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The Column: The stollen arrives, and so must Christmas

Alice’s stollen arrived. Now it is Christmas.

The holiday bread, filled with candied fruit and with a buttery vein of cinnamon sugar running through the center, traveled by good old United States mail from outside Rochester.

Can we hear it, please, for the postal delivery people, by the way?

They’ve had a tough year battling through the virus and withstanding one or another big shot sniping about performance.

Just see what it would be like if they weren’t around, is all I have to say.

Good luck keeping up with your subscription to Onion World magazine or getting that little desk calendar the insurance agent sends out this time of year, or hearing from your old, computer-challenged, note-writing roommate, or whatever you are apt to find in the mailbox — snow, rain, heat and now that Daylight Saving Time is gone, even gloom of night.

Pardon the detour. Back to baked goods.

"You’re going to be happy," my wife, Wink, called out recently, having collected the day’s mail. "It’s here."

"Alice?" I ask.

"Alice," answers Wink, referring to the older sister she lovingly calls "Alley Cat."

As always, the loaf from Alice was riding on a piece of cardboard that matched its shape — sort of a first baseman’s mitt — and wrapped in aluminum foil.

Alice ties the loaf with a wool ribbon — candy-stripe combo of red, green and white — and slips the loaf into a plastic bag. Careful packaging does little to stall my first bite. At this point in life, what’s the point of delayed gratification?

"Ah," I hear myself saying.

Like the fragile, pine-cone ornament somehow preserved from boyhood days in Brooklyn and the stuffed Santa doll Wink and I have kept since our four kids were little — nearly a half-century, imagine — Alice’s stollen is essential, irreplaceable, as abundant in meaning and memories as calorie count.

Sometimes I rate the stollen as if a bottle of wine.

"Sturdy hints of farmland wheat with subtle overtones of Madagascar vanilla," I might say in my loopy letter of thanks.

Or, I will announce, "I don’t know how you do it, Alice, but this year’s is even better than last and last year’s was best ever."

I bake a little so I know a stollen is not something you just fling together.

There are ingredients to assemble — flour, sugar, citron, glazed cherries, raisins, almond slices, for starters — and the oven to watch and texture to gauge because stollen shouldn’t be soft or hard, but, like most things in life, somewhere between. Powdered sugar sifted over the brown brim of a cooled loaf ends the production. In other words, a lot of work.

Commences then the shipping process — always the same, cardboard cutout, aluminum foil, wool ribbon, plastic bag — and trip to the post office.

This year, Alice’s daughter, Sarah, served as dispatch clerk. Alice, and her husband, John, are in their upper 80s and contend with the expectable assortment of this and that, so there are no unnecessary trips.

Mom, dad and daughter are a small health care coalition — Alice, a retired nurse practitioner, John, a physician who spent a career at the University of Rochester’s med school, Sarah, a pediatrician — and take no chances in the time of COVID-19. Play it safe — Job No. 1.

Sarah helped with the baking this year, too.

We once were at Sarah’s house for a family celebration. She made cakes that looked like they came from some fabulous Paris patisserie. But in the case of stollen, Alice is the ultimate authority. Sarah may have stirred and kneaded. But, said Sarah, Mom had the last word, usually a good thing.

So Alice’s stollen is here and Christmas is happening, after all.

Not much seems "normal" this year — even the word seems a parody of itself — but there is our little tree near the window, and the pine-cone ornament from way back in Brooklyn, and the chubby stuffed Santa that the kids used to snuggle as if to brace him for the long trip around the world.

How does he do it, anyway, year after year — all the tight chimneys and big bag of gifts and cookies and milk at every stop?

A mystery, all right, old St. Nick. Like Alice’s stollen, a miracle.

Correction: The name of Café Capriccio, an Albany restaurant, was misspelled in the column published Dec. 6.

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