Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Happy New Year!

It looks like I have a few minutes to get one last post in for 2008. I know, what a grandma, blogging on New Year's Eve! Well, we have actually just had a really nice evening with friends in which a bonfire and s'mores and good conversation and  yummy beverages were enjoyed. But since we all have young children, we called it a night a few minutes ago. They are probably not even home yet, but we have put our children to bed and George has just run out to check the fire and make sure it's well put out. Anyway, 2008. I haven't spent any amount of time reflecting on it. So if this turns into some type of reflection, it is purely stream of consciousness. Let's see where the stream take us.

I went into the year knowing that George would be graduating from seminary, knowing that it would be a year of big changes. But little did I know. Don't you just love the whole "little did he know" part of Stranger Than Fiction? Anyway, I feel good about it. I feel good about the utter chaos and monumental disappointment of the past year. And yes, I am being a little tongue and cheek, but really, I am totally on board with all of this being good for me and being part of a perfect plan. And I have been jerked around just enough to not be freaked out about it anymore. Or so I say with a glass of champagne in my hand. Also, I haven't balanced the checkbook since before Christmas. And you know that helps with the whole not being freaked out thing too. But I've said this before, when things get as bad as your worst case scenario, you learn to not worry because the worst has already happened. Of course, dear reader, I know that worse things could happen. And I am by no means inviting more, but I'm just saying... You know what I'm saying. 

Anyway, I have no idea what the point of seven month unemployment is. I truly don't. And it could turn into seventeen month unemployment before it's over. And I wanted another baby almost every day of 2008. And it has always been that it would be "wise" to wait until we had an income. So I don't know the point of that either. We are completely dependent on the generosity and good will of others at this point, and I don't know the point of that either. But I know there is a point. So here's to the point of 2008, whatever that may be. I am guessing that a lot of people feel this way at the end of the year, even without graduating from four years in a masters program and not getting a job or having all their stuff in boxes 300 miles away. A lot of things don't make sense do they? I think I need to start thinking about living a consistent life in spite of those things. A friend recently remarked to me how easy it is to live waiting for things to settle down or be how they're going to be. How much time do we waste waiting for things in our lives to fall into place? For me, it's a lot. Of course, there is much to be said for what is available to us as young families with lots of responsibilities of small children and with little time or funds to spare. But even taking that into account, I still think that, too often, I wait for life to be less hectic to do something or try something or be something. So here's to 2009, to doing something and trying something and being something, come what may. Happy New Year! And gosh, I hope this makes sense tomorrow! 

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Any Recommendations?

I have been shopping to spend my parents' money today. It is rather embarrassing to be shopping for trinkets and baubles when one worries about one's daily bread, but my parents are pretty firm on spending X amount of money on Christmas gifts and that it cannot be put into the family budget. They are also very firm about not helping us while we are in the situation we are in. I will leave the editorial to you all, but I'm sure you can imagine my feelings on the matter. I do need some wine glasses though. Well, relatively speaking, I do not need wine glasses. But I don't have wine glasses. I never have. For a while it was no big deal because we were all right out of college and in to either beer or mixed drinks. But there gets to be a point where serving wine in juice glasses is a little embarrassing. I will admit to having 8 very formal Waterford crystal wine glasses, but they have been packed for the last four years because they really only work with my Wedgewood china. And well, I just thought I would be so formal when I got married. Silly silly. I have rented wine glasses for parties before, but it is really to the point where someone is drinking wine, albeit Two Buck Chuck, at least a couple of times a week around here. And rentals are crummy anyway. 

The bad thing about me shopping around for anything is that I want the best version of whatever it is if I am going to exchange money for it and take it into my home for years to come. So, okay, I know nothing about wine. And if I want just one kind of glass instead of two, which one should I get? Looking around on the internet had me convinced almost immediately that I did need at least two kinds of wine glasses and both by this hoity toity expensive brand--until George gave me his "my family is from blue collar Midwest America, you have got to be kidding me with this blue blood Southern nonsense" look. I knew I would get that look. I am glad I married someone that can give me that look (most of the time). Imagine the financial foolishness of a pair of me! George is also usually very generous in his understanding of this inconvenient little peculiarity of mine, asserting that I merely understand and place a high value on quality. In the moment though, I usually just get the look. And it was win, win really. Because I really started out just wanting the Pottery Barn wine glasses. George was pleased with the price on theirs after seeing what the swanky ones cost. But earlier today, he felt confident that I could go to the Dollar store and get a fine vessel. So while I am not getting Riedel wine glasses, I am also not going to the dollar store, which is a very happy thing. 

Another thing I have looked into is Christmas music. I know that some people would say that Christmas is over, but I would remind you that it is just Advent that is over and that Christmas lasts until January 6th. But most people don't pay that much regard, which I get, I just happen to be in a church that does. And I am glad because I get to keep listening to my Christmas music and still have a few days to get some cookies to some folks I meant to bake for. Anyway, I didn't say much about Christmas music this year. I have particularly been enjoying Sufjan Stevens' Songs for Christmas. George got me an Emmylou Harris Christmas CD, Light of the Stable, this year too, and I spent some time enjoying getting to know it. And then there's the usual stuff, two radio stations of 24/7 Christmas music, Amy Grant (since I was a kid!) and Andrew Peterson's Behold the Lamb of God, which I have raved about in years past, and still love so much I gave copies to several people this year. But I need some new albums to add into the mix. I have listened to a kazillion samples on Amazon today and I am thinking I might enjoy Mary Chapin Carpenter's Christmas album, though it sounds very mellow. I loved Mary Chapin way back when, but I haven't listened to her for years. She can be very dull, you see, and very liberal as well. But there is nothing dull or political about Christmas. But George hates the samples from her Christmas CD on Amazon. And history proves that I cannot maintain enjoyment of something that George abhors, so I think it better to go with something different. The other one I think I might like is Sara Groves' O Holy Night. Does anyone know anything about her or have her album? I am not much in to the Christian music scene. But I enjoyed the samples I heard. I am open to other recommendations as well. 

Wine glasses and Christmas music- what say ye?

Monday, December 29, 2008

Happy Trails

I ran for the first time in two months today. The last time I ran was the week of Halloween, the week we moved out of George's mom's house, the last week Amabel was in school. So today, without a care for homeschooling or holidays or hostessing, three exciting yet exhausting endeavors of the last two months, I donned my workout gear, grabbed my iPod Shuffle (which was still charged!), and headed down our humongous half mile hill of a driveway onto a country highway with a speed limit of 55 (in my car) to find a place to run. I mention the hill and the highway to illustrate how the geography has also confounded my efforts to keep up my exercise regime. I found me a nice little two mile trail at a state park not so so far away and hoped to at least make it halfway through without having to stop. I secretly hoped a little higher, to make it one and a half miles or so, but I had to tell myself to do the best I could and be proud of whatever strength and endurance I had managed to hang on to. So imagine my surprise, when I finally took a short break, to come around the curve and see my car! I had stopped only about a tenth of a mile from the end. I was pretty excited. Okay, so two miles is no big deal. But I was pretty anxious about being completely at square one all over again. Let me tell ya, back to square one is the story of my life right now! 

