Stuff and Nonsense: christmas

Showing posts with label christmas. Show all posts
Showing posts with label christmas. Show all posts


Thinking of Mom: Advent Calendars

Some of my sweetest childhood memories are of the advent calendars my mother would give me every December 1st. I remember I would come home from school in a frenzy to pop open that day's little perforated cardboard door to see what lay behind it (a plum pudding! a squirrel!) and beg my mom to let me open the next day's, too. Of course, I wasn't allowed to open a day in advance (Mom knew where madness lay) and would distract me with a baking or decorating project.

Nowadays, you can get all sorts of fancy advent calendars -- calendars with chocolates or Lego, etc -- but way back in the early 80s an advent calendar was nothing more than layered cardboard printed with a Christmas scene. But, oh, my mother always picked out the best (imho) calendar the card shop had to offer. The calendars I remember best were glittering scenes of anthropomorphized animals readying themselves for Christmas. Rabbits in scarves decorating an evergreen tree in the middle of the snowy woods. Squirrels in Victorian dress getting their Christmas shopping done. Woodland animals having a snowball fight.

A few years ago, I began buying advent calendars for myself. Usually from the gift shop of an art museum like the Metropolitan Museum of Art, but sometimes from Lindt as chocolate advent calendars are very much a part of The Husband's Christmas traditions. Chocolate or no, advent calendars aren't as exciting as they were when I was a child and I don't open each door as promptly as I once had, but they still bring back warm memories of my mother and the calendars she so carefully picked out for me. And that's what really matters.


The Not Christmas

I knew the first Christmas without Mom would be a hard one, so I decided the best thing to do would be to make it as low-key as possible. The plan was we would go down Christmas Eve and stay overnight, spending all of Christmas Day with Dad. We'd eat lasagna and garlic bread I'd purchase, drink a lot of whiskey, and play tabletop games until we were too brain-fried, carb-overloaded, or drunk to feel the ghosts of Mom's Christmases Past.

And that was Christmas Eve. Christmas Day, Dad and I visited the cemetery in the morning and it was so peaceful and calm and full of birdsong that I believe my mother would be happy to know that's where she ended up. It's an old family plot in a very old cemetery in the middle of nowhere and lacks the regimented uniformity I associate with cemeteries -- the marching rows of headstones, the tightly clipped grass, the utter lack of naturalness. If such a thing is possible, it feels like a kind sort of place.

Later, we had met up with one of Dad's old associates for Christmas dinner at the casino buffet. Between the unchristmasness of the casino and the necessity of social pleasantries, we did not have opportunity to dwell on our loss or what Christmas ought to have been like this year.

My mother loved Christmas. Loved all the holidays, really. If it was a day you could decorate for, she did. But Christmas was the best, most decorated, most Holiday of holidays. Electric candles and crochet snowflakes at the windows. Wreaths on the doors. Garland around a mailbox stuffed with cards. A tree dripping with ornaments and tinsel. Nonstop Christmas music in the background. Tupperware full of cookies on the workbench for Christmas parties and swaps. Little Hallmark Christmas tchotchkes on every conceivable surface. And my mother at the heart of all of it.

So much happiness, so much light, so much love.


Christmas Dinner 2017

I confess I planned my Christmas Dinner on December 23. Oh, I’d ordered a roast well before then – because roasted beef tenderloin was the obvious choice -- but how I was going to prepare the roast and what dishes would accompany it was very much left to the last possible day. Two weeks before, I got out all my holiday cookbooks with the intention of crafting a tasty menu. But I just wasn’t feeling it. Couldn’t be arsed, even. Christmas could go humbug itself.

Which didn’t make a lot of sense, considering I’d been decking the halls and humming carols all the live long day since December 1. I think I was very much looking forward to the fun of Christmas Dinner, but the work of it -- the planning and the shopping -- was something I actively wanted to avoid. Couldn’t we just, I thought, get take out?

I could imagine my mother’s face if I ever suggested such a thing.

