Advent, My Way #12

In a crazy, crafty, color convergence, all my current projects are red and white!

I told you about my red and white quilt last week, my evening hand embroidery is still redwork, and the candy I need to make today is peppermint bark.

And serendipity finds red and white on my loom as well!

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I am pleased to say, for my own state of mind, that none of these are Christmas gifts.

The weaving is a gift of a different kind and the peppermint bark is for a customer but, with two weeks left until Christmas, the projects aren’t piling up, causing me stress in a rush to finish them in time. In their joyful red and whiteness, they are just helping me get into a proper Christmas mood.

“Advent, my way,” our low-key approach to the holidays, means the stress of making and baking is simply not an issue anymore.

I love that. I love mellow making and mellow living.

But for those of you who love giving and who love a traditional Christmas, I know that, right now, your loving hands may be working feverishly to create an excellent holiday for people you love.

Are you baking? Trying to get paperwhite narcissi to bloom at just exactly the right moment? Do your knitting needles clack and does your sewing machine hum? Are you making your own cards? Finishing a quilted table runner or Christmas stocking? Poring over cookbooks for Christmas dishes to add to the traditional favorites?

Are your hands busy with Christmas creating? Are you stressed or is everything right on schedule? Do you love and flourish in the bustle or look forward to that quiet, really quiet, week between Christmas and New Year?

Have you found your own ways to keep the holiday season mellow?

Advent, My Way #11

Of all the joys of the Christmas season, I like the music best.

The traditional Protestant songs of my childhood fill me with nostalgia.

The jazzy piano of “A Charlie Brown Christmas” makes me grin and want to dance.

The Nutcracker makes me want to whistle along, if only I knew how to whistle. Still, I try.

Sure, there are lots of annoying holiday songs. One only need turn on the car radio or go to a shopping center to be annoyed by the standard set list of songs that cycle through—Rudolph, the Red-nosed Reindeer, The Little Drummer Boy, Let It Snow. Over and over again.

At home, though, we control what we listen to. Our big box of Christmas CDs has been retrieved from storage and the favorites are queued up in the player.

We have the soft and classic, with a heavy focus on Celtic music.

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We have the quirky and unusual, the other side of Christmas. If you want bawdy and blue, to recognize that Christmas means different things to different people, try “Blue Yule”! The Cajun and Creole music will give you the energy to bake 100 dozen cookies!

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I love this Christmas album in particular—American Folk Songs for Christmas–unusual songs in the American folk tradition and put out by Smithsonian Folkways.

As they describe the album on their website : “This compilation of less-commonly known Christmas songs represents a variety of Folksongs that find their origin in European and British Isles Ballads, as well as several African-American spirituals, hollers and chants from the slave era that express a deeply spiritual celebration of Christmas.” Lovely, all of it.

And, if I had to pick one Christmas album, to the exclusion of all others, it would be this one, “The Bells of Dublin,” by the Chieftains.

This album includes some old-standby songs, like “O Holy Night” and “O Come All Ye Faithful,” and it is heavy on rollicking Celtic tunes. It brings diversity in sound—we have a French carol, lots of Irish and British tunes, a song from a self-described “heathen and pagan,” Jackson Browne.

The unparalleled instrumental sounds of the Chieftains—uilleann pipes, tin whistle, bodhran, fiddle—are augmented in spots by the organ of St. Anne’s Cathedral of Belfast and the bell-ringers of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin.

And the voices, so many and so different! Marianne Faithfull, Jackson Browne, Nanci Griffith, Ricki Lee Jones, Kate and Anna McGarrigle.

And Elvis Costello, doing one of the most bizarre and refreshing Christmas songs you’ll ever hear, “St. Stephen’s Day Murders,“ just for those whose families have finally worn them down . . .

These albums are all antidotes to the ubiquitous songs one hears in the shopping malls and on the radio in this season. With a few well-chosen Christmas albums at home, one need never hear “Oh, the weather outside is frightful . . . ” or “Jingle bell, jingle bell, jingle bell rock” again!

