This story will be less risqué than you might fear, or hope:
I bought myself, sort of by accident, a purple lace bra for Christmas.
We were out looking for stocking stuffers and standard Santa fare, my daughter and I, trying to get it all done in one single open-air-mall expedition because I quite hate shopping, even when I am with the girl I love most in the entire world.
As this was my daughter’s first year acknowledging the truth about Santa (which I suspect she has known for some time), she wanted in on the fun and asked to help acquire goods for her brother and father. Also, she wanted her own gifts to be a surprise, to the extent that any of it could be a surprise, because Santa has a stocking-filling formula: socks, a toothbrush, underwear, a puzzle, a small toy, shower gel (or shave cream) and candy. These are the essentials. Also pajamas, which lie, neatly folded, underneath each stocking. Everything else is a bonus.
These are the things Santa brings because this is how we have always done it, and when a tradition works there’s simply no good reason to mess with it, because we must set a good example for the children.
So my girl and I made speedy work of the men’s department in the big department store, where we found everything except toothbrushes, puzzles and candy; and then we headed outside to walk to the bookstore, to fetch three specific things on our list.
Once we were walking I mentioned, casually, that we would have to make a detour by the underwear store (exactly the words I used) because I needed to exchange something I had purchased online. I bought it online because, as I may have mentioned, I despise shopping, even with my best girl in tow. It would be a quick stop, I promised. Also, it was time that she learned something important, which is that buying oneself good underwear is something every woman should do, and with regularity.
Since going to an intimate apparel store with one’s mother likely lurks near the bottom of any 12-year-old girl’s list of fun things to do, I really did mean to be quick about it. A cursory introduction, that’s how I thought of it, because bra shopping is in her not-too-distant future.
I was explaining to the helpful saleswoman that I just needed to make a size swap, that’s where the trouble began. Had I worn this particular bra before, she inquired; and then she proceeded to talk about the importance of proper fit and proper fitting, et cetera et cetera. And then before I knew it there I was in a private dressing room, wearing the fleece leopard print robe and letting a complete stranger wrap measuring tape around me, because having lectured my daughter about the importance of good undergarments I couldn’t really backtrack. And my daughter (ohmygosh, ohmygosh, ohmygosh) sat in the arm chair that was tucked into the corner of the dressing area – reserved, I suspect for husbands, but adequate enough for the child who was pretending we were not related.
The thing about shopping for undergarments in an undergarment store is that it moves along pretty quickly, because the women who work there are usually well-trained and efficient. So I was thinking to myself, well this isn’t really so bad, when the woman who was helping me said, and not in a quiet voice: I’m afraid the only color we have in your size is purple; will that work? What I wanted to say was: only strippers and cross-dressers wear purple bras; but I was trying to be polite and set a good example for the children, so what I said instead was: I don’t know that I would wear purple.
Makes you feel just like royalty, she replied, without missing a single beat, and then took my lack of response as tacit agreement.
So then there we all were at the register, swapping ill-fitting beige for perfect-fitting purple, nearing the end of my daughter’s torture, and with me thinking that I would just visit the store’s other location and swap that purple right back for good old beige (because beige is we’ve always worn in my Ivory-soap clan), when the only other shopper in the store, a tiny, white-haired lady who was a dead ringer for Imogene Coco and who was wearing a lovely red cashmere crew-neck sweater and Burberry scarf, said: if you don’t get the matching set it will just be underwear, you know, not lingerie; I only wear lingerie, myself. Which is very much not what I expected to hear from anyone, especially this very lady-like lady, who also added that I should let the salesperson wrap the set so I could give it to myself for Christmas, like any self-respecting woman would do. Fine, fine, fine, I said, uncertain of what else to say; ohmygosh, ohmygosh, ohmygosh, my daughter said. And finally, with great relief, we were on our way to the bookstore.
And then boom, just like that, it was Christmas morning; and there that box of purple lingerie was, wrapped the way my fellow shopper said it should be, waiting under the tree for me because I ran out of time and never made it to the other store to swap it for proper beige.
