75: Our Blowtorch Christmas

75: Our Blowtorch Christmas

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: A Book of Christmas Miracles

Our Blowtorch Christmas

There is no ideal Christmas; only the one Christmas you decide to make as a reflection of your values, desires, affections, traditions.

~Bill McKibben

Christmas dinner was in the oven and our electricity was about to fail. We stared out the window. In front of our house was a power pole with a black box near the top, and the black box was sending out a shower of sparks — pretty, like a small fireworks display.

“Better phone the power company,” someone said.

“It’s Christmas,” someone else said.

“Will they even answer their phone?”

My husband made the call. “They’ll send someone when they can,” he reported, “but they have no idea when that might be.”

I sighed. Dinner was supposed to be early for the sake of the kids. On the bright side, they had new toys to occupy them. There was Christmas music on the stereo. The lovely smell of roasting turkey was starting to fill the air. We adults drank our wine and ate our appetizers and watched the sparking black box in fascination.

Eventually, as we knew it would, the display of sparks fizzled. Then the lights and the music went out. That meant the furnace and the stove were out too. I felt panic. New at this Christmas-dinner giving game, I had prepared carefully, hoping not to appear too clumsy to my very competent mother-in-law.

Thank goodness we had a fireplace. We put more wood on the fire and made sure everybody had a sweater. We dug out lots of candles and set them up ready to light when darkness fell.

My vegetables and potatoes were scrubbed, peeled, cut up, sitting in a water bath, all ready, except that they were raw. Earlier I’d taken my homemade buns out of the freezer and put them in a brown paper bag ready to warm in the oven at the last minute. My cookbook said the turkey needed fifteen minutes roasting time to the pound, and that meant it needed at least another hour in the oven. Relishes and cranberries were lined up in their little dishes under plastic wrap; right now they seemed to be the only part of dinner we could eat. For one gloomy minute I contemplated ordering pizza.

My mother-in-law favoured improvisation. She had spotted the green salad and the tomato aspic, a tradition of my family, in the fridge. “Why not,” she suggested, “dine on these, some cheese, and the buns? It would be everything we really needed.”

So we had a plan. Just to check, I inserted the thermometer into the turkey and found it was actually already fully cooked! It seems that modern turkeys need far less roasting time than the old cookbook suggested. Things were really looking up.

Darkness was falling so we lit the candles all round the room. My husband carved the bird and we loaded our plates with the turkey and cranberries, the salad and aspic and pickles and buns. We barely missed the rest of the menu. Laughter and jokes replaced the music missing from the silent stereo.

In the slightly chilly air, nobody, even the kids, seemed very interested in the ice cream bombe I’d made. But thank heavens for seasonal excess. There were tins of Christmas cake and cookies and other good things ready to fill the dessert gap.

“Those look delicious,” somebody said. “All that’s missing is a good cup of coffee.” There was, of course, no pot of coffee, no hot water, no prospects at all. An awkward silence followed the ill-timed comment.

Then my husband disappeared into the basement and returned with a shiny tool.

“What’s that for, Uncle Don?” one of the kids asked, as he filled a pot with tap water.

“Watch and see,” he told them.

He struck a match near the tool. We heard a whoosh sound, and blue flame poured out of the blowtorch. He trained it on the pot until eventually the water began to boil! He then poured the precious boiling water through a coffee filter, and waited while it dripped into a carafe. And we had rich, fresh coffee to finish our improvised Christmas feast.

It was around that time that two men from the power company knocked on the door. “This shouldn’t take us too long,” one of them said cheerfully. He breathed out a smell as he spoke. Mincemeat? Plum pudding? I realized then he’d been called away from his own Christmas celebration — to help us with ours. As we watched, these two heroes climbed the pole and started working on the black box.

While they worked, my husband’s sister sat down at the piano. It was now getting dark and in the room lit only by candlelight we gathered around her and sang all the wonderful Christmas songs we’d lost when the stereo went silent.

And then the lights came on: the lights on the house, the lights on the plantings in the back yard, and most important of all, the lights on the Christmas tree. At the moment they came on, all of us, child and adult, gasped. This is what we had been missing. We felt, I think, the same wonder at the sudden and brilliant appearance of those lights as our ancestors who lived before electricity must have felt when, for a few shining minutes once a Christmas, they cautiously touched a match to the candles on their hand-cut spruce tree.

~Gail Neff Bell

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