Category Archives: Holiday Blogging

Blogmas 2019 Day 5: My Favorite Christmas Traditions (And Giveaway Winner!)

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An actual snap of last year’s Christmas

Alright. The moment of truth has arrived. The giveaway winner is…

Mary Lynn Derstine

Congrats, Mary! I sent you an email and haven’t heard back from you yet, so check your inbox!

Now, on to the bulk of this post. Last year, a reader suggested that I write about my favorite Christmas traditions.

My family isn’t really the type to intentionally craft a meaningful collection of Christmas traditions. I mean, we buy each other gifts and open them on Christmas morning as, I assume, most families do. Although as time goes on, we’ve shifted that “Christmas morning” around to accommodate various family members. Last year we celebrated on January 5. This year it’ll be December 30.

Nevertheless there are some random things we’ve done so often they’ve become traditions. And also one very intentional, very unique tradition, which I’ll talk about first.

Tradition 1: Gotcha Day

On December 24, 2004, my family drove up to the Portland Airport. We walked inside and waited, standing expectantly on the famous teal carpet, waiting for our new brother to arrive.

And then we saw him, coming with my dad down the hallway. We were now a family of eight instead of seven.

Ever since that day, my family has celebrated Christmas Eve as “gotcha day.” We cook traditional Kenyan foods: chapatis and ugali and sukuma and chicken gravy and pineapple and Kenyan chai tea and soda in glass bottles. We spread a bright leso on the table, and decorate with carved animals we brought back with us when my family was in Kenya.

And then we sit around talking about how amazing Steven is, and how glad we are that he’s in our family, and stuff.

Tradition 2: Festive Pancakes

Growing up, my mom did most of the cooking, but she didn’t often cook breakfast. We usually made our own breakfasts. But my dad rather enjoyed cooking breakfast foods. Particularly pancakes. So if there ever was an occasion to make breakfast, my dad often did it.

I think this is where the pancakes-on-Christmas-morning thing came from. Someone needs to cook breakfast on Christmas morning, right? So dad would make pancakes.

And not just any pancakes. Fancy pancakes. Pancakes shaped like turtles. Pancakes colored with red food coloring. Pancakes colored with green food coloring. Blueberry pancakes. Chocolate chip pancakes. All the pancakes.

Tradition 3: Complaining about the Christmas Stockings

I’m trying to remember where the Christmas stocking thing even started. Originally, we just gave presents and didn’t bother with stockings. But at some point I bought a red velvet stocking at a garage sale. And then Amy traced around it and made her own flimsy cotton stocking. And Ben got a cheap felt stocking from someone…a Sunday school teacher maybe? His name was etched on it in red fabric paint.

So, since we had this meager collection, sometimes we’d hang up Christmas stockings. But we never bothered to collect a decent set.

Sometimes we’d supplement our collection with real socks. At one point, we took the stocking that had “Ben” fabric painted on one side, and painted “Jenny” on the other side. I don’t remember why. And one year, someone bought a stocking for the dog at Dollar Tree. And then the dog died, and we started using the stocking for humans. Even though it was covered in little green paw prints, it was the least pathetic-looking of the bunch.

Somewhere, somehow, we acquired these decorative fabric bags that were supposed to hold wine bottles. I don’t know how or why…we don’t even drink wine. But we started using these wine bags as extra stockings to fill in the gaps of our collection.

For some reason we’ve never bothered to purchase or make nice stockings. Instead, this is our tradition: every year we pull out our terrible collection of stockings and mock it mercilessly.

But Mom whipped up this really cute Christmas stocking the other day, so that particular tradition may be on its way out.

Tradition 4: Going to the Coast

For the past…I don’t know…five-ish years? We’ve started a new tradition: We go to the coast every Christmas. We rent a house and just hang out oceanside for several days.

Sometimes we bring our presents along and exchange them in our beach house. But that’s a lot of work, so this year we’re having “Christmas Morning” at home, before heading out to the coast in the afternoon.

Again, I’m not sure how this tradition started. I guess as my siblings started leaving home, we wanted to do something a little more special when we all came home for Christmas. So the coast it was.

Oh, I just remembered. We went to the coast in 2011/2012. So maybe it’s been eight years? Wow!

Anyway. It’s a tradition that’s developed during my adulthood, not my childhood.

So there you have it! My favorite Christmas traditions. And by “favorite” I mean “the only ones I could think of.” But I like them all, so it works.

Come back tomorrow for Day 6 of Blogmas. We’re almost halfway through the entire 12 Days of Blogmas challenge!

Blogmas 2019 Day 4: Take a Sad Song and Make it Better (repost)

Four years ago today, Ben and I went to Thailand to visit our sister Amy for Christmas. What happened next was one of the most dramatic Christmastime experiences of my life. Today, I decided to revisit that memory by reposting my blog post about the experience.

I knew that I’d figure things out eventually and everything would be fine, but sometimes my emotions don’t listen to my logic. I didn’t want to cry, but I felt the tears trickle down the side of my nose anyway. Blast.