Anyway, I pulled myself together at the eleventh hour and planned a menu. And then we shopped for it Christmas Eve morning ... which turned out to be much less traumatic than I had anticipated. The weather had been bad the night before so many people seemed slow to venture out and we managed to whiz around the stores, scooping up everything we needed became too crowded and I shivved someone with a sprig of rosemary.

Christmas Dinner 2017
Carrots w/ Butter & Parsley
Roasted Broccoli w/ Parmesan & Italian Herbs
Tinned Peas of Marital Happiness
Rolls & Butter
Olive Medley
Bûche de Noël w/ Fresh Whipped Cream

The beef was fabulous, but you really need to mind the temperature when cooking (and start with a scrupulously clean oven or be prepared to open all the kitchen windows). I took the 7.5 pound roast out of the oven when my thermometer read 135°F with the assumption it would rise to 140°F after resting and be a nice medium rare.

Alas, upon carving, it was revealed to be so rare as to be raw and inedible. Disheartened, I threw the thick slices back in the hot oven for 5 minutes and, to my relief, that brought them up to medium rare/medium. It was a truly delicious roast, regardless, and I do recommend the high-heat method. (I did rub the beef with Simply Ghee® Black Garlic Ghee, bought this past autumn at the Connecticut Garlic & Harvest Festival, rather than plain butter for extra pizazz).

The horseradish sauce was a great accompaniment. It went together in no time flat and has kept well in the fridge. I did double the amount of horseradish called for as my family likes a zippy sauce.

There’s no recipe for the carrots, really. I peeled and thickly sliced all the CSA carrots I had left (about a pound) from the Thanksgiving box and boiled them until tender, then tossed them with butter, salt, pepper, parsley, and a little sugar and let them sit on a warm burner until we needed them. Do not judge me for the use of sugar. It is something my Grandmother Gardner always added to her carrots and it does, imho, bring out their carrotiness.

There’s also no real recipe for the broccoli. I took a bag of fresh chopped florets, tossed them with olive oil, salt, pepper, and Italian seasonings and then roasted them in the 500°F oven for the 10 minutes the beef rested. When the broccoli came out of the oven, I tossed it with shredded Parmesan, and plopped it all into a warmed serving bowl.

Don’t judge me for the tinned peas. According to The Husband, peas are a necessity when served mashed potatoes and he just happens to like tinned peas best of all peas. I did splash out and buy the 50% Less Sodium Le Sueur® Very Young Small Sweet Peas, because we’re nothing but top shelf at Christmas.

Leeks might not be something you’d think about putting in mashed potatoes, but they’re just really big scallions, after all. I had two CSA leeks leftover and lots of garlic on hand so the Betty Crocker recipe was pretty much a godsend. The mashed potatoes were a lovely pale gold, creamy, and yum. Garlicky and leek-y, of course, but not aggressively so. A repeater, definitely.

And that was Christmas Dinner. And it was good. And now we shall subsist on (delicious) leftovers until Friday when there may be duck. Hooray.


Cookbook Club: Cookie Exchange

December is a busy month and, while I didn’t want to skip the library’s cookbook club two months in a row, I didn’t want to overwhelm library patrons with additional holiday cooking. So I decided to forgo the usual potluck supper and cookbook discussion format for a cookie exchange. Everyone likes cookies, after all.

On the morning of the event, sixteen patrons were registered. Twelve excited patrons bearing trays of delicious-looking cookies turned up that evening and that was fine as I’d planned ahead for no-shows. That was why I had instructed everyone neither to portion their cookies out ahead of time nor to make a specific number of cookies. Make whatever your recipe says it makes (or close enough) and we’ll divide by the number of people who come, I said.

