New Christmas Traditions

By: Rachel Sircy

My husband and daughter and I are in Ohio visiting my family for the holidays. On the way up we listened to Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, read by Patrick Stewart. I’ve seen several different movie versions of A Christmas Carol and my husband and I listen to the book on CD every Christmas that we drive up to Ohio. Needless to say, it’s a story that I know a-christmas-carolpretty well, and I’m pretty sure that anyone reading this blog post will be equally familiar with it. Most years that we watch the movies or listen to the book read aloud, I think of it as just one of those quintessential Christmas stories, one of those stories that’s told so often that Scrooge and Humbug and the Spirit of Christmas have become bywords in our culture.

For some reason as we listened to it this time, the story’s bizarre nature struck me like a blow to the head. It’s a Christmas horror story, really. I mean, the parts about ghosts wailing and rattling their chains is fairly reminiscent of hell. I started to wonder why on earth Dickens decided to tell a story about Christmas in this way, and why the public ate it up in the way that they did. How did this weird little spook story become such an inseparable part of our modern idea of Christmas?

According to Wikipedia (the source of all knowledge) Dickens wanted to use people’s awakened interested in Christmas (in his day Christmas traditions were changing; Christmas trees were becoming popular as were Christmas cards) to promote awareness of poverty and social injustice. So, he created a strange story about a tight-fisted misanthrope being scared straight just in time for him to spread some Christmas cheer.

I have said all of the above to say that I have been thinking about the new Christmas tradition that Dickens created, and that has got me to thinking about creating new Christmas traditions of my own. Since my daughter – I’ll call her HRH (short for Her Royal Highness) – was born, I have been trying to find ways to simplify the holidays, honor the memories of loved ones, and teach HRH the true “reason for the season.” Here are three new traditions, two I have tried and one I want to try next year.

  1. Homemade Christmas Gifts: One way that I have been trying to simplify Christmas is to make each child on my list a gift rather than just buying a billion toys that will get thrown into the corner to collect dust after the child plays with them for a week. I want each child in my family circle to have something meaningful, something that Mommy or Aunt Rachel made them that they can keep and pass down. The work that goes into a homemade gift is personal. I think about each person as I make the gift, and that thought is part of the gift. Don’t get me wrong, I definitely buy a few toys as well, but my main gifts are almost always something I have made.
  2. Honoring Loved Ones: My husband’s grandmother passed away in 2012, and her passing was keenly felt by all the family. This year I wanted to revive a tradition that Grandma Sircy started during her lifetime – making a personalized ornament for each member of the family. I began this year with a simple project, wrapping styrofoam balls with fabric, yarn or tulle. I suppose this falls in the same category as the homemade gifts, but this particular homemade gift is really a tribute to Grandma Sircy – something to remind us of her.
  3. Making the story of Christmas come alive for children: My brother and sister-in-law found a Christmas activity on Pinterest that I absolutely love, Joseph and Mary on the Shelf. The idea behind this activity is basically the same idea behind Elf on the Shelf: you make it seem like toys (or Nativity set pieces) are moving around the house while the children are asleep. However, this particular version of this activity comes with the added bonus of teaching children the Christmas story. My brother and sister-in-law partially set up their Nativity scene, putting up the stable and adding the animals to it, BUT they left out Mary, Joseph, the Baby Jesus, the wise men and the shepherds. They began the month of December by reading their children the Christmas story from the Bible and that night and each night afterward, the children have to find Mary and Joseph who are somewhere in the house, making their way toward the stable in Bethlehem. One night, Mary and Joseph were found on the kitchen counter “eating” some of the kids’ chicken nuggets to sustain them for their continued journey. Mary and Joseph arrived in the stable on Christmas Eve and Jesus, the shepherds and wise men were waiting for them on Christmas morning.

So, these are my new Christmas traditions, ones that I hope will bring the spirit and the reason for this holiday season close to my family. If anyone has any traditions that they have created for their family, or that their parents created for them, I would love a comment about it!!

Suggested Reading: A Christmas Carol, by Charles Dickens.

