An Apple a Day (is not enough!)

Autumn. There are many things to love about this most anticipated of seasons (yes, even more anticipated than Christmas, ‘cos winter’s after that). Everyone will say it’s the sweaters, the layers, the changing colours and the casting off of sweaty, sand scoured mosquito bites that they love most; but for me, it’s always about The Food. This planet’s abundance will never cease to amaze me, and capturing those moments in flavors to share is what life is all about.

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The apple is a fruit found in every kind of history and myth, folk tale and recipe book. It is one of the first fruits cultivated, so its sweet and savory capacities can sometimes seem limitless. I have a cook book, though, by the Rose Bakery in France, which cannot stress enough that simplicity in food is always your best bet. The fewest and freshest ingredients will always yield the best results. Right now, in Ontario, the early apples are a bit tart, very crisp and have a heady perfume that comes from lingering hot sun. These apples are great with sharp cheeses, but my favorite way to use them is in apple butter. A bushel of apples, little apple cider vinegar, a few spices and some local honey go a long way in a slow cooker.

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Ingredients:

Two 3L boxes fresh early apples, or other tart apples

1/2 cup local honey (local to you!)

1 tsp sea salt

2 TBSP cinnamon

1/2 TBSP nutmeg

Tools:

Slow cooker (there will be different rules for an Instant Pot, so read the instructions!)

sharp knife

peeler

Optional:

black pepper for heat

turmeric for health

maple syrup for sweetness

no sweetener for savories

flower petals for beauty

Method:

Plug in your slow cooker and set it to high.

Wash your apples well, and core them. Peel them if you want a smoother butter, leave them in for health. Cut the apples coarsely (or real fine, if you like a labor of love) and put them in the slow cooker with everything else. Cook on high for about 8 hrs, then cook on low to finish another 8 hrs or overnight. For a very smooth butter, use a hand blender or tabletop blender. If you don’t mind texture, you can just whip it all up by hand. I tend to make it smooth for gifts, and just eat it as is at home. If you like canning, follow a pressure canning recipe after filling your sterilized jars at this stage. Otherwise, grab a spoon and toast the season! butter.jpg

Stockings on the Staircase

by Anneke Bon

Growing up in the eighties, my Christmas recollections are split into two separate memories. The first is a soft focus memory, featuring scenes from Saturday morning cartoon Christmas specials, energizer bunny promises of toys that will run forever and that damned my little pony castle I wanted so much but never got. All this reminiscence plays to the tune of the Toys r Us theme. Prepackaged consumerism, perfectly wrapped in Santa’s sleigh that carried him to our roofs, conditioning our responses to what this time of year means,  is exactly what this time of year was never supposed to be about.

The second memory is the reality. The small town house, second to last on a row of six. Red brick, with a small back yard and a shared driveway. Christmas there was not like the one I saw on TV. It was understated, it was without some very pivotal elements, like the mountains of toys the TV promised, and the stockings perfectly placed on the fireplace. Santa was in for a surprise when he visited me, because we didn’t have a fireplace he could shimmy down. His portal to give me my presents was reduced to a window or door. How disappointing for Santa. I always wondered if that was why I never got the things I thought I wanted. But mostly I really wanted to hang my stockings on the fireplace. Instead we hung our stockings from the banister of our stairs. I always felt cheated. As if Christmas was not being performed properly.

Christmas changes, as in all things in life because we change. So not getting what I ‘wanted’ didn’t matter as much anymore. It was more important I got what I needed. And that was family and friends. Being with my Dad and Mom, especially after they divorced became important. Seeing friends, spending time with them is more precious than money. The consumerism the eighties bred into me is still there, but it has been tempered with more humility from living through the nineties and opening my eyes to see the world. The fact that I know that places in this world are so wrought with pain and suffering, that the concept of crying over a plastic castle for miniature toy ponies seems so frivolous its nearly offensive. But I was a kid, and its not fair to judge ourselves when we were so naive.