As I'd expected, it worked out well that way. I had pre-printed small signs that said “take __” and, after all the patrons had arrived with their cookies, I divided each batch of cookies by 12 and filled in the blank. Obviously, not everything divided evenly and there were leftover cookies, but I just let the patrons go up again at the end and take whatever they wanted. It was an friendly crowd and I wasn’t worried about anyone coming to blows over the Italian Christmas cookies. (Amusingly, they kept trying to get me to take cookies, too, but as I had not baked for the exchange I did not feel I could rightly take any).

The library had provided cookie tins for everyone who turned up. I’d found some nice, seasonal plastic ones printed with candy canes and ornaments at Stop and Shop for $2 each. I bought twenty tins and just returned the unused ones after the program. We don’t have the space to keep the extras and budgets, etc being as they are I don’t want to plan too far ahead, anyway.

Budget-wise, this was more costly than the regular monthly cookbook club meetings, but still less expense than, say, any of the Doctor Who programs I’ve done. About $75 for twenty cookie tins, seven disposable seasonal tablecloths, seasonal paper napkins, chocolates, satsumas, and a cheese and cracker tray. Coffee and water is always provided by the library, so those were not factored into my costs.

Aside from the seasonal tablecloths and paper goods, I didn’t have much going for seasonal decor and the program room looked a bit drab. Happily, I remembered the wall-mounted flat screen TV had integrated Internet so I pulled up a long-playing YouTube video of a crackling fireplace set to instrumental carols and that was that!


#WordlessWednesday: Tree's Up!

Actually finished decorating the tree before Christmas Eve this year. Last few years, it's been a mad sprint to get it decorated before guests arrive. Sometimes, I am tempted to have a tree decorating party ... but that feels rather too much like Tom Sawyer and the fence.


#WordlessWednesday: Christmas Cards

Getting the Christmas cards out a little late (again) for international delivery. It's the thought that counts, right?


#WordlessWednesday: A Sweet Advent

Already fallen a few days behind with the Advent calendar!


Wordless Wednesday: Little Tree

look               the spangles
that sleep all the year in a dark box
dreaming of being taken out and allowed to shine,
the balls the chains red and gold the fluffy threads,

put up your little arms
and i'll give them all to you to hold
every finger shall have its ring
and there won't be a single place dark or unhappy

              -- from "little tree" by E. E. Cummings


Wordless Wednesday: Christmas Crackers

Counting the plates & getting down the crackers ahead of Christmas feasting.


Hercule Poirot's Christmas: A Holiday Mystery

And families now, families who have been separated throughout the year assemble once more together. Now under those conditions, my friend, you must admit that there will occur a great amount of strain.

The result of pretending to be a more amiable, a more forgiving, a more high-minded person than one really is, has sooner or late the effect of causing one to behave as a more disagreeable, a more ruthless, and an altogether more unpleasant person that on actually that case. If you dam the stream of natural behavior, mon ami, sooner or later, the dam bursts and a cataclysm occurs!

Old Simeon Lee has gathered his far-flung family for Christmas. All his married sons and their wives, his long-lost granddaughter, and prodigal son will fill his house with laughter and love. Except that Simeon Lee is a horrible man who only gathered his relations 'round to psychologically torture them for his own wicked pleasure. And his blood relations are, by and large, no great shakes. As everyone has a wound to lick or an axe to grind, it's no great surprise that Simeon is murdered on Christmas Eve. Indeed, his death should probably go down in literary history as the best Christmas gift, ever.

I quite enjoyed resolving Simeon's murder. Some parts -- the location of the diamonds, for example -- I worked out on my own well ahead of time and I was partially correct in my guess that someone was a bastard, but I never would have guessed the identity of the murderer. A little embarrassing considering, in hindsight, how many clues Poirot laid down. The mustache, the constant mention of family similarities, etc. But I couldn't see it for all the false trails that were also laid down.

But that's okay! Half the fun was just going along with the story, watching Poirot use his magnificent little grey cells. Overall, Hercule Poirot's Christmas was a good read -- the characters were pretty well developed for a Christie mystery and the plot was both clever well-paced. And I love the cover art for this edition of Hercule Poirot's Christmas! So gruesomely festive with its green holly leaves and berry-red blood spatter!

