“Congee is a type of rice porridge popular in many Asian countries. It can be eaten alone or served with a side dish. Names for congee are as varied as the style of its preparation. Despite its many variations, it is always a thick porridge or soup of rice which has usually disintegrated after prolonged cooking in copious water.” ~Wikipedia
Christmas wasn’t a statutory holiday or a celebrated tradition in much of Asia when I was growing up. By the time I learned about Santa Claus, I was old enough to be find the idea of Santa a creepy one. I mean, what kind of man would come to your home late in the night while everyone is sleeping? Besides, I grew up in an apartment, and have never seen such a thing as a chimney. I asked my dad how Santa would ever delivery a present to me if we didn’t have a chimney, and my dad said Santa would jump from his sleigh onto our balcony, open the sliding glass doors, and enter into our living room that way. Ok, creepy! When I asked my dad how would Santa ever have the time to deliver presents to all the kids in the world, my dad said Santa just rides his sleigh very fast and bounces between the apartment buildings like lightning. Anyway, the math didn’t add up in my head, and I didn’t experience the magic of Christmas morning because we didn’t get presents.
One thing I did believe in, was the Christmas congee. Oh yes, Christmas congee.
At some point in my pre-teens, my family started going to a Catholic church on Sundays. I found it very painful having to dress up on a Sunday and go listen to a long service I didn’t understand. Isn’t sleeping in a better option on a Sunday morning? But I got to see my friends there, and the preacher had a talking parrot I liked visiting. The church is built deep in the mountains. On Christmas Eve, we had to attend the midnight mass, and I always remember how cold it got deep in the mountains after midnight.
More often than not, I would fall asleep in the midnight mass. You can’t expect me to stay up past midnight and not fall asleep listening to a Catholic service, yes? I wasn’t the only kid to fall asleep either. If you looked around, most of the younger kids are asleep in the parents’ laps.
Anyway, my favorite thing about these midnight masses, is what happens when the mass is over! My parents would wake me from my deep sleep in the pew, and we would all walk over to the administration office in the basement of the church. The walk is maybe 20 or 30 feet, but I’d be shuddering the entire time from the cold mountain air. The administration office space is usually for the college students to have Bible studies or group activities in. But after midnight mass, large conference tables are set up in the middle of the room with chairs lined up along the four walls of the room. The tables would be full of food cooked by volunteers and the church cook.
My all time favorite item on the tables, would be the huge 30 gallon pot of steaming hot congee. Just the sight of the large pot brings me tears of joy and gratitude. Watching the steam rise from the content makes my heart sing. It would be just some plain congee, perhaps cooked in some chicken stock and salt. I wasn’t old enough to know how it was cooked, but it always tastes so divine to me, and always warms me up to the core. We get the congee in styrofoam cups, and I remember holding the styrofoam cup in my hands and breathing in the hot steam, and enjoying slurping in the hot soup. I make it a tradition to burn my tongue with the hot congee every year, but I always looked forward to it again the next year.
The tables are also full of other things like steamed buns and junk food like chips. I would have a feast! All the kids would now be awake and chasing each other around the table. We would play tag, and be scolded by the adults, and repeat. I remembered the feeling of being surrounded by food and friends and thinking I never want this to end.
After I have had my fill of congee and junk food, and after my parents have had their fill of socializing, we would go into the courtyard, where someone would have started a bonfire. Taipei is a typical concrete jungle, and we don’t normally see bonfires. So it’s always a treat for me to stand by a blazing fire to watch the flames dance and listen to the wood pop and spark. I would slowly keep turning around and around on the same spot, trying to warm myself on all sides. With my belly full of congee and my body warming up by the fire, my eyelids usually start to get heavy by this point. My parents would hurry us into our very cold car, and my brother and I always fall asleep on the drive home.
The rest of Christmas would not be memorable enough to mean anything, as often we still had to go to school the next day. Years later when I asked my mom if she remembered the congee, she always said it was just some really plain stuff and wondered why I was so impressed by it. Maybe it wasn’t the best tasting congee in the world even though it tasted really good to me, but I think that it was something I looked forward to every year, something I have always associated with Christmas, something that symbolized the good times with friends.
I’ve stopped going to midnight mass for more than 20 years now, but I always think about having a bowl of steaming hot congee on Christmas Eve.