Merry Cookiemas!

I asked my kids if it would be okay if I didn’t do a bunch of cookie baking this Christmas. They were horrified.

“But Mom! It wouldn’t be Christmas without your cookies!”

Naturally, I couldn’t bear to ruin their Christmas. So, as usual, I spent day after day wrapped in an apron, measuring, mixing, shaping, and baking. Then a few more days melting, dipping, drizzling, and sprinkling. And voila! Christmas = made. This year’s cookie menu? The usual iced sugar cookies, some maple-glazed pumpkin cookies, cranberry-orange-white chocolate cookies (the trick is to use fresh cranberries, not dried); chocolate mint-chip cookies, peppermint cookies & cream balls, and as always, the Best Cookie Ever – alfajores. Which, in case you don’t know, are an Argentine specialty consisting of two complex shortbread cookies sandwiched together with sweet dulce de leche, then coated in powdered sugar. *Drool*

The Christmas baking is both my favorite and least favorite baking of the year. Least favorite, because it is soooo time-consuming. Not to mention messy. And exhausting. These are not the easiest cookies to prepare – especially the four-step alfajores. But also my favorite, because I adore giving away my cookies. They are delicious. And festive. Bite after bite of sweet, chewy, homemade Christmas Spirit.

I do wish that I had a few good friends to share my Christmas cookies with. Years ago, I had a fun tradition of leaving containers of cookies on my friends’ doorsteps on Christmas Eve. Of course, they always knew who had delivered them, but it was still fun, in a magical St. Nick sort of way. I miss that, a lot. Instead, I will bring these babies to the office, to share with a couple dozen coworkers who probably still don’t even know my name. And I will distribute some to family members, who rarely acknowledge my existence, but will enjoy the treats anyway. But best of all, I get to share them with my kids, as we enjoy these Christmas days together. And hopefully, one day, they will take on the tradition in their own kitchens.

You Can’t Always Get What You Want (aka: Christmas Choices)

It’s nearly midnight on Christmas Eve.

I would love to be tucked into my bed, watching visions of sugarplums dance through my head, but no such luck. Because I’m the mom.

santa-lte-night

The mom gets to sit in the living room, sipping a glass of chardonnay as Smallville plays on the television, and staring down at a pile of metal bars and chains, which, when assembled, will somehow form a bicycle. Afterward, I get to rip open yet another cardboard box and start putting together a second bicycle. Two shiny new bikes for teens who actually really need them to get to school each day.

At least, I’ve convinced myself that they need them.

I like to choose Christmas gifts based on the familiar old adage:

Something they want
Something they need
Something to wear
and something to read.

Pajamas? Check. Books, check. They hardest part is discerning between something my kids desire to have and something they actually need. It is something that many of us Americans struggle with in this culture of excess. We stroll through a Target store, drooling over the shelves packed with sparkling novelties. Coffee makers that produce a perfect cup of joe at the mere push of a button. Water bottles with built in filters to make our clean tap water even cleaner. Powerful tablet computers that fit in a handbag.

Oooh, I need that, we tell ourselves as we fill our red plastic shopping carts with far more items than would fit on our actual shopping lists. But in reality, we don’t. We want those things. We desire those things. But we so easily get what we want and desire mixed up with what we need.

wants-or-needs

My kids probably don’t need most of what is currently wrapped and waiting beneath the Christmas tree. Those are desired luxury items; scented lotions and electronic doodads that will bring moments of excited smiles and happy laughter as they rip open the colorful paper. My children already have what they need — healthy food, clothes that fit, and a mother who loves them like crazy. These beautiful new bikes (once they become bikes) are not a true need. They want bicycles, and I want them to have bicycles to get to school and around town. Could they have lived well without them? Absolutely. They already have.

As we transition into the upcoming new year, I hope to do a better job of separating the things that I want or desire from that which I really need. I also hope to transmit the correct value to these three terrific kids of mine, too. You can’t always get what you want. You shouldn’t always strive for what you desire. Believe it or not, life is better when you learn to be content with what you have instead of always looking to the next Big Thing that catches your attention.

Oh look — it is officially Christmas morning. And there are still these pieces of bike to be assembled. Santa doesn’t get much sleep on such a night. Time to crack open the toolkit and make this Christmas morning a merry one for my family.