Many of the traditions that my family and I created became have become very important. Even though the childhood thrill of Christmas faded as I grew older. Hanging the stockings on the banister became a vital component of my holiday experience. It wasn’t in front of a picturesque fireplace, but it made me recall days of playing in the snow till I couldn’t feel my toes, and being with those I loved.

Now I am a mother of two boys, living in a house that has a grand staircase and a fireplace. I was giddy when I realized I could hang my stockings the old fashion way and really give my kids the authentic experience. But in honour of my traditions, I’m still going to hang my old stockings from the banister, as an ode to my youth and to show my kids that stockings and life does not always have to look like how we’re told its supposed to be. Some traditions are meant to be broken, others are meant to remind us of where we came from.
The biggest tradition that I think this season should be about is love. Love for mankind and the earth is the only thing that will one day bring light to the places in this world still masked in pain.
Love.
Not like what we saw in cartoons, or advertised on TV.
It’s better than the energizer bunny, better than that plastic castle, and better than Santa.
It’s what we really want for Christmas and why I will still hang my stockings from the Staircase, because we need to remember the people that love us and who we love back.image1.JPG

Around the Table, Around the World

By Siv Volden, Anita Rubino, John Martin, Pamela Capriotti Martin

One of the greatest benefits of Facebook to our family has been connecting with family members, particularly overseas. Daughter Maille connected easily with her cousin Siv in Vinstra, Norway and her cousin, Anita in Naples, Italy about their family traditions in their homes and countries. When I read their accounts, I immediately recognized some of the traditions from my childhood through Siv (we are related through my grandmother, Hildred) and some from Anita (Johns mother Giulia and Anitas father, Guglielmo are sister and brother). John has added his memories of how his Italian mother and Irish father brought their family celebrations together during the Christmas holidays.

Anita:

One of the two main Christmas traditions in our family and in Naples can be found in the nativity or ‘presepi’. At midnight the 24th of December we sing a song and in procession take the little Jesus Christ to the main scene of the nativity. Usually it is the youngest member of the family who has this honor of carrying the Christ child.24956869_10213029430922792_1783634754_o.jpg

On Christmas Eve we eat fish. We begin with a salad with shrimp followed by spaghetti with sea fruits, bass cooked in the oven, fried shrimp and there is a special salad which is named insalata di rinforzo (backup or reinforcement salad) ironically because the dinner doesn’t need any backup! The salad is cauliflower with olives, pickled peppers and many other things.Image-1 (1).jpg

The rule for the end of the meal is fresh fruit and eating almonds and other nuts.

The other tradition every year are lighting fires in every home, out on the balcony or on the terrace of the building: at midnight of 31st of December. It’s a gesture of invitation to the Virgin Mary, who can warm newborn Jesus next to the warm flames. Afterwards, according to tradition, families would use the ashes as charms to protect the house from damage.

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Siv:

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Advent is very important in the Norwegian tradition. It starts Dec1. Most children get a Christmas calendar with one little gift a day until Dec. 24. Norwegian television has calendars with Christmas stories and lots of people are having Christmas parties with neighbors and family.

Building up to the Christmas holiday we will make homebrewed beer, bake lefse, clean the house and make seven different cookies. Years ago, Norway was a very poor country which is why so many families emigrated to the United States, including Pamela’s great-grandparents Mathea and Thron Thronson. (Siv and Pamela are related through Mathea). So long ago the custom was to bake the seven kinds of cookies to show neighbors that we were wealthy enough to bake so many cookies.24209224_1483484111698650_1112224394_o.jpg

In Norway, Christmas Eve is when Santa Claus arrives with gifts. The holiday starts Dec 24 at 5 pm. Dec 25 and Dec 26 are also holy days. Santa Claus has a Norwegian relative: fjøsnissen, who live in the barn and are taking care of animals and people at the farm IF people treat them nice. So we’re making porridge and putting it in the barn on Christmas Eve so fjøsnissen will keep on helping us at the farm.