And if I had known it was only that far, I think I surely could have finished the whole two miles. My muscles were very kind to me. I was tired, of course, and extremely slow (as usual), but they served me well. And my lungs were friendly too. My bladder hates me though. After three pregnancies, there may be no way around this. Even in high school I had friends who ran wearing Poise pads. I am not kidding! I was advised to do so after actually bailing out during a race to go use the bathroom! And I even had some friends who said they would sooner wet their pants than quit a race! Well, don't let's be silly! Anyway, it was kind of funny that that was my big reason for stopping. Perhaps if I run without drinking anything before, I can make it back up to three miles in the next month? Goodness sakes, how does anyone run a marathon?! But anyway, I still have two (ridiculously slow and weak) miles in me, and that is a very happy thing. 

And other than the wish to find a restroom, I very much enjoyed my run. The park is a little too close to the interstate for my taste, but most of the time you aren't able to see the traffic. And there were two ladies riding horses that went by me in the first half mile or so. I love the smell of horses. Mmmm. I smiled and put my hand up, but didn't speak to them because I had my music loud and because I didn't want to stop. But when I came around the curve at the end, they were coming around from the opposite direction and both gave me an enthusiastic "Good job!" I don't know if they were just that nice, or if I had looked just that pitiful when they had seen me earlier. But it was nice to have encouragement from someone besides George Harrison and Bob Dylan (I'm currently running to, among other things, tunes from Traveling Wilburys). So I am back to running, I guess. So we can mix in some more boring posts about that with the boring posts about homeschooling now! Hurray! I knew y'all would be excited!

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Christmas Around the World, Part 3

This is the last Christmas Around the World post. And this will not be one of those posts that takes twenty minutes to read. I hope. School certainly occupied much less of our days the last week or so before Christmas. But I still didn't get most of the stuff done that I wanted to. On the other hand, this was just not the year to try to do extraordinary things. I am very content with what I accomplished. And I am overwhelmed with gratitude for all that was done for me and my family. I started this post a while ago when I was still finishing the Christmas unit, so I figure I should go ahead and finish it up and post it. And the main reason is just because I want a record of it in case I teach it again to my younger children, or if any of you should need an extra idea. But again, I know it isn't that interesting to anyone besides homeschool mommies. Sorry about that.

The first day of the week, I combined Egypt and Israel. I could have done Christmas in Egypt and tried various recipes I found in a search for Egyptian cookies. And I could have done a day on Chanukah too; potato latkes sound like they would be darn good. But I decided that the Christmas story takes place in Israel and Egypt and it would be a good day to sit down and spend a lot of time on the story in Matthew without bringing other traditions into the picture. At this point I am somewhat skeptical of all that I am finding anyway. I mean, sure these things were parts of Christmas celebrations in their country a hundred years ago, but World War II and television and internet has changed everything. Pretty much everyone has the Coca Cola Santa now. Sorry to insert my skepticism, but I am just explaining my choice to not really treat these days individually, to not focus on Egyptian Christmas celebrations or Israeli Chanukah celebrations. I just wanted to do a day on the Christmas story. Plus, after Christmas we begin world history in Ancient Egypt and in the Bible (we're going Classical, baby!), so why confuse things by talking about modern day Egyptian and Israeli practices? However, there is a lot to do with both of these countries if you wanted to, lots of recipes for both, plenty of Chanukah books, etc.

Moving on then, the next day was Chile. Chile is just sort of all over the place because it is so long and skinny- beaches, mountains, tropics, subarctic regions, etc. So there wasn't a whole lot to nail down except that they are Catholic and Spanish speaking and in the Southern hemisphere, none of which is new at this point. It seems that there are two Christmas dishes that are huge no matter what part of Chile you are in though, Pan de Pascua (I know, it sounds like Easter bread, but it's Christmas bread) and Cola de Mono (literally translated "monkey's tail."). Well, Cola de Mono is an alcoholic beverage that sounds somewhat similar to eggnog and coffee, mmmm, but not helpful for second graders. So it had to be Pan de Pascua. And after my success with the St. Lucia buns, I was very excited to make it. But then I got to the grocery store. All of the candied fruits and citrus peels I needed were either extremely expensive or just unavailable. So, while I could have substituted, I knew that so many times in my searches for a good recipe I had seen this compared to Panettone, and I figured those ingredients would be better, and the level of satisfaction higher- Chilean Christmas bread? sure, thanks. Widely known to be delicious Italian Christmas Bread? Hurray! But what to do about Chile? I didn't know. If you do, let me know, because we just did a couple of worksheets and ran some errands. I'm getting sick of Christmas around the world! Ha! But seriously, the bread sounds like it would be a really good idea if you didn't have Italy two days later. If you can't find/afford an ingredient, just substitute. Recipes seem to be somewhat available. Again, I won't post something I didn't try. But good luck to you.

The next to last day was Russia. Well, what makes me think of Russian Christmas? The Nutcracker. I had never actually read The Nutcracker or seen The Nutcracker Ballet, though I was somewhat familiar with the story. I think I would love the ballet. I am not much for performing arts. Well, really, I am just not much for musicals and singing performances of any kind. I don't know if it is because you get majorly ODed on these growing up in Music City or if it is something to do with having both sisters and almost all of my friends in high school being in "Vision." Ulghck! Vision! (My apologies to Sara, Courtney, Rachael, and any other former members of Vision who read. Do you know I never actually went to a Madrigal Feast? How is that even possible?) "Vision" was our high school's elite choral group. Or something. Everyone else was in Vision while I was either working on the yearbook or running. And then at lunch or between classes or whenever, everyone would have these inside jokes about whatever from Vision practice or gossip about how flat so and so was and how they couldn't believe she had a solo or whatever. It was super annoying. And once they realized how irritating it was to me, they did it on purpose to tease me. At my friend Matt's graduation party, all of Vision held hands and made a circle around me and sang me a song. Matt was Mr. Vision. He thought it was hilarious. It actually was. Anyway, people don't sing in ballets. I enjoy that about them. And so I might like to see The Nutcracker sometime. Instead, we watched The Wonderpets Save the Nutcracker! I know, that's hilarious. After all these weeks of working so hard, I just bailed and rented a Nick Jr. video. Well, we read the book too. But no baking. Actually, lots of baking, just no Russian baking. I didn't feel too bad about this as Russians often fast before Christmas. Alternatively, Mexican wedding cakes are quite similar to Russian Tea Cakes, and I may have made some of them if I hadn't just done so for Mexico day. The book we checked out was the actual "short story" (not so short though, really) which was written by E. T. A. Hoffman. Yeah, like Tales of Hoffman, Hoffman. And I hadn't realized that. But it really is a Hoffman-ish story. I guess I just didn't really know the story before. The ballet is a little different, I guess. Because yeah, the story's a little Hoffman creepy.

Last day! Our last day we "visited" Italy. Well, there is a lot to be said about Italian Christmas, but again, it seems like most of it is what they used to do. The gift bearing person in Italy is an old lady, or witch, who was said to have met the wise men as they travelled. She was far to busy to join them in their search for the Christ Child and sent them away so she could continue her housework. Later on, as she swept, she realized her mistake and went out in search of the wise men who had already left. It is said that she flew away on her broomstick to try to catch up to them in order to bring gifts to the baby Jesus. She never has found them, but to this day she flies around, bringing gifts to children on Epiphany, hoping to find the Christ Child. So, you still have time to celebrate Christmas in Italy! We read Tomie de Paola's Old Befana (the story of the old woman- there is a nearly identical story in Russian culture about and old lady named Baboushka) and ate panettone. I did want to make it, but Trader Joe's had it just right there on the end cap! In the end, I do not recommend the Trader Joe's variety, which is actually imported from Italy, because of the citrus peel. Citrus peel turns out to not be my friend, nor my children's. But citrus peel is not a definitive ingredient to panettone, so I may try to make it before Epiphany. If so, I will let you know how it turns out. We also had a whole gaggle of people over for chicken parmesan on Italy day.