I wish the same for all of you. Peace!

bmxmas

 

Merry X-cess (aka: Leave No Trace)

Christmas Save the PlanetEver notice what a waste Christmas can be? No, not a waste of time or energy (although that’s debatable). But what a waste of paper!

(Buckle your seat belts, readers. This is going to be one long, bumpy guilt trip.)

It’s ironic that I would be preaching about excess exactly one day after I braved the mall to purchase an excess of stuff so that my kids won’t think I’m a total Grinch. By the end of my trip, I was carrying so many shopping bags, that some kindhearted stranger offered me a few crumpled dollars. Okay, that totally didn’t happen. But it could have.

Excess of Santa Clauses

An excess of Santas

Excess of Xmas light-up stuff

An excess of holiday lights. What show-offs!

Anyway, there I was, gliding past Hot Topic and Yankee Candle, when it occurred to me that I was carrying so many plastic shopping bags full of plastic doodads, that it could probably be melted down and reformed into an entire Barbie Dream House. Or better, a whiffle ball bat. Very useful tool for fighting one’s way through the mall crowds this time of year. And all around me, people swarmed like Orcs — I swear, my keys were glowing blue and everything.

blue glowing sword

What happens to my keys when there are too many people around.

 

Between the excess of people, the excessively tall North Pole Christmas tree, and the excess of soon-to-be plastic junk in every store window, three words popped into my head:

LEAVE NO TRACE

Leave No Trace

 

Now I know what you’re thinking. Go back to Jupiter and let us have fun destroying our planet in peace! Well too bad, because I’m just getting warmed up — exactly like this planet. (See what I did there?).

I love the principles of Leave No Trace. The idea is that we can all take steps to help to protect the earth’s natural beauty and pass along the heritage to future generations. Yes, the principles largely apply to venturing outdoors, but what if we took it further? What if we attempted to “walk lightly on the earth,” as Barbara Ward once said, and applied Leave No Trace ethics to everything we do, including our holiday celebrations? How would Christmas look if we were to focus a little less on creating the world’s tallest mountain of torn and crumpled Santa Claus gift wrap, and more on the impact our choices may have on the environment? What if we all rose up and decided to ex-nay the excess for once? What if we…

Hold that thought. One of my kids just mumbled something about my spending an excess of time using the computer, which just happens to use an excess of electricity, kind of like the non-LED and therefore not-environmentally-friendly Christmas lights blinking on our non-replantable Christmas tree. Okay fine. I give up. Just call me Miss Hypo-Christmas. Anyway, I’ve gotta go wrap some plastic junk in a bunch of shiny paper.

Blue Candy Canes (aka: The Sophisticated Christmas Tree)

Playmobil train“This year,” said my two oldest kids, “we want a sophisticated Christmas tree. Not a kiddie tree.” Apparently, a kiddie tree is the type we have had every year since forever – a neon-bright mishmash of kid-made ornaments, mismatched balls, and twinkling colored lights, complete with a Playmobil electric train zipping around the base. And candy canes – lots and lots of traditional, red-and-white candy canes, for snacking on during the days leading up to Christmas.

“Are you sure?” I asked. “Our tree has always looked so lovely. And we have so many fun ornaments.”

“We’re sure,” said the kids. And so, we went out to purchase new sophisticated ornaments. Instead of plastic reindeer and smiling Santas, we adorned our tree with delicate bulbs and glass trinkets, all nature-themed and color-coordinated. If it wasn’t silver, gold, white, or blue, it was not allowed to hang on our branches. Our fragrant noble fir had been transformed into the beautiful snob-girl of Christmas trees. sophisticated Xmas decorations

The tree is as lovely as ever. But I must admit that my heart twisted just a little to see it. Yes, I know. Time marches on. Children grow up. Nothing can remain the same. And it was only a matter of time before my kids would begin to venture out of Neverland, and stop hearing Santa Claus’s magical sleigh bells. We still sang the old carols and decked the halls. We still munched on kettle corn and sipped mugs of thick hot cocoa. Our home is still filled with Christmas – but everything is somehow different. And our grown-up Christmas tree is a wistful reminder that childhood does not last forever.

