The Twenty-four Days of Christmas

The Christmas season seems to begin a little earlier each year. Stores decorate and start their sales around Halloween. Lights go up on houses well before Thanksgiving, while Christmas cards show up in mailboxes by Black Friday.  The longer the season though, the more abrupt the conclusion. Be honest; who among us sings Christmas carols (or watches Hallmark movies) on December 26th?  Not many.  We worry and scurry for weeks about a single day – then suddenly it’s over.  Here’s a better approach.  Let’s focus instead on the one, true Christmas season preceding the day. Let’s focus on Advent.

For most Christians, Advent refers to the twenty-four days before Christmas (not to be confused with the song-famous Twelve Days, which come after Christmas).  Advent begins four Sundays before December 25th.  The word literally means “coming”, as in the (first coming) birth of Jesus at Christmas, and the (second coming) reappearance of Jesus at the end of time.  If you’re looking for the season’s theme song, go with “O Come, O Come Emmanuel”.  It’s the one, true Advent carol.

Once upon a time Advent included fasting, penance, and daily prayer, but today the season seems to be nothing more than a countdown.  Even in Sunday church services, the four candles of the Advent wreath are lit as the four Sundays pass by – a weekly countdown to the Christmas candle in the center. Here’s a more efficient idea.  Let’s add another ball in Times Square; one that takes twenty-four days to drop instead of sixty seconds.  Might save a lot of wreaths and calendars.

Speaking of calendars, maybe a countdown is enough to signify a season.  Advent calendars are all the rage these days.  I had one when I was a kid; the flat, cardboard kind with twenty-four numbered doors of varying shapes and sizes.  Oddly, the doors were never arranged numerically, as if the calendar was made more appealing by having to search for a given day.  Not so oddly, each door fronted a bit of chocolate.  As if waiting twenty-four days for Christmas wasn’t hard enough, Advent calendars forced a kid to wait twenty-four hours to “open” each piece of chocolate.  A test of patience.

       

If cardboard and chocolate don’t catch your attention, perhaps you’d prefer a more elaborate version of an Advent calendar.  Consider Fran’s Chocolates of Seattle (above left), which produces its annual calendar fronted by an original watercolor.  Add in twenty-four delectable chocolates in twenty-four drawers, and this calendar sets you back $175.  Or how about Liberty London’s “Beauty Advent Calendar” (above right), which includes twenty-four wellness products – many of them full-size – like probiotic deodorant, essential oil candles, and skin bronzer?  This one sets you back $275, with the price justification you can re-gift whatever items are not to your taste.

Lest you think a fancy (or not) calendar is the only way to acknowledge Advent, I can’t close without mentioning the Christingle.  I don’t remember creating one of these as a kid.  A Christingle is made up of an orange, a candle, a bit of red ribbon, and four sets of dried fruits or sweets, skewered on cocktail sticks.  It’s a strange-looking assembly, but the Christingle gets an “A” for symbolism.  The orange represents the world.  The candle represents Jesus as the light of the world.  The red ribbon represents God’s love (or Jesus’ blood).  The fruits/sweets represent the gifts God gives us, and the cocktails sticks represent the four corners of the globe.  Lots going on in one sort-of-neat package.

Austria may lay claim to the biggest Advent calendar in the world!

If you’re reading this post before December 1st, you have the entire twenty-four days of Advent ahead of you.  Twenty-four days to slow down and appreciate the meaning of day twenty-five.  Sounds more like a season than a single day, doesn’t it?  Mark your calendar then.  Advent is here.

Some content sourced from Wikipedia, “the free encyclopedia”.

Dusting Off Dumbo

In March, Disney will release a remake of the children’s classic “Dumbo”, almost eighty years after the original. An intriguing story (Tim Burton directs), and the wonders of computer animation suggest the new version will be pretty good; standing on its own the way Jim Carrey managed with his version of the Grinch. “Mary Poppins” also Returns next week after a fifty-year absence. Emily Blunt looks supercalifragilistic in the previews, but with all due respect, there’s only one Mary Poppins and her name is Julie Andrews (there is also only one Maria Von Trapp and her name is also Julie Andrews).