What was wrong? Let me make a list:

  1. I had been traveling for a day and a half, with no end in sight, because…
  2. Our flight to Kunming, the second leg of our three-flight journey, was delayed for four hours due to a “mechanical issue…”
  3. Which we didn’t know any details about since we didn’t speak Chinese
  4. However, we knew we’d missed the third flight entirely
  5. And we couldn’t contact my sister Amy and tell her what was going on, because we weren’t able to connect to the internet at the airport
  6. And when the delay was over, and we got on the flight, they kept saying something about going to “Nanning”
  7. But we didn’t want to go to “Nanning,” we wanted to go to Kunming
  8. And then the flight attendant got on the intercom and explained in hard-to-understand English that if we wanted to head on to Kunming after Nanning we had to *garbled words* and collect a *garbled word.*
  9. And I was very confused.

Confusion+tiredness=tears, probably a very natural reaction, but I turned my head to hide them anyway. I looked out the window. And what I saw took my breath away.

Terrace_field_yunnan_china

Source: Wikipedia (Not exactly the same as what I saw, but the closest I could find.)

What are those squiggly things glinting in the sun? Oddly-shaped ponds? I peered closer. Rice fields! Of course!

We flew down, down, over green forests and red, red dirt, and terraced rice fields all over the hills, making the landscape look like a topographic map. It was unbelievably beautiful.

Nanning turned out to be a tiny little airport with only one gate, and a crisp-but-pleasant breeze blew in our faces as we descended the steps of the airplane, a nice contrast to the freezing temperatures of Shanghai. We followed the crowd across the blacktop, hoping we were doing the right thing.

A lady in a long blue coat stood by a door, yelling something, waving a handful of what looked like blue laminated bookmarks. Her voice was lost in the swift breeze. We left the pack, and walked closer. “Kunming! Kunming!” she was shouting, and so we took some blue bookmarks and walked into the gate area through her door.

It was only a short wait. I had time to use the bathroom. The toilet was the  the squatting-kind, which made me feel happy inside, because I was in a place that actually felt Chinese, instead of the sterile generic airplanes and airports I normally find myself in.

And Ben was able to connect to the internet and send Amy an explanatory email.

In short, my spirits were refreshed.

Of course with all the hopping on and off of airplanes and shuttle buses, and with boxed dinners being thrust under my nose every time I began to doze, I was quite tired by the time we reached Kunming. Too tired to keep up with Ben’s rapid pace, I sat down to send Amy another email on Ben’s phone while Ben fetched the luggage.

I typed a message, and clicked “send.”

“Message held in queue,” it told me.

I looked up at the message Ben had sent earlier. That one was also “held in queue.” It had never sent. Amy had no idea why we didn’t show up at the airport.

No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t connect to the internet. The only way to get the password was to put in your phone number, and they’d text you the password. Which didn’t exactly work for foreigners without overseas cell service.

Ben fetched the suitcases, left me with them, and ran off to talk to the people at the China Eastern counter about the next flight to Chiang Mai. I was alone in a strange airport with two suitcases I could barely pull, and no way to contact my family. I spread my Tinkerbell blanket on top of the largest suitcase and lay my head on it. Unbidden, another tear trickled down my nose and dripped off the tip.

Suddenly, someone beside me began talking very excitedly in Chinese. I looked up. A lady with a yellow scarf was gesturing wildly to me. She pointed to her phone, handed it to her friend, and scooted up next to me.

I smiled, wide. The friend snapped a picture.

“I want one too!” I said, handing her my camera so she’d know what I meant.

Then everyone in the friend group wanted a picture with me. They all wore magnificent brightly-colored clothing, and they jammed a red hat on my head and took pictures of me in it.

It was so much fun. They knew two English words, “yes” and “hello,” and I knew no Chinese words at all. One lady tried very hard to communicate, pointing to her nose and tapping her hand and holding up two fingers, but I was completely lost.

Then Ben came back, and they wanted to take pictures of us together, though Ben wasn’t particularly enthusiastic.

They gave me a bottle of water, which was nice, since I’d lost mine along the way, and we looked through the pictures we’d taken and gave each other smiles and “thumb’s up” signs until they had to go.

“So what’s going on?” I asked Ben, my spirits once more revived.

“They only fly to Chiang Mai once a day, so we have to spend the night here,” he told me. “They put us up in a hotel.”

“Did you tell them we were brother and sister so they’d give us two beds?” I asked.

“I just hoped they’d figure it out.”

“WHAT? You just assumed they’d KNOW?”

“I told them we were brother and sister.”

“Oh.”

We waited for the shuttle, and I longed in my heart for some music to listen to.  I had nothing. Even Chinese music would have soothed my soul. Instead  I sang, so softly that no one could really hear me over the general airport buzz, and pretended that I was listening instead of singing.

“Hey Jude, don’t make it bad, take a sad song, and make it bet-ter-er-er…”

“That’s what I’ll do,” I decided. “I’ll make this sad song better. I’m in China. I’ve never been to China before. I’ll have fun.”

We walked into the hotel room, and the first thing I saw was that, blessed relief, there were two beds. As I stood there admiring this fact, I heard Ben say, “wow, the shower’s not very private.”

Yes, that is a giant window between the bathroom and the rest of the room. Ben hung out in the hall while I used the bathroom, and then he got his chance to go when I went downstairs to ask how to connect to wifi.

“It’s easy,” said the receptionist. “No password.”

