Archive for the 'holidays' Category


Getting in the holiday spirit

I really, really want to put a pumpkin dragon in my yard this yard…


Free lunch: Holiday knitting

Halloween is around the corner, so start knitting up some pumpkins with a pattern than works with any yarn, gauge, and needles you like.

After that, it’s time for Thanksgiving. And really, what is Thanksgiving without turkey finger puppets?

If you’re trimming a tree, don’t forget your own handknit-and-felted Flying Spaghetti Monster ornament. And if you’re not a tree decorator, well, I’m sure this little fellow can fit in just about anywhere.

Here’s another tree-trimming idea: knit mini-mittens. I bet they would look cute hanging from an I-cord across the top of a window, too.

The Jingles Bells hat comes in sizes to fit infants through adults, so you can torture delight everyone you know with the gift of festive headgear.

If you’re feeling particularly sadistic, whip up a knitted baby Santa suit and stuff a defenseless infant in it before he or she is told enough to resist.


Easter candy is hilarious




Special delivery

As I’ve mentioned before, Jan and I aren’t big on getting gifts for each for holidays, birthdays, anniversaries, etc. This is especially true of Valentine’s Day. Now, I appreciate having an occasion to tell people that you love them (but really, shouldn’t we do this every day?). But the gift aspect of this holiday drives me nuts. Especially the woman-focused gift aspect. Especially the idea that a man should read a woman’s mind and get her the “perfect” gift on this day. And especially the idea that the “perfect” gift is defined by roses, chocolate, and diamonds. (I really hate that sexist crap.)

p2139218roses1.jpgSo I was a little surprised when a FedEx driver left a rather large box on my doorstep yesterday afternoon. As soon as I saw it, I thought, “Hmmmm. I wonder what’s going on.”

(Note the toys under the piano. The collection includes sit-and-push-with-your-feet vehicles [car, tricycle, and bike] as well as two toy lawnmowers. We call that space “the garage.” The front hall, kitchen, dining room, and living room are all connected to each other, so Sylvia can ride/push one of those toys in a circle around most of our first floor. When her friends are over, there are enough wheeled items for everyone to get one, and it’s like a parade.)

p2139220roses2.jpgI opened the box to discover a dozen beautiful roses in different colors.

(These flowers were sent direct from the grower in California. Each stem is stuck into a water-filled plastic test-tube with a rubber stopper at the top, and there’s one of the refreezable ice packs in the box. The arrived in perfect condition.)

p2139227roses3.jpgDon’t they look lovely?

The card (handwritten!) was the best part: “For the three of us…because we rock!”

(After dinner last night, Sylvia got to choose any rose she wanted—she zeroed in on the one that looked most purple, of course—to have her own little vase.)


Holiday traditions

Throughout December, lots of bloggers wrote about their families’ holiday traditions. One person (I can’t remember who, unfortunately) even ran a contest on the subject, promising yarn to one (randomly selected) person who posted a comment about their own traditions.

Some families have pretty unusual traditions (like sending the same Christmas card back and forth for thirty years, or hanging the Christmas tree upside-down from the ceiling). But my family’s traditions were pretty mainstream: decorating a Christmas tree, opening presents on Christmas morning, and eating a big dinner (usually roast turkey or ham, though we did do barbecue spareribs one year, but never the pizza I always longed for) that afternoon.

With a two-and-a-half-year-old around, Jan and I find ourselves thinking harder about holiday traditions and actively deciding which ones we want to adopt, change, or abandon.

pc258914luminaria.jpgOur neighborhood sets out luminaria on Christmas Eve. Not everyone does it, but I’d say over half and perhaps as many as three-quarters of the several hundred homes in this forty-year-old neighborhood put them out. We didn’t know about it the first Christmas we were here, and then we were out of town or completely forgot for the next three. But this year we managed to get our act together and set out white paper bags with sand and tea lights at the bottom, just like most of our neighbors, and the effect was absolutely beautiful. By morning, the candles were long spent, but the paper bags remained as reminders of the previous evening’s loveliness.

pc258873cinnbuns.jpgI’m not sure if I’ve mentioned this before, but my husband is quite an accomplished baker. (Look here to see a gallery of some of his recent work.) Last winter he baked a lot of bread, and the year before he decided to perfect his croissant and pain au chocolat technique. Two years ago he also made Rose Levy Beranbaum‘s caramel sticky buns for Christmas for the first time. We didn’t have them last year because we were in Illinois visiting my parents, but this year he made them again, and we’re all decided that they are a permanent addition to our Christmas morning. They are amazing. The brioche dough takes two days to prepare, and the buns are stuffed with toasted pecans, cinnamon, and raisins (optionally soaked in rum), and the whole thing is smothered in homemade caramel sauce. I think I just had a sugar rush and gained five pounds just by describing them.

