Category Archives: Holiday

Fool-Proof Valentine’s Days


My favorite memories of Valentine’s Day as an adult have nothing to do with romance. This is not a complaint about my husband. I have known great romance, much of it with him. Even when he could barely afford it, he did Valentine’s Day right. When we were first dating, I felt like the luckiest girl in the world because he had chosen me. But we were busy grad students, and it was also a stressful time. He was anxious about classes, research in the lab, and the daunting prospect of, say, the final in physics of gases. I was teaching and trying to make some preliminary headway on my dissertation. February was an especially angst-ridden month. In the early stages of our relationship, when Valentine’s Day could have been best enjoyed, we simply had too much on our minds.

Therefore, my happiest grown-up Valentine experiences occurred when my daughter was in preschool. I would arrive at church to pick her up. Unless there was snow, the kids would be out on the playground. D and her friends would probably be climbing on the little blue playhouse, or see-sawing vigorously on the green plastic alligator. She was adorable in her red fleece Scandinavian-style jacket and matching hat (both made by Mama), and her multi-colored Elephanten suede shoes. When she saw me standing at the fence, she’d smile delightedly, as though I were the most marvelous surprise. She’d yell out Mama! in her sweet, unmistakable voice. She was excited to see me, to tell me about her day, to show me her Valentines and the special holiday craft she had made.

Once home, we would open her cards and spread them out on the playroom floor. Some were accompanied by candy, cookies, or tiny toys.  We’d examine each Valentine, noting who sent each one. Did the child write his or her own name, or did a parent do it? This was a question of great interest to a preschooler. The cards were small and cute, bearing images of such childhood icons as Cassie from Dragon Tales, Scooby-Doo, Clifford, Barbie and Winnie-the-Pooh. There were always a few charming homemade cards.

After we had gone through all the cards, I would give D her Valentine gifts from H and me. These usually included a stuffed animal, maybe a fuzzy white bear with red accents, holding a heart-shaped balloon. No such gift was ever less than perfect. My daughter was always elated, always satisfied. She would giggle and hug her bear tight. She’d sleep with it that night. It was so easy. What could be better? These were enchanted, fool-proof Valentine’s Days.

The preschool years may be the optimum time to enjoy the holiday fully. Preschoolers are enthusiastic about the cards, the candy, the gifts, the festive snacks. Nothing is complicated, but this will change before long. The early elementary school years bring difficulties that tarnish the day: competition, rivalries, mismatched puppy-love crushes, disappointment.

If you’re like me, and didn’t go to preschool, maybe you had, or will have, the good fortune to savor the simple pleasures of the day through the eager eyes of a child.

And now that Valentine’s Day 2012 is history, I propose a toast to a cheerfully comfortable second half of February!


Pure Valentine pleasure!


Some of the Valentine gifts that met with my daughter’s complete approval.

Working the System: Getting the Hang of High School Valentine’s Days

At my high school, the junior class began Valentine carnation sales in early February as a prom fund-raiser. During our freshman year, my two best friends and I didn’t grasp the magnitude of the event. I had had my wisdom teeth removed shortly before February 14 (a procedure that, amazingly, required a two-night hospital stay, the same as for the birth of my daughter), so I was preoccupied. But I clearly remember the day the carnations were distributed during homeroom. I didn’t receive any, and it was not pleasant. It was especially unpleasant to be surrounded by those who were greeted with bouquets scaled more appropriately for Derby-winning horses than for teenage girls. My memory may be somewhat warped here, but its essence is true. Those blessed with flowers carried them around from class to class all day long, so each hour brought with it a new group of lucky carnation-bearing kids.


As sophomores we got with the program. The three of us sent flowers to each other, the envelopes signed “from a Secret Admirer.” As an investment, we also bought carnations for several boys in our circle. We chose funny, thoughtful boys who were likely to return the favor next year. When the flowers were delivered, we each received an additional one from a senior boy who had taken a big-brotherly interest in the three of us. Getting three carnations, even if none was from a potential boyfriend, was far preferable to walking around all day with none.

The next year, the boys did their duty, and by that time, we all got a couple of flowers from other friends. We had learned how to work it, and the annual event had become almost enjoyable.

By senior year, the day was a real pleasure. My two old friends and I were closer than ever. We each sent a number of carnations and received quite a few. I had a boyfriend by then, and he came through with candy, as well. How wonderful to receive Valentine candy I could feel good about! My friends and I made GQ-spoof magazines for our favorite boys. We wrote silly captions for clippings snipped from National Lampoon, Seventeen, and a French fan magazine our teacher had suggested we subscribe to. We called it Hunky-Stud Quarterly: The Magazine for Discerning Gentlemen. We found it hilarious. The boys, though pleased, were probably not quite as bowled over by our humor.

