Thursday, December 31, 2009

It's New Year's Eve - Get Your 'Possum, Sardines, and Acorn Ready!

Everyone knows about the Big Apple's Big Ball that drops in Times Square at midnight, but what does your hometown do to welcome in a new year? During the past decade, cities and towns across the country have started their own New Year's Eve traditions, including (of course) dropping some oversized object that has local significance. There's (apparently) something quite compelling about braving the winter elements with a rowdy crowd and cheering as something large is dropped!

In our state, Raleigh drops a large acorn - it's the City of Oaks, so that's a nice fit and also fairly dignified (shown below in its off-season resting place). In Brasstown, NC they drop an opossum (live, but treated quite gingerly) - since it's the Opossum Capital this is also a good fit - no comment on how dignified it might be! As someone who occasionally sees one of these hideously-prehistoric animals skulking around the backyard after dark, I would never choose to ring in the new year with one. ~~ shudder~~

Eastport, Maine drops an 8-foot sardine (don't worry, it's wooden - but, just think how messy it would be if it were real!) and a bright red maple leaf in honor of their neighbors to the north. This is the only town I know of that has two different drops - the maple leaf is lowered an hour earlier as that part of Canada is in the Atlantic Time Zone.

Not to be North Carolina-centric, but there's another great celebration here - in Mt. Olive. They drop a big pickle (and you know how I love a good pickle!) into a vat of brine! Check it out here. This brings up an interesting point - while NYC drops a lighted ball, many towns celebrate with local delicacies (again, no comment on Brasstown's opossum!). Lebanon, Pennsylvania drops a 12-foot bologna - and it's not fake like the sardine or the pickle! It's a real bologna that weighs in at 150 pounds! And for the second year, Mobile, Alabama will celebrate with a giant Moon Pie!

But, they're not content to drop it like everyone else, so their countdown culminates with a Moon Pie rising - it's not a real one, of course, but rumor has it there will be lots of real ones available for hungry revelers. And the list goes on and on . . . Pensacola's Pelican, Hummeltown's Lollipop, Flagstaff's Pinecone, etc.

I'd love to hear how your hometown celebrates! Wishing you a great evening with lots of local favorites and nothing unexpected falling from the sky! And . . . don't forget the black-eyed peas and collards tomorrow for good luck and prosperity all year!

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Ring in 2010 with a Blue Moon!

Are you a fan of the Rodgers and Hart standard Blue Moon?

Blue Moon, you saw me standing alone
Without a dream in my heart,
Without a love of my own . . .

It's been recorded by almost everyone - from Bob Dylan to Rod Stewart to The Marcels and Mel Torme (and, of course, Elvis - is there any song he didn't record? Not to digress, but have you heard his version of Hey Jude? - let's just say it's the antithesis of "taking a sad song and making it better").

But, back to Blue Moon, it's a great song and pertinent for this week (hopefully not in the sense of being so lonely you're talking to the moon . . . ). Did you know there will be a blue moon when we ring in the new year tomorrow night?

A Blue Moon is the second full moon in a month and it's pretty rare (hence the phrase "once in a blue moon"). Full moons occur every 29.5 days, so a bit of quick math tells us we have a blue moon approximately every 2.5 years (I worked that out in the tried and true eighth-grade-math-problem method - you know, where a boy gets five apples during a full moon and he's on a train traveling 45 mph and his dog is on a bus headed west with twice as many apples until he gives one-third to a fellow passenger . . .). Now that we have that settled, how often does a blue moon occur on New Year's Eve? Every 19 years - the last one was 1990 and the next will be 2028 (it's funny how 1990 seems like just yesterday, but 2028 seems very far away).

So, if your New Year's Eve celebrations take you outdoors tomorrow night - take a few minutes to commune with the Blue Moon! As for whether it will actually be blue . . . you'll have to find that out yourself!

Monday, December 28, 2009

Who Was I Kidding?

Am I the only one who thought I'd find time for a last-minute blog post on Christmas Eve? Obviously, that didn't happen . . . so we'll save the carol quiz for next year. Wow - now I'm prepared quite early for next December 24!

I hope you and your loved ones had a fabulous Christmas - and that you find creative ways to re-purpose those gifts that missed the mark. If you need a bit of inspiration, look to Edward Gorey's work above.