Make a Joyful Noise

By: Jeanne Reynolds

christmas carols

My husband has a great singing voice. As a teenager, he even turned down an opportunity to go pro with a barbershop group in favor of going to college. (Did I say he has good judgment, too?) My voice isn’t as strong, but I have a good ear for pitch and sing capably in the alto section in my church choir.

So this time of year, as carols and old favorites fill the airwaves, it’s not unusual for us to sing along with the radio — or even a capella — as we drive over the river and through the woods to grandmother’s house or wherever. And we make a pretty good duet, if I do say so myself … with one exception.

No, it’s not “Grandma Got Run Over By a Reindeer.” We can nail that, and don’t even get us started on the kids’ version of “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” with the funny asides between lines.

It’s “The First Noel.” Yep, plain ole kindergarten-easy “The First Noel.” Not the whole song, though, just the chorus:

“NOEL, NOEL, NOEL, NOEL!” 

The louder, the more off-key, the more obnoxious, the better. It’s a family joke with a story behind it that I’ve long forgotten, which doesn’t make it any less funny … at least to us. In fact, we can barely get out the first two “Noel”s before we’re laughing so hard we can’t sing. Others along for the ride and hearing this, ahem, performance for the first time are somewhere between bewildered and stunned, and I’m sure would leap from the car if it weren’t moving.

This is the stuff of holiday memories! Our unholy chorus holds a place of honor in my heart, right alongside my famous gingerbread men, the hush of candlelight at Christmas Eve service and the hunt for bows the cats have stolen off beautifully (until then) wrapped packages under the tree. No, it’s not the pitch-perfect Norman Rockwell moments I’ll always remember. Rather, it’s the quirky, unique, only-family-and-your-best-friends-could-appreciate-it times that make holidays memorable. I’ll bet — I hope — you have some, too.

We haven’t had a sing-along yet this season, but I’m sure it’s coming. Don’t know when — Christmas is full of surprises, right? So now you have fair warning. If you’re around us and hear the opening notes of “The First Noel,” leave quickly — or better, yet, join in!

Elf Everywhere but the Shelf

By: Azure Stilwell

elf on the shelf

It’s December and for all parents of the new “Elf on the Shelf” generation, it is not all holly and jolly. It is a struggle to keep that little elf busy doing antics for 24 days, assuming he comes on December 1st. The idea originally started with the elf moving to a new spot every night so your child believes it has gone to see Santa to report on good/bad behavior – but then Pinterest got involved and the simple moving turned into silly antics every night.

This year, Santa gave Jake the low down. He wrote a letter explaining how the elf antics could be distracting for those trying to work during this busy time at the North Pole, so Santa really needs Jake to keep an eye on the elf so all goes well Christmas Eve. It was also a good way to teach Jake about Grace because sometimes our elf goes as far as hanging underwear over the mantle, wrapping our toilets in Christmas paper, and even tp’ing our living room with a fresh roll of toilet paper. For the most part it is fun but now that our oldest and most creative child is off at college, it has become harder for us parents to muster up the energy to keep the elf going every night. However, for the sake of believing, we will continue to peruse Pinterest for ideas and hope for the best.

I bring this up because a very clever friend of mine recently posted to her Facebook that her elf, Peppermint, had gotten stuck in a blizzard at the North Pole and wouldn’t be arriving for another week. That’s 7 more days of blissful elflessness. Wish I had thought of that but it is nice to know that we are not alone in our longing that sometimes the elf would just sleep at night.

Happy Holidays to all of you and if you have an Elf on the Shelf, we wish you the best of luck!  🙂

Give the Gift of Receiving

By: Jeanne Reynolds

christmas season

The closest I got to shopping on Black Friday was a quick trip to the grocery store. (Downside of Thanksgiving dinner at someone else’s home: You don’t have a fridge full of leftovers to enjoy the rest of the weekend.)

Actually I must be missing a girl gene because I hate, detest, loathe shopping. Especially this time of year. My ideal Christmas shopping is more like a military maneuver: a lightning-fast surgical strike that identifies the target, removes it as quickly as possible and gets out.

But that doesn’t mean I don’t love giving. There’s no better feeling than seeing the delight on someone’s face when they receive something they truly wanted, or maybe didn’t even know they wanted and are surprised and thrilled.

Being able to share that feeling is also a gift — one that requires us to allow others to give.