Hercule Poirot's Christmas by Agatha Christie (Black Dog & Leventhal, 2007)


Christmas Dinner 2013

Christmas Dinner, 2013
Fine company, delicious noms, and good wine ... a grand day, really.


~ New York Strip (aka "Top Loin") Roast ~
with Sherry Gravy and Horseradish Cream Sauce

~ Garlic Mashed Potatoes ~

~ Floury Rolls with Butter ~


Christmas Dinner, 2013


Seasonal Reads: How Six Found Christmas

Once upon a time, a little girl sets out to find a Christmas. She'd only heard of Christmas, but never seen one herself and is very curious what it could be like. In her travels through the Great Snow Forest of the North she meets five animals who have also never experienced a Christmas. They travel along together for time and do indeed find a Christmas in the end. While it may not be the Christmas you or I expected, "Christmas is not only where you find it; it's what you make of it."

The book's message -- very sweet and simple -- is worth remembering. Christmas doesn't have to be creches or tinsel. It can be a simple, ordinary, everyday thing if it feels like Christmas to you.

How Six Found Christmas written & illus. by Trina Schart Hyman (Holiday House, 1969)


Seasonal Reads: The Mischief of the Mistletoe

"I need that pudding!” her growled. “Give it over."
"No!" gasped Arabella, clinging to the muslin wrapper with all her might. People couldn’t just go about taking other people’s puddings. It was positively un-British.

The Mischief of the Mistletoe is one of Willig's Pink Carnation books, but you need not have read any of the previous novels to appreciate it. Indeed, it has been so long since I read any of the Pink Carnation books that the various plotlines and characters have grown quite hazy. I remember finding the first three novels tremendously amusing and that seemed a good enough reason to pick up The Mischief of the Mistletoe. Also, it was quite thin. And set at Christmas. In England. During the time of Napoleon. And Jane Austen is a secondary character. It's the Anglophile's Christmas Read Jackpot.

Reginald "Turnip" Fitzhugh has been the butt of many jokes in other Pink Carnation novels where he seems very much to play the part of the guileless buffoon. Indeed, he's sometimes been suspected of being a master spy himself as, according to other characters, no-one can be that dim.

Well, Turnip gets his comeuppance in The Mischief of the Mistletoe! While he's clearly not as dashing or clever or prepossessing as the other novels' iconic romantic heroes, Turnip's clearly A Good Man who wants to do right and, after reading The Mischief of the Mistletoe, I think I'm a little in love with him myself, now.

The Mischief of the Mistletoe: A Pink Carnation Christmas by Lauren Willig (Dutton, 2010)


Wordless Wednesday: Festival of Trees & Traditions

Wadsworth Atheneum Festival of Trees & Traditions

Wadsworth Atheneum Festival of Trees & Traditions

Wadsworth Atheneum Festival of Trees & Traditions

Some of my favorite trees from the 2012 Wadsworth Atheneum Festival of Trees & Traditions.


Fuck Christmas

I was going to post a photo a day until Christmas, because I haven't been feeling very seasonal and was hoping to force some holly-jolliness. But ... fuck Christmas. Christmas has no space in it for what I feel right now. Christmas is irrelevant.

In less than twelve hours, I lost both an uncle and a grandmother. My body is exhausted, but my brain won't shut off. I said good-bye to my grandmother. I kissed her unconscious body before she died. But my uncle? I knew he was ill. I knew he would not make it through the weekend, but I thought he could wait. So I didn't get to tell him good-bye. And I am just full of sadness and misery and anger.

I've been baking cookies. And shopping for funeral togs. Because I don't know what the fuck else to do with myself. Tomorrow, I'm back at work for a day where I'll pretend to be normal while trying to ignore my own woe and the greater national tragedy playing out in the media. I feel terrible about Sandy Hook, but my own personal grief is too great right now to spare any for others outside my family.