It took us four years, but we had mastered the art of the high school Valentine’s Day. Unfortunately, we had to start from scratch again the following year, because things were different in college.


My carnation cards from Valentine’s Day, senior year (of course I saved them).

A rare edition of Hunky-Stud Quarterly. I have this copy because my high school boyfriend returned everything I had ever given him after we broke up.  He left it all on the front porch in the middle of the night.  Evidently he knew I would appreciate it more than he did.

And he was right.

The Best Part of Valentine’s Day: Before the Day


One of my favorite childhood memories is sitting at the kitchen table, eating cinnamon red hots and making Valentines. I can see the bright February sunshine warming up the room. Popi would be sleeping nearby on the dining room rug. After a while we’d hear Daddy’s car come up the driveway as he arrived home from work. Before long it would be time for dinner. It’s a vision of complete, homey contentment.

When I was little, my mother and I would make our Valentines together. We’d each make one for Daddy, and she would help me with those I gave out to my classmates. We used all the typical materials: red and pink construction paper, doilies, flowers and hearts that we cut from old greeting cards. As I got older I might use watercolors to paint my own designs. Our supplies were far more limited in those days. There were no stores that stocked a nearly infinite variety of stickers, archival papers, fancy cutters, punches and the like. Martha Stewart was still just a hardworking caterer.

The preparatory time was what I enjoyed most. The lead-up was always better than the day itself. I have few recollections of an actual Valentine’s Day during elementary school. The clearest memory I have is painful. In fifth grade, a boy gave me a heart-shaped box of Valentine candy. Of course, he was not a boy that I “liked,” so the gesture made me feel sad and uncomfortable. I wished I liked him. I knew how he felt; I was familiar with the misery of unrequited love. I liked another boy who didn’t like me. Fortunately, though, I hadn’t given him a special gift that made me feel even worse.

This seemed to set the pattern for my Valentine’s Days throughout middle and high school. A card, flower or candy, if one came, would be from a nice boy I didn’t like. If I ventured out and gave a gift, it was unlikely to be reciprocated. Although I kept my expectations low, the day was either mildly disappointing or fraught with anxiety. Best, then, to enjoy making cards for my parents and a few extras that I could pin on my bulletin board, eat red hots, and appreciate the winter light.


Sitting by the kitchen window prompted me to paint this Valentine tree.  I painted lots of heart-trees during my early teens.
They were easier than trees with other foliage.


This heart is made from strips of rolled paper, inspired by a library book Mama found on the art of quilling.  Now, there are kits to do this type of thing.

Exercises in Extreme Gift-Wrapping

Each year at Christmas, my husband presses on in his family’s tradition of extreme gift wrapping. He grew up in a family of resolutely creative wrappers, in which every gift receives special holiday treatment, from the lowliest pair of socks to the largest, most cumbersome, difficult-to-wrap object. Major appliances have been gift-wrapped by his family. They welcome, even seek out, challenges in wrapping. They invest considerable time and energy toward disguising the gift. Tiny items are encased in enormous boxes, and objects with a characteristic, recognizable shape are concealed in containers of an utterly different form. The wrapping paper is exuberant in color and pattern.

My side of the family has a fundamentally different approach to wrapping gifts. My mother has a designer’s eye, and her emphasis has always been on décor. A connoisseur of ribbon, she chooses gift wrap to accent the color scheme of the room. Gifts under our family tree were beautifully packaged and adorned, but not as plentiful as in H’s home. If an item might be of use during the holiday season, it was likely to be presented early, unwrapped, as needed. There was no concern for disguising gifts or playing wrapping games. A book was wrapped as a book, not a refrigerator. And little things, those that were needed and appreciated but not overly special, simply appeared, unwrapped.


The differences in our two family’s wrapping philosophies recall our approaches to the recognition of birthdays and other special events. H’s family remains determined to celebrate all occasions, and inventive wrapping is a big part of the celebration. My parents continue to give thoughtful and lovely gifts. But they regard the birthdays of adults, as I’ve said before, as events best mentioned quietly, if at all. I grew up hearing the admonition: “Don’t get beside yourself.” In the eyes of my parents, showing too much enthusiasm is bit unseemly; it’s something to be avoided, or at least denied. H’s family, on the other hand, is happy to get beside themselves. During birthdays and on Christmas, they revel in it.

Now that I’m familiar with both approaches, I can appreciate the merits, and the drawbacks, of each.

