No Valentine, please

My husband is off the hook. I don’t need, expect, or want a Valentine’s Day gift. This is just my personal thing. If everyone else in the world wants to celebrate Valentine’s Day, please, enjoy. I know couples who put thought, effort, and love into the occasion, and I think that’s wonderful. For them. But not for me.

I have never been a fan. I’m not speaking about the traditions of the day for kids. The little Valentines that kids give out in school…well, I guess that still happens. Maybe not. I haven’t had an elementary school age child in my house…oh, for the past dozen years. But the small gestures of Valentine cookies, or Valentines for children to exchange…those things are fun, and are another marker of childhood.

I’m not a fan of the manufactured and obligatory gift giving that is milked to death in the name of love. Last week I had the thrill of having access to cable TV, an experience now limited to hotel stays or visits with family who still subscribe. Since we pulled the cable plug last summer, my TV exposure has been minimal, to say the least. But I digress.

All week I saw commercials for Valentine’s gifts suggesting that the perfect thing this year is a HUGE stuffed teddy bear; or footed pajamas; or edible fruit; or the ever popular trio of jewelry, flowers, and candy.

I love gifts, and I’m happy to be on the receiving end on my birthday, my anniversary, or any other day that has meaning to me, or to me and my husband. (Christmas doesn’t count in this scenario as everyone in the family gets gifts at Christmas.) In our culture, there is a tradition of giving gifts for birthdays and anniversaries, which are personal events. But I don’t like to feel that my husband and I are buying gifts for each other because of a commercial expectation that isn’t even personal. I don’t like the messages some commercials give when they show gifts being delivered in an office setting, and the lucky woman is envied for the gift she’s received. I don’t want my gift giving, or receiving, to be a competitive sport, thank you very much.

And most of all…this is specifically addressed to my husband, but anyone I know…please, please, listen carefully: do not, under any circumstance, ever give me a life size teddy bear to cuddle with. I can’t imagine what I would do with it, other than find a place that accepts new and unwanted bears for donation. If this is your idea of a great gift, you may have my bear. But this is definitely not for me. Take me to dinner, give me my favorite tea (that’s Republic of Tea Ginger Peach, in individual tea bags, if you’re interested); give me a gift card if you’re stumped. But please, don’t send giant bears my way. And the same goes for footed pajamas. Who comes up with these things?

One last word about gift giving. In my opinion, the best gifts are those given “just because.” Because someone saw something that reminded them of me. Or because I saw a need and filled it for someone else. That giving is straight from the heart, and without obligation or expectation on the part of giver, or receiver. Or one step further, in this day when most people have what they need, and even what they want, maybe the best gift, regardless of occasion, is the gift of time and presence: the gift of self.

Well, even though I don’t want a gift, I’m a sucker for Valentine’s cookies. I think I’ve previously admitted my guilty love of Lofthouse sugar cookies…you know, the ones in the grocery bakery that have garish colored icing, but are so soft and delicious? Well, that’s how I celebrate the day. Nothing like a little red and pink food coloring to make a cookie look inviting.

Boy, do I feel better. Now that I’m pretty sure no bears or pajamas are heading my way, off to find some cookies.

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Fall is in the air

What’s magic about this season? Many people say this is their favorite time of year, and that’s true for me too. I always think the calendar should begin with September. It seems like the true start to the year, forever tied in my mind to the beginning of a new school cycle. From my own years as a student, through the years of my children’s education, that rhythm was permanently ingrained. Even without a tie to the school calendar now, so many rituals focus on back-to-school events that I can’t escape the reality that summer has ended, a new season has begun. And although summer traditionally brings luxurious down time and a more relaxed pace of life, it feels good to get back to a schedule, a routine, a defined expectation of the week after summer vacations end.

Aside from the back-to-school sales, the beginning of football season, and early advertisements for Halloween (already there are masses of bags filled with bite-sized candy bars beckoning in the grocery aisles), temperatures announce that change is in the air. The sun in September has a different quality in its warmth, a different brightness in its light. By October, mornings and evenings are crisp, and by November, some days there is frost on the steps outside my front door. The familiar ritual, pulling out sweaters and boots, gloves and coats, moving the summer wear out and the winter wear in, signals that turtleneck season, stretching from September to May in Alaska, has arrived.