And that seems to be difficult for many of us. Yes, gals, I’m talking to you, and to moms in particular. Genetic or cultural, most women I know are wonderful givers and caretakers, but sometimes struggle being on the receiving end.

christmas season

Case in point: My mom is 84 and lives nearby for the first time since I was in high school (we’re talking decades here). She’s a widow with a limited income and I’m half of a DINK household, so it’s fun to be able to treat her to lunch or tickets to the theater once in a while. When she comes to my home, I enjoy cooking for her and doing all the things she spent so many years doing for us.

The problem is she often has trouble accepting these “gifts.” She says it’s too much trouble for me, or I’m surely too tired, or she must pay half. I’ve tried to explain how happy it makes me to be able to give back to her, but I guess she’ll never stop feeling like she should be taking care of us. While I appreciate the love behind that, it does take a little of the joy out of giving for me.

I’m probably no different. How many times have I insisted I could handle a task myself instead of accepting sincere offers of help, or only accepting an invitation if I pay my share or contribute in some way? So, in the spirit of removing the plank from my own eye first, here are some mantras with which I’ll coach myself this holiday season (and beyond):

  • Thank you, I’d love to!
  • That would be wonderful. Thank you so much!
  • I really appreciate your help.

It’s a blessing to be able to give to others. And that includes giving others the chance to be givers, too.

3 Easy Steps for Sustainable Holiday Gifts

By: Mary Pat Baldauf

It’s the most wonderful time of the year: time to start shopping for holiday gifts. A shopper at heart, I love buying gifts for the special people in my life. As a “green girl,” I shop with sustainability in mind and wanted to share some tips so you, too, can be a more sustainable holiday shopper.

Think local. The Midlands area has really become a mecca for unique, locally produced items. One of the best locations for finding them all in one place is Soda City, Columbia’s Main Street market open every Saturday morning 9AM – 1PM, year-round, rain or shine. Recycled ornamentLocally produced products support the local economy, and they’re created here – not shipped in from across the country or even across the world. The footprint of your gift will be smaller and result in a cleaner environment.

Consider consumables. Having issues with clutter myself, I refuse to create more for the holidays, for me or for others. My standard gift is usually a recycled-content ornament, but this year I’m only buying gifts that can be used or eaten. The Cotton Mill Exchange at the SC State Museum has a great selection of Palmetto State gifts, including gourmet foods produced within our borders. Or select a gift card to a local restaurant, bakery or micro-brewery. Personally, I’ll be asking Santa for a gift certificate to Spotted Salamander, a downtown Columbia café featuring inventive Southern cuisine with fresh, high quality local ingredients.

Another favorite consideration? Think experiential. In the Midlands, it’s easy to find something for everyone on your list to enjoy, like tickets to a play or attraction you know they like. A donation in the name of your recipient will go a long way, too. At the top of my list is a membership to The Nickelodeon, Columbia’s art house theatre on Main Street.

Where is your favorite place to buy sustainable holiday gifts? And what is it you recommend there? What’s on your list for Sustainable Santa?

Getting Through the Holidays Gluten Free

By: Rachel Sircy

thanksgiving

Growing up it was Thanksgiving, not Christmas, that was my favorite holiday. Thanksgiving was always a big deal in my mother’s family. All of the family gathered at my great-grandmother’s house which stood at the end of a little holler just outside of Portsmouth, Ohio. Her house was tiny and there were nearly always at least 40 people in attendance at this feast of feasts, so to say that it was crowded and chaotic would be an understatement. People ate in the kitchen, the dining room, the living room, one or two would stand up next to the washer and dryer and used them for makeshift tables, and there were always people on the porch and porch steps and scattered around the yard. It was too much for the adults to try to control the kids, so we generally ran around the house like wild hillbillies (which is in truth what we were). The food was always good and plenteous. There was enough for 40 people to eat it for at least two days (because Thanksgiving then was the entire weekend, not just one day). All that running, playing, screaming and eating were so much fun that Christmas day (which was spent at home with just my parents and sisters), even with all its toys, just couldn’t compare.