This year my husband’s extreme wrapping scored especially high marks. He enclosed three gifts for our daughter in tubes used for forming concrete, 48 inches long and up to 16 inches in diameter. An inexpensive wrapping solution with a big wow factor. None of the objects were vaguely cylindrical in shape, of course. The first tube appeared by the tree early in the morning, three days before Christmas. On the following two days, another, successively larger, tube appeared.

Our daughter was merrily intrigued, and she responded in kind. She searched in the basement until she found a suitably unusual container for one last gift for her dad: a tall plastic laundry hamper. She took it to her room and, using two kinds of paper, an abundance of tape, and an uncharacteristically substantial degree of patience, performed a wrapping coup. The shape may perhaps best be described as an oval trapezoidal prism.

On Christmas morning, the tubes and the hamper were the final gifts unwrapped. Both H and D were exultant as they pulled off paper and worked their way to the gifts inside the strange packages. The excitement was catching. Not even my parents, who are here with us this Christmas as usual, were immune. I think I can speak for both sides of the family now when I say that once in a while, getting beside yourself is recommended.


The first two mystery tubes appear.


The three tubes, with one tiny tube on top.  My shoe-storage package is in front.


The oval trapezoidal prism.

Shoe Storage, The Gift that Keeps on Giving

Toward the beginning of this Christmas season, my daughter printed out a Family Christmas List, with spaces for gift requests from each of us.  She posted it in a central location in the kitchen.  At first I couldn’t think of a single item for the list.   I have enough stuff.  And on those occasions when I do need something,  I generally prefer to pick it out myself.  Soon I thought of one thing:  a nice winter scarf suitable for dog-walking.  I’ve had the same one since 1987.  While it’s still perfectly good, another would be welcome, and D has a good eye for scarves.  Somewhat later, in a flash of light bulb inspiration, my dream gift popped into my head:  shoe storage!  This, indeed, may be a gift that keeps on giving.


Our house, as I’ve noted before, is closet-challenged.  It’s a four-square farmhouse built in 1920.  Closets and bathrooms were added during the early 1970s.  Orange shag carpeting was also installed in copious amounts at this time, one reason the house remained on the market for so long before we bought it ten years ago.  We have a wide center hall but no optimal storage on the first floor unless one counts the closets in a bathroom and in an office that doubles as a bedroom when overnight guests are plentiful.  Neither space is ideally located, to say the least.

For a family of three, we have an inordinate number of shoes, especially those for outdoor activities.  We have shoes for running, for gardening, for hiking, for use in snow, in rain, in rivers and oceans.  We have high boots, low boots and medium boots, most of which are typically caked with mud and leaf debris.  We have many pairs of old, scruffy shoes saved for the messiest of uses:  walking through mucky fields, exploring the creek, climbing trees, working in the garage or the basement, etc.  Some are very nearly too small or worn out but still may be of use in a pinch, if, say, all our other shoes were swept away in a tornado.  These are too shabby to be given away to any charitable organization, but too good, it seems, for outright disposal.  As H’s father would say, we have back-ups for our back-up shoes.  And then there are the comfy shoes, the legions of slippers, rarely worn.  They stay with us, it seems, out of habit and for the sake of occupying space.

Our  shoes tend to congregate in the kitchen around the back door and in the hall by the basement door.  Like so much household detritus, they evidently have the ability to multiply spontaneously.  Opening either door is impossible without first rearranging great piles of shoes.  I dislike this process as much as I dislike moving the little things off the kitchen table.

I’ve been complaining about our lack of shoe storage for nearly as long as we’ve lived here, to little avail.  I usually deal with it by stomping around angrily and muttering derogotory remarks about my beloved family members while hauling their shoes upstairs or downstairs.  This does not make me happy.

I finally realized that the problem might be solved by incorporating it into a gift request.  My husband and daughter take gift requests very seriously.  They excel at tracking down gifts (and they enjoy gift wrapping challenges, but that’s another story.)  Several years ago I began asking that the impatiens be planted as a Mother’s Day present.  Therefore, on Christmas morning, I opened a substantial package containing varieties of shoe storage:  hanging racks, standing racks, storage boxes with hinged lids, others that defy easy description.  On December 26, shoe storage solutions were installed and in use.  I was delighted.  Change had arrived.

H and D have adjusted swimmingly; their shoes are tucked away as intended.   The problem now seems to be that I can’t get used to the new system.  I keep leaving my shoes by the doors to the kitchen and basement.  I have received two tickets from the Home Improvement and Neatness Patrol for illegal shoe deposit.  I’m going to have to get with the program.  I can’t be responsible for the failure of shoe storage; I want that gift to keep on giving.


  My shoes, conspicuously all alone.  I resolve to do better!

The Candles of Christmas Eve

Christmas tree 006

The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. 