Movie remakes are blog-worthy, but that’s not my mission today.  I’m here to talk about Dumbo.  Even though his modern-day movie doesn’t come out for a few more months, you’ll find him at any one of the six Disney parks.  He’ll fly you in dizzy circles with his big ears and colorful cap; as happy an elephant as he’s ever been.  But on closer inspection, you may find your Dumbo needs a little dusting off.  That grey may be his (plastic) skin perhaps, but – brace yourself – it may also be the scattered remains of deceased Disney devotees. Apparently some souls choose to be interred in an urn known as The Happiest Place On Earth.

Okay, I know some of you were anticipating a jolly-holiday post this time of year, with visions of chestnuts roasting on an open fire (“pop! pop! pop!”) or a “Baby It’s Cold Outside” fire (romantic embers) but sorry; today we’re talking about a cremation fire.  Doesn’t the topic make you just a little curious?  Did you know for instance, we humans spread our ashes (or I should say, have our ashes spread) at sea, in woodland groves, into volcanoes, over sports stadiums and on golf courses, and yes – all over the Disney parks, but “at sea” is the only legal option on the list?  Or, did you know, if you spread an entire urn’s worth, you’re talking about five pounds of ashes?  Not exactly a spoonful of sugar, Mary.

I never knew Disney had this sort of problem in its parks (although at The Happiest Places On Earth, there are no “problems”).  Scattered ashes are reported at least once a month.  Disney handles these incidents the way they do other “real-world” stuff: with complete discretion.  First, an employee notices said “pixie dust” (maybe with help from Tinker Bell?).  Then a “HEPA” text – high-efficiency particulate air – is sent to maintenance, because that’s the kind of vacuum you’re gonna need.  Then the ride or area of the park is closed off and the deceased is sucked up “spit-spot”.  You can almost see the maintenance guy whistling while he works.

HEPA vac

Scattering ashes (other than at-sea) is a misdemeanor, but in true Disney fashion no charges are pressed if you’re caught.  Instead, your mouse ears are removed and you’re escorted out the nearest gates, back to the real world.  Any patrons inconvenienced by your actions get reimbursed with a Fast Pass or a store voucher.  Having said that, plan on a few extra minutes getting screened at the entry gates.  Besides knives, bombs, and alcohol, they’re looking for urns.  Or, in the backpacks of the more determined: plastic pill bottles and makeup compacts.

Disney’s Dumbo ride is a common place to scatter ashes (specifically, the moat under the flying elephants), as is Cinderella’s Castle (flowerbeds) and It’s A Small World (anywhere near the delirious singing dolls) but where do most scatterings take place?  Why, the Haunted Mansion of course.  It’s the only truly morbid location at Disney.  As your “ghost host” says over and over, “we have 999 happy haunts here, but there’s room for 1,000 – any volunteers?”  I guess some people take their ghost host seriously.

On a related topic, several years ago Disney sold personalized hexagonal pavers at its Florida park.  You could put anything you wanted on the tiles, except the words “In Memory Of…” Why?  Disney didn’t want people to have death on their minds at The Happiest Place On Earth.  As Mary Poppins would say, they’re just trying to be practically perfect in every way.  But clearly, some people have death on their minds anyway.  Or at least, ashes in their backpacks.

Some content sourced from the Wall Street Journal article, “Disney World’s Big Secret…”.

A Distant Third (cont.)

Last Tuesday in cycle class, pedaling through the five-minute recovery after an hour of torture, our instructor asked if we’d like a Christmas carol or two from her playlist.  The one rider with enough oxygen lashed out vehemently, “NO!  It’s too early!”  Well how about that; score a point for Thanksgiving.  The sun set on Halloween two weeks ago and mighty Christmas is already trying to muscle its way to the forefront.  But Thanksgiving has a thing or two to say first.  If you please, keep the sugar plums out of my turkey and stuffing.

In last week’s post, I compared popular aspects of Halloween, Thanksgiving, and Christmas (i.e. history, music, food).  The final tally: Christmas the clear winner – no surprise – with Halloween solidly in second.  But lest we relegate Thanksgiving to the bronze medal year after year, my blog-intent is to reinvigorate America’s late-November holiday, and remind readers why Turkey Day stands on its own merits.