It wasn’t easy, though. Facebook wouldn’t open. Gmail wouldn’t open. Twitter wouldn’t open. Google wouldn’t open. “You can go down and talk to the receptionist this time,” I told Ben.

“It’s weird, though,” said Ben. “I can connect to ESPN just fine.”

“Really?” I tried opening Internet Explorer instead of Firefox. When I typed in “Facebook,” it re-directed me to a Bing search of headlines like “sites blocked in China.”

This was the one time in my life that Bing was more helpful than Google. Because apparently Google was blocked in China. Along with Gmail, Twitter, Facebook, etc.

Thus began a frantic search for an alternate way to send a message. “Can you comment on Mom’s blog?” “I think I had a Yahoo account once.” “Do you remember the password to Mom’s old Juno account?” “Maybe I could post on my blog.” “I guess I can message my fantasy football league members through ESPN.”

It turned out that Blogger was blocked, but WordPress wasn’t, at least not entirely. A basic HTML version of my blog loaded, but it wouldn’t let me post. I tried posting using my phone.

“Success!” I shouted.

“Oh good,” said Ben. “I don’t know how long it would have been until my friends saw this fantasy football message.”

And then we collapsed in gales of laughter at the random and bizarre communication methods we were resorting to.

The next morning I woke up before Ben, and held a towel up while using the bathroom in the off chance that he groggily opened his eyes. I wondered around the hotel looking for breakfast, and found nothing. It was absolutely frigid, and the hotel doors stood wide open. Burr. I returned to our room.

Besides two pairs of crocks and a roll of toilet paper the size of a can of cream-of-mushroom soap, the hotel room didn’t have much. It did, however, have all the necessities in the way of tea-making.

 

That was quite nice. I wrapped myself in my bedspread and drank tea and ate crackers with peanut butter. Man, it was COLD.

Ben finally woke up. “It’s snowing,” he told me, looking out the window.

“What? Really?”

“Yep. See the snow on that car?”

“Oh yeah.”

“Did we forget to turn on the heater last night?”

“There’s no heater. I checked. There’s no heat in the entire building.”

“Oh.”

Happiest of happys though, when I checked the comments of my blog post I saw that, not only were Mom and Amy vastly relieved to see that we were okay, but a girl that Amy and Ben knew was actually living in Kunming at the moment. Amy typed in her phone number, and I scribbled it down on a piece of paper and went down to the lobby to ask if I could use the phone.

Felicia, was the friend’s name, and she was as friendly as friends can be. “I live an hour away, but I’m not doing anything this morning,” she said. “I’ll take a taxi over right away.”

Ben took a walk while I showered. The water was hot, warming me through and through, and I sang “hey Jude” at the top of my lungs. I was making the sad song better.

I hadn’t packed for cold weather, I’d packed for Thailand, but I did the best I could. A skirt, under which was a pair of leggings, under which were my pajama pants, rolled up to the knees. My light jacket over my t-shirt over my long-sleeved shirt. Socks borrowed from Ben, and a light scarf wrapped around and around my neck. My Tinkerbell blanket wrapped around my shoulders. I was as ready as I’d ever be.

 

“Where do you want to go?” Felicia asked when she arrived, all friendly and smiles.

“Someplace where it’s warm,” I said.

She chatted a bit with the Taxi driver in Chinese. “Do you like hot pot?” she asked us.

“What’s hot pot?”

“It’s a Chinese dish…there’s a heated pan in the center of your table and you put in all sorts of meat and vegetables and make a stew.”

A warm soup in a warm place sounded heavenly. “Sure, let’s do that.”

We walked down the street and around the corner, as I tried to avoid getting water in my not-particularly-waterproof shoes. Flakes of snow nestled into the purple fuzz of my Tinkerbell blanket.

“You just had to be stuck here on the day it snows!” said Felicia.

“Does it not usually snow here?”

“Oh no! They call this the city of eternal spring. A couple years ago it snowed, and people were so excited because it was the first time it had snowed in seven years.”

We stepped into a tiny restaurant that, like the hotel, left its doors wide open. This made me dubious, but it did seem to be warmer in here. Someone gestured to the floor and there, in a square pan, was a pile of burning coals, keeping the customers toasty.

We gathered around the low table: me, Ben, Felicia, and the taxi driver. The waiter brought a pan of broth and set it on the burner in the middle of the table, and then brought us plates of meat and vegetables, and a large kettle full of tea.

 

This already seems like a core memory, forever powering travel island. Sitting there on that low stool, in a completely unexpected location, with two brand-new friends.

The taxi driver ladled meat and veggies into my bowl. “How do you say ‘thank you’ in Chinese?” I asked Felicia.

“Syea-syea,” she said.

“Syea-syea,” I told the taxi driver. I now knew a word in Chinese.

But what I remember most was the juxtaposition of cold and warmth. The snowy wind blew in the open door, nipping at my nose and freezing my toes. The coals warmed my legs, as I tried to get as close as possible without burning the edges of my Tinkerbell blanket. The soup warmed my insides, and the kindness of strangers warmed my soul.