Typical Christmas dinner is: pork ribs, lamb ribs, lutefisk and lefse.24321780_1483482095032185_956396611_o.jpg

John’s Christmas traditions include Italian traditions like the feast of the seven fishes on Christmas Eve and Irish traditions on Christmas Day.

John:

We always had pasta with different fish including smelt, shrimp, and some sort of white fish. On Christmas Day there would be a roast, usually beef with roasted potatoes, brussels sprouts and for dessert a Christmas pudding with stirred custard.

Pamela:

My family had Christmas Eve with my mom’s parents and Christmas Day with my dad’s family where we usually had turkey with all the trimmings including pies for dessert. My Norwegian grandmother always thought Christmas Eve was more important than Christmas Day and was always the first to open her gifts. The house smelled of cookies and lutefisk but she always made a pork crown roast with lingonberries for dinner.

The melding of John and Pam’s heritage began with honoring our Italian and Norwegian roots on Christmas Eve. While I did not grow up with any Italian Christmas traditions despite my last name, John did. On occasion we would prepare several fish dishes and pasta, but mostly we would order a crown pork roast stuffed with sausage, my grandmother Hildred’s Norwegian tradition. There would be cranberry compote (too hard to find lingonberries) mashed potatoes, and root vegetables. For dessert? That’s always been pretty open to whatever the girls wanted to make or wanted to eat but there would be lefse and sandbakkels. This year we are making pasta. Christmas Day we now are fully committed to prime rib, roasted English potatoes, brussels sprouts and for dessert – well John gets his mince pies, Christmas pudding and a puddle of custard. For the rest of us – an apple pie with the same perfect custard robe.

Happy Christmas to all.IMG_0694.JPG

Yalda: Midwinter in Iran

by MK Martin

There are one or two mentions of Pagan solstice festivals in the facebook feed these days. Midwinter is a ‘trend’, and did you know that Santa was really tripping on mushrooms? But one I’ve never heard of, until I went looking, is Yalda. I’ll only give some brief details, as it’s worth reading about yourself. *

Of Iranian and Persian descent, this 5000 year old, four day Fire Festival, beginning on the 21st, marks the Birth of the Iranian sun god Mithra, and the symbolic triumph of light over darkness. Dating back possibly as far as 3rd or 4th millennium BCE, Zayeshmehr, Shab-e Cheleh, or Yalda marks the beginning of the solar year. Fires burn all night, to ensure Ahriman (Satan!) will get a clue and keep away from the feast. At the party, forgiveness, god worship and acts of charity are custom, and in the morning, it is believed Creator, Ahura Mazda (Lord of Wisdom and affordable cars), would grant wishes.MithraONE.png

Much like certain European festivals, this was a time for servants and lords to trade places, with the king ‘hiding’ among commoners. The strict standards of living were relaxed. These traditions merged with the Roman traditions, which included decorating with greenery, throwing massive parties (though, that was a Roman theme for anything), and letting bygones be bygones. Wars were suspended, businesses closed and grudges forgiven.

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But now for the important bit: the food. Preserving summer foods for Shab-e Cheleh is important, as the mixing of summer with winter food is the feature, and there are no specific recipes. Watermelon, pomegranate, feta cheese and nuts served alongside herbs like mint and tarragon are devoured with lavash bread and ground Angelica. As long as the food is contrasting in seasons, it’s welcome at the table.