pc258899smcookieplate.jpgAnd of course there’s Santa. Jan and I grew up Santa households, and we are telling our own daughter about him, too. Our across-the-street neighbors have a near-life-sized animatronic Santa on their porch, which only adds to Santa’s mystique in Sylvia’s eyes. We haven’t gotten into the “good children, bad children” thing with her—I’m hoping we can avoid such morality tales altogether. She knows (from reading books and seeing pictures) that Santa has a list of the children he will be visiting, but in her mind “Santa loves all children,” and as far as she’s concerned everyone is on his list. I like that way of thinking, and I have no plans to discourage it.

When we started baking Christmas cookies a few weeks ago, she was very adamant that some be saved for Santa. Because the title character in Raymond Briggs’ Father Christmas (one of her favorite holiday books) drinks some hot cocoa before going to bed, she decided that Santa would get some hot cocoa with his cookies, too. So on Christmas Eve, before going to bed, she helped make a batch of hot chocolate, then carefully—oh so carefully!—chose a selection of cookies to leave out for him. The next morning, she was delighted to discover that he’d thoroughly enjoyed her gifts to him!


My new favorite yarn

As with our anniversary, Jan and I generally don’t buy each other birthday or Christmas gifts, either. When Sylvia turned two last May and really “got” the idea of getting (and opening!) presents, we decided it was time to modify this practice a bit in order to teach her about gift giving, too. So for my birthday (also in May), Jan took Sylvia out shopping for a gift for me, and for his birthday (later in May—yes, we are all three born in May) I took her out to find something for him. In both cases, we asked for specific gifts, and Sylvia helped purchase them at the store and wrap them.

For Christmas this year, we decided to expand her participation in this process and let her choose the gifts herself (within some parameters, of course), both for us and a few other people. This was an interesting experience, because she often gravitated toward stuff that she liked, which offered opportunities to discuss how gift giving is all about choosing something that the recipient might like. She’s not an expert at this yet, but after a while she definitely got a sense of how it all works. Some of her choices were quite charming, such as a carved, blue, wood tree ornament for her grandmother, “because Nana likes blue!”

I suggested to Jan that he take Sylvia to the yarn aisle at Michael’s and let her choose a skein or two or yarn for me. She’s well accustomed to my knitting and knows that I like it. I told Jan, “If you can, try to gently steer her away from the Fun Fur…but you know, if she really wants to get that for me, that’s fine.”

So late last week, the two of them went out to the store in great secrecy. In this case, “great secrecy” is defined as Sylvia loudly promising, as she and Jan are putting on their coats and I’m in the next room, that “We’re going to get Mommy a present, and it’s a surprise.” They came back with a puffy-looking bag, and Sylvia was fairly bursting with the news. But she didn’t tell me! Well, not quite…

As we opened our gifts on Christmas morning, Sylvia chose her two gifts for me to open first. I picked one up and said, “I wonder what this is!” She replied, “It’s yarn!” then looked at Jan and said, “Is it okay if I tell her?”

pc258918yarn.jpgAnd here is the yarn she chose for me. Jan tells me that when they got to the yarn aisle, Sylvia quickly picked out the Wool-Ease, announcing, “Mommy likes brown.” (Brown does indeed happen to be my favorite color.) Then she saw the Jiffy Thick-and-Quick, and its bright colors (including purple, which happens to be Sylvia’s favorite color) instantly captivated her. She declared that I would like that yarn, too, and so they bought both.

Yeah, I hate pretty much all acrylic yarn. Loathe it. But this stuff? It’s my new favorite yarn.


This year’s holiday knitting

Now that the packages are on their way—and the recipients aren’t likely to read this post before opening their gifts—I can reveal what holiday knitting I’ve been up to.

pc098590washcloths.jpgFor my mom, I knit two ball-band washcloths, with the colors reversed in the second one. While I was visiting her in October, she admired one I was making, and I decided then and there to knit some up for her. The small sachet is made of a linen-cotton yarn and knit up in linen stitch on something like size 3 needles. I filled it with dried lavender—yum.

pc098596cupcozy.jpgMy dad has a Sunday-morning ritual of going to a bookstore and browsing the shelves (and usually coming home with a new book) while drinking a mocha latte. For him I knit up a (reusable!) wool sleeve for his coffee cups; I used the Noro Kureyon that was left over from Kevin’s hat. I cast on 32 stitches and did a simple k2p2 ribbing all the way up, which is just right to keep this snugly on the cup. This wool sleeve will surely keep a beverage warmer much better than a paper one!

