Thursday, December 23, 2010

Christmas Eats

Oh, the things we consume during the holiday season!  Excesses upon excesses:

Clam Chowder
Cinnamon Rolls
Cuties (Clementines)
Sausage Breakfast Casserole
Kneaders Chunky Cinnamon Bread French Toast with Buttermilk Syrup
Oyster Stew
Egg Nog
Ham & Scalloped Potatoes
Peppermint Bark
Figgy Pudding (Just kidding)
Hot chocolate with marshmallows and . . .


The cookies!  If I am lame and lazy with decorations, I am the complete opposite with Christmas cookies. As a little girl, my mom always made a wide variety of cookies and candy, stored them in the freezer during the month of December, and then we delivered plates to the neighbors as well as gorged ourselves on Christmas Eve and Day.  

I've kinda sorta kept up with this tradition, except when I haven't.  Sometimes it's (obviously) just too much. Two years ago I only made mass quantities of toffee.  I think it's fun when families have their own signature food gift you can look forward to every year, but when I did that I ended up feeling like I kind of missed out on some of my childhood favorites that only show up around Christmas time. I mean, I guess I could make them any time of year, but it's kind of like listening to Christmas carols in July--just not right. 

Last year I just didn't feel like a sugar fest, especially since we found ourselves in an especially generous circle of friends that brought more than enough treats to our door, so I gave out cute little bags of peppermint hand soap with candy canes. 

But this year . . . I really wanted to bring back the old favorites. (Maybe because we're in a new place that doesn't yet feel like home.) I came up with a great way to do it without getting too sugared out OR too overburdened in the kitchen. Starting early in the month, every two or three days I would make a batch of whatever we wanted to eat, we'd enjoy a little, and take the rest to a neighbor.  Perfect!  

Remember that diet Brandon and I were on?  Well, we've had to switch to maintenance mode, and my personal strategy during this week of intense sugar saturation (because you know those treats have a boomerang effect among neighbors/co-workers/friends) is a little embarrassing: I don't eat much real food, just treats. Yep, today I had a submarine sandwich, a bunch of oranges and pistachios, and then 3 truffles (toffee, milk chocolate, and oreo), 2 caramels (the big, gloopy kind), some toffee, and a York Peppermint Patty. Nice, huh?

So what are the childhood favs?  I wish I had pictures of them all, but most were eaten and delivered way too fast. It's a little embarrassing to look at this list, but man, it's been one sweet month.

One of my all-time favorites: Russian Tea CakesWill made his own nut-less batch for scouts because he's allergic. (Christmas is a dangerous time of year for him - he had a reaction the other day from some hazlenut creme hidden in a swedish cookie.) Before rolling his in powdered sugar, he made a little snowman:
Ginger cookies:
Chocolate dipped and decorated pretzels

Last but not least, my new personal favorite (gotta try one new recipe each year): 

And even though it never really tastes good, my kids just love to decorate a gingerbread house every year. This is the same one we got last year from Target for $10.  Everyone gets one surface to decorate:

Treats I didn't get around to but missed: thumbprints, fudge, seven layer bars, and muddy buddies.  

It really is kind of sick. I'll repent in January. That's what New Year's is for, right? 

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Christmas Decorations

This post could also be titled "Comfort and Joy", because I'm here today to share my pitifully boring but meaningful-to-us Christmas decorations with all the mothers out there who are as creatively challenged and talent-less in this area as I am. (Or just too darn broke to do anything about their creative fantasies!)

I read very few blogs, for two reasons. One, I just don't have that kind of time, and two, I get too easily sidetracked by all the visually beautiful and creative things other moms are doing.  It's easy to forget what I'm good at and what my goals are as a mother when I'm salivating over the homemade adorable-ness created by other mothers. (Did you read NieNie this past week? Sigh.) 

Most of the things I'm good at are not visibly apparent. Not all--I can cook, play the piano, and write. But none of these things make me, my children, or my house look stylish or beautiful, which seems to be the focus of many blogs and magazines read by mothers. The most successful work I do as a mother can never be seen at all. But that's the fate of many men and women who do all kinds of "invisible" work. I can get my kids to talk, and I can listen (not always). I can plan and execute fun traditions and outings. I spend a lot of time trying to figure out how to best help our kids develop their talents as well as learn to work hard and be more self-motivated. I'm pretty good at slowing down to enjoy the moment with my kids, and--at times--I can be patient. Really patient. (But sometimes I can't tell if I'm patient or just in a state of exhausted resignation.) 

None of these things garner much praise and attention from others, even other mothers. I have a secret dream of mothers everywhere complimenting each other on things such as their ability to keep it together when several kids are freaking out at once, to reach a child with a tough personality, to balance well the varied responsibilities that fall in a mother's lap, or the myriad other "invisible" talents in which mothers so often excel. Maybe then we won't feel so compelled to spend an inordinate amount of time and energy on the more visible talents that hog all the praise and attention! 