“Wait! We forgot something,” said my fifteen year-old, studying the tree. “Where are the candy canes?” His smile faded as I explained to him that candy canes belonged on kiddie trees, not sophisticated trees. “Well,” he said after a moment’s thought, “maybe it’s okay if our tree is a little bit kiddie.”

blue and silver tree

This is not really our tree. But it looks very similar. Minus the sea horses.

My heart did a happy cartwheel. All is not lost. Tomorrow, I plan to purchase a couple of boxes of candy canes (blue, of course). Then maybe, I will try and talk the kids into setting up the non-sophisticated Playmobil electric train around the base of the Christmas tree, too. For old time’s sake.

Love, Chocolate, and Lupercalia (aka: Valentine’s Day)

Love love love 

You guessed it – I am a Valentine’s Day hater. Okay, not really.  Because deep beneath the surface, I am a hopeless romantic who grows weak-kneed at tales of true love, candlelit dinners, and moonlit walks. But on the outside, I look at holidays like Valentine’s day through a scornful and cynical eye. When I scan through the Facebook posts and Tweets of other people, I am amazed and somewhat disgusted by some of the posts I read. “I swear, he’d better have roses and chocolate for me when he comes home…”  For reals? Since when was it a romantic gesture to receive a gift which you demanded? Isn’t it really just a fulfillment of your shopping list?

meh

 

Ugh. Well, instead of turning this into a full-blown rant against commercialism and narcissism, I decided to try taking a different turn this year, by sharing some of the positive aspects of St. Valentine’s Day from history. You see, there was this Christian guy named Valentinus who was martyred in Rome in the 3rd century. Apparently, he wrote a note to the blind daughter of his jailer just before he was executed, and signed it, Your Valentine. Hence, at some point down the line, it became popular to give love notes signed Your Valentine. Because apparently, we’re all going to be executed on February 15th. How romantic.

Of course, before this, the Roman festival of Lupercalia was celebrated around Valentine’s Day. And – well, those crazy Romans – they celebrated by sacrificing goats and a dog, then stripping their hides. Then they ran around smacking women with the hides, in order to make them fertile.

The heck?

Stephen Colbert Discusses Lupercalia

I give up. There are so many ridiculous traditions, both in modern times as well as ancient. But through the ages, with the possible exception of Lupercalia, there is one common thread that is the saving grace of St. Valentine’s Day. Love. Yes, the main focus is usually on romantic or erotic love, but I tell my kids that it’s also a great day to focus on loving your friends and family, too.
Charlie Brown Snoopy Valentines

And so today, instead of passing on my bitter cynicism to the next generation, I am celebrating Valentine’s Day by loving my kids. Here is what they will find when they return home from school today:
Strawberry Cake and Candy

They will also learn that I have already done their chores for them, so that they may begin the weekend free. Now that is love. No martyrdom required.

 

 

Busy Hands (aka: Old-Fashioned, Homemade Christmas)

My hands tend to be very busy this time of year. The closer the calendar creeps toward Christmas, the more my hands are in motion — wrapping, measuring, mixing, quilting, embroidering, cutting, stitching, tying, icing, writing, beading, and stamping. A part of me would love to see a return of the homemade Christmas, in which the gift exchanges rely less on department stores and more on the time-honored tradition of handcrafting. Of course, my kids would be crushed if I were to give them hand-made toys in place of the electronic games they love so much. Also, this year, my boys are really hoping that Santa will bring them pet rats, and I can’t exactly make those by hand. (Rat treats, maybe?)

A quilt I am making

A long time ago, when I actually belonged to a social circle, my hands stayed even busier this time of year. I participated in cookie exchange parties and homemade ornament exchange parties. I hand-stamped, embossed, and glittered dozens of exquisite holiday greeting cards. I gave gifts of home-baked goodies, unique soaps, hand-beaded jewelry, and scrapbooks of memories, even a rare quilt or two, all of which I spent hours, days, even months preparing. It takes a lot to create a gift for another person. But to me, it means so much more to give a gift which comes – not from a store shelf or factory, but from my heart and hands. My Homemade Gift Tags

