Yuletide Celebrations

Now that winter and Christmas are officially upon us, I thought I’d muse a little bit about my winter holiday. While I was raise Christian and celebrate Christmas with my family, I’ve always maintained a slightly more pagan point of view, and to my mind Yule is one of my favorite holidays to celebrate. Now, I know the official solstice passed a few days ago, although it was so gloomy I hardly noted the difference between light and dark during the longest night. But I like to wrap my solstice celebration into my Christmas festivities with my family. We don’t attend church, but we indulge in the trappings of the holiday that largely derive from the pagan festivals anyway.

Oh, my interest in the winter solstice predates any official interest in pagan beliefs. As a runner, I celebrated the return of the sun, when in a few weeks it might be light enough in the morning to safely run in the local, un-lit parks. Nowadays, Yule marks the time when I can see the sun on the horizon earlier in the morning. Over the next couple of months I will go from “getting up at night,” as the old poem goes, to finding more and more dawn light coming in my window when I need to rise.

So as I rise on this holiday to celebrate around a tree and consider symbols of the Christmas holiday, my thoughts hearken back to an older practice, the practice of noting this darkest day and longest night not with fear of the dark, but with the hope of the return of the sun. Blessed Yule and happy holiday season to all!

A Holiday Gift Guide for the Excess-Adverse

Ever since I was a child, my least favorite day of the holidays was the day after Christmas. We would have descended on our piles of gifts, flinging wrapping everywhere, only to be left with a few discarded bits of paper, the candy in the toe of the stocking that we didn’t insist on eating right away, and piles of new gifts that had to be cleaned up and put away.

It was this feeling of letdown that ultimately led to my adult experiments with minimalism, even convincing my mother for a few years to have very frugal Christmases. It made me realize that my favorite parts of Christmas had nothing to do with gifts, except the enjoyment of choosing small gifts for others. One year, we exchanged our few gifts and then baked cookies for the rest of the morning. And the Christmas visits were always far more enjoyable than the debauchery of present-opening.

So I present my little gift guide, based on what I plan to give this holiday season. Rather than assuming I had to spend a certain amount or give a certain amount of things, I decided on something quieter and simpler.

  1. Homemade gifts: Never underestimate the appeal of a homemade gift. I like to make bath and body products and crocheted gifts. I think my absolute favorite gift experience in recent memory was one of the first years I joined Boyfriend’s family on Christmas Day. They had a family friend with them who had had a singularly rough year and I had not realized she would be with us until a day or two before Christmas. I spent the next day crocheting a very simple, quick beret-style hat with a flower motif. She was so touched that not only had I thought of her at all, but that I had made her something by hand, even though it was neither expensive nor particularly time-consuming compared to the other gifts I’d made. This year, I have an immense stash of soaps, lip balms, and a few scarves that I’ve amassed over the months. Handmade gifts transcend monetary value and are about as close as you can get to actually a physical representation of love and care.
  2. Local craft fairs: I am fortunate in that a nearby town has a two-day craft fair early every December where I can pick up any last-minute gifts. I also showed Boyfriend the joy of the craft fair this year. While it may not be the place to go to save money (although some of the crafters had very reasonable prices) I thoroughly enjoy handing my money to the person who either made the item I’m buying or is related to the crafter. Plus you can strike up all sorts of fun conversations. It’s where I met my friend who makes soap several years ago. Now she’s giving me advice about my own soap!
  3. Etsy: When I can’t make what I need myself and I can’t find it at a local fair, I turn to Etsy to find something handmade. I love that I can search within a given geographical area to save on shipping fuel, and I can communicate with a seller before buying. I buy much of my own accessories and clothing on Etsy, and this year, I bought a lot of handmade wooden soap dishes to make gift bundles with my homemade soaps.
  4. Gifts of time: They seem cheesy, but I love the idea of giving someone a coupon for something to do, either a walk or a hike or just a day where you do the cleaning. In fact, that would be a brilliant gift for me to give Boyfriend…
  5. Visits and (optional) Edibles: As I said before, one of my favorite parts of Christmas is paying visits to family and friends. Just spending time with someone who is often too busy or too far away to see often is a gift itself. And when I do visit, I bring homemade cookies or cake! I also have cookies and cakes on hand when others come to visit over the holiday season. I like to take assortments of cookies and freeze them so I can pop out a couple at a time and thaw or bake them fresh for company.

So there you have it: a gift guide for those who wish to be moderate in their giving. A few small, well-thought-out gifts will touch your friends and family far deeper than holiday excess.

Christmas Festivities

My Christmas was lovely. It started the evening before, with dinner at my grandparents’ home. Classic appetizers of summer sausage, cheese, crackers, and a platter of shrimp cocktail led into a lovely traditional dinner of roast beef, scalloped potatoes, and a homemade pie for dessert.

