Everything has to be perfect.

It is 6:15, and it is still dark outside, and it will be cold in our apartment for another twenty minutes, until the fireplace has warmed the living room and the heat I just turned on begins to warm the bedrooms. I am baking cookies this early in the morning for the third time this week.

It isn’t just cookies – there were the seven pounds of onions to be caramelized, with a dollop of homemade creme fraiche to be folded into them so that later the whole mess could be spread onto puff pastry for an effortless snack on Christmas day. There is salt cod to soak, sushi rice to make and fold into flaked sockeye salmon which was roasted with a glaze of ponzu and a layer of orange slices, and each fish must be rolled into its own type of croquette. There are fruits and cheeses to buy and slice and serve, there are dips and sauces to make and store for later, there are eggs to boil and peel and bread to knead and bake, there are all of the lunches and dinners we still have to eat around everything else.

Everything has to be perfect.

“Why are you doing this?” my friend Katherine asked over iMessage, when I complained that my feet hurt and there was still so much to do.

“Why are you doing this?” Nick asked as I sighed and sighed and sighed so that he’d notice the effort as he got ready for work around me.

And the truth is, I don’t really know. I think a lot of us have felt the weight of 2018, and like maybe it’s too soon for the holidays, or we’re not quite in the mood. I think a lot of us maybe feel this way every year, at least a little bit. And I think if it was just me, I’d let myself be a little maudlin, maybe drink a few too many rum and caffeine-free Diet Cokes and let myself have popcorn for dinner and watch all the Bob’s Burgers holiday specials in one go. I would never listen to Dominick The Donkey, which some children think is the greatest holiday song in the world.

At 8:15, I will hear a child’s heavy steps in the hallway, and in the entrance to the kitchen, a rumpled boy with puffy, squinting eyes will appear. This place will smell like chocolate, vanilla, and peanut butter if he’s lucky. There will be flour on the floor and the dishwasher will be running and the lights on the Christmas tree will be on, and the living room will be warm and the cat will be there purring, waiting for him. He will eat a bowl of Cheerios and we will argue a little about screen time and he will win because the cookies have to come out of the oven.

It has to be perfect for him.

And it doesn’t, really, and I know that, because everything is new to him and whatever we say is tradition is tradition as far as he’s concerned, because this whole thing is fantastic and wonderful and every day there are treats and special outings and movies about magic and a few new presents under the tree. Even when we don’t much feel like carrying a torch, the light we hold makes the world brighter for other people.

Later, we will bake the cookies to leave for Santa and drink hot chocolate and read Christmas books and draw pictures of Santa’s bum catching fire as he falls down a chimney and watch The Muppet Christmas Carol and eat KFC for dinner because one year we learned that a bucket of chicken is a holiday tradition in Japan and there’s a KFC three blocks away so why can’t it be our tradition too?

It’s Christmas Eve, and you get to be in charge of your own magic. To those who celebrate, Merry Christmas – I hope the day unfolds exactly how you want it to, and that there are cookies. To those who don’t, I hope there are still cookies and you enjoy the warmth and coziness of the season exactly how you like to.

I have to head out to the store one last time, because we’re running low on butter and the reindeer prefer different carrots than the ones we have. “Why are you doing this?” I think to myself, and then I look over at the little goon on my couch in Spider-Man pajamas and I grab my coat, tell him he doesn’t have to change into real clothes because it’s Christmas, and off we go.

Gingerbread? Don’t mind if I do.

Oh! Hello. It’s been ages and ages. Actual time, one week. With the arrival of the Shaw Cable guy this morning, we have now clawed our way back into the 21st century, and these feelings of connectedness and calm are very reassuring.

Today marks the beginning of the week before Christmas, that frantic time of shopping and trying to remember who you have to buy for, who you haven’t bought for, and which bills should be paid right now lest you find yourself without heat, hot water, or car insurance. I don’t know about you, but I don’t handle stress very well. Fortunately, the one thing you can control, the one thing that can bring you inner peace like nothing else, even if you have forty-thousand relatives to visit in not nearly as many hours, is your kitchen, and you can whip it into submission and fill your home with wondrous holiday smells and end up with a cake that goes very well with rye and ginger ale. Which you probably also need right about now. Yes?

This is a strong-tasting sucker, crammed full of molasses and maple syrup and raw ginger. It’s grown-up gingerbread, and you can serve it with ice cream if you want to but I like it straight out of the pan, plonked onto a plate with a little icing sugar and a cold beer. It’s also packed full of good stuff, so you can even take this with you as an on-the-go breakfast, since you’re going to need to leave early to avoid traffic hell.

Grown-up Gingerbread

  • 1/2 cup butter, room temperature
  • 1 tbsp. grated fresh ginger, packed
  • 1/2 cup dark brown sugar
  • 1/2 cup fancy molasses
  • 1/2 cup maple syrup
  • 1/2 cup sour cream
  • 2 eggs
  • 1 1/2 cups whole-wheat flour
  • 1 tsp. dried ginger
  • 1 tsp. baking powder
  • 1/2 tsp. baking soda
  • 1/2 tsp. cinnamon
  • 1/4 tsp. salt

Preheat your oven to 350°F.

Cream together the butter, ginger, and sugar. Once smooth and creamy, beat in the molasses, maple syrup, sour cream, and eggs.

In a separate bowl, sift together the flour, dried ginger, baking powder, baking soda, cinnamon, and salt. Stir into liquid mixture. Inhale. Sigh.

Pour into a greased 8″x8″ pan. Bake for 40 to 45 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted in the centre comes out relatively clean. This is a moist cake, so you may notice moist crumbs. That’s okay. Desirable, even.

The cake’s pretty good hot out of the oven, but believe you me, you’ll like it much better after it’s sat for awhile. There’s a lot of stuff in here to keep it moist, so if you want to bake it the night before, let it sit, then grab it and go in the morning, it would likely be at it’s flavour-zenith then. I’m not sure that phrase worked. Oh well.

You can frost it if you want, but I wouldn’t.

Now, you relax. And maybe buy yourself something nice, wrap it up, and put it under the tree, “From: Santa.” I won’t tell.