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I found a great recipe for a Baghlava cake. There are photo steps, as well as written, and it looks not -too- difficult to pull off. From persianmama.com:

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Bake 35-40 minutes at 350 F center rack
yield: Twenty 2 x 2 inch pastries

Author: Homa
Recipe type: Dessert
Cuisine: Persian

INGREDIENTS:
FOR THE DOUGH
8 ounces sweet butter, melted
1 cup sugar
1 cup plain yogurt
2 eggs
1 tsp baking soda
½ tsp vanilla powder or 1 ½ tsp vanilla extract
4 ½ – 5 cups all-purpose flour
FOR THE FILLING
2 tsp cardamom powder
2 tsp cinnamon powder
¾ cup powdered sugar
1 ½ cups coarsely chopped walnuts, split-pea sized
2 egg whites, beaten until foamy (save the yolks)
2 egg yolks mixed with 1 tsp cold water for the egg wash
FOR THE SYRUP:
1 ½ cups water
1 ½ cups sugar
1 ½ TBSP honey
1 TBSP plus 1 tsp rose water
GARNISH:
Chopped Pistachios

INSTRUCTIONS:
1. Preheat oven to 350 F, center rack
2. Grease a 9 x13 x1 inch nonstick baking pan with butter flavored Crisco and lightly dust with flour. Tap the pan over the sink to shake off the excess flour.
3. In a small bowl mix 2 tsp cardamom, 2 tsp cinnamon, ¾ cup powdered sugar and 1 ½ cups coarsely chopped walnuts. Set aside.
4. In a large bowl, whisk all the dough ingredients except the flour, until smooth.
5. Add the flour gradually and mix well with a wooden spoon after each addition. Add enough flour until the dough stops sticking to the fingers; you may have some leftover flour. On a lightly floured surface pat the dough into a fat rectangle, then divide it into two equal pieces.
6. Use a rolling pin to roll out one of the dough pieces into a 9 x 13 inch rectangle.
7. Gently lift the rolled dough and lay it on the prepared baking pan, use your finger tips to gently stretch the dough to fit the bottom of the pan perfectly.
8. Brush some of the foamy egg white on the dough.
9. Sprinkle all of the walnut filling mixture over the dough in the pan.
10. Drizzle the rest of the beaten egg white on the mixture.
11. On the floured surface roll out the other piece of dough into another 9 x 13 inch rectangle for the top. Carefully cover the nut and spice mixture with the rolled out dough and stretch it with your fingertips to completely cover the top of the pastry. Press the dough onto the filling.
12. Use a sharp plastic knife to mark the dough into 20 equal rectangles. Cut through the thickness of the pastry on the marks you have made. Brush the egg wash over the entire surface of the pastry.
13. Bake in preheated 350 F oven for 35-40 minutes, or until the top of the pastry is a rich golden brown.
14. After 15 minutes into baking start making the syrup: In a 2-Qt saucepan add 1 ½ cups water, 1 ½ cups sugar, and 1 ½ TBSP honey. Bring it to a boil over medium heat. Let it boil for 2-3 minutes. Remove from the heat and add 1 TBSP plus 1 tsp rose water. Set aside until ready to use.
15. By the time the pastry is ready, the syrup should reach a lukewarm temperature.
16. Remove the pastry from the oven. Place the pan in a larger baking pan to catch any possible syrup dripping.
17. Use your plastic knife once again to cut through the baked pastry between the squares. Drizzle all of the lukewarm syrup evenly all over the hot pastry, don’t forget the borders. It might look like all the syrup will not fit in the pan, but it does and all of it will get soaked up to make this cake amazingly moist and delicious. Sprinkle the pastry with chopped pistachio. Allow to cool completely in the pan over a cooling rack before transferring the pastries to a serving platter in a single layer.
18. This pastry is best when served at room temperature
NOTES
Freeze any extra pastries by arranging them in a single layer in an airtight freezer container, cover the top of the pastries loosely with a sheet of parchment paper, then cover the container with the lid tightly.

*These details are truncated. If anyone sees an incorrect one, let me know!

Have a Holly, Jolly Meatball

by Pamela Capriotti Martin

We’ve been blessed to have friends who love to cook as much as we do. Sally, Luke, and Sophie are great friends and Sally is a marvelous, creative cook and baker. And the cooks in our house, and the cooks in their house have a tendency to talk smack about whose dish is better. For John, Sally, and three of my daughters – the big smack one year was meatballs. When the Meatball Shoppe opened in NYC and issued a cookbook, the talk got louder and louder. While some of us thought all their meatballs were fabulous, some people wanted affirmation.