Wakes and funerals begin Tuesday. I feel I'm just counting down the hours until I set foot in the first funeral parlor.

I've picked up bottles of Manischewitz and Johnnie Walker Black to toast my grandmother and uncle respectively and I plan on drinking a lot after each funeral. Because, frankly, I don't want to do the "healthy" American thing and try to work through my emotions. I want to overwrite them with sweet, syrupy Manischewitz and simply not feel them at all.


Seasonal Reads: I Saw Three Ships

     "I hope I'm not sickening for something," she said to Constantia as they sat before the fire filling Polly's stocking after the child had gone upstairs.
     "Do you feel feverish?" said Constantia anxiously.
     "No," said Dorcas, "but it's Wednesday and I haven't polished the furniture."
"You must be ill," said Constantia. "Have you a headache?"

Elizabeth Goudge’s I Saw Three Ships is a beautifully written and emotionally wrenching story (reader, I cried) about a little girl named Polly Flowerdew who lives with her two maiden aunts, Constantia and Dorcas, in an English seaport town not long after The Terror.

Polly wants to leave the house unlocked on Christmas Eve, believing in the old custom that says that the Wise Men may come calling. Her far less fanciful aunts strongly oppose the idea, but Polly’s youth and idealism soften them, and by the end of the book, three wise men have indeed come calling (and gotten into the wine) and a miracle has occurred down in the harbor.

Really, just a lovely Christmas story -- sad and sweet and funny -- and I can't believe it's out of print. It's definitely going on my list of Christmas rereads -- right next to No Holly for Miss Quinn and The Worst Best Christmas Pageant Ever.

I Saw Three Ships written by Elizabeth Goudge & illus. Margot Tomes (Coward-McCann, 1969)


Seasonal Reads: A Child's Christmas in Wales

Years and years ago, when I was a boy, when there were wolves in Wales, and birds the color of red-flannel petticoats whisked past the harp-shaped hills, when we sang and wallowed all night and day in caves that smelt like Sunday afternoons in damp front farmhouse parlors, and we chased, with the jawbones of deacons, the English and the bears, before the motor car, before the wheel, before the duchess-faced horse, when we rode the daft and happy hills bareback, it snowed and it snowed. But here a small boy says: "It snowed last year, too. I made a snowman and my brother knocked it down and I knocked my brother down and then we had tea."

I'm on a Trina Schart Hyman kick -- blame it on the Hershel and the Hanukkah Goblins I saw at Barnes & Noble. There are so many books I picked up as a child because of Hyman's tempting and richly-detailed illustrations and she remains one of my favorite illustrators. So, when I saw my library owned this edition of A Child's Christmas in Wales, I snapped it up. I'd never read A Child's Christmas in Wales -- didn't hear about it until I was a college student with limited patience for poetry. Needless to say, I did not read it then.

More fool me.

A Child's Christmas in Wales is a beautiful prose poem of childhood and Christmas in a small Welsh town and Hyman's illustrations pair so well with the story. I know there are many editions of A Child’s Christmas in Wales, but this one is so lovely and perfect that there really need be no other editions!

I would really like prints of some of the illustrations to hang on my walls. The one of Aunt Hannah, who liked port, "singing like a big-bosomed thrush" in the middle of the snowy yard is my favorite -- mostly, because I expect to age into Aunt Hannah.

And, as with Trina Schart Hyman's Little Red Riding Hood, there are cats everywhere!

A Child's Christmas in Wales by Dylan Thomas with illustrations by Trina Schart Hyman


No Holly For Miss Quinn

She liked her own company.

One of my elderly library patrons has been diligently reading her way through all the Miss Read books and has had nothing but good to say of them. I'd read a few Miss Read books, years ago, but did not enjoy them very much. They seemed hideously dated and so full of small town bigotry that they quite set my teeth on edge.