pc098603mitts.jpgFor my brother I knit some fingerless mitts out of Cascade Pastaza, which is 50% llama and 50% wool. I liked working with the yarn (though the tips of my needles split it occasionally), and I knit everything except the thumb on a 12″ Addi turbo. (And let me just say this: I am never again using DPNs to knit in the round unless I absolutely have to.) My brother lives and works in Manhattan, so he does a lot of walking around outside. I figured full mittens would be too “dorky” for him, but these will keep his hands warm while preserving some of the manual dexterity necessary for key/coffee-cup/cellphone handling.

pc098592scarves.jpgI’ve been fortunate to stay in touch with four friends with whom I went to college. (We even have our own Google group.) Over the years the five of us have kept in touch through law school, graduate school, marriages, babies, cross-country moves, international travels, deaths of family members, career changes, and pretty much any life change you can think of. This year, I knit them all moebius scarves (these are short—more like cowls) out of KnitPicks Suri Dream. I asked my friends about their favorite colors at the beginning of the year (I bet they’ve completely forgotten this) and chose the yarns accordingly.

pc098598sariscarf.jpgThese last two items, a small pouch made of bamboo yarn and a drop-stitch scarf made of recycled silk sari yarn, were made for someone I’ve never met but who’s on my mind pretty much every day. Her name is Heather, and she’s one of my mother-in-law’s oldest friends. In our office at home we have a watercolor painting that Heather made of the Dutch irises that Jan’s dad took to her house when he had dinner with her one evening while Jan’s mom was in the hospital after giving birth to Jan. Heather very generously gave us our beloved All-Clad LTD cookware when we got married, and she gave us Sylvia’s super Britax car seat when she was born. She’s been so generous to us, and I really wanted to send her something in thanks. She lives in Santa Barbara, where the weather is pretty much perfect year-round—no need for woolen knits, but hopefully she’ll enjoy and be able to use these.


Friends on the mind

I’m all for recycling and limiting consumption, but one practice I cling to is sending out holiday cards. I love the speed, ease, and low cost of e-mail, but there’s something so delightful about the tangibility of snail-mail. I’m sorry to say that I don’t have nearly as much time as I’d like to devote to old-fashioned, pen-and-paper correspondence, but when I do I get such a thrill from retrieving a letter from my mailbox or sending a note on its way to a friend.

Around this time of year I send holiday (no mention of any particular holiday save the start of a new year—there have been times, though, when I was so late with my card-sending that my greetings ended up being perfectly timed to acknowledge the beginning of the new lunar new year) cards to most of my friends and family. We make the cards ourselves (Sylvia’s contribution this year is “patting down” anything that’s been glue-sticked onto the blank card), and I handwrite all of the addresses (recipients’ and ours) and notes inside.

Sure, it would be quicker and easier to print out address labels and stick them onto the envelopes. But I enjoy the slow pace of writing by hand and thinking about each recipient as I prepare his or her card. Most of my friends are scattered throughout the country (and in far corners of the world), and I don’t see them nearly as often as I’d like. Our interactions are infrequent, but I treasure those friendships nonetheless.

But some friendships just don’t last, unfortunately. People change, time and distance make it harder to maintain relationships, and sometimes there are even fallings-out. Sometimes you just have to let go.

For several years, I used a Palm Pilot IIIxe PDA as what I called “my electronic brain.” Mostly it functioned as an address book and calendar for me, and when it ceased working a little over two years ago, I was able to print out the address book backup file from my PC. Since then, this stack of papers has functioned as my address book, and it now has handwritten corrections and deletions all over it. This year, as I prepared our holiday cards, I also wrote addresses and whatnot into the still-blank address book Jan and I bought for our anniversary three years ago. The printout will be tossed into the recycling bin when I’m done.

At the same time, I took this opportunity to remove (well, in this case, “remove” means “not write in the new book”) the names and addresses of people I was no longer in contact with and didn’t think I would be again. There are a few people I don’t miss—a handful of former friends who have become unfriends. There are lots of people I’ve just lost track of and think that the gap between us has grown so great that the casual friendship we shared a long time ago isn’t a strong enough base for renewal of that relationship.

And there’s one person who’s died. She was someone I went to grad school with (she had started in my department two or three years before me), and although we weren’t close friends who made plans to get together socially, we had many great conversations when we ran into each other on campus. I remember sitting with her in her office for a couple of hours the week before I left for Oregon, talking with her about fieldwork (she had already completed her own dissertation research, in Indonesia) and the Nikon SLR I’d just purchased from her. She’d bought it while in the field but found that she could not use a fully manual SLR because she had a slight tremor in her hand that prevented her from adjusting the focus accurately.