This year, my hands are much less busy. Not because I have lost the desire to create and give homemade gifts, but because I have fewer people in my life. However, I did manage to make some gorgeous gift tags to tie on packages, and at the moment, I am attempting to make a rather complicated friendship bracelet (which I suppose I will give to my 12yo daughter). And, as always, I am passing the days of December in a puff of flour and a dusting of sugar, singing Christmas carols as I mix, shape, and bake dozens upon dozens of special homemade Christmas cookies, to give away to family and — well, mostly strangers. The house is filled with the aroma of cinnamon, cardamom, and vanilla (not to mention the pungent fragrance of fir tree) — the traditional, homemade aroma which, to my children and me, carries the hope and promise of the arrival of Christmas Day.

homemade treats Xmas

 

 

 

Why Do We Celebrate Christmas Anyway? (aka: Holiday Cynicism vs. Idealism)

Sigh.

It’s that time of year again. The Most Wonderful Time of the Year. The season of peace and joy and goodwill toward men. The time of year when children’s eyes shine as brightly as the mysterious star that appeared over the baby Jesus in his manger (although, I imagine that this is less for the birth of Jesus as it is the anticipation of getting a big sparkly pile of toys).

A Mountain of Presents

First of all, let me just say that I am not a Scrooge. While I may Bah! Humbug! the tinsel and trappings and materialism and hypocrisy surrounding the big day, I am actually very fond of the ideals that embody the true spirit of Christmas.

As a parent to three terrific kids, I know too well how easy it is to get sucked into the self-centered, mind-numbing void of consumerism this time of year. It’s just so much fun to see my children get all excited as the days progress toward Christmas Eve, and such a thrill to hear the laughter and happiness bubbling over on Christmas morning, as they unwrap the special toys they’ve been hoping for. The very idea of their reactions is a huge driving force – so strong that even I, the cynic, race to the stores at the crack of dawn on Black Friday, anxious to find The Perfect Toy and secure my place as Best Mom Ever.

Who can resist this level of excitement and happiness on a child's face?

Who can resist this level of excitement and happiness on a child’s face?

But that is not Christmas. It is not supposed to be about shoving people out of the way in order to grab the last cool toy from the shelf. It is not supposed to be about making my kids feel temporarily happy with a pile of toys they will love for two weeks, then forget about. It is not having the most impressive display of Christmas lights, or the most adorable family photo greeting cards, or being hostess of the perfect holiday party.

But when is anything ever as it is supposed to be?

Underneath this hard, cynical shell lies a soft, sentimental idealist. A daydreamer who wants the impossible. I want Christmas to be a time when people open their hearts wider than their wallets. I want the neighbors holding hands and lighting candles and singing songs together. I want the poor and the needy of our community to be more than just faceless nobodies to whom we throw a dollar or donate a shiny wrapped toy. I want them to be the guests of honor at our tables. I want for people to try a little harder, to reach a little deeper inside themselves, and to be genuinely kind, loving, humble, compassionate, forgiving, and generous. Those are the values that embody this holiday. Those are the values that were supposedly taught by that man who was once a little baby, born in such humble circumstances so long ago – the one about whom so many Christmas carols are sung today. I want that miracle.

The end of It's a Wonderful Life is filled with so many of the best ideals of Christmas. Too bad it's only a movie.

The end of It’s a Wonderful Life is filled with so many of the best ideals of Christmas. Too bad it’s only a movie.

But I keep my idealism safely locked deep inside, where the disappointment of reality cannot destroy them. Because here is the truth: there is no miracle. Many of the same people who sing the carols and claim to believe in the same ideals of Christmas are sucked into the same void of self-centered, mind-numbing commercialism as everyone else. And so, the holiday becomes a pointless blur of shopping and decorations and fancy events. We pretend to pay homage to some cute little baby in a manger, when the truth is that he is not much more important to us than the plastic blinking reindeer our our front lawns.

This.

This.

And so, I sigh. And I spend too much money on expensive toys for my children. And I deck the halls with plastic holly and twinkling lights. And I sing Joy to the World and smile to see my children’s sparkling eyes as we await the big day of celebration. But what do we celebrate?

I Do Not Celebrate Kwanzaa! (And Neither Does Anyone Else)

Kwanzaa Candles “Happy Kwanzaa,” a white cashier greeted me as I was returning unwanted Christmas gifts last year.