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And so the Great Christmas Meatball Off was born. I organized the rules and the teams were formed. Team One: Sally vs Team Two: John and Manda vs Team Three: Morgan and Maddy. I decided to remain neutral and organize the judges: Andrew, Todd, Jeff, and Luke – all a bit “cooking” challenged but big lovers of meatballs.

The plates were the same, the ballots were created and the meatballs fashioned, simmered, and served.

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Over the years we have enjoyed having celebrations to share with our friends and neighbors and the Holiday Season is a perfect time to open your home for a soup party (everyone bring a pot) an appetizer and cocktail party (bring your favorite signature cocktail mix and a fun appetizer, and one year a New Year’s Day Dessert Levee – everyone brought cookies, cakes, pies and we sugared our way through New Year’s Day. Make it simple, make it delicious, make it fun and invite everyone to play a part.

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I shall keep the meatball winner(s) of this particular Meatball Off a secret but here are some winning meatballs.

Winning Meatballs

INGREDIENTS

For the tomato sauce:
5 tbsp olive oil
2 garlic cloves, finely sliced
700g passata
75ml dry red wine
1 tsp dried oregano
1 tsp dried red chili flakes
1 mozzarella balls, sliced
Salt & pepper
For the meatballs:
250g good quality minced beef
250g good quality minced pork
100g pancetta, finely chopped
1 small onion, finely chopped
4 cloves garlic, finely minced
60ml buttermilk
50g breadcrumbs
1 tbsp dried oregano, chopped
A small handful of fresh parsley, finely chopped
1 large egg, lightly beaten
50g grated Parmesan cheese,
Salt & pepper

DIRECTIONS
Cook onions and pancetta until translucent. Let cool. In a large mixing bowl, combine all the ingredients for the meatballs. Season with salt and pepper and mix until completely and evenly combined. Using a tablespoon form large golf ball sized meatballs by rolling them in your hands. Transfer to a large baking sheet. Repeat with the remaining mixture, cover and leave in the fridge to become firm for 30 minutes to 1 hour.

Place a large frying pan over a medium high heat and add a good glug of olive oil. If all the meatballs don’t fit in the pan at once, fry half the meatballs until browned on all sides, this will take 8-10 minutes and then transfer to a plate lined with kitchen paper. If doing two batches, wipe out the pan with kitchen paper, add another glug of oil and fry the remaining batch. Preheat the oven to 300F.

Drain any excess oil from the pan and place back on a low heat, add the garlic and allow slowly simmer until just golden but not browned. Pour in the passata and red wine a stir through. Season with dried oregano, chili flakes, salt & pepper. Bring to a steady simmer and allow to cook for 5-6 minutes before adding the meatballs to the pan and gently turning to coat them in the sauce with a tablespoon. Cover the pan with a lid and transfer to the oven.

Cook gently for 1 hour and 30 minutes. Towards the end of the cooking time, turn up the oven to 425F and dot the meatballs with mozzarella and the remaining Parmesan and return to the oven.
Serve the baked meatballs with spaghetti cooked in a pot of well seasoned boiling water until al dente and sprinkle generously with grated Parmesan cheese.

Books to Celebrate

by MK Martin

Have you ever read the Nutcracker? It’s a stunning book, illustrated by Toller Cranston who, if you’ve never been into figure skating, was a prominent athlete in the sport. Do yourself a favor and search for him on Youtube. Preferably in his canary suit.