Alright, so I longer post than I thought, and not so informative, but I just wanted to get it out there. I will have some time this week to bake up some of the stuff I didn't get to try during the busy weeks before Christmas, so be on the look out for more recipes- stroopwafels (which I also recently picked up at Trader Joe's, imported from Holland), fortune cookies, and panettone. Hope y'all are having a wonderful Christmas!

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Christmas Anonymity

To whomever left the gifts on our doorstep tonight, to all who gave gifts to our family this year through our church, to everyone who asked a deacon to please pass along an envelope of money to us, to the dear friends who transferred money to our Paypal account, to everyone who has given to us this year and helped us during this miserable time, I have no words. I have written two drafts already, and I truly have no words. Thank you. From the bottom of my weary heart, thank you. I feel like I am at the end of a very long year and all I have left is tears of exhaustion. And then all of this! Let me at least try to explain what I mean by "all of this" to my readers. 

I realized yesterday that August really wasn't kidding when he had said (for the past two months again and again) he wanted a tow truck for Christmas. I felt so horrible that I had ignored him for the most part and, at one point, passively suggested that maybe Grandpa would get it for him, and then completely forgotten about it. Well, here was little August on the 23rd of December, with his heart completely set on a tow truck from Grandpa for Christmas. And what was I supposed to do about it? And even if I could get the tow truck, which I just felt so bad about because it was my fault that I didn't tell Grandpa, I hadn't gotten anything for the girls, so it would not just be one present I would need to buy, but three.  And then out of the blue, and I mean the clear blue, this buddy of George's from high school says his dad, who runs some type of ministry, has some Target and Walmart gift cards for us and can we run by and pick them up? Uh, yeah, okay. I have a million stories like this lately! So off we go to Target for a gift for each of the children and even stocking stuffers! (And laundry detergent and ziploc bags etc, but that isn't nearly so Hallmark Hall of Fame is it?) But then this morning I went to Walmart and with much anxiety, carefully selected an affordable truck (I hadn't found that essential item at Target) along with the other things I had to have for the out of town guests we are having (hurray!). I felt so embarrassed as I purchased a few household items I needed and asked the lady to hold off ringing up the tow truck to make sure it could be covered by the gift card. Then the card wouldn't swipe, and I stood there, humiliated, as I waited for a manager to come to the checkout with the flashing light so I could use a gift card from people I have never met and an extra, and almost last, seven dollars from some blessed, nameless soul. I will tell you that when I got to my car, I cried. I know it was being tired too. But I just felt like the gift cards were this wonderful blessing to get gifts for the kids, but that maybe it was foolish to squander them that way when we would inevitably need things that could be gotten at Walmart again soon. And then what would we do? So there's this mix of gratitude and happiness that August is getting the ever important truck and doubt about the wisdom of valuing my five year old's fleeting happiness so much and fear of what I will do next time I need to go to Walmart (okay, so yeah, I don't actually shop at Walmart apart from being given a gift card, but you know what I mean), and embarrassment and stress and fatigue. Man, I was on the verge. Then, I get home and I'm trying to pull myself together, and I'm praying, and I'm making dessert for later (which flopped), and then George tells me to check our account because some friends just transferred money into it! The event of just this one day in our lives is a good picture of our year in fast forward. Emotions ran the gamut. We had abundance and then we ran out and then we had more than before. We cried and then we were knocked off our feet by the generosity and lovingkindness of God's people. All of this, and I was trying to prepare Christmas Eve dinner for nine, or, in terms of the year, all of this, and I was trying to raise three children without a home!

After Christmas Eve dinner (pork roast with apricot, cherry, and pecan stuffing, wilted spinach salad with bacon and balsamic vinaigrette, roasted sweet potatoes, and Sister Schubert rolls), all of which was purchased with gift cards to the grocery store, we came into the living room. We were all sort of hanging around when there was a loud knocking at the door, and when George went to get it, there was no one there. There was, however, a large pile of presents on the porch. Now, I have a vague recollection that there is a tradition that some of the folks in our church have of secretly leaving gifts on someone's doorstep on Christmas Eve, but I can't remember whose tradition it is. I am not sure if it is something that is generally known and that we will discover who our generous givers are, or if it is meant to be kept a secret. But I will not feel bad about not keeping what they gave us a secret. Well, first of all, there was wine and fruit and chocolate and candlesticks. So there you go! I have never owned any candlesticks! I am super excited! I have owned wine and fruit and chocolate, so I know that these are very good things, and I am super excited about them as well. But let me just tell you about the most perfect toy anyone could have thought of for my three children. I couldn't have even thought of it myself. Really. It is a barn/stable with a hinged roof that opens up so you can reach down in it to play. Inside, there are horses and dolls to ride on the horses and all kinds of darling accessories. It is perfect for Elspeth because she loves dollhouses. It is perfect for Amabel because she loves horses. And it is perfect for August because he loves farms and just got a tractor and some farm animals for his birthday this fall. I really had to pull myself together as I saw them pulling the horses and dolls out of the stable. It was such a precious gift, a really really nice gift, but also a really really insightful gift. I suppose it could have been that they didn't know how perfect it would be, but just had a really great idea that well suits all three of my children; and even if that is the case, I know that the Lord knew. 

I tell you what, y'all, God is good. The people of God are faithful and loving. I will not forget this Christmas. Thank you. And I hope you will all have a glorious celebration of the coming of Christ and his gift to mankind. 

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Christmas Calamity?

Zero comments. Wow, I totally feel like Charlie Brown. 

Is everybody stressed? I'm afraid you all are. I think the whole country is. Target has way less Christmas stuff this year. I don't know about other stores. I seriously have only been to the grocery store and Target in the past month. Right, so I haven't even started Christmas shopping. And all the advertising and news I hear seems to come from the angle that people are doing much less across the board this year. Well, it really doesn't help that we had almost a week less (after Thanksgiving) to get ready for Christmas this year than we did last year. We have only gotten like one third of the Christmas cards we have usually gotten by now. And it seems like everyone I talk to is trying to content themselves with not getting things done that they would have liked to have done. So maybe we should talk about what we can't do this year instead of what we love doing every year? I'll go first. 

