Empty stockings and crumpled wrapping paper are often the decor accompanying Christmas breakfast. Formality is left to dinnertime.
The first meal of Christmas Day celebrates comfort, family memories, warm surroundings, and new and old food traditions. Some dishes emerge from the oven looking pretty much the same as they have for several generations. Other menus are based on nostalgia. Still others are very practical, using what’s on hand.
There is often flour billowing through the air in Joe Loux’s kitchen. It’s a welcome hazard of making his great-grandmother’s galettes, which is essentially French-Canadian fried dough. With daughters Olivia, 6, and Evelyn, 3, in tow, the Salem dad sets to work. “It’s crazy, but really simple,” he says. The yeast dough rises overnight in the fridge, and after unwrapping gifts, Loux hand rolls them into long ropes, cuts them into 3-inch pieces and fries them in canola oil till golden.
“It was a tradition when my mom was a child,” he says. Her grandmother (mémère, as she was called in French-Canadian), made them on Sunday afternoons. Her own mother started making the galettes as a special treat on Christmas morning. This is how Loux and his family eat them: “Break them open and top with a slab of butter and maple syrup.”
The fare at the Murley home in Milton is cookies and nutmeg-dusted eggnog with a splash of brandy for the adults. “The tradition started when I was a little girl,” says Paula Murley. “My mom would bake cookies all during December and since we had eaten so much for dinner the night before, she would just put out a tray of cookies for breakfast on Christmas morning.” As a mom herself, Murley continues the tradition. By Christmas Day she and daughter Isabel, 10, have filled gift boxes with six or seven different cookies. The rest are shared with the family, husband John, and Murley’s parents, visiting from Cranston, R.I.
An egg dish has always been part of the Kohler family brunch. Adele and Will Kohler often host friends and family on Christmas Eve, but in the morning, the group at their Medfield home is smaller. At the core are children John, 13, Ella, 11, and Scarlett, 8. In the past few years, a Southwestern egg bake has become the centerpiece; the dish has a special place in Adele’s heart. In 2008, during frequent visits with her ill father in California, she stayed at a bed-and-breakfast and was served a cheesey egg casserole with chiles. The innkeeper got the recipe from “Sara’s Secrets” on the Food Network, and passed it on to her guest. “Now whenever we have it,” says Kohler, “I think of my [late] dad.”
Holiday traditions can be introduced by new members. Alex Beram of Charlestown has found his niche as “one of the better chefs in my family,” according to his wife, Cristy. His in-laws look forward to his French bread pudding at the holiday gathering that typically finds Beram in the kitchen working, while the rest of the family is “chilling and sipping mimosas.” His father-in-law is his biggest fan, invariably checking in advance that the dish will be making its annual appearance, offering to stock all the ingredients, and then checking, once or twice more, that it will be coming out of the oven on Christmas morning.
Some traditions are accidental. Joanne Devine’s mother always orchestrated the family’s Christmas Eve dinner. Over 30 years ago, the Needham resident, one of three daughters, started making pecan sour cream coffee cake from “The Silver Palate Cookbook” to give her mother a reprieve in the morning. When one new son-in-law was stymied for a gift for Devine’s dad, the young man eventually settled on a bottle of Irish whiskey. That too became part of the morning tradition, shared alongside the coffee cake.
Michael Hourigan, Devine’s husband, recalls, “We toasted the family of women we married — the Devine women — our children, and anyone who had passed away. It was a bonding experience for us sons-in-law with a man with three daughters.” Now a widower at 91, Devine’s father has moved into senior housing, but the family still brings the coffee cake, whiskey, and a round of reminiscences to share on Christmas morning.
And then there are the customs that evolve from practicality. Victor Koufman of Manchester-by-the-Sea, raised in a Russian-Jewish household, didn’t have a history with Christian holidays. His wife, Lise Balch Koufman, was raised in a Catholic family. “I tried to be as imaginative as possible about how to please my religious wife on Christmas,” he says. His signature egg scramble began over 25 years ago when the oldest of his three sons was an infant. “I figured I would be out of her way if I put an apron on and stayed in the kitchen.” Whatever is in the fridge has made it into the dish: onions, tomatoes, sausage, ham, and “even bologna, since the more meat the better for the boys,” he says.
Three years ago the family started raising their own chickens, known around town as “Vic’s chicks.” Now the first batch of Christmas morning eggs is unadorned. “I like to show off what my chickens make,” says Koufman. As the morning progresses, and guests stop by with holiday greetings, the list of ingredients going into the scramble expands.
Even the chickens are on the guest list. “We do let them in the house on Christmas Day,” he says.