When my kids were little, we made annual visits to apple orchards to buy apples and cider, and to pumpkin patch farms to pick pumpkins. It was fun to have exposure to the harvest season as we weren’t connected with these experiences in other ways. It was good to see my kids learn a little about harvest time and enjoy a taste of fruit bought from the source rather than a grocery store. There is just something completely heartwarming about drinking fresh pressed cider and riding on a tractor trailer pulling excited pre-schoolers around a farm.

I like pumpkins; they’re my favorite choice for fall decorating. I add a few brightly colored leaves and nuts, some seasonal berries and cinnamon scented candles, and decorating is done from September to November. I think you get more bang for the buck from fall decorating than in any other season. And the best part: so much of what you use is available in a natural form, right from the grocery store or farmer’s market. The produce section alone offers enough variety to dress up your look for any party you host from Labor Day to Thanksgiving.

The best part of fall has to be the food: iconic comfort food like soups, chili, stews; and sweets made with apples, nuts, raisins, pumpkin and all the familiar spices. Even the beverages are unique to the time of year…apple cider and spiced teas and coffees seem just right in October and November. I never think of drinking a cinnamon flavored coffee in July…why is that? But this time of year I’m focused on warm luxury in my beverages, and topping off a spiced coffee with a little sweetened whipped cream is a perfect start to the day or end to the evening. Sampling a pumkin cobbler or apple cranberry pie is a frequent pleasure. I bake more this time of year, and I appreciate the comfort of homey aromas coming from the kitchen when I open the door after work and remember that I put a stew in the crockpot before I left for the day.

Anticipation is key; I know what happens next, and I love it. We’re all getting ready to spend more time indoors, gear up for the Christmas season, celebrate once again the Thanksgiving holiday that reminds us of the importance of family, friends, good times, good food, and the traditions that bind it all together. So here’s to Fall, the magical (and real) start to a new year, a new cycle, and the best of comfort, home, and harvest.

Goodbye white shoes, I hardly wore you

September, Labor Day weekend, and my Southern upbringing has kicked in. I wouldn’t be caught dead from now until next Memorial Day in white shoes. Just.not.done. At least for my generation. (Maybe this is more about my age than where I was raised…or both? I’ll have to get back to you on that.)

Mind you, I have no idea where this fashion dictum came from, or how it became so firmly impressed on my young self. All I know is that to violate this rule was taboo in my youth, and whether or not it matters to the fashion police now (if it ever did), I’m obligated to live with this for the rest of my life. You’d think it was important or something. But if it is, I don’t know why.

But not knowing didn’t stop me from passing the white shoes rule on to my daughter. Really I expand this to summer clothes in general…the only possible exception being a tropical location where it’s always acceptable to wear white, whatever the season. (And who decided that? Another fashion mystery!)

Perhaps it’s fortunate for me that I live in a climate that actually encourages me to return to my September-to-May uniform of turtlenecks and heeled pumps. The summer slides are put away. They didn’t get too much wear-time this year anyway. Miserable summer season here. But the weather, at this point, is not the point: I couldn’t violate the calendar. Just can’t do it. My roots are showing!

There are things you leave behind when you move from one side of the country to another: regional produce, local customs, favorite eateries. Without any effort on my part, my Southern accent has mostly faded away from long years of disuse (although it revives a bit when I go back for a visit). But some things…the white shoes rule, for instance…follow me about from place to place, a passenger in my head, mostly forgotten, but somehow silently monitoring the calendar, and then, ca-ching, like my oven timer, a bell goes off internally to remind me of The Rule. The same thing will happen Memorial Day…my Southern self will wake up, reminding me, nudging me. Change of seasons, change of shoes.

Song for Sunday

This is one of my favorite hymns, perhaps of all time, and I’m in good company. This is a beautiful performance of “Amazing Grace” by Celtic Woman:

Enjoy!