We always have room for new music so tell me, what is your favorite Christmas or holiday music? Do you have one favorite song or album? Share!

Advent, My Way #10

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One missing piece changes everything.

A pub with no beer. Just an empty room, kind of smelly.

A clock with no tick. Just another tchotchke, if it doesn’t tell time.

A fireplace with no flame. Just a cold hole in the wall of a room.

We’ve been looking at a cold hole in the wall of our living room for a couple months now but last night we got a wonderful Christmas gift—we have our flame back!

Our fireplace is powered by a gas insert and, when we had it serviced this fall, they found a warped section and a hole in the firebox. That meant that carbon monoxide could, possibly, leak out. And that meant we could, possibly, wake up dead.

The good news, other than the fact that we didn’t wake up dead, is that the fireplace was under warranty. The bad news was that there was no telling when it would be replaced. No promises were made.

We had a pool, Don and I, guessing when we’d have it functional again. Don was the optimist and guessed, “before Christmas.” Pessimist Kerry said, “end of January.”

Just this once, I am so pleased to have been wrong!

I do love a fire blazing in the fireplace. I love it all winter long but especially at Christmas.

It’s cold here in the North Country of upstate New York. The winter wind comes mostly from the north and bangs right up against our living room windows. That fireplace dispels the chill that can get into one’s bones.

But, of course, the fireplace is more than simply a practical way of getting warm. It brings back those memories I cherish so much of early Christmases on the farm. The “good” parlor was where the Christmas tree stood, next to the fireplace that would be lit Christmas morning, for the frenzy of unwrapping gifts.

In the frenzy of unwrapping gifts, the gift wrap would be added to the flame. Some years, when power cords and cash went missing, it was acknowledged that they, too, had probably been added to the flame . . .

A fireplace sums up what I want my holiday to be at this stage of my life as well. Warm, cozy, bright. Quiet, simple, understated.

Now that our fireplace has been mended, we will finish our simple decorating. The Santa contingent can take their places on the mantle and a few special linens will be added, and we’ll call it done.

On Christmas Day, while others are going over the river and through the woods to visit relatives, we will hang out in front of the fire, just us two, with a warm drink, a good book, a little hand sewing.

The cats will jostle for position in front of the fireplace. With luck, a light snow will fall outside the windows and we will welcome the North Wind to blow.

The spot formerly known as a “cold hole in the wall of the room” will blaze with color and heat. The room will get, maybe, a little too warm.

But, really, can a room, at Christmas, ever be too warm?

Advent, My Way #9

Vintage Polish ornaments.

Toy trains.

Nutcrackers.

This is the stuff of which Christmas collections are made.

It seems that Christmas decorating lends itself to themes, to the collection of lots of a particular kind of decoration.

So many different kinds of decorations are available, maybe it’s inevitable that we must make choices and collect one kind of ornament, whether for the tree or for the mantle or the sideboard.

Maybe it grows out of a childhood fascination, as with toy trains. Maybe it’s an extension of another passion or hobby. I knew a woman who collected pigs, in all forms, throughout the year, and her Christmas tree was a spectacular piggy fest.

It’s no different at our house. Our Christmas décor, while eclectic, still features certain collections.

For atheists, we have a peculiar number of nativity crèches.

We have an inordinate number of tree decorations that have an Adirondack, outdoorsy look to them.

But the favorite collection, the one that comes out every year, even when we are pretending Christmas is just another day, is the collection of Santas.

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They line the mantle. They gaze out at us with their impassive, nonjudgmental eyes.

I like them because they are folky-looking—not too shiny bright. I like them because they represent things we care about—they are diverse and represent many lands. We have Santas that represent Haiti, the Czech Republic, the Netherlands, Australia, Ireland, many places.

The dark faces fit among the white ones.

 

Others are tied to our region and to our college alma mater.

I like them because they bring their pets, to visit ours. Of course Santa would care as much for animals as for people.

I like them for many reasons.