I'll be back in a regular blogging routine in a few days. In the interim, wishing you some happy downtime!

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

A Peek at the Holiday Things Keeping Me Away from the Blogosphere

Like many of you, I have been pretty busy the past few weeks and, unlike many of you, I have neglected the blog world as a result. Here's a little look at a few things that have taken my attention in the lead-up to Christmas:

Our mantle decorations - perhaps not enough height or color to satisfy a real decorator, but we like for the Three Kings to be the focus (plus, the mirror makes decorating a bit tricky as I found out the year I hung three wreaths of berries - the backs of the wreaths were unfinished - not a good look when reflected!). And the mantel is pretty high - about six feet from the floor - so most people are already looking up (especially those of us in the under 5'5" range!).

I tucked small, clear votives among the greenery, the light from them really makes the garland sparkle at night!

I love live greenery around the house during Christmas and can usually scrounge enough from our yard and our next-door neighbor (who's conveniently out of the country each year when we decorate!).

As you can see, I don't worry about having perfect, symmetrical arrangements. I'm happy with something less formal, like these . . . which are sitting on either end of a sideboard and would probably distract a diner like Hercule Poirot who demands a bit more order. Of course, if Poirot comes to your house for a Christmas meal, you have bigger worries than the flower arrangements because there's sure to be a 'mishap' before the evening ends!

Our tree - which was so close to the ceiling (even after trimming a long piece from the top) that we left the top unadorned - that may become our new standard as we like the look (especially my husband who usually has to get pretty high on the ladder to reach the top of the 9ft+ tree). (Note: these pics were taken before I tidied up the cords!)

And finally, one of my favorite Christmas 'tasks' - wrapping presents! You either love it or hate it - most people I know fall into the latter category, but for me it's a fun way to spend a few hours.

And finally, our little flocked pre-lighted bedroom tree. Isn't it cheery? I hope your week holds some fun Christmas distractions.

Stop by tomorrow for a fun Christmas Carol quiz!

Monday, December 21, 2009

Happy Midwinter (aka The Longest Night of the Year)

As you know, today is the Solstice - the shortest day in the year for those of us in the Northern Hemisphere and the longest day for those of you in the Southern Hemisphere. Officially occurring at 12:47 - we're now almost four hours into Winter. And what better time to revisit Robert Frost's fabulous poem that takes place on this day:

Photograph from 1916, part of the Frank and Frances Carpenter collection, Library of Congress.

Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening

by Robert Frost

Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.

My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.

He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound’s the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.

The woods are lovely, dark and deep.
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.

Photograph by Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorskii, circa 1915, Library of Congress.

I hope you enjoy the longest (or shortest!) night of 2009!

Woodprint (c. 1838) by Hiroshige Ando (1797-1858), Library of Congress.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Snow Birds

This isn't about Minnesotans wintering in Florida - it's a quick look at a few birds who visited our feeders during our little snow storm yesterday. The photos aren't especially good - the light was bad and the windows were splattered with snow (honestly, they're actually pretty clean . . .). But, you might enjoy seeing these Droll Yankee window feeders - we have two on the same window and get lots of birds year-round.

If you don't have bright lights in the room, the birds don't notice you at all.

And it's amazing to get such up-close views.

Even though they can't see us, sometimes it seems like they're staring us down . . . this cardinal is a great example. He is the state bird, though, so perhaps he's within his rights to have a bit of attitude!

Keep these feeders in mind for a last-minute gift!

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Bleak Midwinter Snow

Yes, this is one of those hackneyed blog entries with pictures of snow and a Christmas carol. Sorry . . . I just couldn't resist. It's not often this part of North Carolina has snow in December (or any other time) and it's pretty exciting! So here are a few snaps accompanied by Christina Rossetti's beautiful poem, In the Bleak Midwinter. (Also, of course, a popular hymn with music by Gustav Holst - and a favorite of my grandmother who introduced me to many of Rossetti's charming poems for children - and finally, in the spirit of blogosphere self-indulgence, the last verse was my part in a Christmas program many years ago . . . funny how these things stay with you - another time I'll bore you with the details of the red velvet jumper that made its debut with the poem . . .)