The first Thanksgiving after I was diagnosed as a celiac, I divided my time between my mother and my grandmother’s houses trying to smile while I choked down a gluten free version of my mother’s homemade chicken noodles. Chicken noodles or beef noodles is the Northern substitute for macaroni and cheese at Thanksgiving. The only version of this dish worth eating is the homemade version where someone has made the egg dough and cut and dried the noodles a day or two ahead of time. When put in with the chicken and the broth, the noodles puff up and are essentially just thinner and longer versions of dumplings. My mother’s noodles were sort of famous in our family, and they were my favorite thing to eat. No one in my family had ever heard of celiac disease or the gluten free diet before my diagnosis and our early efforts to work with gluten free flour often went awry. Case in point: in an effort to not leave me out, my mother made a small batch of gluten free egg noodles and set aside a bowl of chicken noodles just for me. They were horrible. Despite the fact that the noodles were really gritty, they were melting into the chicken broth and becoming one big pile of goo. As a celiac who has loving, helpful family members I have had a lot of practice pretending that food made specially for me – food that’s just oozing with love and is also just oozing – is delicious. You can develop the ability to smile so hard that it stifles your gag reflex. Unfortunately, I wasn’t very good at hiding my disappointment that first Thanksgiving and I think I ended up crying into my sad little bowl of egg noodle ooblec.

Well, now that I’ve gotten that depressing little story off of my chest I’m going to share some helpful hints for gluten free holiday cooking and eating:

  1. DON’T forget to remind everyone of your specific dietary restrictions. If you’re a celiac, make sure that everyone who is bringing food is well aware of what that means. There are a lot of people who are on the gluten free diet because it’s the latest fad, and this is bad news for celiacs because it makes the disease seem less serious. However, if you’re a celiac this is your life at stake. Don’t take it too lightly just because you don’t swell up and go into anaphylactic shock any time you eat something you shouldn’t.
  2. DON’T budge from your diet. Sometimes you eat things because you don’t want to hurt Aunt Martha’s feelings or because Nana makes the best banana pudding there is. Remember, your health is worth more than someone getting all huffy because you snubbed her dish and, despite what you may feel at the time, there is more to life than banana pudding.
  3. COOK your favorite dishes yourself. I bring my own dressing and pies to Thanksgiving. It’s just easier that way. I know that my kitchen is totally gluten free and safe. Your friends’ and relatives’ kitchens are not totally gluten free and therefore their dishes will never be totally safe for a celiac. (I will share some tips for gluten free stuffing/dressing. And you can make any family recipe for macaroni and cheese gluten free simply by substituting gf pasta for regular pasta). If you are able, you might offer to make all of the questionable dishes for the dinner (by questionable, I mean anything that contains bread, breadcrumbs, pasta and any pastries.)
  4. BE SURE that gluten free serving utensils are kept separate. Again, I bring my own. Mine are distinct enough from everyone else’s that they’re not easily mixed up. I hate to break it to you, but if your little sister removes the serving utensil from the regular dressing and sticks it in your gluten free dressing, you can’t eat that dressing anymore. A real gluten free diet is beyond strict, but remember, you are doing this to keep on living and being well. This isn’t a hippie health food craze. It is your life.

Most of all, remember to be grateful. That can sound totally stupid on your first or second Thanksgiving as a celiac, but, in time, when your body has healed itself, the gratitude will come more easily. You will look back on the years of sickness and understand just how blessed you are to have a disease that can be cured simply by eating differently. I always think to myself that I could be lying in a hospital receiving chemotherapy, but I’m not. I am just eating food made from funky ingredients. Those funky ingredients have made me well and whole. Thank God.

Tips for Gluten Free Dressing:

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Lately, gluten free ingredients are really holding their own against what we call “regular” or “normal” food. You can purchase gluten free flour that can be substituted cup for cup for wheat flour in any recipe. Only people who have been gluten free long enough to remember the umpteen-gazillion little bags of Bob’s Redmill flours (almond, rice, amaranth, soy, etc) and the 8oz bags of Xanthan gum that sold for 12 bucks can really appreciate how amazing that is. So, if you like to make your own pie crusts (I never did), it’s now easier than ever to do it gluten free. You can also buy pre-made pie crusts from Whole Foods that are pretty decent. (I recommend the Whole Foods brand.)