But my little old lady ... she had quite liked Flora Thompson's Candleford books, too, and kept telling me I would like the Miss Read books if I just gave them another go. She particularly recommended No Holly For Miss Quinn to me and I, conditioned not to disappoint dear little old ladies, reluctantly agreed to follow her recommendation.

And I was pleasantly surprised! The story, while wrapped in Christmas trappings, is quite a modern one and its protagonist, Miss Quinn, is so sensible and self-aware that I could not help liking her.

Miriam Quinn is "an attractive, efficient business woman in her thirties" who is used to managing other people and keeping her personal life in apple-pie order. She has recently moved into a new home in the small village of Fairacre and is looking forward to a quiet, solitary Christmas with a little Trollope and some excellent brandy when her sister-in-law is taken ill. Miss Quinn must leave her solitary comforts to help her brother and his family.

It was amusing to see Miss Quinn realize that her sister-in-law was not quite the flibbertigibbet she had dismissed her as and that small children are not as easily managed as office workers. Eventually, she gets the household under control and everyone has a very merry Christmas indeed.

I was worried at points that the author, thrusting Miss Quinn into such a situation, would cause some kind of hackneyed "feminine" awakening in the character. That Miss Quinn would suddenly realize the error of solitary pleasure and convert into a sociable little hen who would hook up with her old beau and live "happily ever after." However, this was not the case. The narrator makes it clear Miss Quinn is content in herself and with her life -- she does not require rescuing from spinsterhood.

But this was where she was happiest. For her, spinsterhood was truly blessed. She walked into her empty sitting-room and closed the door behind her, the better to relish that sweet solitude which to her was the breath of life.
A vision of the vicarage rose before her -- the paper chains, the expanding fans and bells, the tinsel, the mistletoe, the holly.
Here there was no holly for Miss Quinn, but she felt a glow as warm as its red berries at the joy of being home, a joy which, she knew, would remain ever green in the years which lay ahead.

No Holly For Miss Quinn by Miss Read with illustrations by J.S. Goodall (Houghton Mifflin, 1976)


More Favorite Stories of Christmas Past

The stories found in More Favorite Stories of Christmas Past are:

  • "Keeping Christmas" by Henry Van Dyke
  • "A Christmas Dream, and How It Came True" by Louisa May Alcott
  • "The Last Dream of the Old Oak" by Hans Christian Andersen
  • "Christmas at Red Butte" by Lucy Maud Montgomery
  • "The Little Match Girl" by Hans Christian Andersen
  • "Rosa's Tale" by Louisa May Alcott
  • "A Christmas Carol" by Charles Dickens.

I admit I did not listen to all the stories in this collection -- only made it all the way through "Christmas at Red Butte" and "Rosa's Tale" -- but I was very pleased with these two. Prebble and Bean read very well with great animation and strong characterization. Indeed, I think I could listen to Bean all day. Perhaps she would come sit in my kitchen and read my cookbooks aloud to me if I paid her in cake?

Suuure, crazy lady, sure.

Montgomery's "Christmas at Red Butte" is a sweet story about sacrifice, love, and family. A poor young woman sacrifices a dear memento to provide a "real" Christmas for her family, only to have something even more precious returned to her on Christmas Day. This story seemed familiar and I'm pretty sure I must have read it in Christmas with Anne and Other Holiday Stories.

In Alcott's "Rosa's Tale" a young woman brings her sister's horse a Christmas treat and discovers that the old wives' tale about dumb animals being able to speak on Christmas Eve is true. Rosa's life story shares much in common with Black Beauty and would be a great read for any horse or animal lover.

I tried listening to Alcott's "A Christmas Dream, and How It Came True" and Andersen's "The Last Dream of the Old Oak," but couldn't make it all the way through either of them. Alcott's story was just a little too precious for me to stomach and Andersen's story seemed so heavily drenched in symbolism that listening to it made me I feel as if I was being hit over the head with The Symbolism Stick.

More Favorite Stories of Christmas Past read by Simon Prebble & Joyce Bean (Tantor Media, 2008)