In Which I Experience Not Only Post-Christmas but Pre-New Year’s Blues Before Reminding Myself of Something Really Important

KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERAIt started even before I tossed the Christmas cards or took the old wreath off the front door.

A sense of sadness, a premonition of unease. Usually by December 28 I’m ready to make a clean sweep. Christmas is over, and I’m in the mood to, at least figuratively, put the past behind me and open the front door to usher in the new year. I say “figuratively” because I’m not that good at letting go, no matter how I tell myself it’s as necessary as it is advisable. And a new year always holds at least some promise, some mystery. Some new discovery.

This season, I found myself having a harder time than ever with letting go. The mere thought had me welling up uncontrollably. Was it an aftereffect of all those Christmas sweet treats? Hormones? The first Christmas in almost two decades without my beloved, nutty Siamese? A clear-eyed sense of the grim realities facing the world right now? Or all of the above?

Then again, haven’t there always been “grim realities” facing the world? Of course. And not only has the world managed to keep on turning, but I expect it will continue to do so for a while. So many are facing so much worse—the breakup of a relationship, unexpected death of a child, loss of a job and home, a flight from those who live to destroy and the search for a place merely to exist without fear.

I reminded myself that I currently have all that I need and more. That the new year would be largely what I made of it, though I am not naive enough to think we are ever completely in control (or even that we have much control at all, frankly). In spite of this, when I should have been working on an article due in less than a week, I found myself instead looking somewhat forlornly out my bedroom window at the Christmas tree bright with white lights in the family room of the house next door, then at the neighbor’s front yard across the street, waiting for their lights to come on again. Just one more time.

Thinking, Don’t go, Christmas. Not just yet.

* * *

The star attraction at my personal blues festival this year was not just the normal letdown after too much food and irregular sleep following a mad rush to complete shopping and wrapping and mailing while working 9-5 and taking care of/decorating a house as well. Anyone out of their teens can recount that story. No, the star billing went to someone who didn’t really deserve to have the guest of honor seat, but who shows up at my house far too often. Perhaps he makes a regular appearance at yours as well.

His name is Fear.

This year, Fear looked at the attractively wrapped packages under our little fiber optic Christmas tree only to remind me that there might well be fewer of them next year, as aging relatives with chronic health issues began to pass away.

Fear glanced at the well-stocked pantry and freely running faucets only to remind me of the warnings, even likelihood, that a terrorist attack could disrupt the national power grid.

Fear responded to the unexpected gift of a temporary job that would pay a few large bills with a note reminding me my source of income is currently uncertain and my health insurance scanty.

Fear observed the gift of four new article assignments for a new market with the whisper that I was so busy with holiday preparations on top of work that I might be hard-pressed indeed to make my present deadlines—not to mention the fact that the pay for those upcoming assignments would scarcely cover even a month’s rent.

In fact, Fear did so much talking that I wondered when he ever had time to sleep.

But as I sat at my desk wiping my nose for the umpteenth time with an increasingly soggy tissue, I heard another reminder, this one more welcome and one I decided to share with Fear, because he sure needed it.

Fear isn’t psychic.

I’ll say that again, just to be sure you both heard it.

Fear isn’t psychic.

Fear doesn’t know how much longer I’ll have family to shop for at Christmas, or where and how I’ll spend that holiday in the years to come. Fear doesn’t know what new clients or more traditional jobs await me in 2016. Fear doesn’t know what I’m really capable of, because even I haven’t discovered that yet.

But to start finding out, I had to get to work. First I had to write this post while it was banging at the walls of my heart. Next I had to start that article. Then it would soon be time to prepare for the remaining hours of that temporary job, to tie it up neatly with the rest of the outgoing year as the door to a new one slowly edged open. A door to new opportunities and acquaintances, new lessons and challenges, and, yes, new fears.

Some of which might be justified. Some of which might even be necessary.

But not one of which would ever be psychic.

Happy 2016, Readers.

 

 

 

In Which I Remember That It’s Christmas

Creche

It’s not like I don’t possess a calendar.

It’s not like I don’t turn on the radio and hear holiday music on a 24-hour rotation, even before December 1. It’s not like I don’t see the lights and crèche scenes and inflatable snowmen going up in my neighborhood.

It’s just that I forgot what season it really is. That it’s Christmas.

It’s Christmas.