Tradition

What is there about tradition that speaks to the human heart in a universal language? Some people hold on to the traditions they knew as children, some feel inspired to create their own, others choose a hybrid of the two. Whatever the source of tradition in your life, it can be a powerful force. It is the thing that makes certain foods and rituals mandatory for holidays. It dictates in a variety of ways, from small details to the big picture.

I have many holiday traditions; some I keep faithfully while others are a bit hit and miss. I have maintained my commitment to Christmas cards, fresh trees, favorite recipes, music, special Christmas ornaments for my children each year, and a few select holiday movies. But some years are bigger than others. Some years we have been home for the holidays, and others we have been with family. Once we were in Hawaii until December 23, and came home to put up a Charlie Brown tree (about the only one left at our corner Christmas tree lot) and put on a pared down celebration due jet lag and time constraints. But it was a memorable holiday none the less. We’ve all remembered that December vacation in Hawaii.

We have a running debate over white or colored lights. My daughter and I always vote for the tiny white lights while my son and husband are in favor of color. I keep the peace by making an every other year compromise. And I have to admit, whatever the  light choice for the year, once the strands are on the tree, its magic. The tree is a living presence during the couple of weeks we keep it up: first thing on in the morning, last thing off at night. I switch the lights on before I get my coffee so I can sit and enjoy waking up with the soft glow of the tiny lights breaking the darkness at 5:00 AM. The smell is addicting too. Just walking through the Boy Scout lot among the bundled trees is a preview of the scent that fills the house when we bring the tree inside.

The foods of Christmas are iconic and many people share similar traditions of cookie recipes, desserts or main dishes that define the holidays. For our family, our strongest food tradition is Christmas Eve lasagna. Years ago, the first Christmas we lived away from family and were going to be on our own, I wanted to have a special meal that would have meaning to my husband, who was in his intern year of residency. One of his favorite foods at that time was lasagna, something his mom made for him. We had homemade lasagna with all the trimmings for Christmas Eve dinner, and we’ve maintained that menu ever since. It wouldn’t be Christmas Eve with different food: it just wouldn’t be right.

My son loves gingerbread cookies, and somewhere along the way that became one of the season’s treats. Some years we’ve done a lot of baking for gift giving, but others have been busy enough that we only did the bare minimum. But regardless, gingerbread is a requisite, another must-do.

Our Christmas morning food tradition acknowledges my love of baked sweets and my husband’s love of savory. We always have homemade cinnamon rolls and the Southern classic, sausage balls. Add a special coffee and chilled juice and breakfast is easy and ready to serve before or after checking Santa’s surprises.

When our kids were still at home, the three of us had a tradition of a day of mall shopping and then dinner, usually at Red Robin, on the way home. Can’t go wrong with kids and burgers, or my daughter’s favorite, chicken fingers and fries. After the day spent shopping, choosing gifts for everyone, then driving home in the evening with Christmas music playing and snow falling…well, Christmas in Colorado is magic. I hear some of that music today and I am immediately driving along C-470 with two kids in the van, warm and happy with anticipation of the days ahead and satisfaction from the day just ending.

I remember some of the special moments throughout the years: when both kids got bikes one Christmas in Michigan, delivered early by special arrangement with Santa because we were going to travel to family for Christmas Day; or even further back, the Christmas we got our first family pet, a small black Cocker Spaniel puppy our daughter named Sable. Stephanie was five and Alex was 18 months old. Sable was a part of our lives for many years, a wonderful addition to our little family. She was a gift from Rob to the kids, and perhaps the best Christmas gift he ever gave them.

I think traditions reinforce the good from the past, remind us of things and moments and people who have been precious in our lives. Traditions say that we have such wonderful memories, we want to recreate them, or parts of them, all over again. Traditions bind generation to generation, connect the years. In the best sense, they are not rituals that we are burdened with repeating, but a way to link memory with the present, past and future, parent to child. Our son now makes his own gingerbread, and our daughter is beginning her daughter’s Christmas traditions this year. Riley will experience her first Christmas, and although she won’t remember it, she’ll have her special ornament, her little part of the day. And when our son is visiting this year, I’ll make gingerbread for him, and we’ll have our traditional lasagna and say to each other, “This is the good stuff…” And the real meaning is not found in the food or the color of lights on the tree, or even in the gifts, but in each other.