After I moved to the Mid-Atlantic several years ago, I didn’t keep in touch with her, but her contact information stayed in my address book. Last summer, I heard from another grad school colleague with whom I’d been out of touch and who told me that our mutual friend had committed suicide nearly three years earlier by stepping in front of a freight train. I was stunned to hear that news. And now, coming across her name on my printed-out address list, I was a bit taken aback again—and saddened not to put her in my new address book.


Preparing for Christmas

pc158670treehat.jpgOur tree is up. We’ve baked five different kinds of cookies (with lots of help from Sylvia, who is an expert stirrer and cookie-decorator…so what if the sugar-cookie snow man’s buttons are in the middle of his face instead of his chest, right?). All cards and packages went out in the mail last week. And I finally finished this Christmas-tree-shaped hat for Sylvia. I love this pattern (though in future renditions I think I’d make the red border at the bottom a bit longer) and the yarn I used (I heart Lamb’s Pride bulky).

I knit all of it last winter but had the hardest time keeping the I-cord evenly spaced while attaching it to the hat, so I put it aside out of frustration. I picked it up again a couple of weeks ago, and after about five attempts managed to get the I-cord “garland” on the tree nicely. Sylvia wore the hat last weekend, when we went to a local farm (it’s a county park that’s a working farm—one of our favorite places to visit) to see Santa. She was a bit wary of Santa, but utterly enamored with the candy cane he gave her.

In addition to holiday knitting, I’ve also been playing Christmas carols on our piano a lot lately. We have a few Fireside books (Folk Songs, Favorite American Songs, and Song Book of Birds and Beasts; interestingly, that last one was collected and edited by Jane Yolen, whose Owl Moon is one of Sylvia’s favorites) but, aside from a few pieces in those books, didn’t have much holiday music.

When Jan was growing up, his family had a book called A Treasury of Christmas Songs and Carols that he loved. So we poked around online and managed to find a used copy on sale. It arrived a few weeks ago, and we’ve really been enjoying working out way through it. It’s a retired library copy, so it has the library binding. But the pages are totally pristine. Our copy is the seventh printing of the first edition, from 1955, so the composer dates always make me do a double-take. “The Three Ships,” for example, has “Alfred Noyes (1880- )” and “Colin Taylor (1881- ).”

There’s a huge variety of songs in this book, which is divided into sections: “British and American Carols,” “Carols from Foreign Parts,” “Christmas Hymns and Chorales,” “Especially for Children,” “Christmas Solo Songs,” and “Christmas Rounds and Canons.” I’ve found lots of old favorites in here and made some new friends, too. But the one that always brings a smile to my face is this one, penned by Henry W. Longfellow to a traditional tune:

“Nuns in Frigid Cells”

Nuns in frigid cells
At this holy tide,
For want of something else
Christmas songs at times have tried
Let us, by the fire,
Ever, ever higher
Sing, sing, sing
them till the night expire

I mean, really: who doesn’t think of nuns in frigid cells when they think of Christmas, right?


Holiday shopping

This is the time of year when many of us are faced with some or all of the following:

—A deluge of catalogs in our mailboxes. What’s up with that, anyway? I mean, just how many copies of Catalog X does a person need to receive within one month? Certainly not six. (Save some trees—and your mailbox—by registering at Catalog Choice, a free service that helps you get off those mailing lists.)

—Lots of sanctimonious talk (on blogs, in church, in editorials) about how shopping and spending are out of control at this time of year. First of all, Christmas-time consumerism has been happening for well over a century, so this is nothing new. And second, why focus on just Christmas? We have a huge problem with consumerism in general, so perhaps those “spend less money and spend more time being with people you love and helping others” messages ought to be shouted out year-round. (This reminds of those god-awful local news spots at food kitchens on Thanksgiving, with the reporter who says, “Volunteers are here giving up their Thanksgiving* in order to give something back** and show the down and out that someone cares for them”…to which I want to add “…until Thanksgiving is over and society decides to forget about you again until next year.”)

(*Start handing out the Nobel Peace Prizes, please!)
(**Is it just me, or does this phrase make you, too, want to retch?)

—Stressing out about what gifts we do want to give. Jan and I keep our gift-giving pretty simple. We shop for just a few people, and we really try to find something that we think the recipient will enjoy (which is why, much as I like the idea in theory, we never give gifts of charitable donations in someone else’s name). We also don’t go crazy with the spending (unlike someone I used to ride the commuter train with who told me that the adults in his family now usually spend $1,000 per person on gifts each year).

This year, I think I’ve found the perfect gift for everyone on my list. It’s something that people aren’t likely to have bought for themselves already. Look how small it is—it won’t contribute to anyone’s clutter, and shipping will be super cheap! And really, who doesn’t need their own chunk of uranium ore?

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