I couldn’t help it. I scowled at her. “Um…I don’t celebrate Kwanzaa.” The cashier muttered an embarrassed apology and quickly finished my transaction. I felt bad for ruining her multicultural moment, her chance to display her tolerance and understanding of my culture. But the thing is, Kwanzaa is most certainly not a part of my culture. I do not celebrate Kwanzaa, and neither does anyone else.

Well okay, fine, I’m sure that somewhere in this country, someone actually celebrates Kwanzaa. Though there are no official statistics to indicate how many people actually embrace the holiday, I am reasonably certain that at least a few families out there are lighting the candles of their kinaras, dressing in African clothing, and eating whichever foods symbolize the holiday for them. But here’s the deal – although I am Black, and have numerous Black relatives, I do not know a single person who observes Kwanzaa. Not one.

“That’s a racist holiday,” one of my sisters remarked long ago when I asked her why no one in our family celebrates. It’s true. It doesn’t take much research to figure that out. Kwanzaa was invented in the turbulent, racially-charged 1960s by Maurana Ron Kulanga, a black separatist (who was, at the time, sitting in prison for brutally torturing two women). He created Kwanzaa as an alternative to the “White” holiday, Christmas. “…Kwanzaa is not an imitation, but an alternative, in fact, and oppositional alternative to the spookism, mysticism and non-earth based practices which plague us as a people . . . ” (pg 14, Kwanzaa: origin, concepts, practice. 1977). Kwanzaa was intended to be a separatist, secular holiday in which Black people can celebrate being black. Is that racist? Well let’s see…if an imprisoned  Neo-nazi leader were to create a holiday just for white people in order to celebrate being white, and to shun the cultural and religious practices of non-whites, would we consider such a holiday to be racist?What the Hell

I say yes.

Two years ago, when my youngest child brought home a Kwanzaa kinara craft from school, I considered making a complaint to his teacher. It bothers me intensely that children are being taught to accept Kwanzaa as the “African American winter holiday,” as though it is a normal, widespread part of Black American history and tradition. Well, it is not. Many of us see no need to celebrate a so-called harvest festival in the middle of winter. Many of us see no need to symbolize our heritage with corn, a Kwanzaa “First Fruits” tradition. (Corn is not even an indigenous crop to Africa, but was brought over from the New World by white people. Ironic, isn’t it?). Many of us see no need to embrace the Swahili language, which most likely was not even spoken by our ancestors, who were ripped away from West Africa and probably spoke Yoruba or Fula or something. And I personally feel insulted that anyone would assume that, because of my ethnic heritage, I would choose to celebrate such a separatist, radical holiday created by a violent criminal.

Okay, enough ranting for now. Just keep this in mind: most Black Americans do NOT observe Kwanzaa. In fact, most of us just wish it would curl up and disappear. Yes, there are a few people who see it as important, just as there are probably a few people who were happily airing their grievances and showing their feats of strength in honor of Festivus. But seriously…unless a black person walks into your store after Christmas wearing kente cloth to purchase a kinara, please do not wish us a Happy Kwanzaa. Not sure what to say? Try “Happy New Year.” It’s pretty-much non-offensive.

Where Are You Christmas? (aka: Rants of a Holiday Cynic)

I hate LED Christmas lights Oh Christmas, how you have failed me! How you have drained my pockets of every spare cent, so that my family can have the latest, shiniest toys wrapped in glittery premium wrapping paper. How you have crowded the stores with piles of cake pop makers and mini sno-cone machines and other useless Thneeds, which nobody, nobody, nobody needs. You have ruined my eyesight by surrounding me with ultra-bright LED Christmas light displays. (Why on earth does anyone think that LED lights are pleasant to look at?).

Then there was that Black Friday incident in the high-scale shopping mall near my home, in which some men got into a fist fight in the Victoria’s Secret. In Victoria’s Secret! Over a pair of lacy panties! (I was just in that same Victoria’s Secret hours before the fight, and believe me, there was nothing worth fighting over). Oh Christmas, with your empty promises of goodwill and peace…well there is NOTHING peaceful about listening to Rockin’ Around the Christmas tree five times per hour on the radio (please, somebody kill that song), not to mention the plethora of songs worshipping the snow. Um, hello? Some of us live in California, where snow is practically a myth, unless you count the artificial spray-on snow we use for decorations.The Grinch

Okay I know, I know…I am Scrooge, looking with scorn at the meaningless trappings and festivities that seem to make everyone else happy. I am also The Grinch. My heart has become three sizes too small, while my cynical mind has grown three sizes too big. And I am Charlie Brown, throwing my hands in the air with frustration and yelling, “Isn’t there anyone who can tell me what Christmas is all about?”

