December 2011

O Christmas Tree!

December 30, 2011

Heart ornament

It’s been a nice, quiet week, though I’ve come down with a bad cold. That’s what happens when I indulge in too many sweets and too much chocolate!

One of the things I’ve been doing as I nurse my cold is hang out in front of our Christmas tree. (I’m trying to ignore the chocolate under there calling my name… Doesn’t it know it hurt me?)

My husband and I were supposed to pick out a tree together, but I made a spontaneous stop at a store on my own where I heard there might be smallish, inexpensive fir trees for sale. Sadly, all the small sizes were gone — except the one on display, which I talked the guys into selling me. In truth, it didn’t require any tough negotiations, but it did mean I had to take it with all the trimmings, which meant lots of ugly plastic red bows and what I thought were big red and green lights.

For $22, I decided not to complain: I hauled it home and informed my hubby that Frugal Fanny had found a steal of a tree (but to pay not attention to the accoutrements, because it would really look lovely in the end). I removed the bows, but we agreed to keep the lights; they ended up being multicolored and remind us of our childhood trees. (We can always go back to all white lights next year!)

This year, our tree is very vintage-looking, but I’ve decorated them in various ways over the years. One time, my roommate wanted to do only blues, greens, and silvers. I was doubtful but went along with it — and I was surprised at just how gorgeous it turned out. Another year I did all homemade ornaments with hand-strung popcorn garland. Totally sweet.

Every Christmas tree tells a story. When I gaze at ours these days, I’m reminded of different events and people, since most of our ornaments have memories attached to them. Since our marriage, I’ve wound up with an eclectic collection and really enjoy rediscovering them every year…

Ornaments 2

We have a lot of fun vintage ornaments that we’ve picked up in shops both here and on travels…

Ornaments 3

I love different shapes and am drawn to things like pine cones, birds, animals, and stars. I also like to set real pine cones into the tree.

Star ornament

We have ornaments, like the one above, that were made in places like India and Kenya, or purchased at stores like Ten Thousand Villages, which carries work by artisans from developing nations.

Handmade ornaments

Some of our ornaments make us think of friends. One year our friend Lisa brought us some pretty handcrafted wax ornaments from a market in Salzburg, Austria. Another year, our friend Katie sent us a handmade figure from the Sudan. The two ornaments above were made by our friend Renata: the one on the right using a photo she took of B and me at home, and a Biblical scene she painted on the left.

White House ornament

Then there are ornaments that represent different events or phases of our lives. This was the White House’s official Christmas ornament one year, and reminds us of the days we were working and hob-knobbing with some of the power-brokers in Washington.

Crystal ornament

In my view, you can hang pretty much anything you want on a Christmas tree. While poking around an antique shop on a cobblestone road in Florence, Italy, I found lovely pieces of crystal from an old chandelier. Someday I’d like to make a mobile with them, but for now I love seeing the sparkle on the tree.

Peacock ornament

I already mentioned that I adore birds. Here’s one of our two sequined peacocks. It makes me think of Flannery O’Connor and of  my days in the theater all at the same time.

And then there are ornaments like this one, which make me think of home…

Wool sheep ornament

That’s a little round sheep, made of a soft ball of wool, which comes from a sheep farm down the road from where I grew up.

Of course, I can’t help but love the ornaments I had as a child that I now hang on my own tree. This one I made for my grandmother, and when she died it came back to me:

Little Zoe's ornament

Clearly, I never had much artistic talent, but I still really love collecting rocks!

Last but not least, I want to show you the painted Easter egg we hang on our tree each year. The egg is a symbol of life, and also represents Easter, which is directly related to the celebration of Christmas:

Egg

I always feel a little sad packing away these ornaments for another year, but we’ll be keeping our tree up for a while yet so we can enjoy them a little longer.

Do you have any favorite ornaments or ways that you love to decorate your tree?

Images: Zoe Saint-Paul

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Because We Could

December 28, 2011

Christmas livingroom Growing up, Christmas was always busy and boisterous, with children everywhere, relatives coming to visit, and neighbors stopping by. There were decorations and Christmas carols, smells of gingerbread, and glasses of eggnog. We skated on the marshes and skied up to the orchard and through the woods (if there weren’t too many trees down on the main path). It was the best family time, with meaningful traditions and lots of merriment all around.

Years later, it took me a long time to love quiet Christmases alone with my husband in the middle of the city, far from my family. I tried hard, but deep down it didn’t feel like Christmas. Two years ago, I woke up and realized I’d finally come to enjoy our just-the-two-of-us celebrations. And this year, I was really looking forward to it — midnight Mass, our old-fashioned tree, an unhurried schedule, nothing to do but relax with B. It was all very merry and bright, with absolutely no stress… and technology made it possible to visit with many of our family members (via Skype and FaceTime).