IMAG0158

Photo credit: Ben

My logic was right. We figured things out, and everything was okay. We paid for the hot pot with the 400 Yuen we’d been given as compensation for our delayed flight, and gave the leftover money to Felicia hoping to cover a fraction of her taxi cost, even though she insisted it was okay and she was happy to come.

We went back to the airport, checked our bags, and got on the plane for Chiang Mai. We were delayed over an hour while they sprayed the snow off the plane and waited around for other unknown reasons, but at this point that seemed like pittance.

“How many hours have we been traveling?” I asked Ben when we finally reached Chiang Mai and were filling out immigration paperwork.

“Fifty hours,” he said. But I added it up later, and it was actually sixty-two hours. Over two and a half days.

But we fetched our suitcases and walked through the big glass doors, where Amy was waiting with her arms full of hugs.

We had finally arrived.

Blogmas 2019 Day 3: Finding Christmas (Guest Post)

girl eating cupcake while sitting beside woman in blue denim distressed jeans

Photo by Daria Shevtsova on Pexels.com

Today, I’m sharing a guest post by blogger Alison Martin. As you will see in this post, Alison is a talented writer who also works as a nurse. She writes about her life on her blog, Under Seven StarsEnjoy!

“Tender Tennessee Christmas” by Amy Grant wafts through the air, invoking deep inside me a feeling of nostalgia so strong I want to burst into tears. I can’t explain it, the flood of memories this song brings to me, the sadness…

I am seven, and we are going to the cabin for the week between Christmas and New Year’s. It is snowy and evergreeny and exciting, and there’s a fire at the cabin—love surrounds me in the form of my favorite cousins, my uncles and aunts, and a new Precious Moments nightie—made by my Grandma and matching all the other girl cousins’…

I am nine and riding in the back of the family minivan with my mom and dad in the front talking, while we drive on a dark Sunday evening through a winter wonderland of snow and sparkling Christmas lights. We are driving to a church where my dad will preach this evening. My mom’s favorite Christmas album by Amy Grant croons through the air. I am warm, and I am safe, and I am loved…

I am ten, and I am curled up on the couch the afternoon before Christmas eve. We had school that day, and we tramped through the cold in our coats and boots and mittens to Christmas carol and pass out Christmas cookies to the neighbors. We opened presents back at school, and I got a fuzzy burgundy blanket, so soft, from my favorite teacher ever (who ended up being my brother-in-law three years later). That afternoon I read Alice in Wonderland and sucked on a candy cane while wrapped in my new blanket in my favorite corner in the living room. Contentment was so easy…

I am eleven and waking up to a snowy day after Christmas and feeling excited about every single one of my gifts and the love that prompted my family to buy them for me. Especially thrilling was the little red camera my dad had picked out for me himself…

I am nineteen, and I am in the van once again with my parents, driving through our neighborhood decked with lights. I am burned out from working with my dementia residents in the nursing home every day, the ones who are dying… I am surprised that I don’t feel the Christmas magic I usually feel as we complete this yearly tradition. I mention this, asking why Christmas feels so shallow when once it felt so wide and deep? My dad answers and says philosophically that that’s how life is when you grow up, and that’s why you need to have children so you can see it deep and wide again, through their eyes.

And I am twenty-three, and I don’t have any children, so I can’t see Christmas through their eyes. I don’t have a dad to tell me comfortingly that that’s how life is, and I wonder again why Christmas feels so shallow when it once felt so deep and wide. Nostalgia makes me want to cry, because where is that tender Christmas I used to know? Why do I feel like December will fly by in a flurry of deadlines and stress?

What does “peace on earth” mean as I watch people die in my work at the hospital or brush with those who are sick and wish they could die or watch those left behind try to cover up their loneliness in this happiest time of the year? It’s all shallow, and I am not seven. I can see now behind the tinsel and the music. I can see that it’s a cover, and Christmas joy is a myth. The world in this month is the same as it is the rest of the year.

Shallow, swiftly passing, painful.

But Mary brought forth a Son in pain, and there wasn’t even room for them in the inn. This is the world we live in, where there sometimes isn’t room for us in the inn, and we huddle outside alone. We huddle alone in our tense thoughts while the world celebrates around us. We forget that this is why the Savior was born. Not for the happy and whole, but for the world that is alone and in pain.

And then I remember that, after all, Christmas was never about glittering perfection. A perfect world did not need a Savior. This world I live in—this world lacking peace, this world where death over-rules love and pain is the name of the game—this is the world that needed a Savior. Christmas was never about the feelings of excitement and everything merry and bright.

Unto us a child is born… A small baby, not able to speak healing to all the nations yet, but a baby is born. Hope is given to us. Hope and the promise of peace. And there is my Christmas, deep and wide… My Christmas gift is hope and here is my peace. The dead will live again…

And one day He will wipe away the tears that cloud our vision, and we will see again through the eyes of a child.

 

Blogmas 2019 Day 2: Deep Analysis of the song “It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas”

photo of girl sitting near christmas tree

Photo by Jonathan Borba on Pexels.com

The other day I was sweeping the floor and humming “It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas” to myself, as one does this time of year. And I realized that I have a lot of thoughts about this song. Not criticisms really, just thoughts.

