"I am the Ghost of Christmas Past."
"Long past?" inquired Scrooge…
"No. Your past."
"No. Your past."
I had intended this post to be a series of photos only, from Christmases past, but the popcorn balls intervened, so indulge me while I talk about popcorn balls.
My grandmother Skatzes, my beloved Grandma Skatzes, loved Christmas. It was her favorite holiday. She always announced loudly that Christmas was for children, not for adults, and she meant that. I think though that Grandma always carried a child's delight in life in her heart, and she reveled in the Christmas season.
Christmas in that household meant popcorn balls and Grandma was the sole possessor of the recipe and the sole maker of the balls. Until I was 13, we lived in the same house - my family upstairs from my grandparents - and I loved to come downstairs on popcorn ball day to be with her. When I was very young, she would give me a handful of popcorn or a few caramelized pieces and shoo me out of her kitchen and out of her way. But as we both grew older, she slowly started letting me help - first bagging the balls, then shaping them, then working alongside her cooking the syrup. Even after we moved out of the house, I would come back on popcorn ball day. On one of those days, she finally decided it was time to pass along the recipe to me.
I still have it.
Grandma Skatzes was all but blind, and so cooked the syrup by feel and not by a candy thermometer. Under her tutelage, I learned to judge its consistency with my fingers as it passed from soft to hard stage. (It occurs to me as I type these words that her extremely limited vision was yet another reason she did not want a rambunctious little kid hanging at her elbow while she handled the hot syrup.) She taught me to dip my hands in cold water before shaping the balls to minimize burns. (I quickly learned that burns were part of making popcorn balls.)
Everyone in her large family watched and waited for Grandma's popcorn balls. It was the one flavor that Christmas needed to be complete. Grandma made them in massive quantities; I remember bagging over 300 one day. She made them for the families of her children and any adult grandchildren who were known to be coming into town for the holidays. By the end of popcorn ball day, there would be paper grocery bags filled to the brim on all of the kitchen chairs.
What I never knew was when and how this tradition got started. Was it something Grandma began in the depths of the Great Depression, trying to make Christmas a little more festive? Did it date back to her childhood? All I know is that we all looked forward to the sack of popcorn balls arriving each December, and how everyone - young and old alike - regretted when there was only one left, because that meant the end of the popcorn balls until the next Christmas.
Grandma died in early 1978; she had stopped making popcorn balls some years before that. When she made her last batch, she gave me two pans - a large roaster pan and a very heavy pot - which were the critical pieces of popcorn ball making equipment. I have carried those pans from here to Chicago, to Oregon, to California, and back again to my hometown for the last 30 some years.
Over those years, I have made popcorn balls sporadically, but never in the volume Grandma did. My life was complicated and there were other demands. My children have only had them a few times at the holidays.
This year, I am making popcorn balls.
I popped the popcorn this morning - four pounds of it - dumping it into grocery bags to cool just like Grandma always did. I have already burned a finger on the heavy pot - the one in which I will make syrup later today - because I forgot that somewhere in its past the wooden handle came off and my grandfather's repair included a large threaded nut that gets as hot as the pan. It will scorch your fingers if you forget and touch it while cleaning up.
Laura Ingalls Wilder mentioned popcorn balls more than once in her Little House books - they were on the church Christmas tree in Plum Creek and they appear again at a Christmas in De Smet when Almanzo surprises Laura by coming home early from a trip east. They appear in Robert P. Tristam Coffin's Christmas memoir, "Christmas in Maine," where they were "big as muskmelons." My guess is that popcorn balls are woven into the fabric of our country's past and probably make more literary appearances than even I could imagine.
They are certainly woven into the fabric of my past.
It is that fabric that will be swaddling my heart later today when I make them. I cannot wait for the smell of the syrup, for the crunch as I shape them, and even for the small scorches which are part and parcel of the making. They will bring me memories of Grandma Skatzes, memories of my childhood, and memories of Christmas past.
Merry Christmas, one and all!