I don’t recall ever being told how the tradition got started but I do remember eating the special rice pudding every year of my young life and enjoying the sticky goodness of the overly white, sweet goodness, never getting enough to satisfy my craving.
The year was 1962, I was six years old and I do remember having to practice the duck and cover while crawling under my desk at school. Our teacher told us that we had to be prepared for a nuclear attack, I didn’t know what nuclear meant but it was fun to get out of my seat and squirm under my desk.
“The Nevada bombing a few days ago should remind all of us that we need to be prepared,” the fear in my teacher’s voice told us more than her words as we scrambled to beat the clock and shield our small bodies.
A few days after that Christmas vacation started and we were free for two wondrous weeks, two weeks of exploring the orange groves that surrounded our home and down to the creek where we hunted for crawdads and kept a sharp eye for the elusive wild pig that sounded its warning but was only occasionally seen. Two weeks of playing with my friends, Brent Moore, Charles Drysdale, Brad Zitsh and my little brother Wayne, no school, no homework, no problems and only a few days before Christmas what a glorious time.
Christmas meant family, lots of family, parties, and food, the food was everywhere. We would start by visiting my cousins or they would come to us; going to grandmas and grandpas house, both sides and again the food, always the food. Everyone had their favorites, my little brother loved the divinity and would take handfuls putting them in his pockets and stuffing his little face, every one smiled as they saw him try to sneak the sugary treat and not caring that he took too much or would get sick as he did almost every year.
My favorite was the rice pudding. I loved the texture, the lumpy look of ricey clumps, but mostly l liked the surprises hidden within and the contest of being the lucky one to find the magic treasures. I had never won before but I knew this was my year.
A Danish tradition and a Hansen family favorite we always made rice pudding for Christmas Eve dinner and within the pudding one penny, one almond and one raisin. Each had an important meaning but I didn’t really understand except the idea of simply being the one to earn the acceptance of the rest of the family for finding the treasures within.
I have since learned that each hidden gem had its own clairvoyant meaning and promise of future events but at the time all I wanted was the lovely, sweet rice and the chance of being the victor. If you were the lucky one to find the penny you were promised wealth for the coming year. The almond meant luck and whoever found the coveted almond would be the recipient of a lucky year. It was great to get the penny or the almond but everyone wanted the raisin for the raisin meant long life and with long life came happiness and joy.
I really don’t like raisins but I knew the raisin was the most desirable and most wanted of the three. If you were lucky enough to get the raisin the entire family would encircle you with praise, hugs, and kisses all around and for that short time you would be the center star and for me, at six years old that was the center of everything.
On Christmas Eve the entire family came together to my grandparents’ home in Montebello California. Their home was small but it had a large room off the kitchen where we could all sit and talk, eat and enjoy the festivities of that special day. After a dinner of turkey and ham with all the fixings we would clean the room, move the chairs and tables and I would rush to the pink chair and sink deep into the feathery pillows and feel the secure comfort of grandpas’ favorite recliner, until he emerged from the kitchen drying his hands, he would give me a happy frown, reach down with his arms and pick me up placing me on his lap, not as comfortable as the pillows but much more satisfying.
The adults would be given their small bowls filled with the yule pudding and then the kids. I looked at mine and I knew something was missing. I couldn’t see into the white goodness, but I knew that there was no penny, no almond nor a small wrinkly raisin; I would not be winning tonight. My eyes, that a second ago were filled with hope and wonder lost that sparkle of anticipation, my mouth turned into a small frown, I could still enjoy the rice pudding I tried to tell myself but even that wonderful whiteness would not make up for the impending loss of not winning the penny, the almond nor the raisin.
As my grandma raised her bowl of rice pudding in the air and announced the rules of the contest, a speech repeated each year like the preamble of the constitution or a reverent prayer, my grandpa quickly pulled my bowl from my tiny hands and replaced my kiddy bowl with his adult bowl, giving to me his portion and his chance for winning.
“Start eating everyone” my grandma announced stoically.
With a spoon in hand and ready to dig in my heart stopped a beat as I noticed my grandpa not eating, waiting, watching me with his tired but loving eyes. I looked at him, his smile bright and knowing, encouraging, he nodded his head and I took a tentative spoon full, tasting the enchanted creamy delight as it melted in my mouth, forgetting for that moment the penny, the almond, and the raisin.
His arms encircled my small body as he hugged me and held me tight, his own bowl of rice pudding gently set aside, watching me, encouraging me, loving me. It was at this moment in my life that I understood love, I could feel it as I sat on his lap, his eyes wanting me to win, knowing perhaps that I would win and me not really caring if I won or not, all I wanted was for this moment, these feelings to stay forever.
Near the end of my bowl of yule pudding, I did find the raisin and with the dried grape the adoration of everyone in the room. It was a grand experience, the hugs, the kisses, the warm eyes of all, but most of all the realization that I loved my grandpa and he loved me, a feeling I would never lose, a relationship that would endure throughout his life and still endures in mine 40 years after his death as he sat by his typewriter writing a letter to me. He died loving me, writing me and enjoying the benefits of giving me an insignificant gift of a little piece of dried fruit. The raisin may have been mine on that event filled Christmas Eve but the promise of a long and fulfilling life was his and is mine as I remember that special gift from a very special man.