On that note, we’re starting November with promise.  My wife is getting endless mailbox catalogs, and I was delighted to find Williams-Sonoma’s “Thanksgiving Headquarters” edition: 180 pages of food, linens, kitchenware, and decor specifically designed for the holidays.  They even photo-profiled a barn-based “Friendsgiving” celebration in upstate New York.  Granted, the Thanksgiving section of the catalog ended on p.67, meaning the remaining 100 pages were all about Christmas.  No matter – 67 pages of Thanksgiving is impressive.  Way to go, Williams-Sonoma.

Starbucks also made a statement – albeit more feeble – putting their unique spin on Thanksgiving.  Right now, you can drive-thru and order a Turkey & Stuffing Panini (with cranberries and gravy!), perfectly nicknamed “a handheld turkey dinner”.  Then pair your panini with a Chestnut Praline Latte (“flavors of caramelized chestnuts and spices, topped with whipped cream and spiced praline crumbs”).  That combo speaks more to November than December in my book.  Not bad, Starbucks.

Retail aside, Thanksgiving plays out as more of an extended weekend than a single day.  Consider the before/after events.  Wednesday (“Thanksgiving Eve”) is routinely labeled “the single busiest travel day of the year”.  Well guess what?  It’s not.  Thanksgiving Day is the busiest travel day of the year, considering 90% of us drive our cars to the family gathering that morning.  Thanksgiving Wednesday (and Thanksgiving Sunday) only seem busiest because the chaos at the airports gets so much attention.

Now, on Turkey Day itself, besides the meal and the backyard football, we begin with the “Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade”.  My family always seems to miss the broadcast because we’re so busy in the kitchen.  Macy’s is three hours of marching bands, dancing Rockettes, Broadway singers, flying character balloons, and – as far as I can tell – one nod to Thanksgiving (the massive turkey in the photo above).  But hang on ’til the very end of the broadcast, because… here comes Santa Claus, here comes Santa Claus, wrapping up the parade the same way he’s done every year since 1924.  It’s like the Williams-Sonoma catalog – Thanksgiving on the outside but more “holiday season” in disguise.

Thanksgiving Friday is “Black”, of course – the so-called beginning of the Christmas shopping season.  We Americans spend over $50 billion that day (putting retailers “back in the black” with profits – hence the name).  It’s safe to say this bonanza of spending isn’t going away anytime soon.  By its very nature, Black Friday extinguishes Thanksgiving – almost before the pumpkin pie is served.  Black Friday sales begin as early as 5pm on Thursday evening (making the name obsolete, don’t you think?)  And if Thanksgiving isn’t early enough for you, some stores begin sales a week before Black Friday, with the teaser, “avoid the chaos of Black Friday – shop now!”  Uh, what’s the real meaning of Christmas again?

So there you have it – Christmas putting the squeeze on Thanksgiving like the Grinch on Whoville. Santa concludes the Macy’s parade at 12:00pm ET.  Christmas shopping begins five hours later.  In between, throw a meal on the table, mumble a blessing, and don’t forget to say thanks.  If we’re not careful, Thanksgiving Day will be reduced to Thanksgiving Hour.  It’s a phenomenon known as “holiday compression depression” (okay, I just made that up), but hey; it’s happened before.  In 1971, George and Abe got their standalone birthday celebrations mashed into a single holiday.  Even they feel Thanksgiving’s pain.

A Distant Third

America’s Election Day finds us one week post-Halloween, fifty days pre-Christmas, and still adjusting to that pesky hour gained from the loss of Daylight Savings Time (got all that?) Fittingly, I’m working through a small pile of candy corn and M&M’s while placing a couple of online orders for holiday gifts. And that, my friends, is the perfect lead-in to today’s topic. With Halloween fading fast as the sun, and Christmas approaching like Starbucks’ holiday cups (just when did those show up already?), where in God’s name is the love of Thanksgiving?

Of course, Thanksgiving gets steamrolled every year between the other two loudmouths – just seems the real estate on either side is getting bigger. Our neighborhood’s professional haunted houses, pumpkin patches, and corn mazes opened gates in early September. Then Christmas’ onslaught of decor, music, and retail made its entrance the moment front-porch lights switched off on trick-or-treating. In short, Holiday 1 and Holiday 3 officially overlapped each other, suffocating Holiday 2 onto life support. It’s the classic case of middle-child syndrome – “exclusion caused by the more specific attention to the others”. Poor Thanksgiving.

