilla, and melted butter. Use a third dish to combine the dry ingredients. Add about 1/3 of the milk mixture to the eggs, beating the mixture until it’s combined. Continue to beat the batter while you add 1/3 of the flour mixture.

Repeat this twice more until all the ingredients have been combined. The batter should be pale yellow, slightly frothy, and very runny. Pour the batter into an ungreased casserole dish. It should fill the dish about a third of the way, no more than halfway.IMG_2892

Bake it for 40-60 minutes, depending on the depth of the dish. If desired, open the oven about five or ten minutes before the end, while the top is still a little moist, and very gently sprinkle sugar on top.

When the pancake is done, it will be golden brown, dry on the outside, slightly cracked, and very puffy, with the top rising to the top of the dish or above. It will still look wet under the cracks, and there might be butter in small pools on the surface.   It will collapse quickly as it cools, leaving a slightly higher crust around the edge; this is not evidence that you’ve made a mistake, it’s just the way Finnish pancake is. I recommend letting it rest for at least five minutes on the counter.When it first comes out of the oven, the center underneath the crust will be slightly wobbly and wet-looking, like custard. You can eat it like that, right out of the oven, but my kids tend to like it better after it’s had a chance to rest, cool, and set up a bit more.

Finnish pancake is extra delicious and very pretty when it’s served with a sprinkle of powdered sugar and fresh fruit on top — sliced strawberries, blackberries, and raspberries are our favorites. You can also eat it either buttered or unbuttered, with maple syrup, with powdered sugar, or plain. It’s delectable no matter what.

Sock Bunnies

Last year, as I was thinking of filling Easter baskets, I decided I wanted to make special stuffies for the kids.  As I scanned the internet for easy ideas, I came across a pattern for a sock bunny. I loved the idea, because Niko had a thing for collecting and playing with socks at the time, so we had quite an assortment of socks that were either worn or had lost partners. The bunnies were so easy to make, and so loved by the kids, that I thought I’d share my process. I made a few changes to the original pattern, which you can see by clicking here. 

First I chose two socks, one for each bunny, that were tall enough to work with and not too worn. Of course, you could use new ones, but I liked the idea of upcycling what we already had.

I wanted the bunnies to be heatable, so instead of using regular stuffing, I used rice, because it works well for heating in the microwave. You can see in the picture that I used two types of rice, arborio and jasmine. This wasn’t for any creative reason, I just didn’t have enough rice to use only jasmine. I used the socks to measure the rice ahead of time to make sure I had enough.

To give them  a comforting aroma, I scented the rice with a couple of drops of essential oil. Lavender oil is traditional for bedtime and relaxing, but since we all had miserable colds, I went a different route. Niko’s first, beloved babysitter always used DoTerra’s OnGuard oil when Niko or anyone else in her home was feeling under the weather. She would dab it onto the bottoms of his feet, avoiding the sensitive skin of his face, or put it into a diffuser. It has a warm orange-and-spice scent, and it’s supposed to improve immune response and help with congestion. I have no evidence for the immune part, but I can testify that it does help open up congested sinuses. Remembering how comforting that scent was to someone suffering from a cold, I added a few drops to the rice and mixed it well. I made sure not to use too much; any essential oil has a powerful aroma, and the orange and cinnamon in OnGuard is especially strong.

When I made the first bunny, I filled the sock about two-thirds full, then sectioned off a large bottom part with my fingers and cinched a thread around the dividing line. This was a little difficult, because the top kept wanting to fall over and dump out the rice. The second time, I ended up pouring out the rice in the top section before tying it off, leaving the heel empty. Then I firmly tied the thread just above the rice. This approach was much easier. I put a dab of fabric glue onto the knot so the kids wouldn’t accidentally untie it later.

I made sure each heel, above the cinched thread, had as much rice as I could pack into it while making sure this section was smaller than the bottom part. I used thread to tie this section off. This time, I used fabric glue both on the knot and on the inside of the sock where the thread pulled it tight, to prevent rice from falling out later.