Like first of all, I always imagine this song taking place down the street at my neighbor’s house. Especially when I come to the line,

A pair of hop-a-long boots and a pistol that shoots
Is the wish of Barney and Ben
Dolls that’ll talk and will go for a walk
Is the hope of Janice and Jen

Because as anyone who lives around here knows, Leroy and Anita’s two youngest sons are Barney and Ben. And they were always talked about like that too, as a pair. Barney and Ben. Never Ben and Barney, or Barney and Andrew, or Andrew and Ben, even though there was a third brother named Andrew. Always Barney and Ben.

Also, there was a sister in the family named Janna, which is similar to Janice. Maybe if Andrew had been a girl they’d have named him “Jen?”

Then I started thinking about the gifts that these children in the song wanted.

First, what the bunnyslipper are hop-a-long boots?

Jenny and Amy told me that they always imagined that hop-a-long boots were 7 league boots. Personally, I always imagined boots with thick heels embedded with a spring, like a pogo stick, so you could go bouncing along on the heels of your boots.

We called on Aunt Google.

Apparently in the ’40s and ’50s there were popular books and movies about a cowboy named “Hopalong Cassidy.” So these boys wanted cowboy boots like his. “Hopalong boots.”

Meanwhile, in the world of this song, Janice and Jen want “dolls that’ll talk and will go for a walk.”

This had me nostalgic for a moment. I remember, as a kid, dreaming about the idea of a walking doll. Or a talking doll. Oh my, how wonderful would that be! If only such a thing existed!

Similarly my mom, growing up in the ’60s, used to begin her Christmas list every year with

  1. Big doll
  2. Little doll
  3. Walking doll
  4. Talking doll

Like me, she never received a walking or talking doll…at least not as a child. But unlike me, it wasn’t something she dreamed up. She’d see advertisements in the Sears catalog for walking dolls and talking dolls.

Which makes me wonder. If walking dolls and talking dolls have been around so long, and if this is something that little girls dream of owning, why isn’t this a bigger thing? Why aren’t store shelves lined with walking, talking dolls? How come my friends never had them? How come I never saw them in movies, or read about them in books?

My personal theory is that while walking dolls and talking dolls may seem cool in theory to little girls, in reality they’re just creepy. Uncanny valley stuff. After all, remember how in 2015 Mattel was trying to be all hip with the times, and created a wifi-enabled Barbie doll with a Siri/Alexa-like voice system that could hear what you said and respond? I mean, it was a BIG DEAL. I read this fancy New York Times article about it.

And then…nothing.

It never caught on. It never became a thing. Its Amazon page now says it’s “discontinued from manufacturer,” and shows it rated 2 out of 5 stars.

It’s just so fascinating to me, that technology can only go so far before we’re all collectively like, “no, that’s creepy. I’m not buying that.”

Anyway, back to the song. So after Barney and Ben want a toy gun and some boots, and Janice and Jen want a walking, talking doll, we get to the line And Mom and Dad can hardly wait for school to start again.

This line always sticks out to me, because I remember being a kid. I remember at the end of summer vacation, my mom saying, “I’m dreading school starting up again. I’ll miss my kids!” And that always made me feel so warm and loved. I’d overhear other parents, in Goodwill or wherever we used to go in those days, talking about how they couldn’t wait to send their kids back to school. What must that be like? To be a kid and know that your parents didn’t want you around?

I mean, I’ve never been a parent. Maybe it is so difficult that you secretly look forward to school starting again. But it’s always bothered me when this sentiment is thrown out casually, almost like a joke. Like, your kids are listening to you, and that’s a really mean thing to say.

Moving along to other parts of the song, I find that some of them are rather strange. I mentioned this in last year’s Christmas Songs that Don’t make Sense, but the oddest part of this song is the stanza:

It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas
Soon the bells will start
And the thing that will make ’em ring is the carol that you sing
Right within your heart

That literally makes no sense. Where are these bells that will “start?” And if I sing a carol in my heart, they’ll ring? How is that different than “starting?” And why are we singing carols in our heart to make some bells ring?

Also, I can’t figure out what “silver lanes” means in this first stanza.

It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas
Everywhere you go
Take a look at the five and ten, it’s glistening once again
With candy canes and silver lanes that glow

Unlike with the hop-a-long boots, Google was no help to me here. Some people thought “silver lanes that glow” meant icy streets, but how would there be icy streets in a five and ten store? Others thought it meant the aisles of the store, which makes more sense, but how are they silver and glowing? There wouldn’t be ice inside the store, would there?

Still, you have to admit that for all it’s oddities the song, and in particular its primary line, is super catchy. It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas. My sister Amy claims that it’s the most-used song in Instagram stories this time of year.

Don’t forget to come back tomorrow for Day 3 of Blogmas!

12 Days of Blogmas, Day 1: Christmas Giveaway

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Update: Giveaway is now closed! Thank you for participating!

This year I’m doing the 12 Days of Blogmas challenge, where I’ll post something Christmas-related on each of the 12 days leading up to Christmas.

And in the spirit of Christmas, let’s start off with a good old-fashioned giveaway!

I wanted my giveaway to be cozy/winter themed rather than Christmas themed, because by the time you get this, Christmas will be almost over. So I have a few things here that will keep you cozy this winter.