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My grandmother had received a some lovely flowers and put them in her sun room, along with all her other flowers. The whole effect was lovely and reminded me of old British TV shows where there are always flowers.

/home/wpcom/public_html/wp-content/blogs.dir/9d0/80693568/files/2014/12/img_0132.jpgThe next morning, we rose late for us, though still early by many standards. Boyfriend and my mother made coffee while I made a cup of tea. Earl Grey with lemon, in a mug my mother was given by a friend who went for a trip on the Queen Elizabeth II.

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We opened our gifts and enjoyed the displays of thoughtful generosity. I appreciate that my family does not offer excessive amounts of gifts. It’s just enough for each person to feel thought-of, without too much clutter. After opening gifts, I made scones while my mother cleaned fruit and cooked bacon.

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We had a lovely breakfast of fruit, bacon, and scones with cream, jam, and lemon curd. By noon, we were ready to get cleaned up and go visiting. We stopped at a dear friend’s house, where she and her family were opening their gifts. After that stop, Boyfriend and I made the trip up to his family’s house in another city. On the trip, we had the chance to listen to two Christmas radio plays airing on the various local stations we passed along the drive. We arrived, tired but still feeling festive, and wrapped up our Christmas day with a pot roast dinner with his family.

 

Christmas Memories

Merry Christmas!

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When I was a child, my mother and father would wait until we had gone to bed, and then transform the living room, where we had our tree. They would set out packages, wrapped in brightly colored paper, and fill the stockings. My father would rise early to turn on the lights on the tree so that when we came downstairs, it really seemed magical.

The whole room looked different, as though Santa really had visited and brought Christmas with him. And we would spend the morning opening packages and spending time together as a family. One of us always had to make a cup of tea for my mother, Earl Grey with just a pinch of sugar. It was tradition.

I hope you all have your own holiday traditions and are enjoying the day!

My Most Obscure Christmas Tradition: Christmas Cake

Fruitcake is the butt of many jokes in the United States. One of my earliest memories of TV was of an episode of a show that was making fun of fruitcake. But I’ve discovered that properly made fruitcake is not only delicious, it’s one of my mother’s favorite things. So for years now, I’ve endeavored to make her a Christmas cake.

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Proper Christmas cake does not involve any dyed cherries. And it involves a lot of brandy. And time. I make my Christmas cake the weekend after Thanksgiving and mature it for a month before consumption, at least. Some years, I’m remiss and forget to make the cake until closer to Christmas, in which case it becomes more of a mid-to-late January cake, rather than a Christmas cake.

But one thing is always the same: no raisins. And no dyed fruit.

I often use the recipe in Nigella Lawson’s fabulous book How to Be a Domestic Goddess, but this year I decided to try something different. I used this recipe from the BBC, and used my own blend of dried fruit. I used mostly currants, with some dried cherries, apricots, and bits of minced candied ginger. I often include dried sugared pineapple, but I forgot it this year.

The house smelled like Christmas as I simmered the fruit, brandy, butter, sugar, and spices, and then baked the cake for two hours. Then, I fed the cake with a bit more brandy and wrapped it tightly with paper and string. That whole thing went into a sealed zipper bag, although an airtight, decorative tin would be more aesthetically pleasing. Every so often, two or three times before Christmas, I would unwrap it, feed it a bit more brandy, and rewrap it until the big day.

One thing I’ve learned is to eat homemade fruitcake in very thin slices. The flavors are strong and the brandy is potent. But it makes a lovely addition to a tray of holiday sweets, either on Christmas Eve, or as friends and relatives pop by throughout the season.

A Little Bit of Christmas

This past weekend, I made a decision. I’ve put up my first Christmas tree of my own. I should say, “of our own,” as Boyfriend helped me pick it out and decorate it. We decided on a fake tree to appease our housemate, and reduce the maintenance a real tree can require. We found this little guy, really an outdoor tree, at the Home Depot. He’s just big enough to hold a few of my favorite keepsake ornaments.

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Then, Boyfriend and I went to my mother’s house to pick through her Christmas box and take the ornaments with particular sentimental value, mostly ones that I was given as gifts over the years. There are the stuffed animals, such as the cat a good friend in grammar school made me, and the little bear I shoplifted when I was 2. And there are the animals, mostly cats for me and reptiles for my sister. There are my ballet slippers, from the few years I danced ballet, badly, as a young child. It has “To our best ballerina” written on the back, but that was before my sister came along and bested me in all forms of rhythmic movement.

Since we don’t yet have a topper, my mom tucked a roll of repurposed red ribbon into the box with the ornaments and I used it to fashion a makeshift tree topper. And my nutcracker, given to me not by Santa, but by Godpapa Drosselmeyer when I was a girl, stood watch over the whole thing. With cocoa and port and Christmas music, it made for a lovely holiday evening.