I may or may not get Christmas dresses made in time for Lessons and Carols on Sunday night. Let's see, it's Thursday night now, I've got the fabric pre-shrunk, but not cut, and certainly not sewn. So it's probably either going to be sleep or dresses. Let's see who really knows me. Will I sleep or make the dresses?  Moving on, I haven't made wreaths yet. I have the cuttings, I have the ribbon. My florist wire is in storage. Florist wire is only like two dollars. I'm thinking I can have them up in time for guests on Christmas Eve. But is it worth it? Two dollars? Yes. But the time it takes to make them? I'm just not sure. I was also going to make stockings this year with the extra fabric from what my sister sent for my girls' dresses (she sent a ton! from Italy! ooh la la!- yes, I know "ooh la la!" is French, not Italian. she lives in France though). And I wonder if I will get that done? What about this year's gingerbread house? See, I'm behind on a lot. I still haven't finished Christmas around the world! We have one more stop to make! And I have no idea what I'm serving for Christmas Eve or Christmas dinner. None. Also, Christmas cards need to go out. Here I sit with a pile of unopened packages. My prints should be ready in the morning though. I'm thinking I  had better quit blogging and start addressing Christmas cards. And what a year I picked to buy blank ones! Well, I found them in the One Spot! The One Spot, y'all! Eight cards for a dollar?! And they have polka dots on them. It's all too exciting, polka dotted, twelve cent Christmas cards. But oh, the writing

So, if you're reading, what are you not doing? Commenting? Yes, yes, besides that? 

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Christmas Clarity

I so appreciate all the homeschool love! But I have to say that I was really not trying to impress anyone, except maybe Amabel. I never want to give the impression of having it all together! Nothing could be further from the truth! And because I am a mess, I know the value of people sharing their own messiness. It just makes people feel less alone and crazy. Hey, that dude's a mess too! So, let me just be clear that all of this Christmas around the world stuff is just going on here so that if you ever want to do it, you can have access to some recipes and a bit of information without having to spend hours and hours and hours online like I have lately. And I have only done it in the first place in an effort to "make it fun" per the suggestion of other homeschool moms, who I am learning were all inclined to teach at one time or another. So making teaching fun for them is not as much of a stretch as it is for me, someone who never had any notion of teaching. To me, "make it fun" means "bake something." But ask anyone who talks to me on a regular basis and you will know that Christmas around the world has had me stressed to the max! So, just to be clear, I am not, nor do I pretend to be, good at this. And if you think it has somehow come together well, then thank you, and I am glad, but it has been a lot of hard work. So, just be encouraged, you too could homeschool if your husband was unemployed for seven months and you lived an hour away from your child's old school. God gives us all kinds of grace when it is required for a situation. 

I am glad I have done it though. Amabel asked me the other day if there was anyone in the world as fun as me. I laughed out loud! Yep, most people are way more fun than me! But I was very pleased that my work has accomplished what I really intended for it to. I have this idea that Christmas was magical to me as a child because of something someone said or did. But my parents were so anti-Santa and so not big on extended family, I just can't imagine that they were actively trying to make Christmas a super special time of year. I mean, Christmas morning was a sight to behold! But, the season surrounding it was somewhat "normal." We didn't do a lot of fancy baking. We didn't do any baking. We didn't have parties. I guess there was always a church party, always a school party, and always a piano recital. So there were parties. But we didn't have guests. Well anyway, I'm just thinking that mostly, I have lost touch with how easily charmed children are. And that is nice to remember. I feel some days like I have just thrown together some gross cookie and talked about nativity scenes and been altogether boring. But they didn't wade through eight internet articles and fourteen recipes, they are just hearing the story of another land, an ocean away, that worships the same King and celebrates his coming in a special way. Pretty cool, really. 

So what was your favorite thing you did for Christmas growing up? I have no idea if we will homeschool after this year, and even if we do, whether or not we will do Christmas around the world, but I do hope that we will always celebrate in a big way! Not to be too hard on my childhood, some of my favorite things were Charlie Brown Christmas (Elspeth is already in the habit of saying "Merry Christmas, Charlie Brown!"), playing with the nativity scene or  near the Christmas tree with my little sister, opening the little doors on the advent calendar each day, and, once I was in high school, going to the Christmas Eve service at church. So far, my favorite things to do with my children every year are decorate sugar cookies and bake like there's no tomorrow, decorate the tree, make and decorate a gingerbread house, make a paper chain to hang around their room, have friends and family over for Christmas or Christmas Eve and then again for New Year's (or else travel to stay with friends for New Year's). Pretty standard stuff, but not stuff I ever did as a kid. What about y'all? What are your favorite Christmas traditions either as children or with your own (or both)?

Monday, December 15, 2008

Christmas Around the World, Part 2

The light of the Christmas star to you
The warmth of home and hearth to you
The cheer and good will of friends to you
The hope of a childlike heart to you
The joy of a thousand angels to you
The love of the Son and God's peace to you.

Isn't that lovely? It is an Irish Christmas blessing. I did not realize that there was a difference between Great Britain and the United Kingdom. So when I did my preparation for our study of Christmas in Great Britain, I included Northern Ireland in the mix. However, Great Britain only refers to Scotland, England, and Wales. The United Kingdom is Scotland, England, Wales, and Northern Ireland. Who knew? Lots of people, I'm sure. Not my curriculum though. It treated the terms interchangeably. Anyway, it seems that the British are big on pudding and trifles and things soaked in rum with currants and whatnot. Sounds tasty, but not so very second grade-y, especially because Great Britain day hit on a day where I had had it, a day where I was in my robe and slippers until well past noon. I had no desire to make a trifle. Cookies from around the world were already all around my kitchen! So we went with just one, shortbread. Lately, I have had a constant hankering for shortbread.

The Welsh do, or did rather (most of these traditions have all but died), all kinds of really cool things like Plygain which means "cockcrow." This a service held on Christmas Eve from 3-6am for the men! They come and sing and read Psalms while the women stay home to make toffee and other foods for Christmas Day. Basically, the Welsh pull an all-nighter on Christmas. Later in the morning, the women join the men at church, bringing candles to decorate the church. The day after Christmas is, of course, Boxing Day or The Feast of Stephen. But in Wales and Ireland it is also called Wren Day. There used to be a real wren that was hunted and killed, but now there is a fake one affixed to a pole decorated with holly and ribbons which is carried around town by mummers who are dressed in costume and sing songs asking for donations. The donations are then used for charity. Minus the wren, this is similar to everything I read about Boxing Day traditions which were popular in England, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand (among other countries) where gifts were given to one's employees the day after Christmas. This is not common anymore, but I read that often bonuses are handed out on this day in the same way Americans receive Christmas bonuses.

There is another really unusual event (or is it just a thing?) called the Mari Lwyd, a Grey Mare who visits houses in Wales. It isn't a mare at all, but actually a horse's skull and jaw, covered with a sheet, under which hides a puppeteer, and decorated with ribbons! At new year's, the men would walk around singing and knocking on doors and challenging the people within with rhymes and riddles. After an exchange of comic insults and witty banter at each home, the Mari Lwyd either grants a blessing and moves on or is invited inside for food and drink. I did a quick Google search and was able to find lots of recipes for wassail and for Welsh toffee if you are interested. I won't post any because I didn't try any of them, but they shouldn't be hard to find. One honorable mention of the ones I glanced at though, I loved the blog post by a British baker who made toffee in the post through this link. We opted to make a calennig ourselves. The calennig is an apple with a candle and evergreen or holly sprigs in the top that is decorated all around with nuts and spices, somewhat similar to an orange pomander, I suppose. We found a couple of sites telling us how to make one, but none with any pictures. Maybe I can borrow a digital camera and take pictures of the ones we made to put up here, or perhaps we will show up at your door on New Year's Day between dawn and noon, as the Welsh children do (or did, I mean, I really don't know if anyone does these things anymore), singing carols and offering you our calennig for good luck in exchange for treats! The luck lasts as long as the calennig!