I loved every moment of our Christmas.

And now I’m afraid it will never happen again. Of course, I said this last year, and here we are! But we both sense this could really be the last Christmas like this. So with no one coming to visit, nowhere to go, and no kids pulling us out of bed at 6 am, we took full advantage of it…

Bailey's

We went to midnight Mass, came home, drank Bailey’s (me) and sake (B), opened some presents, had some chocolate, and went to bed at 3:45 am. Because we could.

We slept in really late on Christmas morning. Because we could.

Brunch

We had a leisurely brunch at 3:30 pm. Because we could.

We kept our PJs on all day. Because we could.

We opened presents as we felt like it. Because we could.

scallops

We enjoyed a late dinner of scallops and bacon over sauteed garlic spinach on a blanket in front of a roaring fire — a Christmas picnic, if you will. Because we could.

It all felt very indulgent, and I know we’ll eventually think back and remember the quiet, the simplicity, the sleep. (Oh, the sleep. That will be what I’ll miss the most, I’m sure.)

Even though B is back to work now, we’re keeping things festive here for the 12 days of Christmas as best we can.

Wishing you and yours continued merriment and relaxation this week!

xoxo,
Zoe

P.S. As I mentioned in a post below, my contributors are off this week, and I’m posting lightly in order to have a slow week. If you’ve been having trouble accessing the posts on my home page, I believe the problem has finally been fixed — yay! It took forever to figure out the problem. Thank you for your patience, and please let me know if you’re having any more trouble.

Images: the Saint-Pauls (a couple from the iPhone)

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Merry Christmas!

December 25, 2011

Ethiopian Theotokos

…And while they were there, the time came for her to be delivered. And she gave birth to her first-born son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths, and laid in him in a manger because there was no place for them in the inn.

And in that region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were filled with fear.

And the angel said to them, “Be not afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of great joy which will come to all the people; for to you is born this day in the city of David, a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. And this will be a sign for you: you will find a babe wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.”

And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among people with whom he is pleased!” (Luke 2:6-14)

To all my SlowMama readers celebrating Christmas, have a merry day and a joyful season!

Image: Ethiopian icon of Theotokos

 

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Almost Christmas

December 23, 2011

Christmas tags

Tomorrow is Christmas Eve! I love the night before Christmas…it’s always kind of magical. Our tradition (after doing last minute errands) is to make a simple meal — usually something very Nova Scotian like fish chowder and biscuits, and then we’ll enjoy some eggnog or another festive drink. Then, it’s off to midnight Mass, which is always so beautiful. The choir often does Handel’s Messiah and we’ll see a lot of people we know.

I hope whatever celebrations you have planned this weekend, they are safe, happy, and peaceful.

Next week, it will be quieter around here. My contributors are taking the week off and I’m going to post very lightly so that my week can be a little slower. Then we’ll ramp things back up after the new year.

By the way, my apologies if you’ve been having trouble seeing the posts on my home page. I’ve been trouble-shooting the problem and there seems no rhyme or reason to it. I may need to enlist an expert. Hopefully all will be back to normal very soon!

Image: Pinterest

 

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Finding the Perfect Tree

December 22, 2011

by Margaret Cabaniss

On Saturday, I went with my sister and her family to help them pick out a Christmas tree. Living in the country as they do, going to a tree farm (rather than a corner lot) was the order of the day — something my family used to do when I was little, and which I always loved. It just feels more authentically Christmas-y, somehow — hiking out into the woods to chop down some (almost) wild tree… When you’re a kid, it makes a big impression.

The boys were thrilled, of course: John bounded ahead with the saw, visibly pained at our slowness as we hiked through the trees. Thomas, meanwhile, stopped at every other one, insisting this was the one we should cut down…but when you’re only three feet tall, every tree looks enormous.

We finally settled on a beautiful concolor fir at the very edge of the farm, after all other possibilities had been thoroughly examined and rejected. My sister insisted on cutting it down herself — making up for some Girl Scout badge she never earned? — while my brother-in-law held the tree steady and made helpful suggestions, like maybe we should consider that other tree over there instead…

Concolors, by the way (or white firs), look like bushier frasier firs, but they have longer needles that supposedly don’t shed as easily. They have the most incredible scent, too — half pine, half citrus. It’s a little disorienting at first to have a Christmas tree that smells like grapefruit, but I’m kinda digging it.

Once we got the tree home and in its stand, we made an exciting discovery: Nestled deep in the boughs was a perfectly preserved birds’ nest. Growing up, we had a little birds’ nest ornament that we’d put in the tree every year, as some old legend supposedly had it that finding a nest in your tree would bring you good luck. I was ridiculously happy about finding a real one; good luck or no, it was a fun reminder that our little tree really is a wild thing.