In the bleak midwinter, frosty wind made moan,
Earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone;
Snow had fallen, snow on snow, snow on snow,
In the bleak midwinter, long ago.

Our God, Heaven cannot hold Him, nor earth sustain;
Heaven and earth shall flee away when He comes to reign.
In the bleak midwinter a stable place sufficed
The Lord God Almighty, Jesus Christ.

Enough for Him, whom cherubim, worship night and day,
Breastful of milk, and a mangerful of hay;
Enough for Him, whom angels fall before,
The ox and ass and camel which adore.

Angels and archangels may have gathered there,
Cherubim and seraphim thronged the air;
But His mother only, in her maiden bliss,
Worshipped the beloved with a kiss.

What can I give Him, poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb;
If I were a Wise Man, I would do my part;
Yet what I can I give Him: give my heart.

Friday, December 18, 2009

The Ultimate Christmas Cookie! Oranges & Dates & Pecans, Oh My!

It's been a busy week in the kitchen - one of those weeks where no photos are taken until it's too late! But, I do have pictures of the best baked good from the week - Orange-Date-Pecan Cookies. Yum! What smells more like the holidays than orange? Did you read the Little House books? Remember how excited the girls would be to get oranges in their stockings? Of course we can have oranges and almost any other fruit year-round, but there's still something very Christmassy about oranges - whether studded with cloves or baked into fabulous cakes and cookies or forming wreaths for the front door.

Photo from Country Living

If you like oranges and pecans, you'll love these cookies. They're great for a cookie swap because the recipe makes around 8 dozen (!) and they're uniform shapes which makes them easy to package. And needless to say, they're perfect with a hot cup of tea! (Once again I found photographing food to be a challenge! All I can say is that these are much prettier in real life.)

Orange-Date-Pecan Cookies (from a Southern Living Christmas book - 199?)

10 ounces pitted dates, chopped
1 teaspoon grated orange rind
1 tablespoon orange juice
1 cup butter, softened
1 1/2 cups sugar
1 large egg
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 1/2 cups self-rising flour (if using all-purpose, add 1 1/2 t. baking powder and 1/2 t. salt)
1 cup finely chopped pecans, divided (toasted, if desired)
  • Line a 9"x5"x3" loaf pan with aluminum foil, allowing foil to extend over edges of pan. Set aside
  • Finely chop first three ingredients - I do this on a cutting board, but you can also use a food processor
  • In large mixing bowl, beat butter at medium speed. Gradually add sugar, beating until blended. Add egg and vanilla, beat well. Add flour, beating at low speed just until blended.
  • Divide dough into three portions. Knead 1/2 cup pecans into one portion of dough. Press into prepared pan. Knead date mixture into one portion of dough. Press in pan over pecan mixture. Mix remaining pecans with remaining dough. Press in pan over date mixture. Cover and chill at least 2 hours.
  • Invert loaf pan onto cutting board and remove foil. Cut dough lengthwise into four portions. Cut each section of dough crosswise in 1/4" slices. Place slices 1 1/2" apart on lightly greased cookie sheet. (I never grease the cookie sheets and the cookies never stick . . . )
  • Bake at 350 for 9 to 10 minutes or until lightly browned. Cool slightly and remove to racks.
Leah's notes: A loaf pan with straight sides works best. I often freeze part of the dough for several weeks (wrap in parchment paper, then a ziploc bag). In an airtight container, these will get softer (because of the dates) so you may want to let a little air circulate around them if you like them crunchy - or just eat them all the first day!

Hope your weekend includes some sweet treats!

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

The Queen of Sheba Returns - with a Harp!

What's better than one harp? Fourteen harps. This past weekend I saw (and heard!) 14 harps played by some of the most talented young harpists in the country. It was a performance of The American Youth Harp Ensemble, based in Richmond, Virginia. The AYHE is internationally known, and has performed throughout Europe and the US - including performances at the White House and Carnegie Hall and appearances on public radio and television.

Their music is amazing. The holiday concert, entitled "Harp! The Herald Angels Play!", included traditional harp pieces, jazzy renditions of familiar favorites like The Pink Panther theme and Scott Joplin's Entertainer, and Christmas standards like Carol of the Bells which seemed to be played by a complete orchestra.