Next, I oriented the bunny with the round heel, which would be the bunny’s nose and face, toward me. I carefully cut down the middle of the empty top of the sock, with the cut lined up with the center of the heel. I cut away a diagonal, slightly curved piece at the end of each half of the fabric. Now the top of the sock looked roughly like bunny ears. The ears were open and prone to fraying, and I wanted to give them a more finished look. I didn’t have access to my sewing machine, and that miserable cold had exhausted me, so I used the fabric glue one more time. Folding each edge of the ear under, I ran a line of glue along one side and used clothespins to hold the edges together, and let the bunny dry overnight. Besides making the ears more durable, securing the edges also gave them a more defined, less floppy look.

I’d put off my project so long that the next morning was Easter. Before the kids woke up, I got out my fabric markers and gave each bunny a face on the rounded heel of the sock: eyes, heart-shaped nose, and smiling mouth. I tied some ribbon over the thread that defined the neck,  with the fluffy bow just under the bunny’s chin. I finished just in time to add a bunny to each Easter basket.DSC01213

I was gratified by the kids’ responses: they immediately hugged them, and Niko was instantly reminded of his babysitter. He said, “It smells like Joey!” as he inhaled deeply. Despite how rushed the end of the project had been, I was satisfied.

A year later, I’m pleasantly impressed with how much sturdier the bunnies are than I’d expected, given that they are held together with ribbon and glue. I had to mend each one recently because Niko bit holes into them (yes, really), but the construction remains intact. And both kids still adore them and ask for them to be warmed up at bedtime, even though they each have a store-bought microwaveable toy. It was a project that was both insanely easy and durable, which is a win in my book.

 

 

Muddy Slush and Robin-Eggs

Easter: a time of candy-coated Robin Eggs, colorful pastel jelly beans, and chocolate bunnies; of melting snow, muddy slush, an influx of visitors from far away, and hours upon hours of church services.

For me, childhood memories of Easter don’t include sunrise services, new bright-colored Sunday hats, or egg dying. No giant bunnies delivering baskets of spring-themed treats, no egg hunts on lawns. No, when I was growing up in a Christian commune in Northwestern Ontario, I knew that the bunnies and eggs of worldly Easter celebrations were a nod to Ishtar, a fertility goddess of long ago, and to be avoided at all costs lest our pure hearts be darkened by the taint of paganism.  Well, except for those egg-shaped candies and chocolate bunnies. After all, it would be wasteful to miss the once-a-year opportunity to savor the best confections the village’s tiny general store had to offer.

My parents are part of the Move, a commune-based Christian movement that started in the early 70s, notable in part by the eschewing of all worldly entanglements. This category most emphatically included paganism-tainted celebrations like Christmas or Easter. Paganism, in this case, was a convenient catch-all description for any and all non-Christian religions, especially (but not limited to) ancient ones. By now, I should mention, Easter hats and shiny plastic eggs most probably abound in  the communes right about this time of year. But when I was a child, they were frowned upon.

Instead of egg hunts on the lawn and brightly-colored baskets of treats, the children of my community looked forward to Convention. Convention was one of the Big Three, three yearly celebrations that were far more important than secular, pagan, or misguided religious holidays like Christmas, Easter, or Halloween. In our close-knit trio of communes, the Big Three were graduation, Thanksgiving, and Convention. Convention was a yearly long-weekend event. The important leaders of our network of communes and churches were known hierarchically as the “Traveling Ministry” (the lesser traveling preachers and teachers) and “Father Ministry” (the ruling class who handed down decisions both religious and practical). They would arrive the first weekend in March, along with other visitors who would come from all directions to attend all-day revival-style services, causing our group to double or triple in size for several days.

We’d cook and shop in a frenzy for a week ahead of time. Zucchini bread, banana bread, poppyseed muffins, blueberry muffins, and hundreds and hundreds of cookies, all were baked off and stored in the big freezers in the cellar below our main building. Someone good at both cooking and shopping, like Aunt Robin, who was in charge of our commune’s bookkeeping and thus preferred to do the shopping herself, would do a huge shopping trip and come home with plenty of supplies for making easy meals for three hundred people: lunch meat (a rare treat), lots of mayonnaise, store-bought bread and kaiser rolls (more rarities), fresh oranges and bananas, and cases of disposable dishes.

