Unpacking the Holidays

Suddenly, the string of sunny days has vanished, and cold grey November has elbowed its inevitable way in. As it was such a dreary day, we went down to the fruit cellar and dragged out the Christmas decorations.

First order of business was the Nativity figurines. I found an especially lovely set several years ago, and unpacking it is always my favourite part of Christmas decorating. I always arrange it on the top of my piano with tiny lights and a bit of greenery. Yesterday, I got all my Christmas sheet music organized. I love to sit at the piano in the weeks before Christmas and poke my way through the familiar songs with the Nativity right at eye level, reminding me of what the music is all about.

The Christmas tree will be real, as always. I’ve been ready for several years to get a fake one–but the family won’t hear of it. We usually head out to the tree farm in the truck. It always hurts a little, watching the axe bite into the tree trunk, and to see the tree toppling over. What hurts more are the needles all over the rug, and dragging out the vacuum cleaner every day….

Since we get a real tree, it won’t be going up for a few more weeks, but it doesn’t hurt to test out the Christmas lights….

So many of our ornaments and decorations have come to  us as gifts from my husband’s students. The last day of school before the holidays will bring a deluge of chocolate that will have me emptying out a cupboard to find storage space for all of it. Teachers always tell their students not to bring gifts, to make a donation to a cause instead, but it seems so important to kids that they can present their teacher with a gift at Christmas time.  Over the years, those kids have collectively turned our house into a Christmas wonderland.



 Clowny has been around for many years. He came from Switzerland more than twenty years ago, as a gift from my brother and his wife when they were living there. He’s a little battered, but no less loved for it. Clowny always finds a place of honour on the Christmas tree, but he finds temporary lodgings elsewhere until the tree arrives.

My daughters went through a phase one Christmas when they were little of making “paper presents.” Dozens of coloured pictures, paper chains, and bits of paper taped together found their way under the tree. On Christmas morning, we were due over at Grandma and Grandpa’s right after breakfast, and we were running a little late. There were still quite a few “paper presents” left under the tree, and I told the kids we would open the paper presents later. One of my daughters put up quite a protest, insisting that I open one of them. While my husband loaded the other kids into the car, I dealt with this persistent little one. Finally, I had to cave and I told her  with barely disguised exasperation that I would open it. She brought this pile of paper over, covered in tape, and when I tore all the paper out of the way, I discovered that she had made a tin can snowman candle at school. It was wrapped in so much paper, I’d thought it was one of the “paper presents.” Of course, guilt is never so pronounced as when one offends at Christmas time. To this day, when the tin can candle comes out, I have to re-live the shame of it all over again. It’s a Christmas tradition.


Of course, what Christmas would be complete without Berserko, the Defective Singing Christmas Bear? He used to live at Grandpa and Grandma’s house. He’s lived here ever since the downsize. Berserko sings a variety of Christmas tunes, at high volumes. Unfortunately, something in his wiring causes him to sing two songs at the same time. I hope he doesn’t get too comfortable here, because the day is coming when he’s going to find new digs at one of my children’s future houses. You can bet your sweet Christmas.

Next on the list…finish Christmas shopping, do all the wrapping, bake a couple of vats of Christmas cookies, and plan the dinner.

Sing the “Messiah!”

December 26th–pack all this stuff away again.

Until then, I plan to enjoy every minute of Christmas, 2012.


Oma was a prolific pastel artist. All of her seven children, her numerous grandchildren, and many of her friends have one or more of her landscapes or quaint, European city-scapes hanging in their houses. The one above hangs over my piano. I have another piece that needs reframing tucked away somewhere. Oma gave it to me when I got married in 1984. Oma often gave one of her pieces to commemorate an event. The other day, I was in her former neighbour’s house and saw one of Oma’s pictures, hanging in the stairwell. Oma had given it to her neighbour in 1969 when she moved away. I recognized my grandmother in that picture the moment I laid eyes on it. It was amazing and kind of strange, catching a glimpse of her this way. Oma has been gone for almost five years.

When Oma passed away, I inherited her tub of art supplies. A wanna-be artist that never had time, I stashed it away for another day.

This fall, I took a watercolour class. I only had a few tubes of colour, so I thought I would go through Oma’s tub to see if there were any more in there.

There weren’t. But I found lots of other things….

A tray of almost-new pastels, barely broken in. Oma’s testing marks are on the inside cover of the box.

An old box, filled with smeared nubs and pieces–broken, crumbled bits. Oma’s fingerprints are still on them. It’s like she was just using them yesterday. They’re just waiting to be picked up again, rubbed against paper and turned into something beautiful.

Here are Oma’s special artist’s pencils. Some of them are worn down, in need of sharpening.