Whatever your Christmas traditions, I hope they bring you much joy this season!

Images: Margaret Cabaniss

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Friendship

One of the challenges of living in such a mobile, connected world is the number of relationships we have to navigate. How do we keep up with everyone? How do we nurture friendships when there’s only so much time in a given day? I received a question recently that speaks to the dilemma:

I’m in a constant state of guilt because I feel like I don’t keep up with friends adequately. We have a lot of awesome people in our lives, and even though we entertain regularly, I feel like there’s always someone I haven’t had over yet. It’s gotten so bad that I make a point of no longer saying, “We should get together sometime!” when I meet someone new — I have a hard enough time keeping up with the friends I already have. — Cassandra

Thanks for the note, Cassandra. I’m betting other readers can relate.

When looking for solutions, it’s always helpful to define the problem in as neutral a way as possible. In this case, I think your dilemma can summed up as, “We know so many awesome people that we can’t keep up with them all!” And you’re feeling guilty, overwhelmed, and perhaps even disappointed that you can’t do more to nurture all of these friendships. Your feelings are probably reinforced every time you meet a great new person, or when you’re trying to figure out who to invite over, or whose invitation to accept.

First, try looking at your situation from a different vantage point. The truth is, knowing so many awesome people is a wonderful problem to have — you are fortunate! Let yourself soak up that perspective so you can be in a grateful, positive place; from there you can create better solutions. If, deep down, you believe this isn’t so much a problem as it is a gift, the entire situation begins to look different.

Now let’s get to some practical points…

Quality Over Quantity

One of the principles of “slow” living is quality over quantity…and this includes friendships. When you’re raising kids, running a home, working, and just keeping up with the basics, there’s only so much time for nurturing friendships. A few deep ones are more satisfying and beneficial then a lot of surface-level friendships, so that’s good to remember. There’s nothing wrong with being selective; just because you can spend time with someone doesn’t mean you must. Obligation shouldn’t be the deciding factor here. Give your time and attention to those who most enrich your life right now, who help you be the person you want to be, and who bring you joy.

Forget About Equality

Don’t buy into the idea that all of your friends need equal face time. Some of the best friendships are between people who rarely see each other, and when they do, it’s like they’ve never been apart. Other friendships are situational — you share similar life circumstances at a given time, such as with a friendly neighbor who’s raising kids the same age as yours. Some friendships are life-long, and others are just for a season. It’s all good. Examine your beliefs about what friendship is supposed to be; you may hold assumptions and expectations that aren’t helpful or even true.

Here’s an idea: Consider throwing an annual party (or an open house) and invite all the people to whom you’ve wanted to say, “We should get together some time!” and/or the people with whom you’d love to catch up. Sure, this doesn’t give you the one-on-one time you may want, but it allows you to see people you enjoy. Some of these friendships might strengthen over time, and some may fade — and that’s just fine.

Integrate

Sometimes we approach life as a disjointed combination of competing elements. What if we could incorporate friendship into our daily routines a bit more? For instance, if you like to take your kids to the park regularly, is there a friend you can invite along from time to time? I also like the idea of sharing a weekly or monthly potluck (brunch?) with nearby friends, rotating homes if that works better. If your friendships aren’t always in competition with other priorities or events, it’s a lot easier to manage your commitments.

Stay Open

As we get older, it’s harder to make new friends — we get set in patterns, roles, commitments, and busyness. But every now and then someone comes along with whom we really connect, someone who could truly enrich our lives and vice versa. Stay open to this possibility. At the same time, be prudent: You can’t be friends with every nice person you meet. Pay attention to those situations that seem serendipitous, and let go of the others — it’s okay to leave some lovely folks for somebody else.

Hope that helps, Cassandra. And hope you enjoy every bit of your time with good friends and family this holiday season!

Image found here

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Festival of Lights

December 21, 2011

Menorah

Long before I knew anything about Hanukkah, I loved pretty Menorahs. There’s just something about tapered white candles all lit up and the symbol of light coming forth from darkness.

Last night, Hanukkah began. It’s not one of the “big” Jewish holidays like Yom Kippur or Rosh Hashanah, but it’s probably the most familiar to non-Jews in North America. Each evening for eight days, a candle is lit and special blessings are said. Like any celebration, there are usually songs, traditional foods, and gifts exchanged as well.

If you’re celebrating Hanukkah, happy season of light! I hope it’s a wonderful eight days.

Image from Elena’s Pantry 

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by Margaret Cabaniss

Later this week I’m heading home for Christmas, so I’m trying to gather up all my gifts now and get a jump on wrapping before I hit the road. I’ve mentioned before my undying love for kraft-paper wrapped anything, and Christmas gifts are no exception. I would argue that there’s nothing more Christmas-y than a pile of brown paper packages underneath the tree…but arguing doesn’t really seem in keeping with the season, so I won’t push it.

