Sunday, December 12, 2010

Christmas Cookies

I will confess that in recent years baking Christmas Cookies has been low on my "to do" list during the holidays. I definitely do not need the calories and figure my children are no worse for the wear with all the other holiday fare to partake. Don't start feeling too sorry for them though ... I make Seasoned Oyster Crackers which are like crack on Ranch Dressing. Once you start eating these little "innocents" you need to get into a 12 step program to get off. They are addicting. And I make Peppermint Bark which I dread the thought of how many miles I would have to run to work off those sweet little delights. But this year the powers that be at the Commissary here decided to no longer carry my favored brand of Oyster Crackers and well, the Sunshine brand of Krispy Oyster Crackers they do carry, it's just not the same. Even our daughter Wrenn said "I don't like those other Oyster Crackers." So I decided to reevaluate this year. Cookies seemed more in the realm of "doable" and the Commissary still has unsalted butter! So cookies it is. But where are all those cookies going? Not on my ever-expanding hips. Victims? I have two English Conversation classes on Mondays and one on Tuesdays. The traditional Japanese ovens are notoriously small, not big enough for one cookie sheet much less two and so I decided to suck it up and make Christmas Cookies for my students with my sou-chef Wrenn right by my side. All the boys (adult and adolescent) were at other commitments this afternoon, and so I took advantage of some "quiet time" and Wrenn and I cranked out 8 dozen cookies. I do not recall the last time I baked so many cookies – and I can't get them out the door fast enough, my waist line is expanding just looking at them.

It was fun and it reminded me of crazier but somehow calmer times. When the kids were younger, more enthusiastic over the holiday season. Now it's a tough crowd ... this weekend I tried to get the clan to watch "Polar Express" one of my favorites but was met with much resistance. "We've seen that like 100 times." I'm thinking your point is? I saw "Rudolph" and "Frosty" and "The Grinch" like 100 times. It's Christmas, that's what you're supposed to do. Instead I cave and say: "O.K. fine, you pick the movie." How about "It's a Wonderful Life?" I hear. Really? Now I think that I have seen 100 times. At least.

I'll keep plugging. Each day is a part of a tradition – old and new. Traditions to share and traditions to hoard. This year I am grateful that our daughter decided it's not too uncool to help with the cookies ... and there's nothing quite like the smell of sugar cookies in the oven to get you in the holiday spirit and be well, inspired.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Happy Christmas

Spending the Christmas season in another country certainly gives you a different perspective. There is a shopping mall close to the base that has a gigantic holiday banner hanging out front that says "Happy Christmas." The first time I saw it last year it cracked me up ... they almost got it, and with so many Americans around you have to wonder why the marketing people didn't just stop and ask someone – did this translate correctly? I tried to explain to some of my Japanese students that in the U.S. we wish each other a "Merry Christmas" and a "Happy New Year." I haven't seen a sign yet that says "Merry New Year" but I'm on the lookout.

The holiday celebration here is not a religious one. With the population of Japan overwhelmingly Buddhist, the Christmas celebration has nothing whatsoever to do with "Christ's Mass."There are no Angels, no Creche scenes, no Baby Jesus in a manger ... just lots of Santas, reindeer and snowmen (interesting aside – Japanese snowmen are made from one large and one small ball vs. U.S. with three. You can imagine where my husbands comment went with that piece of info ... "so what you're saying is, Japanese snowmen have two balls." Some people never grow up.).

It is refreshing to see another country's take on a decidedly western celebration. Not all the stores are decked out like they would be back home but some stores that are decorated do have Christmas songs playing. And there's not all the hustle-bustle in the shopping areas like you would have back home – and that's definitely a plus side. I have an addiction to tenugui, a rectangular cloth that has a pattern/scene on them. Each time I drop into my favorite tenugui store in Kamakura I like to see if they have anything new out. It appears that with the change of seasons, the tenugui change also – from Cherry Blossoms, to Lotus Blooms, to Chrysanthemums, to Maple Leaves. The last time I stopped in I was pleased to see the tenugui with Santa on his sleigh, swooping down over Fuji-san and I thought perfect! I couldn't wait to get it home and put it up and be reminded each time I walk through the door to celebrate "Happy Christmas" and be ... inspired.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Christmas Decor – Handicap or Minimalist?

One of the disadvantages of moving every two to three years is that with each Christmas season you realize what worked in one home doesn't in the next (there are advantages too ... check in tomorrow for my thoughts about that one). The icicle lights that worked on the base house in Camp Lejeune, were added to so we would have enough for our home in Maryland. But we would have had to hire a cherry-picker to safely get them on our next home in Norfolk – although Jeff did attempt it the first year we were there and I just about had a coronary as I saw him dangling on a neighbors ladder – 4 years of med school, 3 years of residency, 3 years of fellowship ... all flashing before my eyes. One word – grounded.

Window candles? Looked charming in the house we rented in Bethesda, translated great to our first home in Norfolk, looked fine in the house we rented in Jacksonville, NC – and then it ended. Thus the purchase of the icicle lights. The lit wreath? Worked great in one home – the electrical hook up was close; the next home now we needed two wreaths for balance ... and so it goes. The inside is pretty much the same – what works one place doesn't in the next. Add to the decorating handicap the fact that with our limited weight allowance and Jeff repeatedly telling me we would have no storage, I brought very little in the holiday decorating dept.

In the spirit of Asian influence this years theme would appear to be minimalist Holiday decorating. The tree is up and decorated, some of our more prized Christmas decorations made the cut to travel overseas and are out ... and yet, still the house seems to lack a festive spirit.