First, books! I carefully selected three books that I think will be universally appealing to readers, regardless of age or gender. They are:

  1. Paris Underground, by Etta Shiber
    This book is a true story about two older widows who ended up smuggling people out of France during WWII. Fascinating, informative, and oddly charming despite its serious subject matter.
  2. Leave it to Psmith, by P.G. Wodehouse
    P.G. Wodehouse is the king of humor writing, and this book is one of his masterpieces. I’ve never met someone who read this book and didn’t love it. As an added bonus, Wodehouse went on to write not one, but two series based on this book…one that focuses on the character Psmith, and one that centers around Blandings Castle, where Leave it to Psmith takes place. So if you enjoy it, you have many more books to explore.
  3. The Little Book of Hygge, by Meik Wiking
    This book is a little bit nerdy, digging, as it does, into the etymology of one little Danish word. It’s also quite charming, with its pretty illustrations and its instructions on how to use candles, baked treats, and cozy nooks to their best advantage.
    But most of all, it is practical and informative for anyone who struggles with the cold, dark days of winter. If the Danish people can figure out a way to be the happiest people on earth in one of the coldest, darkest locations, than you can get through the winter too. This book will help.

Besides the books, this giveaway includes a cozy pottery mug, and a large unscented candle. (The unscented part is important. You’ll understand once you read The Little Book of Hygge.) (Also, it’s a good one. Not one of those cheap candles that burns up before you can blink.)

To enter this giveaway, you must…

  1. Comment on this post, saying you’d like to be entered into the giveaway. Or saying whatever you want to say. If you leave a comment, I’ll assume that means you want to be entered.
  2. That’s the only requirement, but if you share this post on Facebook I’ll give you TWO extra entries. (Just tell me, in your comment on this post, that you shared it.)

This giveaway will close Monday, December 16, at 11:59 pm Pacific Time. 

And meanwhile, come back every day for my 12 Days of Blogmas posts! Lord willing and my computer cord don’t explode, I’ll post every day from now until Christmas Eve. (But with my propensity to post late in the evenings, and my Pacific time zone, it might be more like every morning from tomorrow morning until Christmas morning for you East Coasters.)

Anyway, we’ll have some fun times! I wrote a Christmas-themed fiction story. And lined up a guest poster. And scoured my blog for a couple funny Christmas memories from years past. And hopefully I’ll manage to shoot and edit a fun video.

Finally, I want to mention that this giveaway is the very first thing I’m spending my Patreon money on!

Last April I set up a Patreon page, where I post at least one, but usually two, bonus blog posts a month. I post about opinions, semi-controversial thoughts, and personal reflections that I’m not comfortable showing the whole entire world on my regular blog. Things get much deeper over on my Patreon.

I charge $1 a month for access, although you can give more than that, if you want to further support my blog.

So far I haven’t spent any of that money. Since it came from blog supporters, I wanted to pour it back into my blog in some way. Beginning with this givaway, and then renewing my domain name, and eventually replacing the little pink $190 laptop I’ve been using for five years. After that my goal will be to buy a camera and start doing more video projects for the blog!

Anyway. All this to say a deep “thank you” to everyone who supports my blog. If you’re interested in supporting me on Patreon and getting access to my bonus posts, go to patreon.com/emilysmucker and click the pink “Join $1 Tier” button (on computers), or the red “select” button (on mobile).

End of commercial.

Merry Christmas, and don’t forget to comment below and enter the giveaway!!!

Christmas in the City with Angie

I’m doing the holidays a bit haphazardly and fly-by-the-seat-of-my-skirt-ey this year. It’s been fun, but it makes small talk very strange and complicated.

Person making small talk: So, where are you girls from?

Me: I’m from Oregon.

Angie: And I’m from Delaware.

Person making small talk: So…what are you doing in Washington DC on Christmas eve?

Me: Well, my brother lives here. But he went to Oregon for Christmas. I couldn’t afford to go until January 4, but it’s okay, we’re having our family Christmas later anyway. He said I could stay in his apartment.

Angie: And my sisters are having Christmas with their in-laws, so I decided to come spend Christmas here too.

Person making small talk that’s now turning into big talk: And…how do you two know each other? College?

Angie: No, actually, she lived with me for a month. See, she’s doing this thing where she lives in a different place each month…

Once people start asking questions, the explanations are never ending, and far more numerous than anyone asked for. Awkwardness ensues. I guess I’m living a pretty atypical life at the moment.

We each had something in the city we particularly wanted to do. Angie wanted to go to the Passion City Church for their Christmas Eve service, because she’d watched Youtube videos of the pastor, Ben Stuart, and knew he was a good preacher. I wanted to go to the Christmas Day service at the National Cathedral, because my mom went to the cathedral once and was in absolute awe.

Angie got in Christmas eve, and after a brief rest we went down to the subway and attempted to find our way to Passion City Church. It was remarkably easy. The green line went basically from the back door of Matt’s apartment to the back door of the church.

Based on Angie’s description of Ben Stuart’s preaching abilities, as well as the church’s affiliation with the Passion conference, I assumed we’d be in a mega church. We weren’t. Oh, it was bigger than Brownsville I guess, but it had a small church feel. Chat-with-the-preacher-on-your-way-out-the-door small.