The kids would whisper excitedly, sharing overheard gossip about the coming visitors. Did you hear that John and Sarah started their year? That means a wedding soon! Wonder if we’ll go? or,  Guess who’s staying at our house! Nooooo, we wanted them! We’ll probably have someone with five screaming babies! We’d be enlisted for huge cleaning projects and for once wouldn’t try to dodge out, reveling in the excitement as we scrubbed floors, cleaned the tops of cupboards, washed windows, and helped touch up paint.

And then the visitors would start flooding in. We’d share our rooms with kids our age, if we were lucky, or give up our rooms to older visitors while we slept on living room floors or couches. Younger singles (properly chaperoned, of course) would camp out in the big dining room of our main building, the Tabernacle, while the building’s living room was turned into a bedroom for a family. The other two communes in our church were doing the same, stretching their borders and crowding their homes to welcome visitors from hundreds of miles around who’d come for the yearly convention. Freshly mopped floors would be flooded with slush and mud from visitors’ boots, to the consternation of the guilty visitors and silent frustration of the teens who’d been on their knees scrubbing just a day before.

The first meeting was on Friday afternoon. We rented the village’s community hall for the occasion, since none of the three commune’s Tabernacles could hold the swollen congregation. After a flurry of extra hairspray and double-checking of favorite dresses or parentally-inflicted ties in the mirror, we’d traipse through snow, slush, or mud up the long hill to the community hall in clunky boots, dress shoes in hand. There would be a flutter of activity as older children took advantage of the exciting situation to beg permission to sit with their cousins and friends with more permissive parents, and teens claimed the right to sit separately from their families (but always in a row ahead of their parents, to prevent out-of-sight shenanigans). Older teens and young singles found friends and prospective beaus, shyly sitting next to their crushes knowing that it would create a stir of speculation — “Did you see Paul sitting next to Jennifer? Are they an item? I guess we’ll see if they sit together tomorrow too.” One’s choice of seat during convention was of immense importance.

The excited chatter of friends greeting each other after a year or more apart filled the hall, only quieted by the first chords from piano or guitar near the front of the room. With a rustle and hush, people found their Bible-marked seats and prepared to sing with gusto for forty-five minutes or more, three hundred voices raised in exuberant song while feet tapped, hands clapped out rhythms, and bodies swayed. During the more upbeat songs, you could get seasick if you looked out over the undulating crowd of dancing worshipers, hands lifting upward and hips keeping time.

All too soon, the music came to an end, and our reluctant bottoms found the seats that would hold us for the next two or three hours. Out came teacher-mandated notebooks, pens in multiple colors, Bibles, and… rustle rustle rattle crunch — the bags of candy we’d stockpiled for the occasion. Malt-filled, hard-shelled Robin Eggs; pastel jelly beans; sour gummy worms; chocolate eggs; all the best Easter candy. We’d share down the row with our friends, making sure those with sugar-conscious parents got a secretive handful while their moms and dads were absorbed in finding I Thessalonians.

There was more to Convention than the candy, of course. There was the easing of aching toes out of high-heeled shoes after a vigorous song service. The preaching.  The trick of keeping double notebooks, one for dutifully recording the message of the preacher (one message per meeting), one for communicating with friends, doodling, and writing silly poems. The rustle that spread across the room as one hundred women expectantly worked their feet back into the shoes in response to the winding-down tone of Brother Buddy’s voice after a two-hour message; the audible sigh of disappointment as he revved back up for another thirty-minute run. The youth meetings…. oh, the youth meetings, fertile ground for planting seeds of terrible doubt and anxiety with the messages of purity directed at hormonal teenagers.

Yes, there are plenty of Convention memories. But what will always stand out in my mind, and what I always remember when I see stores filling with Easter signs and merchandise, is sitting in a long row of giggling teenagers, passing our favorite spring candies back and forth. The crunch and sweet chocolate malt flavor of Robin Eggs is inextricably entwined in my mind with friendship, with notes passed, with collaboration on goofy rhymes about Brother Joe’s enthusiastic speaking style. Easter candy makes me homesick.

Happy Convention, everyone.

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