We're so quick to lavish compliments on each other for looking good - our homes, our children, our bodies. And while I know it's fun for some people to shop ad nauseum (my worst nightmare!), having a gorgeously decorated home and uber cute clothing and accessories just never seems to make it too high on my priority list at this stage in my life. Not only because it bores and overwhelms me (too many options!!), but because I'm just not very good at it.  You women who can create beauty out of very little and in no time at all--my hat goes off to you!  

I don't mean to be a scrooge here, and please don't misunderstand.  If I were to become independently wealthy and all my children were either in school or - heaven forbid - I was an empty nester (I know, an inevitability I must deal with), I would be the first in line for a professional decorator to come fulfill my wildest dreams. But, for now, it just doesn't interest me enough with everything else on my plate.  (And I'm kind of cheap that way.)

So if you're anything like me and have had it up to here with the latest, cutest, most adorable way to wrap your gifts, set your table, trim your tree, and dress your kids on Christmas Sunday, here are some pictures of Christmas around my house. (And you really must read to the end.)  

I am here to say that Christmas can be magical and meaningful for you and your family even if you haven't decked your halls to the gills, even if the only thing you make by hand is paper snowflakes, and even if the only boutique you frequent is (with a French accent please) . . . Targe´ t.  Maybe even more so because you will be spending your time with your family instead of the check-out clerk. 

(All you interior decorators and Martha Stewart types - please don't take offense.  You know I'm just jealous, right?)

Tree trimmings: hand-me-downs from my childhood (the best!) and Targe´t:
Do you really think the kids care if you don't have matching, monogrammed, velvet stockings, hand sewn by mom? No, they don't. I know it's everybody's dream, but if you can't afford it and you don't know how to sew, just throw out the Pottery Barn catalog and enjoy your reality. Our stockings and mantel: Targe´t and Big Lots, with the exception of the first two stockings from the left (Brandon's, then mine) which we purchased from the Amana Colonies when Kate was just a wee little baby and we didn't even think to get her a stocking of her own for our mantel-less apartment in Iowa:
I know some people collect nativities and have a bazillion variaties all over their home, but the thought of storing and setting all that up every year (and then taking it down again) gives me a headache. (And it really only takes one to get the point, right?) This is actually one of my favorite decorations, especially when we light it on Christmas Eve and read the Christmas story from the Bible. Brandon bought this for me on a whim from a kiosk one year as an early Christmas present when we lived in California.  It's made by Partylite Candles:
The only homemade decorations around our house are the ones that come home from school.  I have some favorites that I hang onto year after year, and I have a dream of someday finding a fun, permanent way of displaying the seasonal art projects that come home. Which is why I need to hang on to my favorites, because by the time I get around to that little project, no one will be making these little projects anymore:

Okay, I lied. Years and years ago, when Kate was just three months old, I made no less than THREE sets of these - one for me, one for a sister, and one for a dear friend. It took FOREVER and (I just realized this) could in fact be the reason I gave up on homemade crafts so early on. I have no patience for little details and the time it takes to make things look good. But it really is a gem of a project--if you have the time and patience. I need to replace one of the dowels in back, so the adorable camel is missing, but check out my HOMEMADE nativity hand puppets: 
This is one other exception to the homemade rule and my absolute FAVORITE  decoration: a tree angel made by my mother-in-law (not me!) from the leftover fabric of a bow I removed off the back of my wedding dress.  How cool is that? 
Targe´t mix in a bowl with a few pinecones my kids found:
Okay, this is kind of cute, right?  I'm trying here:
You know this framed baby gets a special spot every year:
I just had to document these truly adorable fingerprint gift tags Elizabeth made at school before they got used or lost:
I finally have a bannister to decorate! My mom pointed that out when she came to visit back in September. I honestly might not have even thought about it if she hadn't said something. I only buy one new decoration each year if there's a "need" (using that term very loosely of course - who needs any of it when kids are starving in Africa) and this was it. Again, Targe´t special, on sale:
I couldn't even get the lacing through the rods right, and I was too lazy to fix it.
Last but not least, I must share what happens to the rest of the house during the Christmas season when moms are busy decorating, baking, shopping, partying, concert going, and Christmas picture/card preparing. Even as I write this, I'm in my jammies with a whole lotta housework calling my name. So if you're on my Christmas card list, received my annual letter and are under the impression that I live a life of familial perfection and bliss, let's all just admit to each other right here and now that THIS is what happens when we're doing all those other do-goody things:

Here's a great link to make you feel better about all the Christmas messes you're making.  Only 3 more days!!

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Christmas Music

For me, about 80% of Christmas is the music. I do wait until the day after Thanksgiving before I turn it on, but then it's on around the clock. From the goofy to the sacred, I love it all. Funny how it can seem like just another December day until you pop in one of your favorite Christmas CDs and--walah--suddenly, it's Christmas time! I also enjoy being a part of music performances whenever feasible with our family situation (either singing in a choir or accompanying on the piano--much better at the latter), and this year I played for our church choir's Christmas program (this morning) as well as the cute little first graders in the school Christmas concert.