I’ve been ignoring my own advice to “do the next thing” lately in favor of fretting about things like health insurance and finding a job I like, aging family members and a house in which the clutter seems like something over which I will never gain control, and forgetting that . . .

It’s Christmas.

I’ve fretted about approaching deadlines and not managing my time well despite intentions to the contrary. About my eating habits and books that haven’t been read or reviewed. About messages that aren’t returned and checks that haven’t been mailed. About whether I’ll ever be smart enough to pursue a dream. About what kinds of gifts to buy and finding them on time, driving an old car (that still runs well and requires very little maintenance). And in between, I’ve grieved . . . for the blogger I’ve never met, whose husband’s deterioration from ALS has recently increased so rapidly that he was just placed in hospice care. For the Facebook friend whose books I’ve read and admired and shared, whose unborn grandchild has been diagnosed with an incurable genetic condition described in medical parlance as “incompatible with life.” For the real-life friend with an undiagnosed health issue and no health insurance. For the woman less than a decade my senior who is barely making ends meet on Social Security and sometimes goes for days with no food until her next check arrives, whom I only know from a newspaper advice column.

I forgot that it’s almost Christmas.

CHRISTMAS.

And so a couple of nights ago, after sending up yet another brief and hasty request to heaven for direction while doing whatever else I was doing, perhaps it was no surprise that the immediate answer seemed to be: “Go for a walk.”

Which I did, for the first time in almost two months.

It was a good night for a walk. Cool but not cold. A full moon. Huge white clouds.

And lights. Inflatable snowmen. Wreaths. Trees in windows.

I needed to see the lights. To remember what season it was.

Yes, I have a calendar. But I’d forgotten that it’s Christmas. I’d forgotten who put that full moon in the sky and who breathed life into those clouds. I don’t know if all the owners of those lit up houses were thinking along similar lines when they decorated, or simply responding to tradition. It didn’t matter. I walked by their houses, slowly, and looked at those lights. Enjoyed them. And simply let myself remember why they were there. I looked up at that moon and felt small, as I should. But not in a bad way. I waved at the cheerfully waving inflatable Abominable Snowman when I was sure no one was watching. I walked slowly by the lit and unlit crèche scenes, humble plastic figures put in yards as a reminder, and humbly accepted the reminder.

That this is a season. Preceded by another, to be followed by another. And my job is to live in only one at a time.

Over and over again last week I wondered, “What do I do next?”

The answer was simply to remember the season.

Merry Christmas.

* * *

“There are many things from which I might have derived good, by which I have not profited, I dare say,” returned the nephew. “Christmas among the rest. But I am sure I have always thought of Christmas time, when it has come round—apart from the veneration due to its sacred name and origin, if anything belonging to it can be apart from that—as a good time; a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time; the only time I know of, in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of people below them as if they really were fellow-passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys. And therefore, uncle, though it has never put a scrap of gold or silver in my pocket, I believe that it has done me good, and will do me good; and I say, God bless it!”  – from A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens

Star

 

The 12 Mysteries of Christmas, Day 12: But Jesus Wasn’t Born on December 25!

Birth of Jesus Matthew 2:1

On the 12th day of Christmas, my true love queried me: “Why do we celebrate the birth of Jesus on December 25 when scholars disagree on the actual date?”

Dear Soul,

Are you implying that all those Christmas cards I sent over the years depicting a snow-covered Nativity were a fraud?

Fact is, it’s impossible to know when Jesus was actually born because the Bible is silent on the subject.  Apparently its writers considered the matter unimportant.  But that hasn’t stopped speculation on the subject for centuries.  One school points out that the Gospel of Luke’s mention of shepherds tending their flocks by night when they heard the news indicates that it was lambing season, or spring.  Another argues that sheep reserved for Temple sacrifice would have been grazing freely even in winter.  Still others think the most likely time was in September.

Whatever the case, the church did not assign the Nativity to December 25 until the beginning of the fourth century, possibly because they wanted it to coincide with pagan festivals honoring Saturn (Roman god of agriculture) and Mithra (Persian god of light).

It should be noted that some have chosen not to celebrate the world’s most famous birth at all.  Early church father Origen stated that “only sinners like Pharoah and Herod…make great rejoicings over the day on which they were born into this world.”  The Puritans of 17th-century Massachusetts banned the holiday because there was no Biblical basis for a December 25 festivity, as well as for what they considered its pagan roots.  Some modern Christians also adhere to the latter reason.