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There’s also a lovely version illustrated by Maurice Sendak I love very much. But the reason I love these stories is the same: Godfather Drosselmeier. This resplendent, but somewhat homely be-caped uncle, shows up at an otherwise ordinary Georgian/Victorian Christmas (depending on the version) and brings with him the most fantastic mechanical inventions, of his own design.25358410_10155332707358737_3923440631684682061_o.jpg

There are children in this story, but this guy, this is who I wanted to be. He wowed the crowd without witticisms, he stunned the savvy without good tailoring. He was far more interesting than Santa, and he didn’t outsource. Though his creations were all wondrous, it was one in the back that over a young lady’s heart. A carved Nutcracker who, though his proportions were mishap and his grin a little wide, his purpose was clear and his mission unfailing. When night comes, and the dread Rat King comes to terrorize the world of magic, it is the Nutcracker who saves the day. The illustrations are beautiful, captivating, and somehow, Sendak manages to convey Marie’s expressions in just a few lines, and terrify with the enormous Sweet Tooth, who could represent any frightening authority figure of any era.25398240_10155332707408737_2490535478702731558_o.jpgBabar, Jean de Brunhof’s epic tale of his title character’s search for Father Christmas, comes up in our reading rotation even if it isn’t Christmas. Any story where the characters are all animals, walking around our human world in suits and silks, and ruling their own kingdoms is instantly a favorite. I love that Babar is a champion for his subjects, that he adopts orphaned members of his family, and others, and that his wife, Celeste is always the quiet (well, elephant quiet) voice of reason. One of his adopted kids, Zephyr, discovers Father Christmas brings toys to children all over the world, and he wonders if it wouldn’t be a good idea for them to write and see if he will come to Elephant Country too?

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Since it’s too long to wait for mail of any kind, Babar decides to go on a quest for his kids, to make sure their letter gets there alright. He’s lead a merry chase through interesting places, aided by some and thwarted as well. The ending is happy, and Father Christmas has a very cool airship.

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My very favorite holiday story, though, is The Secret Staircase, by Jill Barklem. The illustrations in her works are breathtaking journeys, a story to be told in each one. It was this story that first introduced me to Midwinter: the ‘pagan’ observance of the darkest day, the Death of the Year. It is a fleeting moment in the calendar, because, the next day is already longer than the last. It is like witnessing the Universe being born all over again; from the darkness, light, and then everything begins.25394764_10155332707413737_3003422095016284018_o.jpg

Ms. Barklem must also find this to be magical, because she takes us with her little mouse heroes up, up into the palace hewn and carved from a massive tree, to rooms and cupboards not seen in any remembered age.

Every turn shows them beauty, majesty and hidden secrets of a world since forgotten. If there’s a history buff lurking in your kid, this story will draw them out. The purpose of their search, is to find something a little bit more stunning for the Midwinter recital and log burning. A popular, but well worn poem has been chosen, and they are looking for a little glamour. Where else should you find those things, but in your great-great-great-great-great grandparents’ closet? The greatest illustration is of the denouement, and I read the poem out loud, with gusto every year.

When the days are the shortest, the nights are the coldest,
The frost is the sharpest, the year is the oldest,
The sun is the weakest, the wind is the hardest,
The snow is the deepest, the skies are the darkest,
Then polish your whiskers and tidy your nest,
And dress in your richest and finest and best ..

For winter has brought you the worst it can bring,
And now it will give you
The promise of SPRING!!25440301_10155332707378737_9020581678556255886_o.jpg

To me, it’s the kids’ books that are the classics, of any age. Grown up stories tend to drag along with them the social trappings of the age, while a child’s story is to the point. I hope you get a chance to read these, some day.

What To Give

by MK Martin

I’m going to mention the Grinch again, because it really is a story that laid the path for my life. I used to wish he would come and steal Christmas where I was, and everywhere, so we would all have to go outside and hold hands and sing. He never did, though I did go to a few midnight masses with my Mum.whos.jpg

Are there any holidays revolving around Midwinter, that do not involve gift exchange? I couldn’t find any. The hot Pagan dirt this year, is that there was a Mother Deer before a Father Christmas, but we still have to give her all our butter and hope she leaves us something in return. Because the days are dark, am I right?

