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ISSUE 119 VOL 10 PUBLISHED 12/2/2005

The meaning of Christmas: Just add water

By Ian Anderson
Executive Editor

Friday, December 2, 2005

I used to think that the meaning of Christmas was gift-giving: going to the mall or local toy store to find that limited release Tommy the Green Ranger action figure from the Power Rangers television series circa 1994 or that Marvel card collectors edition version of Wolverine for your best friend. But, that was last year. This year, I wanted to do something special. I wanted to understand Christmas, and I knew I needed to look beyond the superficial desires of my square and socially awkward friends and into the hearts of Christmas-lovers everywhere.

As a child, I handcrafted countless less-than-impressive contraptions, or “gifts” as I liked to call them, for my loved ones. One year, I created a macaroni-noodle-pasted picture for my father of the two of us playing catch with an oddly shaped watermelon. Another year, I actually gave my older brother an ordinary brown rock from my mother’s backyard garden (I was really mad at him).

These offerings seem to be merely manifestations of the meaning of Christmas, not the heart of the definition itself.

Last year, I attributed a key source of Christmas spirit to the unity-producing powers of lefse, relying on the notion that home is where the heart is, right next to the dessert.

`It’s true, Christmas is that one day of the year where we allow ourselves to eat the things we would normally never consider eating on a day-to-day basis, a day when we can really indulge. Like that piece of triple-chocolate fudge cake with a big glass of two – not one – two percent milk, or that cookie jar filled to the brim with those heroine-like, euphoria-producing sugar cookies my mother always makes. These are the things that really matter during the holidays.

`In my home, we have an odd tradition.

Traipsing through our front door with snowy boots, rosy cheeks and bundled up in mittens, hats and knit scarves, my family members arrive with gifts and warm welcomes – but also with something very secret. Something so secret that it must be hidden in brown paper bags and boxes or under large mountains of dish towels and tin foil, until it is time for the ceremony – the Jell-o ceremony.

Yes, it is true, we have Jell-o ceremonies.

Every year, family units split up into warring factions of Jell-o ingenuity. The task is simple: to design and construct the best tasting and most-creative Jell-o monument possible.

The lights in our dinning room dim as generations of family members sit silently with baited breath to see what each family-sized think-tank has fashioned. Suddenly, “Pomp and Circumstance” plays loudly overhead as family leaders – chosen democratically by each respective family – march into the dinning room proudly holding their family’s Jell-o creation in front of them with arms extended, twirling and plieing in procession.

However, these aren’t your typical Jell-o jiggler cut-outs, these creations are true works of art. Last year’s winner was created by my Uncle who filled a large fish bowl with not only blue-colored Jell-o, but also miniature fish figurines, scuba-divers and a plastic castle adorned with lego people. But the most legendary of all the Jell-o molds ever conceived in the history of this ancient tradition, was a two-foot-long replica of Wonder Woman’s invisible plane created by my sister. Fully equipped with her own homemade batch of champagne-colored Jell-o, she meticulously created the plane piece-by-Jell-o-piece, melting wings, tails and body together, and actually placed an original Wonder Woman figurine in its cockpit.

We are serious about our Jell-o.

The winners of this epic annual event are showered with praise and exulted for years to come, while the losers are mocked and scorned until brought to tears – in front of everyone.

I have never won.

But this reverence for Jell-o is not exclusive to my home.

Since the 1930s, Jell-o has jiggled its way into the homes of moderate post-depression America with its easy to assemble just-add-water process, vibrant taste and texture, and its strange, forbidden dance.

Often referred to as the bastard stepson of desserts, Jell-o can take different forms in different households as a nice addition to a simple green salad or a sweet dessert fail-safe with whipped cream on top or even on the side when there is no other post-entree option – but Jell-o can never be taken for granted.

Even at St. Olaf, Jell-o is important. The holidays bring a change in our Jell-o, our Ole Jell-o. Generally an essential element on the bottom shelf of Stav Hall’s dessert display case, Jell-o rarely wanes with much urgency. But in December, the new, Christmas-y green and red Jell-o begins to disappear faster, because Jell-o has the innate ability to not only remind us of home, but make us feel like we’re there, even when we’re not. Sometimes that is all the comfort Oles need during the snowy days of early December before finals, because if you’re eating Jell-o, someone – somewhere – loves you.

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