I'm trying to raise a bunch of little musicians, so along with piano lessons, Kate is taking harp and Will is taking cello. Elizabeth wants to do violin after a few more years on the piano, but I think I've successfully talked her into the viola. (Simply because EVERYONE does violin - not as many chances to play in my mind.)  Hearing Kate play "God, Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen" on her harp at random times of the day is seriously therapeutic!  (We're just renting the harp, mind you.) You should consider this instrument of the gods over others that don't sound quite so nice when played by novices.

Well, Christmas is a busy time for musicians, so along with all the other wonderful things that happen this time of year, we've also enjoyed:

1 piano recital
1 harp recital (I stayed home with Elizabeth who was throwing up, because Brandon needed to help get the behemoth into City Hall for the recital - WAH!)
2 orchestra concerts
3 elementary school concerts
2 church concerts

I think tonight's concert at the church was the last of the season for us, and it was a good one to wrap up our festive "concert series".  Turns out that Donald Ripplinger, former associate director of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, lives in our area and directs our stake choir every year for Christmas. Wow. It had me in tears, but that's easy to do when it comes to live, sacred music--especially Christmas music. Along with a very large choir, there were string, brass, and wind instruments, and I have to say it was pretty darn amazing.  All volunteers, of course--just people that live within the stake boundaries. That's how we do things in our church. None of this hiring out professionals to come in and perform. We just "make do" with whatever talent is in the area. Everywhere I have ever lived has been brimming with it. There are some things the Mormons take seriously, and good music is one of them. (Don't miss the annual MoTab PBS special on Christmas Eve . . .)

It's hard moving to a place where you have no identity or family ties.  It makes it really easy to judge other people--as a defense mechanism--and isolate yourself if you're not careful.  I had been starting to feel a little sorry for myself this past week, being away from both sides of our family for the holidays, but after participating in the church program this morning (Brandon's a tenor), and then attending the larger program directed by Donald Ripplinger tonight, I felt more at home here than ever. Hearing all those familiar and not-so-familiar favorites in a church setting with so many good, like-minded people was like coming home in a very real way. Christmas music just does that for me.

Brandon bought a cello Christmas CD from Steven Sharp Nelson (the guy that performs with Jon Schmidt), and besides the gorgeous arrangements for both cello/harp and cello/piano, there was even a cello/ukele arrangement of "Simple Gifts". You see where this is going, right? (Hey, a girl can dream!)

Speaking of the cello, the only pictures that were taken at any of the aforementioned concerts/recitals were at Will's orchestra concert:

By the way, the Christmas music stays on until New Year's Day . . .

Friday, December 17, 2010

Christmas Lights

Two Thursdays ago we went up to Temple Square in Salt Lake City to see the Christmas light display. Now, I may have done this in college on a date or something, but if I did, I was in la-la land and not paying any attention. This is THE must-see Christmas light display within a three hundred mile radius of Salt Lake City! If you live anywhere nearby, you simply must go! From the amount of people there on a Thursday night, I get the feeling everybody does go, but this was essentially a first time experience for me, and it was so stinkin' beautiful that I wish everybody could see it. I've always known Temple Square did a big whoop-dee-doo at Christmas time, but I didn't really get it until I saw it for myself. 

If you have a minute, read this article about what goes into this amazing feast for the eyes and soul. Just another lovely "real meaning of Christmas" tradition we've picked up here in Utah. Many LDS temples have beautiful light displays and nativities at Christmas time (L.A. was pretty gorgeous, as well as Arizona), but I think there's no question that this one takes the cake.  

I'm really, really, really hoping Santa brings me a new camera that I don't know how to use yet, so I can finally figure out how to capture on film what I see in my head, but for now, here's your mediocre, amateur photographic tour:

Leaving Blue Lemon (across the street from Temple Square):

Ahhhhh . . . gorgeousness!
This is the Assembly Hall where high school choirs from all over the west were rotating through performing Christmas music. Somehow we managed to miss both of the performances that happened during the time we were there!  It was still pretty (and warm) to go inside for a few minutes:

Back outside and around the building: 

It was insane how completely some of the trees were covered in lights:

Another pit stop in the Tabernacle to see the the famous icon of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir:

Back outside it was raining, but it still didn't put a damper on the evening:

 Minus the watermark, this is my favorite picture:

On the east side of the temple is a large reflecting pool where we found this peaceful scene:


To the north:

Just outside the Visitor's Center is a large expanse of grass that had several life size figures "telling" the Christmas story while narration and music played.

Inside the Visitor's Center:

I pestered a nice senior missionary from North Carolina to take these next two for us:

Bonus pic--the Capitol building in the distance:
It just doesn't get much better than this for getting into the Christmas spirit. I'm glad we went when we did, because things have heated up around here this last week--and I don't mean the temperature. The Christmas crazies have taken over the last several days as I've been trying to tie up all the inevitable loose ends (last minute shopping), attending a million concerts, recitals, and parties, and getting our Christmas cards ready to send off with our new address. Just looking at these pictures helps me to slow down and feel that wonderful spirit again.  Only one more week!
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