Every year, after everything has been opened, after my shoulders come down from around my ears and my nails start growing again, gift giving anxiety sets in. The season means so many different things, to so many different people, and I know most of them. Many have all they could want, or need, some proclaim not to want or need anything! How can I work with these parameters?

Knowing as much as you can about your giftee is the key, of course. You could try reminding yourself that it doesn’t have to be the best gift ever, but that’s really the only reason I can think of to give such a thing. You want their experience to be a little thrill, sometimes.

With that in mind, here are my top gift ideas for three stereotypical receivers, that everyone thinks exist. We’ll call it: The Anxious Person’s Guide to Gifting.

Person: Unenthusiastic Receiver:

You could try to stun this person, but they are suffering from too much stuff. It’s all interesting, and beautiful, and designed well. What this person needs is a big hug, and maybe a box of their favorite chocolate. If you really want to up the ante, ask them how their day is going.

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Person: I Don’t Want Anything!
This person is me. They are too anxious about receiving presents, giving presents, being present and anything in general that has to do with anything. They do like to receive, but they couldn’t possibly figure out what right now. Consider a combination of small items with personal meaning, that equate to a quiet, still moment. Or, a pat on the back to remind them they’re not as close to exploding as they think they are.

Person: Itemized Color Coded List with Alternative Shopping Locations:
This person is either your kid, or they just really know their own mind. For either, the best idea is to pool money for one not too extravagant option and make sure you soak up the excellent reaction they will give you. Another great option is a little outing for lunch, or to an interesting shopping space they’ve never been.

Person: Partner
This person wants to be surprised by you, so do that. If it’s been a rough year, observe them carefully for a few days without being weird, and see if anything is obviously missing. If it’s been a good year, write them a note about it, thank them for being around with you. If it’s just another year in the stretch you agreed to walk together, thank them for that too. Nothing’s more surprising to people, sometimes, than the appearance of true gratitude. Sure, they’re still doing that thing that’s so annoying!! But not all the time.

It might be easy to see that the theme here is: you don’t necessarily have to buy something to give a gift. Like Eeyore’s friends, who included him in every activity and always remembered his birthday, even though he was sour as pits and rarely ever grateful, our only job as fellow humans is to be there for each other. Sometimes that looks like a pair of earrings, brand new socks to last the year, or toys and sometimes, it looks like a warm smile and watching the stars from the porch with nothing whatsoever to do. You are the gift that keeps on giving, and I guess maybe I am too. Happy Holidays, friends ❤calvin.jpg

The Odds and Ends

by C.E. Young

I come from a family of makers, which isn’t surprising. I grew up poor. When you’re poor, making things is what you do. Year-round, if we couldn’t buy it we made it, but wintertime always had extra weight to it, likely because need is heightened.24740033_10211797343863729_1086014296_o.jpg

There were 6 kids in the family, all growing at different rates. New winter boots for one meant another might have to insulate with newspaper and plastic bags for a while. All of us had at least one turn at that. We didn’t like it but we did what needed to be done. Getting a new toy was a special occasion, so for all the other days a kid needed to feel special we made our own out of foil, papier mache, or bits of one old, broken toy added to another. The large head of a GI Joe crammed atop a small plastic army man was perfectly meant to form Big Head Man, a comical hero but a hero nonetheless. Big Head Man was great at camouflage because, hung in a Christmas tree—as he often was—his head became an instant ornament.

We weren’t always happy with what we made but we learned to have fun with it.

In early adulthood my sister had kids. Then a brother did. I never did. Never will. But I wound up partly raising my nieces and nephews. Neither my sister nor brother was especially good at making a stable world for their kids. Because I loved those little people, I made one.

Throughout the year there’d be field trips, constellation naming, library days, arcade days, wandering days, and movies galore. But when the weather turned chilly and thick socks on bare floors were paradise it was always Santa’s workshop time: each child and I bopped into my messy basement full of odd bits, scrap wood, and an assortment of tools from about 12 different tool sets. We would look at those odds and ends and we would ponder, What can this become?