Another Irish tradition is to place a candle in the window on Christmas Eve. The candle is a symbol of hospitality, a welcome to the wandering stranger, a gesture representing what should have been done for Mary and Joseph. The candle is supposed to be lit by the youngest member of the family and only snuffed out by someone named Mary. This is convenient for us as my first name is Mary. Abby Edema, official candle snuffer. The lighting of a candle by a two year old is quite another thing! As the tradition is one for Christmas Eve, I am not sure we will actually remember to do it, and if we do, whether or not we will entrust Elspeth to light it. Perhaps with help she can manage the task.

Icebox Shortbread- another from Martha, this one from an Everyday Food Christmas cookie issue I had saved. I love the idea of giving people a couple of refrigerated cookie dough rolls at Christmas so they can refrigerate or freeze them and then slice them and bake them when they have last minute guests or run behind and need something quick, but they are still homemade! I wanted to try these before I decided to give them. I figure I will roll the dough in parchment and tie the ends with ribbon and tie a tag on that says what they are and how long to bake them for. The absence of eggs is not a mistake.
2 sticks unsalted butter at room temperature
1c. confectioners sugar
1 tsp. vanilla
1/2 tsp. salt
2c. all purpose flour, plus more for rolling.
-beat butter, sugar, vanilla, and salt until smooth
-with mixer on low, add in flour, mixing just until dough forms
-divide dough in half and place each half on a lightly floured sheet of parchment or waxed paper. gently roll each half into a log 1 1/2 inches in diameter. wrap logs tightly and twist ends to seal. refrigerate until firm, 1- 1 1/2 hours
-preheat oven to 350. slice dough into 3/8 inch slices and bake slices, one inch apart,on parchment lined baking sheets 15-20 minutes, rotating pans halfway through baking. cool on baking sheets 1-2 minutes, then remove to cool on wire racks.

We had so much to do from UK day that we spilled over into the next. We took the late part of the afternoon to briefly cover New Zealand- kiwi birds, no snakes, kiwifruit, and sheep. Christmas is similar to Australia in that both countries are populated by descendants of British immigrants and both countries are in the Southern Hemisphere and have Christmas in the summertime. But one can always find a recipe right? As we had already made ANZAC biscuits, the only thing left was to try a Pavlova! I had never even tasted Pavlova before. I have to say that it is quite enjoyable. It is more summery than Christmas-y which really makes sense for a place that has Christmas during the summer-- it's both! I thought this blog post was super helpful with step by step instructions and pictures. I have copied the recipe for y'all here as well (use the link if you would rather use vinegar than cream of tartar).

Pavlova
for meringues-
1 1/2T cornstarch
1 1/2 c.sugar
3/4 c. (6 oz, about 6) large egg whites, preferably room temperature
1/2 tsp. cream of tartar
pinch of salt
1 1/2 tsp. vanilla
for berry sauce topping-
2 pints fresh or frozen berries
1/4 c. sugar
freshly whipped cream

for meringues-
-preheat oven to 275. line baking sheet with parchment. mix sugar and cornstarch together in small bowl.
- in a large bowl of a heavy-duty mixer, fitted with a whisk attachment, whip egg whites, cream of tartar and salt, starting on low and increasing incrementally to medium until soft peaks/trails start to become visible, and the egg white bubbles are very small and uniform, approximately 2-3 minutes.
-increase speed to medium-high, slowly and gradually sprinkling in the sugar mixture. a few minutes after these ingredients are added, slowly pour in the vanilla. increase speed and whip up until meringue is glossy and stiff peaks form when whisk is lifted, 4-5 minutes.
-pipe or spoon meringue into 8-10 3" mounds on the lined baking sheet. with the back of the spoon, create and indentation in the middle for holding the topping after the meringue is baked.
-place baking sheet in the oven. reduce oven temp. to 250. bake for 50-60 minutes, or until meringues are crisp, dry to the touch on the outside, and white-- not tan colored or cracked. the interiors should have a marshmallow like consistency. check on them at least once during baking time. if they appear to be taking color or cracking, reduce temp. 25 degrees and turn pan around.
-gently lift meringues from baking sheet and cool on a wire rack. they will keep in a tightly sealed container at room temperature for up to a week.
-serve with berry sauce or lemon curd and freshly whipped cream.
for berry sauce topping-
-heat berries and sugar in saucepan over medium heat, stirring once or twice, for about 5-10 minutes, depending on how much berries are falling apart. remove from heat and let cool.

Our next big day was Brazil day. Who knew that Brazil is the world's biggest exporter of coffee, soybeans, sugar cane, ethanol, and beef? Well, we do now. We also talked about the animals in the rainforests and the Amazon River. And what would Brazil day be without playing a little kitchen soccer?! But as for Christmas, it seems that the most unique thing I found was something that is unconfirmed. George's aunt sent me a bunch of ideas from all over and one was a Brazilian tinsel tail bird ornament. I can't find anywhere that says this is something Brazillians actually do though. I like to double check, you know. I did read in several places that because they are in the Southern Hemisphere and Christmas falls in the summer for them, they often decorate with flowers from their gardens and have trees made of strings of lights (rather than actually stringing lights on an existing evergreen tree because evergreens are not readily available there). Just for kicks, I tried a recipe that called for several of Brazil's big exports- Brazil nuts, coffee, sugar(of course), and, unfortunately, shortening, which listed soybean oil as the first ingredient so I felt better that it was somewhat "Brazilian," albeit nasty, in that regard (I did later find the recipe with butter instead of sugar; I don't know why I didn't just swap it myself). I don't know how traditionally Brazilian the recipe is, I think there was something about it winning its division in the Pillsbury Bakeoff in 1953, but it's got Brazil in the name which is good enough for me. And I'll just go ahead and tell you that I don't generally like Brazil nuts. On top of which, I didn't have a nutcracker so I ended up pounding the crud out of them with a meat mallet trying to get them open. Shell pieces were shooting out all over the counter, ricocheting off appliances, and pelting small children in their wake as they skidded across the floor. And let me just tell you that there is no smell on God's green earth more foul than a rotten Brazil nut. It makes the worst baby changing experience seem like walking through a rose garden. So these cookies were a total pain in the butt. I'm sorry, but they were. And besides that, they were not very good in the end. I only post the link to the recipe in case, for some reason, you decide to disregard my warnings and make them anyway. You might think that you do have a nutcracker and that you do actually enjoy Brazil nuts and that instant espresso is not so bad and that shortening is a fact of life. But they were not worth my time to make and certainly not to actually type the recipe for you. I should have known, but I think I just really wanted to use up the instant espresso I have had for who knows how long. I know, I know, anything with instant espresso as an ingredient is bound to be dreadful. But sometimes I feel risky like (for some reason, that sentence in my head sounds like how Will Ferrell's George Bush would say it). Well, don't say I didn't warn you: Brazilian Jubilee Cookies.