One song I particularly liked was Handel's Arrival of the Queen of Sheba. It's one of those songs that's familiar, but you possibly can't name it. (Listen to a snippet here.) The song is from Handel's Solomon oratorio, and captures the excitement of the Queen's visit to King Solomon. This painting from the National Gallery imagines her departure. She brought the wise King great riches, including several tons of gold, but, the verdict is out as to whether she's the romantic subject of the Song of Solomon . . .

I think Handel himself would have approved of AYHE's rendition. It was joyful, energetic, and beautiful. If you have the opportunity to attend an American Youth Harp Ensemble concert, you should! You'll enjoy the wonderful music and perhaps see the harp in a whole new light.

I'm off to listen to a little Handel while I wrap presents - three guesses which songs!

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

The Ultimate Recycling Project - Cagey Trees!

What do you get when you add

to an empty

? A tomato cage tree, of course!

Up close you can see the rings of the tomato cage, but from even a few feet away it's just a magical, glowing tree. Actually I should say trees because I made two of these - one for each side of our front steps. During the day they sparkle in the sun - the little snowflakes are holographic and really catch the light. There's not a photo of the trees in bright sunlight because: 1) the sun's barely been seen here the last few weeks, and 2) the trees are too shiny in full sunlight - it's like trying to photograph Liberace's mirrored Rolls Royce! The photo below shows it on an overcast day - the little snowflakes really raise the shininess level.

If you're looking for a quick decoration - try making your own tomato cage tree. I used two 100-light strings (one all green and one multi-colored) and two 12-ft tinsel garlands (from Home Depot) for each tree and the tomato cages have been used for several years in the garden.

Happy Tuesday!

Monday, December 14, 2009

Sometimes Selfishness Is Its Own Reward

Okay, so that sentiment is not exactly in keeping with the spirit of the season. But, as Mr. Monk would say, "here's what happened . . ."

In the late '80s I purchased a set of eight brass Santas - as seen above. (You remember those brass-crazed years, with the brass switchplate covers, faucets, etc.?) My plan was to use these to decorate Christmas packages - think how pretty that could have been, red or green foil with a shiny Santa on top! From the photos, you can guess how this turned out - I decided to keep them instead and they've been decorating my trees ever since.

Each year when I unpack them, I remember my original plan. But, then I think how cheery they've been nestled amongst the other ornaments and I'm glad I kept them; after all, eight Santas must be better than one! Mr. Pickle, however, disagrees and looks at me askance as I hang each Santa. And if your tree doesn't have a pickle, you really should get one - the (possibly dubious!) tradition is that you hide it on the tree and the first child to spot it on Christmas morning gets a special gift. Our pickle is slightly scary so perhaps his special gift will be a lump of coal!

On a slightly less selfish note, this little snowman baker was part of a set spotted at Williams-Sonoma a few years ago. I was shopping with a friend and both of us wanted these - but there was only one set. So, we purchased it and each took two - then the next year she found another set in a post-holiday sale (!) and we divided that set as well. Now we each have all four and a fun reminder of our friendship. Plus, this little snowman gives a clue as to what I'll be doing later this week - more holiday baking!

Hope you have a great week!

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Things for People Who Don't Like Things

Christmas Music performed by pop stars! Obviously for people who don't like Christmas or music . . . but, who must love the singers. Only a fan of them could appreciate their renditions of holiday classics that sound amazingly like the songs that made the singers famous. I'm from the 'holiday songs are best sung like standards' school. Perhaps I'm a musical victim of circumstances - when I was growing up everyone's parents and grandparents had the same Christmas albums: Bing Crosby, Dean Martin, Johnny Mathis, Mahalia Jackson, Sinatra, etc. These are still some of my favorites.

If you want to perform a song in your own style - write your own song (think Brenda Lee and her Christmas Tree or McCartney's Wonderful Christmas Time or even Adam Sandler's Hanukkah Song). What you should not do, however, is ruin a perfectly good song by singing it Your Way, I mean even Sinatra stuck to the basic tunes with his holiday renditions!