It was like the perfect modern church service. Great worship band. Fantastic and engaging sermon. Theologically sound. Great chats with the friendly people around us who call Passion City home. Candles for everyone.

We were hungry after the service, so we rode the subway to Chinatown in search of food.

Long story short, we ended up at a busy McDonalds with no seating. We decided to streamline things by using the self-order stands. Which was a bad idea.

First, my screen went back to the start screen after I’d inserted my credit card. No recipt. Did the order go through or not? I had to get in the looooong line after all, just to ask.

Apparently it did go through, and I was given my cheeseburgers. Angie, however, had to wait ages for her food. The restaurant closed. The orders disappeared from the screen one by one. Still Angie had no food.

Finally, the lady called out Angie’s number. As she reached for it, a cute guy reached out too. “I think that’s mine,” he said teasingly.

“No,” said Angie, taking her food and heading for the soda dispenser.

“You’re beautiful!” He called after her, just to make sure she knew he was flirting.

“Thank you,” she said without turning around.

I was highly amused by this incident, especially when Angie told me that she didn’t even notice that he was cute. “I just wanted my food!” She said.

Usually I’m the one who doesn’t notice when guys are cute. But maybe I noticed because I thought his joke was funny, and Angie didn’t notice because she was not amused.

Note to men: joking about taking food from a hungry woman is not an effective flirtation technique.

We went home to eat our food while watching White Christmas.

The next morning we put a youtube video of a fire on the TV, played Christmas carols, and opened the gifts we’d purchased for each other.

Spoiler alert: we bought each other mugs. She also gave me a small box of tea.

After that we dressed and went to the National Cathedral.

The cathedral was a bit of a walk from the subway station, but we were walking through the most enchanting neighborhood.

“Do you hear the music?”

“Yes, what is that?”

“It’s the church bells!”

We rounded the corner, and there it was. Huge. Magnificent.

Well, the pictures I took don’t remotely do it justice, so this is the only one I’ll post.

The cathedral service was the perfect old-fashioned Christmas service. Huge and awe inspiring. Church bells. Organ and choir music. Scripture readings and liturgy.

It was breathtaking.

I generally avoid driving in the city but I realized that I could have easily driven to that service. The roads were empty and there was plenty of street parking, free because it was Christmas.

So here’s a tip for all you Pennsylvania, Virginia, Delaware, etc people who are just a few hours from the city. If you want to see the cathedral but don’t like traffic and paying for parking, consider coming Christmas day.

However, if you do so, coming early would be a good idea. Angie and I arrived right on the dot, and all the best seats were taken.

Back home after the service we embarked on the task of making Christmas dinner.

First, the oven didn’t work. We decided to fry the ham.

Then, my attempt at mashed potatoes turned into such a gluey mess that the beaters wouldn’t even spin. It was lumpy and sticky and awful.

I googled. Apparently red potatoes make gluey mashed potatoes. Here I thought I was saving time by buying potatoes I didn’t have to peel, LOL.

“We could make baked potatoes instead,” said Angie.

“The oven doesn’t work.”

“Well, we could fry potatoes.”

So Angie sliced potatoes very thin and fried them up. The broccoli turned out fine, and overall we had a fantastic, if a bit breakfast-like, meal.

We ate, lounged around, took naps, and then decided to hit the town again.

We ended up walking down the National Mall, checking out all the outdoor monuments. Then, tired of walking around, we sat on the steps of the Lincoln memorial and chatted.

The cold wormed itself into our bones.

“Where’s the nearest metro station?”

Angie checked on her phone. We had to use hers, because I’d forgotten mine at home. “We could walk to this one up here.”

“Or look! We could walk across the bridge and catch the Arlington cemetery metro! It would be so magical, walking across the bridge at night!”

So we took a loooooong walk across the bridge, and it wasn’t quite as magical as I’d hoped, due to aching feet and bones.

“What’s that?” Angie asked when we were across the bridge. A white wall loomed up in front of us.

“I don’t know.”

We found an elevator that led to the metro. But we were so close to the big white wall, we just had to check it out.

So we kept walking.

A strange phenomenon occurred. We might as well have been on a treadmill, because though we walked and walked and walked, the white wall remained just ahead.

When we finally managed to catch up with it, it was disappointing. It really was just a white wall. It was a memorial to women in the military, but there were no fountains or anything…just a white wall and locked gates.

“Look,” said Angie softly.

I turned around. Right behind us was a white temple, lit golden in the night.

“What’s that?” I asked, confused.

“That’s the Lincoln Memorial,” said Angie.

I tried to wrap my head around this information. We’d been walking away from the Lincoln Memorial for what felt like a lifetime and a half, and yet here it was, looking so close.

My only conclusion is that if you construct something huge out of white marble, and light it brilliantly in the night, it will seriously screw up people’s depth perception.

We trudged back to the metro. The up escalator was running, but the down one was still. I began to descend it like a staircase, before I noticed that the entrance at the bottom was gated off.

We went to the elevator. Pushed buttons.

Nothing.

Angie pulled out her phone.

It died.

Thankfully she had an external battery pack. We sat on a statue and waited for her phone to charge. Weary to the core, we had no interest in taking one more step.

Now, we decided, would be a great time to figure out how to use Uber.

