There are two times when those who celebrate Christmas open their presents: Christmas Eve and Christmas morning. Well, at least in America. Christmas gift-giving customs vary around the world, and many of them aren’t on either Christmas Eve or Day. That has the benefit of separating the spiritual and religious aspects, at least to a degree, from what has become a commercial and consumer free-for-all.
In the United Kingdom and many of its Commonwealth countries, presents are exchanged on Boxing Day, Dec. 26. The custom purportedly started because on that day the rich would “box up” gifts and give them to the poor. Incidentally, one of the most traditional British customs, for rich and poor alike, is Christmas crackers. Not edible, crackers are decoratively wrapped paper tubes placed on one’s Christmas dinner plate. They’re filled with flimsy tissue-paper crowns and hats, noisemakers, and cheesy Cracker Jack-type toys. Those who think that the British are stuffy would quickly change their minds if they ever found themselves sitting at a table of otherwise perfectly normal, sane folks – children and adults – pulling the tubes apart with a loud pop (hence the name “cracker”), then blowing plastic kazoos and wearing the hats, which quickly become torn and ragged – and this is even when the dinner is supposedly formal.
In other areas, such as Latin America, gifts are given on Jan. 6, the Feast of Epiphany – the celebration of the Wise Men’s arrival. It makes sense: giving gifts on the day the Wise Men appeared bearing gifts.
Here in the U.S., though, it’s either Christmas Eve or Christmas morning. I don’t have figures, but it’s always seemed to me that most people open presents on Christmas morning. My family – never ones for doing things the way others do – has always been firmly in the Christmas Eve camp. When I grew old enough to ask why (not that I was complaining, mind you – the sooner I could get my hands on my Christmas loot, the better), I was told that we were an early stop on Santa’s route. That satisfied me for a while, until basic geography knowledge told me that that couldn’t possibly be true. Still, it took a long time to figure things out. I was an only child living in the country with no near playmates; there wasn’t anyone to fill me in. My folks were clever, too: Presents from Santa were unwrapped and heaped alongside the wrapped packages that’d been accumulating for weeks. My mother’s admonition whenever I questioned this was the clincher: “If you don’t believe in Santa, he won’t come anymore.” Hey, I wasn’t stupid!
I’ve never even considered changing our custom of opening presents on Christmas Eve, but it was really put to the test in the years when my children were young and I was singing in a church choir. The kids were in children’s choir as well, and the church had three services on Christmas Eve: an early children’s service, an early adult service, and a traditional 11 p.m. service at which the adult choir sang. More often than not, I was belting out “O Holy Night” at all three services. We’d rush through dinner, get to church, then get back home ASAP. It worked well for Santa, who always mysteriously came while we were gone, but all too often I’d be checking my watch and rushing out the door the minute all the presents were opened. It did have its positive side: I got out of cleanup duty. The downside was that I was usually exhausted on Christmas Day. Thank goodness those were years when I didn’t have to be responsible for Christmas meals!
Once I had children of my own, I decided that the reason my family opens gifts on Christmas Eve is that the adults don’t have to get up at the crack of dawn on Christmas morning. If the kids want to get up early and play with their stuff, fine. Mom and Dad can snooze and snuggle a little longer.
Another way to make Christmas morning relaxed and leisurely – regardless of when you open presents – is to have breakfast made ahead of time. There’s nothing that works better for that than a strata. A strata is essentially savory bread pudding assembled on the day before and then refrigerated. All that’s necessary in the morning is to top it with grated cheese and pop it into the oven. There are many variations, but I especially like to use sweet red peppers and chopped parsley both in the strata and on the top at Christmas for the red/green effect.
Contact Julianne Glatz at firstname.lastname@example.org.
- 1 lb. ham OR cooked sausages (such as Polish or smoked sausage) OR fresh sausage (such as breakfast sausage, bratwurst, Italian, or chorizo)
- For a vegetarian version, substitute 1 lbs. cremini or button mushrooms, halved or quartered if large
- 2T. unsalted butter
- 3 c. chopped onions, not supersweet
- 1 large or 2 small sweet red peppers, cut into 1/2-inch dice
- 1 tsp. minced garlic, or more or less to taste
- 6 large eggs
- 2 c. half-and-half
- 1 T. Worcestershire sauce
- 1/2 c. freshly grated Parmesan cheese
- 1 tsp. freshly ground black pepper, or more or less to taste
- 1 1/2 tsp. kosher or sea salt (more or less to taste)
- 1 c. chopped parsley, preferably flat-leaf, divided
- 1-2 T. chopped fresh herbs such as rosemary, thyme or marjoram, either singly or in combination, optional
- 1/4 tsp. cayenne OR 1/2 tsp. hot-pepper flakes OR 1T. hot sauce, or more or less to taste, optional
- 4 c. slightly stale, good-quality French or sourdough bread, cut into small cubes
- 1 c. coarsely grated Swiss (preferably Gruyre), Cheddar, Pepper Jack, or Monterey
- Jack cheese
Butter a 9-by-13-inch or similarly sized baking dish. Heat a large skillet over medium-high heat. If using the diced ham or sausage, sauté just until lightly browned. If using fresh sausage, sauté until it’s completely cooked through, chopping it into small pieces. If using mushrooms, stir-fry in a little oil over high heat, seasoning them with a little salt until they are browned and cooked through.
Remove from the pan and set aside. Leave any fat in the pan. Add the butter and, once it’s melted, add the onion and peppers. Cook over medium-high heat, stirring occasionally, until the vegetables are translucent and softened, about five minutes. Add the garlic and cook a few minutes more until it, too, is softened.
Remove the pan from the heat, return the meat or mushrooms to the skillet, and cool to room temperature.
In a large bowl, beat the eggs until they are completely combined, then stir in the half-and-half. Add the pepper, salt, Parmesan cheese, half the parsley, and the other fresh herbs and hot pepper or sauce if using.
Stir in the bread cubes. Add the cooled meat/vegetable mixture and combine everything thoroughly. Pour the mixture into the prepared baking dish, cover it with plastic wrap or foil, and refrigerate the dish ove rnight.
Preheat the oven to 350. Remove the baking dish from the refrigerator and let it stand for about an hour to come to room temperature. Remove the foil or plastic wrap and sprinkle the cheese evenly over the top.
Bake for one hour, or until the top is golden brown, and a knife inserted into the strata comes out clean. If the top begins to get too brown, cover the dish with foil until baking is done. Just before serving, sprinkle the reserved peppers and parsley evenly over the top. Serves six to eight.