What I should do is stop tuning in to the all-holiday radio stations - every time I do I hear the same songs that prove this point (to me, anyway) - James Taylor's depressing Jingle Bells, Bob Seger's Little Drummer Boy (I do like Bob Seger, but he's more of a Night Moves kind of guy . . .), or Martina McBride's duet with Dean Martin (was there ever a stranger combination?).

But what actually prompted this post is Bob Dylan's new Christmas From the Heart. I confess I've never seen the genius in Dylan - perhaps I'm just too young. I think you have to be from his generation to think of his lyrics as poetry. With his most famous songs, though, I can see what appeals to the Woodstock generation. I even like his rendition of Froggy Went a-Courtin', but just a few notes of his nasal, raspy version of Adeste Fideles makes me want to punch the radio - or the myriad reviewers who have praised his album. Who are they kidding? This phenomena is a kind of Bob Dylan Rope-a-Dope - his reputation mesmerizes and no matter what he sings it's hailed as a brilliant addition to his body of work - a musical knock-out, if you will!

Of course, music is personal and there must be people out there who love Christmas music and also the James Taylor or Michael McDonald versions - so enjoy . . . and I'll stick to the songs that say 'Christmas' to me, like:

Any song from Vince Guaraldi's Charlie Brown Christmas score
Nat King Cole The Christmas Song
Trans-Siberian Orchestra Christmas Cannon
Andy Williams It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year
Harry Connick Jr I Pray on Christmas
Mahalia Jackson O Holy Night and One for the little Bitty Baby
Charlotte Church Ding, Dong, Merrily on High

Hope your weekend is full of the music you love!

Friday, December 11, 2009

The Luxury of the Unexpressed Thought

This time of year we often think of luxuries - either to indulge in ourselves or to give to loved ones. Luxuries are relative, perhaps a night without the kids or an afternoon to spend with friends at a favorite holiday spot are your luxuries. Or maybe a special food or drink that you only prepare or buy during this season. Or maybe you are contemplating luxury on a bigger scale with this Cupcake Car (!!!) from the Neiman Marcus Christmas catalog.

Wow! I don't want to get sidetracked, but wouldn't that be great in your driveway? For a mere $25,000 you get your choice of decorations . . . (did I say Wow! already?)

The luxury I have in mind today is a bit different - it's the luxury of the unexpressed thought. I wish I could take credit for coining that phrase - don't you love it? (Well, obviously not as much as the cupcake cars . . .) The phrase is a quote from US Senator Everett Dirksen - who's apparently known mostly for saying that. (Apologies to those political history buffs who know and like Dirksen for other things . . . but given the current political climate, being remembered for one positive, clever thing at the end of your Senate career is pretty impressive.)

In today's tell-all, 24/7 reality show, blogging/texting/tweeting climate an unexpressed thought is indeed rare. But, what's luxurious about it? If you don't say it, you can't be sorry you said it! It can't be repeated to an unintended listener. You don't have to explain it . . . and so on.

Now that's luxurious - and it doesn't cost a cent.

Hope your weekend has a few quiet moments!

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Hold the milk & sugar, I'll just have glitter

What's cheery at our house today? Our fresh Christmas tree that's decorated and smells exactly like the holidays - you can't be in a bad mood when you open the front door and get a giant whiff of Frasier Fir! (Of course, I'm never in a bad mood - just ask my husband!!) Here's another cheery thing - this framed card that I'd forgotten about until the boxes of ornaments and decorations were unpacked. For several years we've saved one of our Christmas cards and have put them in inexpensive frames to display during the holidays. This card was my business holiday card last year and I did not remember that it was framed. That's one of the joys of after-Christmas shopping - you buy something, pack it away and forget about it, then it's a surprise the following year!

The most interesting thing about decorating this year, however, was that I realized I have lots of glittery ornaments and the glitter ends up all over the house. And glitter from this little bird . . .

and this little piano ended up . . .

in this cup of tea!

The lesson here is not to unpack glittery things on the same table as your beverage. This was the last tea from the pot (as you can tell from the tiny specks of leaves) and I think I drank some of the glitter before I noticed it was in the cup! Too bad I don't know how to read tea leaves - there must be something drastic in your future if your tea is glittery!

Hope you find some glitter in your world this week!
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