After Brazil, we "visited" China. China is clearly not much for Christian holidays. Supposedly, they do embrace the commercial celebration somewhat and have trees and other decorations in major cities. Those who do celebrate Christmas get a visit from Christmas Old Man. I so love the name. He looks like an old Chinese man in traditional Chinese robes (I tried to look up a proper name for this but I cannot distinguish between Hanfu and Manchu styles at a glance!) with a long white beard. They hang up muslin stockings for him. And they decorate their trees with paper lanterns, which I imagine looks lovely. I thought about doing Chinese New Year instead, but what a lot of work it would be to figure all of that out! I debated about making fortune cookies because I have always wanted to try that. I made marshmallows on New Year's Day this year and that was something else I always wanted to do. I also made all of the Dutch cookies this year which I always wanted to do. And then there was the Pavlova which I had never tried, so I decided that although they have nothing to do with Christmas, or really even with China, as they were invented in America by Chinese immigrants, I would go ahead and make them. Amabel and August colored little strips of paper and Amabel wrote little fortunes on them to put inside the cookies. The recipe I used had a few ambiguous points to it and after my fortune cookies turned out more like unfortunate pancakes, I read the reviews and found helpful tips from other people who had tried them several times and made them work. I will now become one of those people, and, should I get them right, I will post the recipe in another post with an edited list of instructions.

The last day for this post is Norway Day. Norway Day was supposed to be on Monday the 15th, but when I started preparing for it, I realized that a big day for them there is the 13th which was Saturday. So we did school on Saturday. We didn't do much school, somehow we managed to get over to the Botanical Gardens to see the trains and swing by a "burger joint" (as my dad would say) and the kids built a fort in the woods with George. So I figure we still had a nice Saturday-ish Saturday. Well, it helped for George to actually have the entire weekend off for the first time since he has been working again! I had forgotten about weekends! So the 13th is St. Lucy's Day, which I knew about in Sweden. I suppose I should've guessed that their Norwegian neighbors probably had a similar celebration. I am not completely clear on why they like her so much as she is from Italy and her story is something tragic about having her eyes gouged out. I think the idea is that the name Lucy means light and that the saint Lucy used to bring bread to the persecuted Christians in hiding with the candle wreath on her head to light her way. The Norwegians and Swedes have that dreadful Alaska thing going on where they only get something like three hours of daylight during the winter. So they very much welcome this time of year as the end of the shortening days and the beginning of the lengthening of days; they celebrate Lucy because she brings light. I think? There is other folklore surrounding this day and this saint, but that seems to be the gist. Anyway, on the morning of December 13th, the oldest daughter in the household dresses in a white gown with a red sash and wears a crown with leaves and candles attached and brings the rest of the family breakfast in bed. I am sure a lot of y'all are familiar with this custom, not firsthand of course, but are just aware of it. But George didn't know about it so that is why I am explaining it, albeit very poorly.

Anyway, on Friday I called every bakery in St. Louis and none of them planned to have the saffron buns for St. Lucy's Day on Saturday morning. I wasn't really surprised, I was just hoping not to have to do it myself. I think the biggest deterrent for me was the price of saffron, and the fact that I didn't have any on hand. But I found a recipe, from an American Girl cookbook no less, that mentioned that the saffron was optional. Hurray! I was so happy for myself because another thing I meant to do more of this year was bake bread (Janet, if you still read, I totally thought of you while I made these Friday night!). I also came across this darling Saint Lucy crown craft and decided to make my own as well. Mine ended up being affixed to a ribbon and tied on because Amabel was asleep by the time I got it going and I didn't want to measure her head at the risk of waking her up. Aside from the slightly oversized holly leaves I cut, it turned out super cute. Again, I hope to have pictures to post sometime. Life without a digital camera- agh!

So I went into the children's bedroom on Saturday morning and woke Amabel up. I took her downstairs and told her a little bit about St. Lucy and showed her a picture. Then I showed her the buns I made and the costume she was going to get to wear. It was pretty fun for her, I think. We made a big pot of hot chocolate and then took breakfast to George, August, and Elspeth. I carried up the hot chocolate and the mugs on a tray behind Amabel in her costume carrying her dish of lussekatter (St. Lucy buns). So cute! And the buns smelled so divine when I baked them the night before! They tasted fine the next morning, although I have no idea what they are supposed to taste like, but they probably would have been so much better right out of the oven (and with the saffron, I'm sure). They were easy to make though; y'all know I am a fairly unseasoned bread baker. They are worth making again, but I did later realize that the one place I didn't think to check was the bakery at Whole Foods Market when they popped up in a search, so I might call them before I go to the trouble next time- well, depending on how much else I have going on.

St. Lucy's Day buns (lussekatter) a la American Girl -makes 6
1/3 c. milk
1/4 c. butter
1/4 c. lukewarm water
1 packet dry yeast (2 1/4 tsp.)
1/4 c. sugar
2 eggs
1/2 tsp. salt
1/4 tsp. saffron (optional)
2 3/4 c. flour (approximate- you'll need a lot!)
1 T cooking oil
1 T water
24 raisins
-warm the milk in a small saucepan over low heat. cut the butter into small pieces and add to milk. stir until butter is melted. turn off heat.
-measure lukewarm water into a large mixing bowl. sprinkle yeast over water and stir well. set aside for 5 minutes.
-add warm milk and butter mixture to the yeast. stir in the sugar, 1 egg, salt, and saffron. add 1 1/2 c. flour and stir until smooth.
-flour a cutting board and your hands. add enough flour to dough so you can shape it into a ball.
put the dough on the cutting board and knead, adding flour when it gets sticky. after 5-10 minutes, you should have a smooth ball of dough that springs back when pressed. cover dough with a towel and it let rest while washing and drying the mixing bowl.
-spread cooking oil in the clean, dry bowl. roll dough in oil until coated. cover bowl with a towel and set in a warm place for dough to rise. after 45 minutes, it should be twice as large; if not, check back in 15 minutes.
-punch down the dough. divide it into 6 sections. take each section and divide it in half. roll each half into an 8 inch rope. cross the two ropes in the middle, then coil the ends into tight circles. repeat with each section of dough.
-place buns 2 inches apart on a parchment lined baking sheet. cover with towel and let rise for 30-45 minutes, until they double in size.
-preheat oven to 350 (the recipe says "while they are rising" but I always use my oven for letting things rise, so I have to wait until they are finished).
-mix second egg and water with a fork in a small bowl. brush egg mixture lightly over top of each bun. decorate buns with raisins.
-bake for 15-20 minutes, until golden brown. remove to wire racks to cool.

Friday, December 12, 2008

My Christmas Stars

I have been working on my Christmas Around the World Part 2 post very diligently. But I'm afraid it really is boring to y'all. But the other things I want to post about will take too long to get into. I did want to have something new to read though. If it's not homeschool and it's not laundry, then I haven't been doing it, not even Christmas shopping! I did get a little more decorating done today. 

The first Christmas after George and I were married, we didn't have any ornaments. Well, no, we had tons of ornaments. George's mom and grandmother both gave him an ornament every Christmas. I did not have this tradition in my family. The only thing I brought to the table was an owl ornament that Sara gave me the year we pledged Chi O (I still have it Sara, I love it!), and an Auburn "angel" made from a cotton plant (still have that one too). I think we received a couple of ornaments as wedding gifts. We got engaged right before Christmas and I think a couple of relatives on George's side wanted us to have ornaments that were our own for our first Christmas and thought ahead. But other than that, we were totally going to have the George tree. It wasn't so much the George tree as it was the George's mom and grandmother tree. And well, for obvious reasons, that wasn't too terribly exciting to me. So I went over yonder to Heartstrings, a cutie little boutique on College Street in Auburn that did Christmas in a big way with trees all over the store with different themes, and purchased me fifteen rusty stars. Oh, I was so excited about my rusty stars. And they were only 75 cents a piece! 