For dressing or stuffing (whatever you want to call it), gluten free bread works pretty well. I think that you could use pretty much any family recipe that you have for dressing. The only thing I would suggest is if you don’t toast the GF bread before using it, watch the liquid to bread ratio. While GF bread is so dry that it’s impossible to eat right out of the bag, it also has a tendency to fall apart and melt in too much liquid. I don’t mean get soggy, I mean it can melt in too much liquid. So, if you want to make a really moist stuffing, you might want to lightly toast the bread first, just so it holds up to the liquid a little better.

Also, I know that the holidays can be expensive no matter how you cook, but gluten free cooking is really expensive. I used to pay about $6 for a loaf of gluten free bread because I thought that the cheap stuff just wouldn’t taste as good. Cheap gf bread is about $3.50 a loaf, and keep in mind that the bread slices are about 2/3 the size of a regular slice of bread and the loaf is maybe half as many slices as a regular loaf. I was buying two loaves per week at $6 each for myself at one point – that’s a staggering $12 per week on bread for just myself. At the time I didn’t make $12 an hour at work. For those of you trying to do a gluten free diet on a shoe string budget, I feel you.

Good news, though. Aldi actually makes gluten free bread now. Their slices of gluten free bread are actually bigger than most other brands, though the loaves are still kind of small. BUT, the best part about this news is that Aldi’s gf bread is actually the best gf bread I have ever tasted. It still has to be toasted before being eaten, but after it’s toasted it’s softer than any other gf bread I’ve tried. That six-dollar-a-loaf bread was so thick and cardboard-like that after I toasted it, it would dry my mouth out and sometimes cut my gums in a way that looked like I had somehow scraped the inside of my mouth on the sidewalk. I have also made some of the best dressing with Aldi’s bread. The stuffing for the chicken pot pie casserole that I made a while back was with the Aldi’s bread and it was by far the best part of that dish.

gluten free breadcrumbs

Another cost saving measure that I started a while ago was saving the heels and crusts of my bread. I have never eaten heels of bread and gf bread crusts (even Aldi’s) can be seriously dry and unpleasant. So, after a while of getting physically ill over the money I was wasting throwing those heels and crusts away, I decided to start grinding them down to make breadcrumbs and cubes that I have used in other dishes. No more waste and no more buying packaged breadcrumbs and whole loaves of bread just to make dressing. I stock quart freezer bags in my pantry and whenever I cut crusts or grind up heels, I just toss them into one of the bags (I often measure them as I put them in the bags to make recipes more precise) and put them in the freezer. They keep really well and are such a handy cost saver!

Well, those are all my holiday food tips for this post. If you have any questions, please leave them in the comments section and I will be more than happy to answer them or find an answer for you!

Suggested Reading: “Simply…Gluten Free Quick Meals” by Carol Kicinski. It’s not literature, but it’s so amazing for any gf cook. She does a whole Thanksgiving meal in this book with really simple recipes and ingredients, plus she has a section about basic flour mixtures and how to stock a gf pantry. This is my go to recipe book.

A Pumpkin Patch Frame of Mind

By: Rachel Sircy

A Pumpkin Patch Frame of Mind

My favorite season has begun. Autumn always seems to suddenly appear just when I feel that I have had all the summer I can stand for one year. I always picture the progression of a year as another loop in the rollercoaster called life. On January 1st, we find ourselves at the lowest point on the circle and we run upward and counterclockwise through spring. We are fully upside down in the warmest and brightest days of summer. By mid-September, we begin our descent into the dark days of winter, and we all know that falling is the best part of any theme-park ride.

At the risk of being thought a weirdo, I am going to admit that I am a person who does not like to listen to music for its own sake. I would almost always rather hear a book on tape than a song on the radio, but this time of year I begin to crave music. My taste in music is at once eclectic and limited. I listen to gospel music year round for inspiration and edification, but, in the Fall, the little girl I used to be wakes up and demands Vince Guaraldi’s Peanuts music round the clock. The Great Pumpkin Waltz and the Thanksgiving Theme song have been played so many times that my CDs are wearing out. The part of me that is a true hillbilly – I originally hail from the Appalachian foothills of Ohio – demands instrumental Bluegrass, Alison Krauss and the Cox Family’s country gospel album, and one Stephen Foster song, Hard Times Come Again No More, as performed by James Taylor and Yo-Yo Ma, to remind me of my home and my family across the Ohio foothills and the mountains of Eastern Kentucky. To me, music is typically a tool to accentuate the feelings associated with time and place. These songs bring out the Fall-ishness of Fall for me, just as salt draws out a food’s natural flavor.

