Magic and memories with Christmas Eve snacks

Story and photo by M. CLARE HAEFNER

Christmas Eve has always been my favorite day of the holiday season. It always seemed magical, from decorating the Christmas tree to opening one present each to contain our excitement before my three younger siblings and I piled into the same bed to await Santa’s arrival after returning home from midnight Mass.

Mixed with the decorations, church carols and family gatherings are some of my favorite finger foods. I don’t remember the exact year the tradition started, but for as long as I can remember, we’ve celebrated Christmas Eve with snacks instead of a big holiday meal.

As Christmas carols played on the radio and hot apple cider simmered on the stove, we’d work together to set up a buffet filled with mini bagel or English muffin cheese and pepperoni pizzas, sausage party pizzas on rye, pigs in a blanket (coined “mo’ wieners” by my siblings), potato skins stuffed with bacon and cheese, dill pickles, carrot sticks, apple and orange slices, cheese slices and crackers, frosted sugar cookies, fudge, gingerbread and all the other treats we’ve received from family and friends. We’d fill our plates and watch the lights twinkle on the tree while we tried to guess what gifts we’d unwrap the next day.

I always looked forward to preparing the food. It was the only time of year my mom and I fixed sausage party pizzas, which made them my favorite treat. The sizzling sausage blending with the savory sweet garlic and oregano smells and tastes like Christmas to me. And since my siblings preferred the bagel pizzas, potato skins and mo’ wieners, there were always leftover sausage pizza squares to snack on into the New Year. One year, I even hid a few in the back of the freezer so I could enjoy them on my birthday.

As we’ve grown older and two of my siblings have started their own families, our holiday tradition has changed. We don’t all sleep at the same house (much less the same bed) or start Christmas morning together, but we continue to gather Christmas Eve for a smorgasbord of snacks. We’ve added tamales for my brother-in-law and spring rolls for my sister-in-law, and now serve fewer indulgent desserts, but the Haefner family tradition remains sweet. I can’t wait to see how it evolves as my nieces grow older and add their favorite finger foods to the mix. But no matter how it changes, I’m certain Christmas Eve will remain my favorite day of the holiday season, filled with magic, memories and the people I love most.

SAUSAGE PARTY PIZZAS

1 pound ground Italian sausage (Note: I prefer mild, but any variety is OK)
1 pound Velveeta cheese
2 teaspoons fresh minced garlic (can substitute ½ teaspoon garlic powder)
1½ teaspoons dried oregano
1 package cocktail rye bread
Note: Cocktail bread is not always available at local grocery stores. You can use a regular-sized loaf of rye, pumpernickel or a swirled blend, but cut each slice into 4 pieces for appetizers.

Brown sausage in skillet over medium heat, drain the fat and return sausage to the skillet.
Cut cheese into cubes and add to sausage. Stir in garlic and oregano (add more to taste). Stir until cheese is melted.
Spread on rye bread. (If making ahead of time, freeze before baking for up to one month.) When ready to serve, bake at 400°F until brown and bubbly, about 10 to 12 minutes.
Note: The spread also makes a great dip for parties.

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