Roll On: Swedish Meatballs and Other Holiday Traditions

What I'll be doing on Christmas Eve eve

My father came from a big family of seven siblings and tons of cousins and second cousins and cousins-once-removed, a loose conglomerate of folks that all through my childhood gathered on Christmas Eve at somebody’s house—at my grandmother’s, then at my Aunt Betty’s, then at my Uncle Charles and Aunt Nancy’s, and then, for a long time, at the house where I grew up, in Doylestown. These holiday gatherings were intense. You saw a whole bunch of cool kids you were related to but weren’t quite sure how, you watched your elders get loud and drink punch and argue over politics, you got strange gifts from relations who only saw you once a year and didn’t really know much about you, and you ate.

What you ate became cemented over time—not in a literal sense, but in the way that back in, oh, say, the late 1950s, Aunt Elizabeth showed up with a chicken salad with almonds, and everybody liked it, and so every year for the next four decades, when Aunt Elizabeth asked what she should bring on Christmas Eve, everybody said, “Oh, just bring that great chicken salad.” We have lots of signature dishes like this. My Great-Aunt Laura made a killer pound cake with cream cheese icing right up until she died. My cousin Kathy still brings terrific crab dip. My cousin Pam used to make wonderful homemade baked lima beans, with plenty of bacon. There was always a ham, and Christmas cookies, and from my mom, Swedish meatballs. There was no Swedish blood in her, and certainly none in any of my father’s clan. And yet at some Christmas Eve at some point—most likely also in the 1950s, since the recipe includes canned mushroom soup—my mom made Swedish meatballs, and they were declared beloved, and they were served on Christmas Eve every year until 1981, which is when she died. That’s when I became the maker of the Swedish meatballs. By my count, this is the 30th year I’ll be spending Christmas Eve eve—the night before the family get-together—standing over a hot stove, rolling little balls of ground beef and sautéing them for hours on end.

It’s not the kind of cooking I usually do, this mélange of canned soup and ground meat and fungus. Over the decades, I’ve (shh!) tinkered a bit with the old-fashioned recipe. For years, I dutifully added the one cup of white wine it called for—until one Eve eve, when I thought, “White wine? With beef? What is up with that?” I added red wine instead. Best meatballs ever, everybody told me. Thus emboldened, I replaced some of the fresh white mushrooms with more exotic varieties—shiitake, crimini, portabellas. Nobody complained. In fact, no matter how I doctor the meatballs, everybody says they’re great. Even my kids, who for years staunchly refused to touch them, have come around. “They’re … okay,” says my mushroom-loathing son. “They kind of grow on you,” my daughter allows.

Over the years, other aspects of my family’s Christmas Eve menu have changed, too. An influx of Muslim members meant no more baked ham, or bacon in the baked beans. A raft of vegetarians puts more emphasis on side dishes and grains. There’s always a fish option nowadays—often, poached salmon from another Cousin Kathy, the one who opened her Fairmount rowhome to us after my dad died. The cool kids with whom I listened to .45 records back in the day now have kids—and grandkids—of their own.

And still we gather, even as we grow older and grayer, as the generation before us gradually passes on, as we become the old folks sitting at tables, waving off coffee because it keeps us awake nights, and discussing our latest woes—arthritis, kidney stones, worsening backhands. We worry over our kids, compare notes, bolster each other, while the “kids” move on from soda to beer. Though the Eve is always changing, it feels changeless, sacrosanct, much holier than church to me. We’re like druids showing up at Stonehenge, drawn by the power of mistletoe, munching Swedish meatballs, singing carols in quavering voices, keeping the flame of kinship burning for one more year.