Autumn’s great appeal is that it is paradoxically warm and wistful. We decorate with food – pumpkins, corn, squash – and with cornucopias and pictures of turkeys. We surround ourselves with images of plenty and we have a feast day set aside for the purpose of remembering to be grateful that those decorations are not merely the stuff of fantasy. And yet, the evening comes on sooner, the weather turns colder, we find ourselves too often indoors, and the impending Christmas season often causes more anxiety than joy. I know quite a few people who become depressed this time of year.

To those people, I would like to say that I understand. The saddest time of the year for me is February. It’s just that month when winter is still going strong, but there aren’t any family get-togethers or holidays or gift exchanges to look forward to. You just hunker down and pray to God that that stupid groundhog sees his shadow. Or doesn’t see his shadow. Truth be told, I don’t really know how the whole groundhog trick works. I know that February has Valentine’s Day, but Valentine’s Day rates as #2 on my list of tackiest holidays. Someday, maybe someday soon, I will publish my list of tackiest holidays in a blog post. I have softened on Valentine’s Day quite a bit since I was a teenager. My husband and my daughter make it kind of fun, but I have fun under protest. Pink, purple and red just do not go together and I feel like my eyes are being assaulted by Valentine’s decorations every year.

Anyway, I say all of this to tell you that I understand the feeling of seasonal depression and anxiety. But, I would like to offer a suggestion to anyone who feels blue this time of year: consider Fall a challenge. It is a two-sided coin, but a person doesn’t have to leave the side they land on to random chance. Cynicism is a monster that I seem to fight over and over again in my life. However, I think that with God’s help we can be vehicles for a very unnatural goodness. You can’t wait for times and seasons to make you happy. You have to make yourself happy in them. Every year when I was a kid I watched the Peanuts Halloween special – despite the fact that my family, as Christians, did not celebrate Halloween. I guess they figured a little cartoon from the 60’s couldn’t hurt too much. It is undoubtedly one of the weirdest cartoons I’ve ever seen and, in the end, Sally and Linus and Charlie Brown all end up pretty unhappy. Sally doesn’t get any candy, Linus doesn’t get to see the Great Pumpkin, and the girls at the Halloween party use Charlie Brown’s head as a model for their jack o’ lantern and his trick or treat bag is full of rocks. But Linus, as ever, has a great line that, like my Autumn playlist, brings out best flavor of the season.

Linus says: “You can look around and there’s not a sign of hypocrisy. Nothing but sincerity as far as the eye can see.”

Perhaps all those years of watching Linus skip out on the trick-or-treating and the partying of the Halloween special made me feel that Fall can be a season of sincerity. The way to love this time of waning daylight, this twilight of the year, is to choose to create an atmosphere free of hypocrisy and selfishness. The pleasures of heat and sun are beginning to be over, but they will come again next year right on schedule. It is time now to turn our thoughts to harvest, to plenty and, in my mind, to casting our bread upon the water.

In an effort to rid myself of any signs of hypocrisy and surround myself with sincerity (those are two separate acts, you know. You can easily rid yourself of hypocrisy only to be surrounded by nothing) I am going to attempt these three things:

  1. Make a list of things I am truly grateful for and hang them where I will see them every day.
  2. Skip out on Black Friday specials and instead give a little of my Thanksgiving and Christmas money to Harvest Hope.
  3. Be friendlier. My goal is to share not just food or money with someone in need. I plan to share time and friendship with as many people as I possibly can this Autumn.

If you feel a little down in the dumps this season, forget the candy and bobbing for apples and take the opportunity to sit in the pumpkin patch with Linus. It may be the craziest thing you ever do, but it just might make you feel better.

Suggested Reading: To Autumn, by John Keats