I like Pastor Jack Hayford’s response to that:

“Years ago I decided I would never allow myself to come to Christmas on the basis of the status quo, but that I would let the fresh joy of this season infuse my spirit, along with a child-like expectancy.  Making a decision like that requires refusing another order of spirit – the ‘bah humbug’ attitude or ‘Scrooge spirit’ that dampens delight and reduces our sense of animation, expectation, and welcome of the Lord and His season.”

My take:  Whatever your faith or traditions, it is my hope that you’ve not only enjoyed the posts of these last 12 days as much as I have sharing them, but that the “Spirit of Christmas” will live in your heart and life throughout the coming year.

“God bless us, everyone!”

Tiny Tim

The Twelve Mysteries of Christmas, Day 11: Why Do We Sing to Strangers?

Carolers

On the 11th day of Christmas, my true love queried me:  “What’s up with Christmas caroling?  I don’t feel the need to entertain perfect strangers in such a fashion at any other time of the year…unless I’m in a church choir.”

Dear Soul,

You have a point…a potentially tricky one, in fact.  After all, when it comes to singing in choirs, wannabe members must first audition before a discerning leader.  But when it comes to caroling, all bets are off.  Who wants to be labeled a Scrooge for refusing a caroler simply because he or she can’t carry a tune in a bucket?  No, better to just hope for the best and sing louder if necessary.  Unless you’re the one who can’t carry a tune in a bucket, in which case it is devoutly to be hoped that you’re already aware of it and simply mouth along, as my grandmother once did when she was asked to lead the singing of the national anthem at a convention.  Grandma was no fool.

But how did such a custom get its start?

Fact is, the origins of this one are murky, although one old story has it that a little girl by the name of Carol Poles went missing in 1888 London, at the time Jack the Ripper was abroad.  Her search party sang Christmas carols as they went from house to house, to ease the minds of residents and show them that the searchers meant no harm.  Whether the child was ever found is unclear, but it has been said that Christmas caroling continued from that time on.  The tale has, however, been discounted as Charles Dickens’ classic A Christmas Carol, written 50 years earlier, mentions people going door to door singing carols.

Another account dates to the marriage of Germany’s Prince Albert to Britain’s Princess Victoria in 1840.  After reading in a newspaper that Prince Albert thoroughly enjoyed Christmas carols, peasants started serenading him with them, and caroling has been a tradition ever since.  It’s also been traced to Methodists and Lutherans who brought a modified version of the tradition to America, to the ancient Romans, and to the pre-Christian Festival of Yule.

My take:  Christmas caroling, whatever its origin, is a beloved custom that has, sadly, largely faded from view.  So why not make a resolution to revive it in your neighborhood this year?  And if you end up with a tone-deaf member or two, just remind yourself that it’s the holiday spirit which really counts.

Recipe for a Fun Christmas Caroling Session

  • 1 group of hearty voices
  • 1 pre-planned route
  • 1 batch of songs that are short and easy to sing
  • 1 camera to record the festivity (or the looks on homeowner faces)
  • 1 set of refreshments to close the party

Mix all ingredients and serve to a neighborhood near you.

The 12 Mysteries of Christmas, Day 10: Stockings Aren’t Just for Feet

STOCKINGS

On the 10th day of Christmas, my true love queried me:  “Why do we hang stockings from the mantle for Santa at Christmas?”

Dear Soul,

No doubt you have noticed that Christmas stockings are much like everything else associated with the holiday these days…an expression of individuality.  What was once a humble piece of hosiery meant to keep the leg warm is now almost a fashion statement.  Well, the times may have changed but the basic idea behind the stocking – a reward for good behavior throughout the year –  remains the same.

Fact is, this custom appears to date to the legend of a widowed nobleman with three daughters, who after losing his wealth by a series of useless inventions, was forced to move his family into a peasant’s cottage, where the daughters did all their own housework.  When they grew old enough to marry, their father became depressed because they had no dowry, leaving them spinsters.