Now, the sad thing about the rusty stars is that they really don't show up very well on a dark green tree. But every year I used to hang them first, evenly dispersed all over the tree, and each near a light so that it would show up better. And then over the years we have gotten more ornaments ourselves. George actually gets each of the children and me and ornament each year, which I think has the potential to be much less intimidating and irksome to future spouses than if I were doing so.  Also, he gets them an ornament from a particular manufacturer every year so that while they are always each very unique, they are all similar in style, which also has the potential to be less distracting should one of the children find themselves having, or being married to someone with, a particular tendency toward OCD tree decorating (ahem, not that that disorder exists....). Anyway, the stars don't live on the tree anymore. Now, don't worry, the stars always find a home. Last year they hung from lengths of baling twine in the window. One even found a home on an old sap bucket. I am laughing wondering what you must think of my home with baling twine and rusty buckets and Christmas ornaments strewn about. Aww, my home. I miss my home. Anyway, this year, the stars have a new home. They are strung from one eighth inch red grosgrain ribbon above the mantle and in the kitchen window (with the red sweater kids Jessie sent me from Crate and Barrel). And it looks lovely, if I do say so myself. 

That first Christmas of the millennium, the first Christmas we were married, was the Christmas we knew we were having Amabel. That was the Christmas we knew we were stuck with each other! We cut our tree down from the lot in front of George's old house. And we put it in the sap bucket that year, actually. Everything about that Christmas was ramshackle. Can you say something was ramshackle or do you have to use it as an adjective in front of something? Well, just in case, we lived in a ramshackle house (to say the least), we had something of a ramshackle relationship, upon finding that we would not "live happily ever after" without ever dealing with our own or each other's sin ever again. We had ramshackle furnishings and a ramshackle plan for our lives which did not, incidentally, include pregnancy whilst still students, five months into our marriage. And honestly, after graduating (George was the only one still a student at Christmas) and being effectively dismissed from my first job in a ministry that I really loved and wanted to be part of,  I found myself feeling like a ramshackle soul. But if you have been to our home, you know that I like beat up things. I like rusty stars and cast off sap buckets and old crates from when the A&P closed and coffee tables with four layers of paint chipping off. I don't know, I guess, at least in part, it's that I appreciate that things that are rundown and entirely imperfect can actually be things of beauty. Some dull rusty stars can be lovely adornments on a tree amongst bright lights and elegant blown glass figures or happy reminders of the season strung up in a window. Isn't that the Gospel, in a very tiny and round about nutshell? God takes those of us who are beyond repair, and makes us usable and beautiful. And hurray for that!

Well, this ended up being way longer than I intended, and much more touchy feely too! I guess I just love my little Christmas stars. 

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Christmas Around the World, Part 1

I am sorry for those of you who are bored by the homeschool stuff. It is totally the type of thing that would have bored me before I began doing it. Like I've said, I am so not a teacher personality. But a lot of my friends are when I think about it. I think I am drawn to the teacher personality because it is so different from me. Maybe? When I think about all of my friends with some type of education major! Speaking of majors, mine was English, and I sure do use a lot of fragments (the last "sentence" was one). My journalism and English teacher in high school promised to fail anyone's paper that was turned in with a fragment, no matter how good the paper was. I remember wondering who in the world would turn in a paper with a fragment. And then it happened. It happened to Jesse Larrison. And I remember all the guys in the class begging Mrs. Carroll on his behalf not to fail him. But she stood firm. Poor Jesse. But I reckon we could've used a few more teachers standing firm about things. Well, anyway, I never did have to worry about fragments back then. I was taught well. But I use them all the time now. And every time I think, "Wow! What would Mrs. Carroll think of her yearbook editor now?" And I wonder what a lot of my old teachers would think about me being a teacher (of sorts) now. It really is amusing.

Alright, this is what we've been up to this week:

Netherlands day was our first day for Christmas around the world. It was appropriate as the children are one quarter Dutch. It seems like they are more than just a quarter Dutch with their blond hair and Dutch last name, but that's really it. Dutch got mingled in with Hungarian in the last generation, and Dutch-Hungarian married Scottish-French. But Netherlands day had us talking about all the familiar things from George's childhood in Dutch Michigan. Sinterklaas is the Dutch Saint Nicholas figure who rides in on a steamboat from Spain with his sidekick Swarte Pete on December 5th every year. Sinterklaas and Swarte Pete ("Black Pete"- various theories on the origin of the name, but the most PC one is that he is black from chimney soot. The most probable, according to several sources was that he somehow represents the Devil, so black like sin. Kind of weird, huh? Other sources say he is representational of a Moorish servant Saint Nicholas may have had.) fly around on a white horse on the night of December 5th (This is confusing because St. Nicholas' Day is the 6th. Some sources have it the night before, some have it the night of. It makes more sense to me that it would be the night before, but what do I know?) and leave gifts in the shoes left out by all good children. Shoes left out by bad children are filled with coal, salt, or a spanking stick! Nice! There are some sources that even say that Swarte Piet will take you back to Spain with him if you have been bad! Anyway, we talked about this and watched a little movie called Santa and Pete with James Earl Jones. It's sort of a fun movie, it reconciles a lot of Christmas legends with each other- a Forrest Gump of Christmas, if you will. This day would work especially well if you actually did it on the fifth and then let the children leave their shoes out to be filled that night. Of course, it would help if you remember to have something to put in the shoes or you might find yourself at Walgreens at one in the morning like George did! We also made Dutch letters and speculaa. I have to admit that I did most of the work, not because I am a sweet Momma, but because I did not have the patience to incorporate the children into the baking. They did have a tasting experience though. And they will have plenty of chances for a baking experience.I am learning that less is more and that I probably should just stick with one recipe per day if I really want to let the kids take part. You know, instead of the three Dutch ones I tried! But here are the recipes, all of which were obtained from really old Better Homes and Gardens Christmas cookie special issues I had squirreled away in my Christmas boxes. I still haven't gotten to that third recipe, but I'll post it when I find time to try it.