I love them because of what Santa represents—a kindly soul who, somehow, knows what each of us desires most, in our heart of hearts, and brings it to us and leaves it without expecting or wanting anything in return . . .

Our Santas have not taken their place yet this year.* That should happen this weekend. When each one comes out of his box, we’ll greet him like the old friend he is and place him carefully among his fellows.

They will remind us that we already have our hearts’ desire, everything that’s really important, and we need nothing more from them, none of their presents.

Just their presence.

I imagine some of you will be spending the weekend in similar ways—unwrapping ornaments that delight you, finding some you had forgotten about and will fall in love with anew.

Of all your decorative Christmas items, is there a collection, or even just one special ornament, without which Christmas would not be complete?

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* The photos come from a previous post. I like the Santas so much, I just keep writing about them! It wouldn’t be advent with them.

Advent, My Way #8

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The holiday season brings friendly gatherings. Friendly gatherings bring the need to feed people. Those people love snacks.

Snacks!

Sweet snacks are in abundance during the holidays but easy, tasty, savory snacks are more difficult, I think, especially snacks that can be made ahead and take absolutely no effort when guests arrive.

I used to just put out a bowl of mixed nuts.

Plain old mixed nuts . . . until I found this recipe, that is. This recipe takes nuts to a whole nother level, as we say at our house, a level that is exceptionally tasty, pretty addictive, not at all healthy, but totally worth the indulgence during this special season.

The recipe for Hot and Spicy Nuts comes from the good old Silver Palate Good Times Cookbook. This series of Silver Palate cookbooks was all the rage in the 1980s, which you can see by the shoulder pads and that one hairdo on the cover!

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I’ve been making these spicy nuts for all those years and, even in the years when we do the absolute least for Christmas, I take the (minimal) time to make these.

Here’s the basic recipe, as it came out of the cookbook. I’ll follow with some comments.

Ingredients

  • 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • 1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
  • ¼ teaspoon ground cumin
  • ½ teaspoon celery salt
  • ½ teaspoon garlic powder
  • 1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper
  • ½ teaspoon seasoned salt
  • 1½ cups mixed unsalted roasted nuts
  • 1 tablespoon coarse kosher salt

Instructions

  • Preheat oven to 325°F.
  • Melt the butter in a medium-size saucepan over low heat.
  • Add the remaining ingredients except the nuts and coarse salt.
  • Simmer over low heat for several minutes to combine flavors.
  • Add the nuts and stir until evenly coated. Spread on a baking sheet and bake for 15 to 20 minutes, shaking the pan occasionally.
  • Toss the nuts with the coarse salt and let cool. Store in an airtight container.

My Notes:

  • I’ve never used celery salt. I didn’t the first time and didn’t miss it so I’ve never used it.
  • Use the nuts you like. I use unsalted cashews, pecans, and peanuts that I get in the bulk section of the grocery store. I also use sesame sticks and love them!
  • Don’t bother making a single batch. Trust me and do at least double the amount.
  • The kosher salt gets added at the end. I let the nuts cool for a few minutes then put the salt into a big paper bag, add the nuts, and shake it all up.
  • Be careful about the amount of salt!! The recipe calls for a tablespoon but, even though I LOVE salt and often go looking for it, that is too much. For a doubled recipe, I use only 1.5 teaspoons.
  • Make sure the nuts have completely cooled before you sample them and judge. They need to cool to be crispy and crunchy.

Make them today, to be sure you like them. Serve them when you put up your Christmas decorations. Serve them when you take the decorations down.

Serve them when carolers come over, at the Christmas Eve soiree, and let people snack before Christmas dinner.

Serve them for every college bowl game.

Serve them on Boxing Day, just because.

They are perfect for New Year’s Eve and super-perfect for your Super Bowl football party!

I already made a bunch of these . . . and they are gone. That is unacceptable so I’ll be making more soon. Will you join me?

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Advent, My Way #7

It’s time to decorate for Christmas!

You bring out the ornaments—the ones your kids made when they were little, the ones you were given the year you bought your first house, the ones you made from something you saw on Pinterest.