Then one night, after the girls had washed out their clothing and hung their stockings by the fire to dry, St. Nicholas, knowing the family’s circumstances and the father’s despair, stopped by the house.  The inhabitants had all gone to bed, but St. Nicholas saw the stockings and, struck by inspiration, threw three bags of gold down the chimney to land in them, one for each daughter.  The next morning, the girls discovered that they now had enough gold for a dowry.  Each one married and their father lived a long and happy life.  As word spread of the family’s good fortune, other villagers soon began hanging their own stockings by the fire in the hope that St. Nicholas would favor them as well.

Another version holds that the custom came to America from the Dutch tradition of children leaving their wooden shoes, or clogs, by the hearth, stuffed with straw for Sinterklass’s reindeer.  A treat was also left for Sinterklass, who would leave treats in return for the children.  Countries observing the shoe tradition include France, Italy and Hungary, while in Puerto Rico children put small boxes of greens and flowers under their beds for the camels of the Three Kings.

But what about that odd practice of leaving a lump of coal in a naughty child’s stocking?  Is it for real?  Seems to me just leaving a stocking empty would send a sufficient message.

While versions vary, essentially this can be traced back to the Sicilian witch “La Befana,” who, at the time of Christ’s birth, was asked by the Magi for directions to the infant’s manger.  La Befana didn’t know where the child was, but gave them shelter for the night.  The next morning they were already gone when she awoke, and though she wanted to join them, she did not know how to find them.  To this day, she flies on a broomstick around the world, searching for the infant Jesus, and on the night of January 5 (the last of the Twelve Days of Christmas), she slides down chimneys, leaving gifts and candy for good children and coal for bad.

My take:  Whether it’s shoes or stockings or something in between at your house, here’s hoping that if Santa Claus – or La Befana – deems you coal-worthy this year, it takes the form described in the recipe below.

Recipe for Christmas Coal Candy

  • 1 egg white
  • 1.5 cups powdered sugar, divided, plus a little extra might be needed for thickening
  • 3 cups granulated sugar
  • 1.5 – 2 tsp. black gel food coloring
  • 1.5 tsp. lemon juice
  • 1/4 cup water

Whisk one cup powdered sugar with the remaining ingredients in a medium bowl.  Whisk in the remaining half-cup of powdered sugar.  The mixture should be very stiff.  Pick up some of the batter and allow it to fall back into the bowl.  It should cling to the whisk when you pick up the batter and fall in thick heavy pieces back into the bowl.  If it doesn’t, add small amounts of powdered sugar until desired consistency is reached.  Set aside.

Line an 8×8 or similar size pan with parchment paper and set aside.  Combine water and sugar in a large non-stick saucepan.   Stir and mash mixture with a spatula until the consistency of wet sand.  Insert a candy thermometer and cook until it reaches 260º.

Add black egg white/powdered sugar mix to the pan and stir (do not whisk).  The mixture may foam.  When thoroughly mixed, pour into the prepared pan and allow it to stand until hardened.  Break into pieces to eat.

The 12 Mysteries of Christmas, Day 9: Turkey on the Table

Christmas Turkey

On the ninth day of Christmas, my true love queried me:  “Why do we typically eat turkey and not goose (or ham or lamb or roast beef, etc.) for Christmas dinner?”

Dear Soul,

My guess is that you’re thinking of that famous scene in Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol,” in which the Cratchit family sits down to “Such a goose, Martha!”

Fact is, there are a couple of different views on this, with economics (of course) playing a leading role.  One holds that the turkey tradition is probably a throwback to the Dickens classic that forever changed the way we celebrate Christmas, noting that turkey in Scrooge’s world was a bit more exotic and consequently expensive, so there was a subtle class distinction.  Another points out that rooster meat was tough and chickens were valuable for egg laying, cows “were more useful alive than dead,” and ham or brined pork wasn’t suitable for special occasions.  And some culinary historians say that around the turn of the century Mr. Tom became more associated with the working class and poor immigrants who received charitable birds, leading more affluent households to serve game and beef at the Christmas table.

But how about that goose?   One source from California mentioned that while goose is delicious, it is “dreadfully expensive here,” and another in Australia said it was “very uncommon” Down Under.  However, goose is traditional in Austria, and in Denmark goose, duck or pork is tradish.  In the Czech Republic you’re more likely to sit down to fried carp and potato salad; in Finland, to ham, while the menu is meatless (excepting fish) in Poland, and pork belly side in Norway.