To be fair, ranking the standard aspects of holidays puts Thanksgiving in third place in just about every category.  Let’s review a few:

ORIGIN: Halloween dates to 2,000 years ago; the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain (in present-day Ireland), when people lit bonfires and wore costumes to ward off ghosts. That’s pretty cool.  Thanksgiving dates a mere 400 years, mimicking the harvest meal shared by the Wampanoag Indians and English Pilgrims. Christmas – at least to us Christians – dates over 2,000 years ago to the birth of Christ. Measured by the calendar then, Christmas (C) takes first place, Halloween (H) second, and Thanksgiving (T) a distant third.

CELEBRATION: Halloween used to be just children’s trick-or-treating. Now we’ve evolved to a month of the aforementioned haunted houses, pumpkin patches, and corn mazes; then costume contests, themed drinks, and increased cover charges at the bars; and a plethora of scary movies at the theater. Thanksgiving?  One day preparing one meal to be consumed in (more or less) one hour.  Christmas has its December 25th, but it also has a season’s worth of caroling, parties, movies, concerts, parades, church services, craft shows, decorations, temporary ice-skating rinks, and on and on and on.  Again – First Place: C, Second: H, (Distant) Third: T.

MUSIC: Halloween: “Werewolves of London”, “The Time Warp”, “The Monster Mash”, “Ghostbusters”, “Thriller”. Christmas: You-pick-’em – a dozen of your favorites (from hundreds if not thousands of carols). Thanksgiving: Not one.  Not one single, solitary tune comes to mind. First Place: C, Second: H, Late-to-the-party: T.

COLORS: Halloween: Red, Orange, Yellow (and every shade in between). Thanksgiving: brown. Christmas: Red, Green, White. Let’s call it a first-place tie between C and H.  In third place (and looking awfully uncolorful): T.

APPAREL – Let’s give this category about five seconds. Halloween is all about apparel, so anything goes and everything works. Christmas allows for – at least once in the season – your Sunday best, or getting all dolled up for some special occasion. Thanksgiving? All I come up with is stretch pants to ease the digestion of the meal.  First place: H, Second place: C, Absent-From-The-Podium: T.

FOOD – Halloween brings forth every imaginable candy, with a side of bobbed apples and witch’s brew. Christmas explodes with candy canes, decorated cookies, the Grinch’s roast beast, and those wretched fruit cakes. But here comes Thanksgiving for the kill – turkey, stuffing, potatoes, cranberries, dinner rolls, salads, vegetables, two-maybe-three kinds of pie, and whatever else you can cram onto the table. Assuming this carb-crazy feast is your cup of tea, Thanksgiving wins in a runaway. First place: T, Second place: C, Third Place (+ Sugar Coma): H.

Let’s tally the results.  In five of six categories, Thanksgiving gets the beat-down from Halloween and Christmas.  The mega-holidays appear to be reducing Turkey Day to a trifle.  But lest you think it’s a dying bird, I’m here to convince you Thanksgiving isn’t down for the count.  Stay tuned: there’s more to discuss about the little holiday that could.

Sweet Charity

Several times during the recent year-end holidays, I passed through the drive-thru at Starbucks, and as I paid, I asked the cashier to include the purchases of the car behind me. I’ve been participating in this Starbucks-wide trend for several Christmases now, and it brings me an inexplicable feeling of goodwill and satisfaction.  The goal of the effort is anonymity. Or to put it more comprehensively, blind faith.

Blind faith is defined as “belief without true understanding, perception, or discrimination”.  That’s powerful.  “Faith” is a spectrum that starts with basic trust and ends with the highest forms of religion.  But add on “blind” and it elevates the meaning.

Buying a free cup of coffee at Starbucks is the easiest form of blind faith, like handing over a dollar to a beggar.  No judgment as to “what happens next” allowed.  But the intention behind an act of blind faith is worth a bit of exploring here.  Dissecting my Starbucks gesture, I note the key components.  First, I don’t waffle over the amount of the purchase I’m covering.  That’s the blind faith in choosing to pay in the first place – it shouldn’t matter how much.  One time I looked in the rear-view mirror and saw a car with four passengers.  Their bill was well over $20.  But my decision had been made before the car even pulled up behind me, so the point was to stick with it.  Another time my recipient was a well-dressed woman wearing sunglasses and driving a recent-model BMW.  Again, no judgment.  Pay for her coffee and move on.