We do not have "window treatments" per se in this house. The government housing office supplies us with vertical blinds at the sliding glass door (yuck) and miniblinds at the windows (double yuck). I'm too cheap to go out and buy curtains for the windows downstairs knowing this is temporary quarters, and with the sewing machine in storage there's no "whipping up" some inexpensive curtains. So my focus turned to the windows ... big blank canvases ...

I decide to get creative and I got the idea to purchase an ensemble box of Christmas ornaments from the Exchange and hang them from the window curtain hooks that are permanently installed ... just waiting for someone more motivated that I am to put some curtains up. Yesterday I took fishing line and strung up the ornaments hanging them from the ceiling – in varied heights and random color arrangements of course – and I have to admit ... it helped, a lot. This house will not win any Martha Stewart Home for the Holiday's Awards but with the Christmas music playing, the Balsam and Cedar candle lit and the decorations out this is our home for the holidays and I'm inspired.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Where are you Christmas?

Each day a little bit more goes up and comes out. This year my big motivation for having the house decorated before the 24th (no, I'm not kidding, sometimes it does come down to that) is that I'm having four Japanese ladies to our humble home on Wednesday – there's nothing like a deadline to get me motivated. So the tree is up, the lights are on ... if only we can carve a moment out of a crazy work schedule for our children to decorate the tree. With the exception of only a handful of ornaments, all we brought with us to Japan are the children's ornaments, so it falls to them to decorate the tree. One is methodical in his approach to placing the ornaments on the tree, the other can't seem to get through the task fast enough and has heavily edited what he wants to put on the tree, the last child is careful – looks at each of her ornaments with care and gathers information – "who gave this to me?" "where did this ornament come from?" Jeff jokes and says "if you mom goes before me you know I'll just be making all this up for you."

The Christmas music is playing and we enjoy a piece of gingerbread post tree trimming while Faith Hill sings "Where are you Christmas?"

Good question. In a vain attempt to get a photo out of my three children that we just might be able to send out this year, not only an hour before we were out on the edge of the base in some obscure place that I'd picked hoping that I would have three cooperative subjects. The light was fading, and with way too much teenager attitude permeating the air the few photos I was able to get looked anything but jolly. Sigh. "Where are you Christmas?"I wondered as I walked back to the car seething, one successful photo – that's all I wanted not feeling very much in the Christmas spirit.

Back at home the mood shifts, the spirit of Christmas softly filters through the air ... I'll take what I can get at this point. It's not exactly a tree trimming party with Eggnog and lots of laughter but it works for us. I'll keep plugging along, knowing that each of these moments is a potential memory in the making, and that it requires balance, a lot of balance. Recognizing this fact does for the moment anyways, leave me inspired.

Friday, December 3, 2010


It's that crazy time of year again ... the holiday season is upon us. I love the Christmas season and dread it at the same time. Un-boxing decorations is like seeing old friends that you haven't run into in a long time. For me, many of our decorations mark a passage of time – Santa tree topper, purchased in Alameda, California a few days after Jeff had just come in off of a 7 month deployment and it was our first Christmas together. German creche - my parents brought back from a trip to Germany – I double/triple wrap it up each year, afraid with another move it will be reduced to pieces. The Snow Man that our family friend, Miss Judy, gave to our children and Wrenn declared with delight this year when I pulled it out "oh, I love that decoration – it's my favorite." The holiday songs have been playing while each day I try to carve out a tiny bit of time to purge/organize/tidy up so that this year will finally be the year that I can relax and enjoy the season. But there's that little voice in the back of my head that's my reality check ... she knows it's good goal but it may be a lofty goal.

Already the craziness has begun. On base if you don't purchase something when you see it, you can pretty much be sure it won't be there when you go back – like the Eggnog I went to go buy this week, they had tons of it before we left town, now the shelves are empty. We were out of town for Thanksgiving when the Christmas trees went on sale – no longer a family event, with Jeff out of town for a meeting and two teenage boys who looked aghast at me when I asked if they wanted to go help pick out the tree ... the task this year fell to Wrenn and I. I'm not too sure she was all that into it either, but I think she took pity on me and came along. As we stood there in the plaza area in front of the Navy Exchange and selected our tree from the reject pile (because if you don't get one Thanksgiving weekend you're basically looking at everyone else's rejects), Jingle Bell Rock came on the loud speakers and blasted out over the plaza, the mood picked up with the beat of the song. The smell of fresh cut pine trees in the air and suddenly it started to feel like the holiday season.

We picked up our tree, each taking an end and lugged it to our car and the dread of keeping up with the season, the stress of having the house "just so," the cookies made (that my kids want but my slow metabolizing body screams "just don't do it!"), the presents wrapped and the hope that maybe this year will be the year we finally send out holiday cards (after a 7 year hiatus don't hold your breath folks) started to evaporate. I started to believe, believe that it's not about the "keeping up" ... the season is more about being present, being aware that it's the little things that make the season special. The memories, the traditions – I doubt our children can tell us what they got for Christmas 2 years ago – but I know they can remember making Peppermint Bark or Oyster Crackers and delivering them to our neighbors. Now that's inspiring.

From now until Christmas I am taking photos of our holiday traditions and the ways we celebrate the season. It's my holiday countdown, my Advent Calendar of sorts, and oh yes – a good way for me to practice taking more photos. I hope you can check back in and be inspired.