You find the wreath and tartan ribbons and lights for the tree.

You dig out every candle you own and the candlesticks and that special plate for Santa’s cookies.

Of course, you’d never forget the special Christmas stockings, to be hung by the chimney with care.

But what about books? So many of you love books—do you have special books that come out just for the holiday season? Books to re-read, books that are beautiful, books that, for you, are the essence of what the season means?

In our usual minimalist planning for Christmas, I don’t think about this kind of detail. But there are three books that I will run across occasionally during the year that make me think, “Damn. I should put that out at Christmas—I love that book.”

And this year, I’m remembering!

The book I love the most is this one.

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My sister and I grew up in that era when it seems that every kid took piano lessons.

I didn’t care much for the lessons and never learned to play the piano very well—it seems one was expected to practice between the weekly lessons!

But this little book of Christmas music moves me no end.

It sort of captures what Christmas looked like in the early 1960s. I swear, in that era, Santa and the reindeer were not as plump and cutesy and cartoon-ish as they have become.

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It has my grandmother’s handwriting on the cover. I love seeing the unique handwriting of people I’ve lost from my life.

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It has the songs that I loved best then and the ones that still hit me in the solar plexus now. They’re all here: Silent Night, Away in the Manger, The First Noel, Hark! The Herald Angels Sing.

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And it has a few that make me smile now, even though I paid no attention to them then.

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It also displays my incredible artistic talent and vision, as I used it as a coloring book. I liked coloring better than playing the piano. (That got me in trouble when I colored the libretto from my mother’s recording of Carmen . . . )

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So, the music book will sit out this year, on a music stand because we don’t have a piano any longer. Seeing it will remind me of a simple time, loving family, the moving melodies of Christmas, and of my sweet, magical childhood.

And, I’ll ask it again. What about books? You love books—do you have special books that come out just for the holiday season? Books to re-read, books that are beautiful, books that, for you, are the essence of what the season means?

Advent, My Way #5

Some years, Christmas might be low key.

Sometimes, Christmas might be minimal.

We might forgo the tree and the wreaths and the white lights.

But no Christmas ever comes without Santa, and one Santa in particular.

This guy:

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With his friends, these guys:

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On this stocking:

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Made by my guy:

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My husband stitched this stocking for me over 10 years ago. As he stitched, he kept track of the hours spent stitching and, every year when the Santa comes out, I am reminded of time and energy and, yes, the love that went into the making.

Don has made several other Christmas stockings over the years, for other people he loves. I wrote about them here.

I know some of you have made Christmas stockings, too–raise your hands!

I can only hope they are cherished as much as mine is!

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Advent, My Way #3

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Were you brought up a Christian?

Were you ever in a Christmas pageant?

Did you plan and produce them in your home on Christmas Eve?

Did you force your relatives to gather and sit and watch and applaud?

I don’t know how widespread this behavior was—maybe it was just engaged in by nerdy little farm girls in strict Evangelical Protestant homes, suffering from a high need for attention. I just know that it was an absolute, nonnegotiable staple in my family.

Four cousins.

A farmhouse.

Generations gathered.

A bright fireplace, pies baking, a couple of dogs galumphing around.

The stage is set. The audience sits in hushed anticipation. Or perhaps they are just waiting to get it over with!

The angels walk in, with their robes made of bed sheets and their belts made of tinsel, and their cardboard halos.

Not known for their singing voices, they sing.

Not known for their acting talent, they play out the Christmas story.

The oldest, the bossy one, reads from Luke:

And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be taxed.


And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes and laid him in a manger.


And the angel said unto them: Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy . . . For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord.

Fifty years later, I can call those words, unbidden, to mind. I can recite them without referring to the small white Bible I was given by my grandmother.

Fifty years later, those cousins all remember and laugh about their antics.

Fifty years later, many of those who gathered are gone from this earthly coil and others feel removed from the religious aspects of the holiday.

But the memories remain strong and they still matter.

Tell us—do you have Christmas pageant memories?

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