What you know already about Christmas morning in our family is that we gather at our house with our friends and neighbors, fellow orphans of circumstance, geography or divorce, whom we love as dearly as real family – more so, perhaps, because we are freed, mostly, from burdens of history and tradition. You know also that we live among an unnatural distribution of good cooks (scarcely a house on our block is without one), so each guest prepares an incredible dish (or three), and we mingle in our kitchen as final food preparations are made and serving dishes arranged. You know that we, sometimes 30 of us in all, span six decades. You have read all of this before.
What you may not recall is that the entire Christmas brunch affair is carried out in pajamas (or pajama equivalents; guest preference, we don’t judge). This particular part of the tradition started not long after we began hosting, when my children were still little and became weary of the stress and preparation associated with having a big party at our house. We just want to spend one Christmas in our pajamas, all day; that’s what they said.
So our Christmas brunch became the pajama Christmas brunch, which made almost everyone feel instantly more relaxed, if slightly less polished. Just before the guests arrive I do put on a bit of mascara and proper undergarments with my pajamas. No need to frighten the men and small children.
For the first couple of years of pajama-wearing celebration, we still used the good china and the real silver, and we all sat down at the same time, together, because that’s what we’d always done at Christmas. And I made beef tenderloin with horseradish sauce, because that’s what we’d also always done; and when a tradition works there’s simply no good reason to mess with it.
Orchestrating a beef tenderloin meal is a production, and the good china makes everyone a little nervous, and sitting down with place cards makes everyone feel formal (even in pajamas), and we are so, so, very far afield from any burden of history or tradition, other than keeping the Christmas spirit together by enjoying good cheer and fellowship. Also, no one likes High Octane Stress Jennifer. Really, I assure you, not a single living person likes her, not even good old beige-wearing Jennifer herself.
And so this year I said: Screw it.
This year I said: We’re having scrambled eggs and bacon and Sister Schubert’s rolls and whatever else anyone wants to bring. And I’m making red chile toffee for dessert instead of chocolate, because red chile toffee is what I like. And we’re using mismatched plates (though also the real silver, because I like it). And we’ll sit down whenever we damn well want to, which might not be all at the same time or in any arranged configuration. And we’ll keep the Christmas spirit together by enjoying good cheer and fellowship, nonetheless.
Even with a simpler approach and get-over-yourself mentality, I have to confess to letting High Octane Stress Jennifer make a brief appearance, just before company was due to arrive, before I changed out of my actual nightgown (the one I slept in) and into the clean Christmas caftan that Santa left by my stocking.
And my boy said: Mom, it’s Christmas.
And my girl said: ohmygosh, Mom, I’ll light the candles; you go get dressed.
So I did.
And under the red print caftan from Santa, I wore purple.
Red Chile Toffee with Fleur de Sel
- 2 sticks (1 cup) unsalted butter (I use Land o’ Lakes)
- 2 cups granulated sugar (I use Domino)
- Water (about 1 tablespoon – I pour directly from the kettle)
- White vinegar (about 1 tablespoon – slightly less – again, I pour directly from the bottle)
- Ground red chile (about 1 heaping teaspoon. We get ours from the Santa Fe flea market; you’ll have to do your best here.)
- Pinch of kosher salt
- Fleur de sel, for dusting
- Heavy saucepan
- Wire whisk
- Candy thermometer
- Parchment paper and/or baking sheet
Combine the butter and sugar and water in saucepan over medium-to-high heat, depending upon your stove (the flame on ours tends to inch up during cooking, so I use a medium setting). Whisk it all together as the butter melts, careful not to let the edges burn in the process.
When everything’s nice and melted, add the vinegar, chile powder and pinch of salt, and keep stirring.
At this point, if you’re like me, you’ll realize that you neglected to prepare the parchment paper or baking sheet. Make sure the temperature isn’t too high and step away from the saucepan long enough to prepare your pouring surface (I put a sheet of parchment paper directly on our granite countertop).
Cook the toffee, stirring constantly, until it hits 305 degrees on the thermometer (hard crack).
Pour it onto paper or baking sheet, sprinkle with fleur de sel (or other salt, but fleur de sel is the best), and let cool completely.
Crack into pieces using your preferred method (mine is to pick up the entire block and then drop it on the rock).