The second component concerns my “getaway”.  As I’m waiting for my own purchases I’m considering my escape route – the path that gets me away from Starbucks as quickly as possible, with enough turns and traffic lights to deter my beneficiary.  My goal is to remain anonymous, and unless the person behind me memorizes my license plates (or something else unique about my vehicle), I’ve achieved a moment of goodwill and will never see them again.  Frankly, it would spoil the whole effort if the car pulled up next to me at a nearby red light.  They might offer their gratitude, or they might offer to pay me back.  They might even be annoyed, as if I had no business intruding on their “personal life”.  I’d rather not know.  I prefer to lean on blind faith that I brought an unexpected smile, or delivered a tiny give-me-a-break in an otherwise trying day.  Maybe they’ll even “pay it forward”, as a string of 374 consecutive cars did at a Starbucks in Florida back in 2014.

Come to think of it, there’s a third component in the Great Coffee Giveaway.  Never expect the gesture in return.  In the countless times I’ve driven through Starbucks during the holidays, I’ve never thought to myself, “I hope the car in front of me picks up the tab”.  If I knew this was happening, I might just order a half-dozen breakfast sandwiches and several cake-pops to go with my Flat White.  Just kidding, of course.  I hope the thought never crosses my mind.

This week and last – no surprise here – I’ve read dozens of blogs about resolutions for the New Year.  Allow me to contribute my one-and-only.  I’m going to lean on blind faith in the coming year, whenever I have the chance to give someone a break.  Remember the rules: 1) No conditions on the amount (read: cost) of the help.  2) Keep it anonymous, as a) recognition defeats the spirit, and b) giving simply for the sake of giving might inspire “pay it forward”.  3) Don’t expect a similar gesture in return.  That’s not to say you won’t be pleasantly surprised when someone buys your Starbucks coffee one of these days.  You’ll just know there were no hidden agendas.

 

Sourcing the Christmas Spirit

The holiday season often feels like a sprint to the finish.  From the moment the Thanksgiving table is cleared, my brain shifts to the list of “essential tasks” preceding Christmas Day.  In no particular order I know we will a) put up a tree, b) hang the lights,  c) decorate the house, d) write and mail greeting cards, e) send packages to distant family members, f) shop for the Christmas dinner, g) bake cookies, and of course, h) purchase gifts for the family.  We don’t always get everything done.  Some years – like this one in fact – no lights get hung.  Other years no cookies get baked.  There’s never enough time, the calendar mercilessly counts down the days, and just forget about intentions of healthy eating at any point in the process.

75-provenance-1

Thankfully all of this Christmas prep includes a few heartwarming activities.  My family and I always seem to find time to drive around the neighborhood to see the lights.  We don’t trim the tree until the week before Christmas, choosing from more ornaments than we have branches.  We watch several of those cheesy Hallmark Channel movies, with the formula love stories and terrible acting and without-fail-happy-endings.  We keep egg nog in the frig and candy and cookies on the kitchen counters.  We tune our car radios to round-the clock holiday music stations.  We never miss Christmas Eve church.

More than twenty-five Christmases celebrated with my immediate family leads me to this conclusion: the spirit of Christmas is not born from the “prep list” I talked about above, nor even from the heartwarming activities I know will take place year after year.  Rather, the provenance of the spirit is moments that become memories, and memories that last far longer than the Christmas season itself.

I have a favorite Christmas memory from my childhood.  A neighborhood near where we lived staged an annual decorating contest between its several streets.  Not only were the houses fully adorned with lights and ornaments, but the streets themselves had Christmas themes, so decorating was consistent from sidewalk to sidewalk.  I remember one street decorated primarily with candy canes, another with bells, and still another with angels.  They even changed the street names for the season (i.e. “Candy Cane Lane”).  You always knew which street won the competition by the huge blue ribbon hanging from the first lamppost.  After touring every last street of this neighborhood, my brothers and I spent several hours at a nearby mall, purchasing gifts with the precious-few dollars we’d saved as kids.  Finally we’d join up with my parents for a late-night dinner out.  This memory of an evening of family fun stands the test of time – more than forty years ago by my estimate – and always brings a smile to my face.  This memory seems uniquely mine, as if dozens of other families didn’t tour those decorated streets or shop at that busy mall.

