To some folks, it means fruit cake, gingerbread or perhaps even homemade cookies.
For me, it means party mix, a.k.a. “trash” or “nuts and bolts.”
I don't mean your run-of-the-mill, store-bought party mix that comes in a bag or a box.
I'm talking about genuine, 100 percent, one-of-a-kind party mix - the kind my mother has made every Christmas for as long as I can remember.
As soon as I got home for the holidays I would head straight for the laundry room where she stored her “goodies” - cheese straws, homemade chocolate and peanut butter squares, cookies and, of course, party mix.
Each one of these mouth-watering delights was stored in its own container. My party mix was kept in one of those large cans that are used to sell popcorn - the ones with dividers to separate the butter, cheese and caramel flavors.
There was enough party mix in that can to last through the Christmas holiday and into the new year. I would spend New Year's Day in front of the TV, devouring handfuls of party mix while watching bowl games.
Of course, too much of a good thing can be bad for you, and this holds true for party mix. After a while, you develop a burning sensation deep inside your stomach - one that even a tall glass of iced tea can't quench. That's when you know it's time to take a break.
As much as I enjoyed eating party mix, I never really paid much attention to how it was made until two weeks ago, when Caroline and I spent an afternoon at my sister's house in Raleigh, getting “certified” - pouring, mixing and stirring my favorite snack until it was done.
The whole process takes about two hours. First, you pour the contents of three boxes of Chex cereal - corn, rice and wheat - into a large broiler pan, along with a bag of pretzels (straight only), a jar of peanuts and a can of mixed nuts. After mixing all of them together, you spoon a mixture of Worcestershire sauce, garlic salt, celery salt and onion powder and four sticks of butter that has been simmering in a pot on the stove for 30 minutes.
Both pans are put into a 200-degree oven. Twenty minutes later, take them out and stir it all up before adding a box of Cheerios. Return the pans to the oven (rotating them from top to bottom), taking them out every 20 minutes to stir, repeating this process for two hours. Afterwards, the pans are set aside to allow the party mix to cool.
There are several variations of this recipe, which my mother clipped from a women's magazine back in 1951.
While we waited for the mixture to cook, we put up my sister's Christmas tree, one of those pre-lit deals with all of the electrical sockets that have to be plugged in before it is fully illuminated. It's a lot harder than it sounds. Eventually, with my sister's help, we got it to work and she, my mother and Caroline decorated it.
We also had time to visit - three generations sharing stories and laughter.
The next day was spent baking cheese straws, molasses cookies and oatmeal-raisin cookies. The dough had already been prepared, all I had to do was put it on the cookie sheet.
With the cheese straws, I had to load the dough into an electric press, which forced it out in the shape of a star and/or a flower. It takes a special touch to make sure each one comes out right - not too fat. We wound up making some 12 dozen cheese straws.
The cookies were easier to make - just roll them out in a ball and place them on the sheet.
Everything turned out well - nothing was burned - and Caroline and I both took some of our work home with us.
Looking back, I realize that although we can duplicate my mother's holiday baking, it lacks something special that only she can provide - her love for all of us.