And suddenly, a song begins to play in my memory. No, it isn’t a bunch of villagers singing Fah-who Foraze. It is Faith Hill, singing Where Are You Christmas? When that song ends, another begins. It is Aislin Debison, singing The Gift. And just like like the Grinch, my cynicism begins to fade. Because Christmas is here…Christmas has always been right here, waiting for me. It has not failed me. It is I, with my critical eye and self-absorption, who has failed Christmas. It is not that Christmas owes me peace, love, and goodwill, but it is I who owes the world my peace, love, and goodwill.

The realization is so simple, and so stunningly beautiful, like Disney magic or a surprise snowfall in California. And suddenly I feel like whistling Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree while hanging up decorations…not for me, but for other people to enjoy. And I feel like walking through the crowded shopping mall while wearing a Santa hat…not to buy a bunch of stuff, but to smile at people, and drop my spare change in a charity bucket, and spread the Christmas spirit. Because the good in Christmas, the wonder in Christmas, is in the ability to do good for a fellow human being. It is in the joy of giving back to the world, whether it is through charity, or homemade cookies, or raking leaves for a neighbor (okay, well, shoveling snow if you live anywhere but California).

Christmastime is here, and so I will swallow my cynicism, wrap gifts for my kids in shiny, glittery paper, and call my relatives to remind them that I care. I will drink (low-calorie) peppermint cocoa and sing along with the radio, and maybe get so carried away that I go out to look at all of your LED Christmas light displays. Look for me. I’ll be the one wearing the Santa hat and the sunglasses.

Christmas Cookies, Cookies, Cookies (etc.)

Do not…I repeat, do NOT peek into my kitchen right now. It is not just a mess, but a catastrophe. It is as though a bomb made of flour, powdered sugar, nuts, chocolate, cinnamon, dough, and sprinkles has exploded, plastering every possible pan, bowl, and surface.

That is Christmas Eve in my kitchen.

Every December, I take great pleasure in poring over cookie recipes, then spending hours measuring, mixing, and dipping to create dozens of delicious treats. Sometimes I even let the kids help. This year, as always, I baked a few dozen sugar cookies, which I will soon paint with sugary vanilla-almond icing. I have tried a number of recipes for sugar cookies, and here is the one which has always turned out beautifully.

I also made an annual family favorite, Chocolate-Peanut Butter Pinwheel Cookies, dipped in chocolate and sprinkled with crushed walnuts. Sorry…this recipe is top secret. 😉 Okay, fine…the truth is, I got it from a cooking magazine ten years ago, and it is nowhere online. At least, not my version.

I also made Ranger Cookies, and a new recipe, which will perhaps become the next huge family favorite–a cookie from Argentina, called Alfajores. They are a crisp, buttery, vanilla-almond-lemon cookie, sandwiched together with dulce de leche. Can I just say…yum?

A delicious Dulce-de-leche sandwich cookie from Argentina.

Oh, and I just had to try one fully dipped in chocolate, as the Argentines like it. They looked like this:

Every chocolate lover must try this cookie, if only once in a lifetime.

And the taste? Omgcookieheavenomg! I don’t think I will try that again. The very idea of how many calories I just devoured makes my stomach feel a little queasy. Or maybe that is from all the cookie dough I nibbled today.

Finally, I made fresh Pulla Bread, a sweet Finnish Christmas bread flavored with cardamom; and vanilla nut fudge, which is my favorite fudge in the world.

Mmmm...vanilla fudge!

This year’s came out a little grainy instead of creamy and smooth, but that is the risk of fudge-making. The kids don’t seem to mind. They don’t mind the disaster in the kitchen, either. We will all happily ignore it, munching dozens of delicious Christmas cookies together for the next 24 hours or so. Then I will enjoy a nice cup of chai while my kids wash the dishes. (But don’t tell them that part…I don’t want to ruin their Christmas!)