It had to be holiday-related. If useful, even better. Most importantly, the idea had to be theirs. Uncle was there to guide and suggest but only as a servant to the possibilities they put forth.

My niece Jasmine made a Christmas stocking holder out of dowels. The idea was to make the dowels look like a spindly tree a la A Charlie Brown Christmas. I think she was 6 when we did this. The stocking tree was spectacularly pitiful. But it worked. None of us has ever had a fireplace, none of has ever had a mantle, but Jazz knew Christmas stockings needed special hanging places. We drilled, we wood-glued, we painted green and attached hooks. It was marvelous.

She’s 19 now.

I wish I’d taken a picture of it.

Nephew Justin was less inclined to make something physically as he was emotionally. He was the gift giver, the kid who wanted his uncle to help him (provide wallet for) pick out presents every year for everyone in the family at his grade school’s Gift Bazaar. He wanted the thought to count, and I wholeheartedly agreed.

I think the longest we spent at a bazaar was 90 minutes. His little legs, normally the first to tell their owner “I’m tired” during the first 5 minutes of walking that involved anything he didn’t find fascinating, zipped back and forth from table to table; in his mind he was making things; connections, magic, meanings: his dad might pay attention to him, his mom would spoil him that much more. Grandma would hoot in delight, and his aunts and uncles would remember that he cared for them very, very much.

And finally I would give him a few dollars and he would send me away with the bag of collected gifts so that he could buy something for me. I’d tell him he had free run, but of course I watched over him from the doorway of the auditorium-turned-holiday store. This normally shy kid walked as confidently as a philosopher, picked things up, put things down, questioned when necessary and purchased when satisfied. (There’s something particularly life-affirming about seeing a kid hold a wad of bills out to purchase a 75 cent bauble.)

Justin will be 21 this year. Every blue moon we’ll go shopping together. We’re usually goofy as hell. Nothing will ever top the time we did impromptu boy band moves in the middle of a department store aisle (“Girl, stop! No, come on.”)

Those Christmas bazaars though…

Anyone who’s followed me on Facebook knows there’s one particular nephew I’ve spoken of at length the past few years. Derek. Better known as Wee Nephew. Derek will be 9 in 2018. He’s fully a child of the Digital Age.

Wee Nephew, since the age of 4, has never missed a year asking me what we were going to make for Christmas. He may be fully immersed in digital wares but if you saw the light he puts out going through my ever-present knick knack bin of wood, or learning a new tool, you’d hug somebody on a daily basis.24818882_10211797341663674_738193389_o.jpg

One year we made a holiday card holder. Another year a rolling platform for a train and village scene. The last things we made were scabbards for our traditional Christmas wrapping paper tube sword fight (‘round yon virgin there can be only one).

That was last year. He hasn’t approached wondering when we’re going to do anything this year.

Next year, at 9, he’ll be the Digital Age equivalent of 19. At 10 I hope I’m not an anachronism.

I’m sure he’ll come around this year though. The making’s in his blood. He’s asked for Minecraft video games for Christmas but I noticed physical LEGOS made the list too. Making things fills a need that not a single one of us ought to deny: to experience creation much the same way a god would remember its many acts.

Making things during winter holiday time always seemed appropriate to me. The entire season is about transformation and wonder. When my siblings and I made our homestyle insulation we were amazed to find it actually worked. Mortified, certainly, but duly amazed. And, truth be told, proud of it.

Anybody can buy something. It only takes money. But how often does money not handed over by a small child in an eager fist manage to transcend itself and become a memory worthy of recalling 10 years later? How often do we get to create with those we love, and in creating create those we love? Even things we love?

Traditions come and traditions go. What I love is those kids who’ve become or will become adults will make things the length of their lives. When the wind gets cold and the hearth, be it an apartment, a dorm room, or an actual house complete with fireplace, engenders thoughts of hibernation, the urge to see what can be done with what’s on hand will grow until they feel little choice but to do something to bring joy to their world.

What a blessing that is.