These were in Oma’s old portfolio–cards, calendar pictures, things torn from books. All ideas she wanted to get onto paper. Several of them are gridded out. Oma used this technique for preparing pictures to create.

Here is a picture I found in my sketchbook. Oma was trying to teach me her pastel techniques several years ago and did this little picture as a demo piece.

I tried….but I didn’t even come close.









She whipped this up in less than five minutes. Effortless. It’s good enough to frame. (She would   vehemently protest this idea).






Oma was a musician, as well as an artist. Her parents sent her for organ lessons as a child. Her older sister and younger sister and brother did not get music lessons. We suspect Oma’s parents were looking for ways to keep their mischievous little girl busy and out of trouble!

Oma was also a singer. She sang alto in a choir in Holland. When I began to sing in a choir (alto as well), she gave me her old “Messiah” score. She is with me every time I sing it.

Some people inherit property or money from their grandparents.

I inherited so much more than that.

In Praise of the Cookie



My mother used to make sugar cookies. If she could get them out of the oven on time, they were these melty, sweet, buttery things. Most often, they were as black as hockey pucks on the bottom. The oven wasn’t very good, and she would often get busy doing other things and forget to take them out. My brother and sister and I would pinch large clumps of dough out of the bowl when she was mixing them up. Cookie dough…why is it always better than the actual cookie? My mother lost the recipe for her sugar cookies, and I’ve tried many recipes over the years, trying to duplicate it. But, as of right now, the search is still on.

Mom did not like to cook or bake. It wasn’t her thing. She’d rather empty the china cabinet and clean it all out, or dig a garden. I loved to bake. It was my desperate childhood wish to get an Easy Bake Oven. Instead, my mother bought me cake mixes and let me use the real one. Every Saturday morning, I got out of bed, went straight to the kitchen, and made a cake.

I baked my own fruit cake for my wedding. In older days (older than mine), this was a common custom, to give out fruit cake slices as wedding favours. When it was “cured,” I cut the cake into slices and wrapped them in shiny red and green paper (I was married four days before Christmas), and trimmed each piece like a Christmas gift, complete with a thank you tag. I procured my husband’s grandmother’s much-guarded recipe for light fruit cake for the occasion. We still make it every Christmas, almost 28 years later.

I’m certainly not a fancy baker–fondant scares the heck out of me, and my pastry is a nightmare. I bake simply: coffee cakes, brownies, and cookies. Lots of cookies. My recipes for Toll House and peanut butter cookies are etched on my brain–I haven’t used a recipe for them in years.

I have a friend who keeps a beautiful glass cookie jar on her kitchen counter, always stocked with homemade cookies. A few weekends ago, I went to Home Sense and bought one for my house, and it’s been kept full ever since. I love this idea. It seems old-fashioned, but I like the idea of people coming home after a long day and smelling cookies baking. I know it’s very 1950’s…but it seems like a nice way to be welcomed home. “Hi! I made cookies today.” Now, there’s a way to get a tired, grumpy person to smile. This is one of my favourite parts of my year off work–that I have the time do things like this for my family.

Several years ago, someone gave me an old brown cookbook from 1948 that they’d found in the back of a drawer somewhere, published by a local “Friendship Group.” The cover is so faded; I can hardly make out the letters any more. It has recipes for everything under the sun: “Steamed Ginger Pudding,” “Under the Sea Salad,” “Ice-Box Rolls,” “Husband Cake,” “Bachelor Buttons,” “Apple Pan Dowdy,” “Jellied Tongue,” “Nobility Sauce”–even “Cold Saccharin Pickles.”  There is even a section for household concoctions, like “How to Fill Floor Cracks”  and “Mustard Plaster.” While I’ve never attempted to fix things around the house or create home remedies 1948 style, I have tried several recipes from this book, and they’ve all been delicious. The “Apple Pudding” and “Seven Day Sweet Pickles” (made in my husband’s grandfather’s old sauerkraut crock)  have been especially successful.

My favourite part of the old brown recipe book is near the front, before the recipes: a quaint, reminiscent poem called “Kitchen Chant.” I’ve googled it many times, and I’ve never come up with an author.

Rain on the roof with a sound like singing–

And here in the kitchen is something nice

Patterned with flour and nuts and raisins

Sprinkled with sugar, fragrant with spice.

Little boy’s round eyes stare at the oven,

Little dog’s tail goes thump on the floor,

Little boy’s hand goes tug at your apron,

It’s hours till lunch–please, just one more?

Crisp and warm with a fragrance of cinnamon,

One like a heart and one like a star…

Rain on the roof with a sound like singing–

Mother is filling the cookie jar.


Says it all, doesn’t it?