I have an equally favorite Christmas memory from recent years.  To slow down the events of Christmas morning, my wife and I created a trivia contest for our kids.  They stand at the top of the staircase outside their bedrooms and we start the questions.  Correct answers earn them a step down the staircase (closer to the gifts). Incorrect answers cost them a step backwards.  The trivia delayed the inevitable, but the first to reach the bottom stair won the privilege of opening the first gift.  It’s a tradition we’ve carried on for years, and a memory that will stay with me long after children stand at the top of our stairs on Christmas morning.

75-provenance-2

Let’s not kid ourselves.  The Christmas season will always be hectic as long as there are gifts to buy and greeting cards to write and family members to visit.  But there will also be moments – some planned and some not.  And memories – some fleeting and some longer-lasting.  It is those memories that without fail bring you comfort, joy, and Christmas spirit.

Little Jack Horner

Behold the Thanksgiving feast. Turkey and stuffing – a meal unto itself. String beans with mushrooms, dripping in butter. Crescent rolls (because you can never have enough carbs at Thanksgiving). Every side dish imaginable, or at least enough to fill up the empty spaces on the table. And then there’s dessert. Homemade cookies and cakes. Pies galore – pumpkin, apple, and cherry. And way over in the corner – completely overlooked like a little kid begging for attention – mince pie.

71-exorbitance

I love mince pie. It’s an exorbitance of flavors, provided you like the ingredients of course: raisins, dried apples, and molasses, blended with generous helpings of cinnamon, cloves, and nutmeg; topped off with two or three shots of brandy. For the spices alone – which were said to represent the gifts brought to Jesus by the three kings – mince pie is sometimes referred to as Christmas Pie.  But early Americans didn’t celebrate Christmas, so mince pie made it to the Thanksgiving table instead.

Mince pie has a colorful history. The Brits get credit for the pie itself, but the Middle East gets credit for the fruits and spices, discovered by European crusaders on their travels and returned to their various homelands. Mince pie was originally a dinner pie – meat included – with the spices added to hide the sometimes “off” taste of meat without refrigeration. Over time the meat was left out entirely so only the fruit and spices remained. The pie literally morphed from savory to sweet (and from “mincemeat” to just “mince”).  At one time mince pie was banned from dinner tables, frowned on as a religious symbol by Puritan authorities.  I’m glad I don’t live in a time of Puritan authorities.

If you’re looking to salvage a few calories as you roam the Thanksgiving buffet, don’t go anywhere near mince pie.  Were you to consume the whole pie you’d be talking 3,600 calories, and that doesn’t even include the essential topper of brandied cream (“hard sauce”).  Were you to only eat the filling you’d still take in almost 400 grams of carbohydrate and 250 grams of sugar.  But you’d take in no fat and almost no protein.  It’s like consuming a concrete block.  If someone threw you in the East River after a generous helping of mince pie you’d sink to the bottom in nothing flat.

More trivia about mince pie:

  1. An eating competition was held in 2006 where the winning contestant ate 46 mince pies (not 46 whole pies but rather the smaller tarts you see in the photo above).
  2. Mince pies were originally coffin-shaped (not round), but they just called them “rectangular” because coffins hadn’t been invented yet.
  3. Early versions of mince pie contained a total of thirteen ingredients – symbols of Christ and his disciples.  Another reason those pesky Puritans considered the pie “forbidden fruit”.

Making mince pie is quite the chore.  Take a pie shell, dump in a jar of mince filling, top with another pie shell, and bake at 425 degrees for thirty minutes.  To be honest, the hardest part of making mince pie is finding the jar of mince.  Your local supermarket may carry it but they usually hide it deep in the lowest shelves of the baking aisle (are they embarrassed to carry it?)  One time I found a jar that looked dusty and dated, as if it had been back there since the last Thanksgiving.  Another time the checker humiliated me by saying, “No one ever buys this stuff.  Why would anyone ever buy this stuff.”  Well, I buy this stuff, pal.  Because I like mince pie.

Mother Goose rhymed: Little Jack Horner, Sat in the corner, Eating a Christmas pie.  That’s me.  I’m Jack on Thanksgiving.  And I’m sweet on mince pie.