 –Luke 1: 5

Our church’s candlelight Christmas Eve service is one of the highlights of the year. Each person receives a small white candle upon entering. Toward the end of the service, the sanctuary goes dark. The acolytes assist the congregation with the lighting of the individual, hand-held candles. Gradually, while we sing Silent Night, the light grows. By the final verse, the sanctuary is brightly glowing, as each member of the congregation holds high a lighted candle.

The process is a beautiful expression of God’s love. Into the darkness of the world, God sent a light. It appeared dim and insignificant at first. But soon it grew brighter and kindled countless other lights. When we allow the light of God’s gift to come alive within us, we glow. And we, in turn, have the power to spread the light. Our combined light is a mighty force. The darkness will not overcome it.

The source of the light is one baby, born to an unknown young woman and witnessed only by her trusting husband and perhaps the animals of a stable. In an unlikely juxtaposition, a multitude of angels announces the birth not to the ruling elite, but to shepherds in the fields outside of town. (This is nevertheless appropriate, because the baby’s great ancestor David was a shepherd boy when he was hand-picked to be king.) Before long, the birth of the child has attracted the attention of wise men from distant Eastern lands. Led by a singular star, they embark on a long journey to find the humble family. They bow down in awe before the baby and present him with rare and costly gifts.

God’s great gift turns the world upside down, upsets its expected order. There is no room in the comfort of any inn for God’s only son. Angels appear to lowly shepherds, and kings worship a baby. Allowing God’s light to shine within us may lead us to unexpected places. The tidiness of our lives is likely to be overturned. This is the difficulty in letting our inner light shine. Its power may summon us to go where we would rather not venture. It may be more convenient to quench that light, to hide it under a bushel. But knowing that the flame that dwells within us is from God, the light of salvation, ever-present, we can have the courage to go where it wills us. The darkness will not overcome it. We need not fear, for we are never alone. On this Christmas Eve, I pray for the light to be kindled and nourished throughout the world. And I pray for the strength to let the light be my guide. 

Do not be afraid; for see—I bring you good news of great joy for    all the people:  to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.

–Luke 2: 10b-11

Little Old Christmas Treasures

Staging 032

As everyone in my family knows, one of my most frequent complaints concerns our vast and ever-growing accumulation of stuff: the multitudinous thingamajigs, treasured by some, considered garbage by others. These are the small, awkward, ambiguous objects I seem to be constantly moving from the kitchen table. They tend to scatter all over the floor, but I feel compelled to seek out every last one because the dog may eat them. Occasionally I think I could walk away from all the stuff without a second thought, free at last. Certainly I could walk away from all their stuff. Once in a while, I even think I could leave my stuff.

Then, I remember these two small, rather subdued-looking Christmas figures: a stern-faced Santa with his sleigh pulled by a single reindeer, and another, somewhat larger, more finely detailed reindeer. I found them at our church yard sale, at a table of miscellaneous junk offered by an extremely old man. I got distracted, moved on, and forgot about them. I was returning home, waiting at an everlasting traffic light, when I remembered them. I was being silly, I told myself. I didn’t need more stuff. But I couldn’t follow through. I wanted those two Christmas knickknacks. They were calling to me. I turned around, had to wait for the light again. I got back to the old man’s table, and miracle of miracles, they were still there. Apparently their plaintive cry was inaudible to others. I think I paid a quarter apiece, his asking price. I didn’t haggle. I’m so glad I doubled back for them.

My appreciation of these little trinkets has nothing to do with monetary value; I’m under no misconception about getting the deal of the century or heading off to Antiques Road Show. The Santa appeared in a December issue of Martha Stewart Living, in an article about celluloid holiday figures from the 1920s – 50s that were sold at 5 & Dime stores. My little Santa may date from the 1930s. No doubt he’s worth more than a quarter, but not substantially.

I just like these two little doodads. I find them inexplicably pleasing, even comforting. They are reminders of a simpler time, when we weren’t quite so awash in stuff, when the choices were fewer, when each little thing meant more. I can see the old man who sold them to me, a Depression-era child (looking something like Ralphie in A Christmas Story) using his allowance savings to buy these as a gift for his mother or sister.

I will protect my tiny Santa and reindeer from those who might regard them less highly. I will try to respect the little things that beckon to my family members but not to me. And I won’t leave my treasures on the kitchen table.

A Christmas Devil Doll


Devil doll 003

On my first Christmas, a neighbor gave me this stuffed doll wearing a devil costume. Her well-worn face attests to my love for her.  She appeared yearly with the Christmas ornaments.  Her outfit is similar to the somewhat later elves (as in The Elf on the Shelf) that came to join her.  A stuffed Rudolf was another of her companions.  She has a firmly stuffed, bendable body, painted face, white rabbit fur hair and collar, and she’s sewn into a red velvet devil suit with a wired tail.