It really was quite fairly simple. We could’t remember Matt’s address, so we just typed in the Metro station that’s basically in his back yard. And pretty soon we were in a warm car, zooming home, while “Silent Night” played softly on the radio.

That was our Christmas in the city. The next day we did more sight seeing, since things were open again, and then Angie left.

I should note that until I get another computer cord, I can’t promise a blog post every other day. The last two posts were partially written when the cord met its demise, but this post was 100% done on my phone and it’s been brutal. The wordpress app gets really glitchy when things get this long.

Here is a parting shot, of me at the Cathedral, taken by Angie.

Blogmas 2018: Cozy Books to Read During the Holidays

Nonfiction

The Little Book of Hygge: Danish Secrets to Happy Living, by Meik Wiking

“Hygge” is a Danish word that doesn’t really have an English translation, though it could be described as “cozy togetherness.” Think of a group of friends sitting in front of a fire, sipping hot cider. The Danes carefully construct their lives so that they experience as much Hygge as possible. For instance, having candles burning at the office and in school classrooms.

Wiking decided that the rest of the world was missing out, so he wrote an entire little book on the subject. I don’t usually read much nonfiction, and I only picked it up because I was looking for cozy/winter-themed books for this blog post. But I thought it was irresistibly charming.

It has some etymology, some recipes, some exploration of culture, and various tips on how to incorporate Hygge into your life. After reading, I promptly went out and bought an oversized wool sweater from a thrift store.

Christmas Stories

P.S. These are all children’s books. I don’t know why there aren’t more good Christmas stories aimed at adults, but alas. I tried to find some and had little luck. If you know of any good ones, let me know!

The Best Christmas Pageant Ever, by Barbara Robinson

This is probably my favorite Christmas-themed story ever.

First, because Robinson has a John Crist-level grasp on the idiosyncrasies of American Christian culture. They’re a wee bit outdated, as this book was written in the early ’70s, but still hilarious.

And you know how I wrote, once, that you can tell when an author knows her/his subject because they know what goes wrong? Well let me tell you, Robinson certainly knows what goes wrong while directing a Christmas Pageant.

The Tailor of Gloucester, by Beatri

This little book is so charming and delightful. The Christmas theme isn’t super heavy-handed, but the book hinges on the fact that a wonderful coat needs to be finished for the mayor to wear on his wedding day, which is on Christmas morning.

Somehow this books makes getting married on Christmas morning seem like the most charming thing ever.

The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, by C. S. Lewis

This classic introduction to the Narnia series (and trust me, it’s a much better introduction than The Magician’s Nephew) is the perfect cozy book to read over the Christmas holidays. So wintry! So charming!

While it’s not a “Christmas story” per se, Christmas is an important part of the plot. I’m not quite sure how Christmas existed in Narnia at that point, as Christ had a different name there, and hadn’t even died yet. But it’s still a cool bit of symbolism to play with. You know, Christmas coinciding with the savior coming, the end of winter’s grip, etc.

Ramona and her Father, by Beverly Cleary

This book begins with the start of a new school year, and ends with a Christmas Pageant. It’s a very rainy Christmas, being set in Oregon, and that felt like a nice touch.

P.S. Did you know that Beverly Cleary is 102 years, 8 months, and 12 days old?

Lovely Classics that Feel Wintry

There’s something about a classic novel that feels cozy and wintry, like it should be read in front of a fireplace. Here are some that feel dramatic and wintry, but still feature a good cozy happy ending.

Jane Eyre, by Charlotte Bronte

I actually looked up a timeline of this book to see if it was set in winter. It takes place in all seasons. But I still feel like, between the orphanage and the giant mansion, Jane is cold a lot. So it feels like a winter book to me.

Persuasion, by Jane Austin

I read on a random blog that Persuasion is the most wintry of all Jane Austin’s books. I agree. I have no evidence to back this up. It just feels wintry for some reason, Haha.

True-ish Books Set in Harsh Climates

Mrs Mike, by Benedict and Nancy Freedman

A young girl moves to Alberta for health reasons, and falls in love with a Mountie. What follows is a fascinating account of the harsh realities of life up north.

There are several scenes in this book which really fascinated me and stuck with me. But I’m afraid telling them would spoil key parts of the story.

Tisha, by Robert Specht

Tisha is similar to Mrs. Mike, only with more idealism and less tragedy. The book follows a girl named Anne who moves to Alaske to become a teacher, or “Tisha,” as her students call her.

I haven’t read this book in ages, but I recall it being lovely.

Kyra, by Kyra Petrovskaya

While all three of these books are based on true stories, Kyra is an actual memoir of a woman who lived in the Soviet Union during WWII.

Her story was enthralling. I could hardly believe so many things, and so many husbands, had happened to one person. Particularly fascinating was her account of living through the Siege of Leningrad.

It’s interesting to me that although we have countless books, movies, etc based on WWII, most of them are from an American, British, or German perspective. But the Soviet Union had far and away the most deaths. Kyra was the first WWII book I’d ever read from a Soviet Union perspective.

That’s all for now. I was going to add a section. I was going to add a section about cozy topic memoirs, like food memoirs and home renovation memoirs, but it’s Christmas eve y’all and I’m too tired.