My take:  As long as you’re sitting down with the people you care about for the holiday, it doesn’t really matter what meat’s on the plate.  Bon appetit!

Recipe for Turkey Tetrazzini with Parmesan Cheese

  • 6 tbs. butter, divided
  • 8 oz. sliced mushrooms
  • 4 cups cooked diced turkey
  • 1/4 cup flour
  • 2 cups chicken stock
  • salt and pepper to taste
  • 1 egg yolk, lightly beaten
  • 2 tbs. dry sherry
  • 1/4 cup heavy cream
  • 8 oz. spaghetti
  • 1/4 cup fresh grated Parmesan cheese

In a saute pan or skillet over medium heat, melt two tablespoons of butter; add the mushrooms and saute until tender and golden brown, about three minutes.  Set aside.

Heat oven to 425°.  Butter a 2 1/2- to 3-quart baking dish.

In a saucepan over medium heat, melt the remaining four tablespoons of butter.  Stir in flour until well blended and cook, stirring, for one minute.  Add the chicken stock and cook, stirring or whisking, until thickened and smooth.  Add salt and pepper to taste.

Quickly whisk about 1/2 cup of the sauce into the egg yolk, then add the yolk mixture back to the saucepan.  Add the sherry, cream, diced turkey, and the sauteed mushrooms.  Cook, stirring, until hot.

In a buttered casserole dish, layer half of the drained spaghetti. Top with half of the sauce, then repeat with the remaining spaghetti and sauce. Sprinkle the grated Parmesan cheese over the top and bake for 15 minutes, until hot and browned.

The 12 Mysteries of Christmas, Day 8: Why is Santa’s Sleigh Pulled by Reindeer?

Santa

On the eighth day of Christmas, my true love queried me:  “Why does Santa use reindeer to pull his sleigh?   Why not horses?   Or Alaskan huskies, for that matter?  They’re used to pulling sleds!  Or even polar bears?”

Dear Soul,

What a silly question!  Everyone knows that polar bears can’t fly!

Fact is, for an answer to this question we can most likely look to Clement Moore’s famous poem. “A Visit From St. Nicholas,” better (if incorrectly) known as “Twas the Night Before Christmas,”  although other books published before Moore’s poem also referred to Santa being drawn in a sleigh with reindeer, and the concept was long popular in Russia, where Father Frost appeared in villages in a reindeer-drawn sleigh.

Here’s the pertinent part from Mr. Moore:

…when, what to  my wondering eyes should appear,
but a miniature sleigh, and eight tiny rein-deer,
with a little old driver, so lively and quick,
I knew in a moment it must be St. Nick.

More rapid than eagles his coursers they came,
And he whistled, and shouted, and call’d them by name:
“Now, Dasher!  Now, Dancer!  Now, Prancer, and Vixen!
“On, Comet!  On, Cupid!  On, Donder and Blitzen!

“To the top of the porch! to the top of the wall!
“Now dash away! dash away! dash away all!”

As dry leaves that before the wild hurricane fly,
When they meet with an obstacle, mount to the sky;

So up to the house-top the coursers they flew…

No mention of a ninth reindeer with a glowing red nose here – Rudolph didn’t enter the picture until 1939, when he debuted in a booklet written by Robert L. May and published by Montgomery Ward.

My take:  “Huskies,” “horses” and “polar bears” don’t rhyme with “appear.”  ‘Nuff said.  

Recipe for Reindeer Cupcakes

  • 1 box Betty Crocker® SuperMoist® cake mix (any non-swirl flavor)
  • Water, vegetable oil and eggs called for on cake mix box
  • 1 container Betty Crocker® Rich & Creamy chocolate frosting
  •  Betty Crocker® chocolate sprinkles
  • 24 large pretzel twists
  • 24 miniature marshmallows
  • 24 red cinnamon candies
  • 24 small green gumdrops

Heat oven to 350°F (325°F for dark or nonstick pans).  Make and cool cake as directed on box for 24 cupcakes.  Frost cupcakes with frosting. Sprinkle chocolate shot over tops of cupcakes.  For each cupcake, cut pretzel twist in half; arrange on cupcake for reindeer antlers.  Cut miniature marshmallow in half; arrange on cupcake for eyes.  Center gumdrop below marshmallow halves for nose.  Place red cinnamon candy below gumdrop for mouth.  Store loosely covered.