Why a devil for Christmas, I have always wondered?  She has a very sweet face.  Is she intended as an angel dressed as a devil?  As a commentary on good masquerading as evil?  A reference to our dual nature?  I often find it hard to choose from the word pairs  angelic devil or devilish angel to best describe my daughter.  Probably very little philosophical thought lies behind the toy.  But if anyone has an idea, or is familiar with such a doll from the early 1960s, please let me know.

And I wish you a devilishly good holiday!

Cape Cod Shell Angels


My husband’s family has vacationed in Cape Cod since he was a little boy. They cherish their time on the Cape. It’s a Family Tradition marked by capital letters and exclamation points. They will battle illness and adversity to reach the Cape. Fortunately, I appreciate the unique environment as much as they do. We began taking our daughter there when she was two. Her love of the Cape was immediate, as natural to her as breathing. H’s parents were immensely pleased with the discerning wisdom of their young granddaughter.

Our quaint little rental cottages look out across the bay to the Pilgrim Monument in Provincetown and the lighthouse at the tip of the Cape. We feel privileged to spend time each summer in this transitional, luminous, glorious spot. As in such magical places as Cornwall, Mont St. Michel and Key West, the expected balance of land and water has shifted. The land resembles a narrow ribbon drifting on the water. The sky is vast. The light is awe-inspiring, ever-changing.

The land itself is in constant flux. I was unprepared for the quiet drama of the bay. Growing up, my beach experiences were limited to the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic coasts of Georgia’s  islands. Both are beautiful areas, but they lack the sharply defined tidal contrasts of Cape Cod Bay. Every year without fail, soon after we arrive, a knock at our screen door signals Grandpa’s delivery of our copies of the tide chart, our guide to daily life. At low tide, the flats extend nearly as far as the eye can see. The shallows glimmer like silver in the shifting sunlight. When the tide begins to rush in, the change is at first almost imperceptible. Before long, though, the water is swirling around us, its determined, unstoppable force clearly evident. At least once every day, we watch as the expanses of sand shrink into islands, smaller and smaller, before they become completely submerged again.

The bay is not a prime beach for shelling, but occasionally it offers up its particular treasures. Every so often, during an especially low tide, scallop shells dot the flats like pale, muted jewels, their colors subtle and austere. Naturally, my daughter and I collect them. Over the years we had acquired several sand pails full before we discovered an ideal, simple way to transform the shells into appropriate mementos. With the addition of a few beads and smaller shells, they became Christmas angels. (Once again, the hot glue gun allowed us to turn out a host of ornaments quickly and easily.)

Our little angels keep Cape Cod with us during the off-season. The medieval pilgrimage connotations of the scallop shell give the angels a certain dignity and make them all the more evocative. One of the world’s first souvenirs, the scallop shell became the emblem of the pilgrimage to St. James of Compostela, the several routes of which stretch through the mountains of France to northern Spain. Tourism on a grand scale was born in these pilgrimage routes, and the Way of St. James continues to attract pilgrims, many still on foot. Medieval pilgrims were, to some degree, tourists, just as many of today’s tourists are, in a sense, pilgrims. For travelers of the eleventh or the twenty-first century, whether navigating the perils of wilderness paths or the trials of Interstate 95, the goals of the journey are similar and elemental: an escape from the daily routine, the promise of adventure, a firmer grasp of life’s real meaning, and the opportunity for spiritual renewal. I love it that such richness of meaning is tied up neatly in the humble shell angels on our Christmas tree. *

*One final, fitting point of interest: our scallop shells wash ashore near the place where our country’s first pilgrims landed. As most of us learned and later forgot, the Mayflower’s initial stop in the new world was in what is now Provincetown Harbour.




Cork Creatures Join the Pinecone Crew


Our pinecone people needed another, similar species in their community, so we turned to our immense stash of corks. (I can’t imagine why we have so many corks!) For these, we used pipe cleaner arms and legs, which can be bent creatively.  Several wear scarves of narrow wired ribbon.  Some, like their pinecone friends, sport acorn caps, while others allow their wispy yarn hair to flow forth freely.  The cork and pinecone folk live together in a truly utopian society.  The Charles Shaw corks have equal status with their Caymus colleagues, and the subtle differences in pinecone shapes are celebrated.  Harmony and good will abound.  The Christmas spirit flourishes all year long.



A cork mother and her sycamore baby.


With beads and pasta, many cork creature variations are possible.