It is, however, a dead simple and inexpensive way to wrap your gifts — not to mention a little more earth-friendly (less paper buying means less paper wasting, plus the lack of dyes apparently makes it easier to recycle). You can buy giant rolls of kraft paper for a few bucks at any office supply store, or online. But if you’re looking for something with a little more flair than plain paper and string, there are still plenty of easy ways to dress up your gifts.

I love tucking a sprig of fresh greenery under the twine, or adding a strip of (what else?) an old book page or newspaper around the package for extra depth.

Stephmodo’s jingle bells and baker’s twine are a small but adorable touch:

I love Agnes Blum’s little felt monster and brightly colored yarn — perfect for the kids:

Last year I made these gift bows out of old road maps…

…and this year I may have to try making these name tags instead:

Happy wrapping!

Image 1: Flickr user Evie Marie, 2: An Angel at My Table (via Apartment Therapy), 3: stephmodo, 4: KnockKnocking, 5: How About Orange, 6: Bugs and Fishes

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Birthday Bliss

December 19, 2011

Spring chicken card

I want to start the pre-Christmas week by bragging about my husband. He has so many talents, and one of them is cooking. I handle most of our everyday meals, but he’s the one to enlist when you want something special and amazing. Friends still talk about the dinner party he threw one evening more than 12 years ago when we were dating… Let’s just say the whole affair won him mega points.

So for my birthday, I asked B to make me dinner. The feast took place last night: He dug out our Tiffany candle holders and opened a bottle of Pine Ridge Chenin Blanc 2008. He kept the meal simple, seasonal, organic, and healthy — all my preferences.

First up was white mushroom and truffle carpaccio with shaved pecorino Toscano. He infused the truffle oil with a clove of crushed garlic and used Italian herbal rock salt and lemon:

White mushroom carp

The picture doesn’t do it justice: It was the most incredible blending of flavors and so light and delicious. I can’t wait to have it again.

Next up was the main course: balsamic and honey glazed salmon with spinach, kalamata olives, and golden raisins:

Birthday salmon

This was fantastic. The salmon was cooked to perfection. The glaze balanced perfectly with the saltiness of the olives and the texture of the spinach. I’m a freak for golden raisins, and they added an extra zing. Can you say, more please?

Then there was dessert… I’m not sure where to begin. It was a white wine, brandy, and honey syllabub with toasted almonds, served with a tiny glass of Chateau Lafon Sauternes 2005:

Birthday desser

Here’s where B — a history nerd — put his unique stamp on the meal: Syllabub is a Renaissance dessert, developed during the Tudor era, a story he shared while my eyes were bugging out of my head as I spooned up every bite. In this dessert, dairy is delicately mixed with an acid (in this case, lemon), which ever so slightly curdles the cream, ultimately making it airy and frothy without killing the creaminess. Infused with the wine and brandy, as well as some lemon rind (undetectable), it then sets in the fridge for a few hours. When you drop the toasted almonds on top before serving, it melts the surface ever so slightly and gives the dish a smoky crunch. This was a knock-your-socks-off end to the meal; I’ve never had anything quite like it.

This was another birthday meal to remember. (If you’re wondering how to get yourself an invitation to a dinner party catered by my husband, I have a few ideas for bribes he’d be willing to take…) A big thank you to my beloved, who sure knows the way to my heart.

Images: Zoe Saint-Paul

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Knitting

How was your week? Mine has been full.

The beginners’ knitting class I arranged for Wednesday evening went well and each member of our group learned something new. The plan is to gather again in January and get started on our individual projects. Since we’ll inevitably all get stuck somewhere and won’t be able to help each other — baby knitters that we are — we’ll bring back our lovely instructor, Martha, in February to help. After that we’ll be experts, of course.

I’ve not made much progress with anything else on my Twelve by 2012 list this week. Have you? I don’t even have all my Christmas gifts in the mail yet, and we don’t have our tree. What’s weird is, I’m not feeling stressed about this, nor particularly rushed. We’ll see how I’m doing this time next week, however.

Birthday gathering

Last night, some girlfriends took me out for a birthday bash. I’m up there in the stripes and you may be able to spot SlowMama contributor Margaret in the back. I had a blast and it had nothing to do with one-too-many organic vodka dry martinis with extra olives.

Birthday martinis

I know it’s a bustling time of year but if you do get a breather this weekend — and I hope you do — here are a few items you may want to check out:

  • Speaking of Design*Sponge, don’t you think these would make special gifts?
  • A version of one of my favorite party foods.
  • Another great gift idea — for anyone, really.
  • Food for thought: Are we really a nation based on “family values”?

Have a slow weekend and I’ll see you back here on Monday!

Images: Zoe Saint-Paul & Margaret Cabaniss

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