Dutch Letters (Banketstaven in Dutch, or just Banket) George couldn't get enough of these and is not too sure how he feels about me sharing the recipe. There are a lot of steps, but they are worth it. However, they are more of a pastry than a cookie.
4 1/2c. all purpose flour
1 tsp. salt
1 pound butter (yep, a whole pound)
1 egg
1 8 oz. can almond paste
1/2c. granulated sugar
1/2c. packed brown sugar
2 egg whites
milk
granulated sugar for sprinkling
powdered sugar glaze (1 1/2c. powdered sugar, 1 tsp. almond extract, and milk to consistency)
-stir flour and salt together in large mixing bowl and set aside
-cut butter into 1/2 inch pieces and stir pieces into flour to coat and separate (will still be in chunks)
-combine egg and one cup of water. add egg mixture all at once to flour mixture. mix quickly (butter will still be in chunks and flour will not be completely moistened)
-transfer dough to a lightly floured surface; knead 10 times, pressing and pushing pieces together to dorm a rough looking ball. shape dough into a rectangle and flatten slightly.
-on a well floured surface, roll dough into a 10x15 rectangle. fold short sides in to meet in the center, then fold dough in half crosswise to form 7 1/2 x 5 rectangle. repeat rolling and folding process one more time.
-cover dough with plastic wrap and chill 20 minutes. repeat rolling and folding two more times, chilling 20 minutes more.
-meanwhile, combine almond paste, sugar, brown sugar, and egg whites and beat until smooth. cover and chill 20 minutes.
-preheat oven to 375. cut dough crosswise into four equal portions and put three back in fridge. roll quarter portion of dough out into 12x10 rectangle. cut rectangle into four 3x10 strips. spread 1 slightly rounded tablespoon of almond paste mixture down the length of each dough strip. roll strip around the almond paste, brush edges and ends with milk and pinch to seal.
-place log seam down on parchment lined baking sheet and shape into a letter (I did mostly S's because they're easy and that was the picture in the magazine), brush with milk, and sprinkle with sugar. bake 25-30 minutes. cool on wire racks

Speculaas (what are often known as Dutch windmill cookies)- these have a much more pleasant texture than the kind you buy at the store, but have identical flavor. I am not sure how desired the "sandy" texture is, but these spare those of us who don't enjoy it.
1/2c. butter, softened
3/4c. brown sugar
3/4 tsp. cinnamon
1/2 tsp. baking powder
1/4 tsp. nutmeg
1/4 tsp. ground cloves
1/8 tsp. salt
1 egg yolk
1T milk
1 1/3c. all purpose flour
3T finely chopped blanched almonds
powdered sugar glaze (optional- 1 1/2c. powdered sugar and milk to desired consistency)
-beat butter with electric mixer on medium high speed for 30 seconds. add brown sugar, cinnamon, baking powder, nutmeg, cloves, and salt. beat until combined, scraping sides of bowl occasionally. beat in egg yolk and milk. beat in as much flour as you can, and stir in flour and almonds (I guess this is an issue if you are using a hand mixer. I was able to beat all of this in easily with my Kitchenaid.)
-divide dough in half, cover and chill for one hour until it is easy to handle.
-preheat oven to 350.
-press dough into cookie molds or roll out to 1/8 inch thickness and cut with cookie cutters. place cut or molded dough one inch apart on parchment lined baking sheets (if you don't have parchment, get into your car and drive to the grocery... just kidding! but seriously, what are you thinking? you do need to at least grease the pan). bake 8-10 minutes until golden on edges. cool on cookie sheets on wire racks for one minute (don't leave them for too long!). transfer cookies to racks and cool. if desired, decorate with powdered sugar glaze.


The next day I covered three African countries at once, Nigeria, Kenya, and Zambia. This is just because the curriculum had all of these countries included and I found it very difficult to do anything specific for their Christmas celebrations as they are generally poor countries and celebrate Christmas mostly as a result of British colonization, so their customs are quite similar to British customs. We have Britain later on in the unit, so I decided to just cover African countries quickly, discussing capitals, cash crops, and wild animals native to the continent. It was really not so Christmasy, and I wouldn't recommend any of these countries for a Christmas around the world study. I just didn't have a choice. I did discover that in Nigeria, palm fronds are a big part of the decorations and that they represent peace. Also in Nigeria, fireworks are often set off on Christmas. But I don't have access to palm fronds in Missouri in December, though I suppose they could have been made with construction paper a la Palm Sunday, and I didn't fancy setting off fireworks either. One could if one wanted to though.

Moving on then, the next day was Australia. We read a book called Wombat Divine by Mem Fox. The thing about Australia is that Christmas falls in the summer. And Australia has very unique animals. Other than that, they also do a lot similar to the way things are done in Great Britain. Wombat Divine incorporates the summer climate and the Australian critters into a Christmas story so it was a fun and helpful little resource. There is also a recently released book called Roland Harvey's Big Book of Christmas that seems to be fairly unavailable in the US at this point, but should have many around the world ideas in it, particularly Aussie ones as it is written by and Aussie author. For this day we also made an Australian and New Zealand favorite cookie called ANZAC (Australia and New Zealand Army Corps) biscuits. The recipe I used is from Martha Stewart's Cookies:

ANZAC Biscuits- if you are a dough eater, this is the best!
2c. all purpose flour
1 3/4c. old fashioned rolled oats
1 1/2c. sugar
1c. sweetened shredded coconut
pinch of salt
3/4 c. unsalted butter
2T Lyle's Golden Syrup (evidently, available at World Market; I just subbed in honey)
3/4 tsp. baking soda
6T boiling water
-preheat oven to 350
-in a large bowl, combine flour, oats, sugar, coconut, and salt.
-in a small saucepan over medium heat, melt butter with syrup. dissolve baking soda into boiling water and add to butter mixture. stir to combine (it will bubble a lot).
-add butter mixture and stir to combine. scoop rounded tablespoons of dough onto parchment lined baking sheet about two inches apart.
-bake for 15 minutes. cool on wire racks.

The next day was Mexico day. There is so much to do for Mexican Christmas! We made paper poinsettias, read two of Tomie de Paola's books, The Legend of the Poinsettia and The Legend of Las Posadas, and we made Mexican wedding cakes and Mexican hot chocolate. You could do a pinata or make any number of Mexican savory foods as well. Las Posadas literally translates "the inns" and is a tradition in Mexico where Mexican children and adults reenact Mary and Joseph going from door to door looking for room at an inn or house. They have a customary song script that is used, and they do this every night from December 16th to December 24th, each night ending at another family's home for a big party. Why don't we do that in the States? It sounds awesome! Nine nights of parties, woohoo! I used one of Paula Dean's recipes for Mexican wedding cookies. I found the one for Mexican hot chocolate online, but it didn't work out very well from what I heard. It took me all day to do Mexico Day and some of the next, and I missed the drinking of the hot chocolate because I had something at church. Evidently though, the recipe I chose was not so great. Maybe I will try it again. Although, I have to say that at this point I feel like I am literally traveling around the world and am exhausted! I have no idea how people do laundry or go to the grocery store when they are homeschool moms. I feel like all I do is teach, change diapers, discipline, and make meals. Maybe if I didn't have a two year old, I would gain a few hours! It was pretty cute though when Elspeth looked at Amabel and pushed up her sleeves to imitate and then held out her little hands for flouring. I gave her a little dough ball and she did a really good job making her cookie! Here's the recipe, and no, the absence of eggs is not a mistake.

Mexican Wedding Cookies
1c. unsalted butter at room temperature
1/2c. powdered sugar, plus more for coating baked cookies
1 tsp. vanilla
1 3/4c. flour, plus more for dusting hands
1c. pecans, very finely chopped
- preheat oven to 275 and line baking sheets with parchment
-cream butter and sugar with an electric mixer at low speed until smooth, add vanilla, then gradually add flour (still on low speed). mix in pecans with spatula
-with floured hands, take about a tablespoon of dough and roll it into a little ball. place dough balls on parchment lined cookie sheet and bake 40 minutes
-after removing cookies from oven, cooling only as much as necessary to handle them, toss them in powdered sugar and place on cooling racks. although paula doesn't mention this, i was taught after going through the batch the first time, to go back and toss them in sugar one more time

I know this is only four days, and one is a waste doing African countries without much to do with Christmas, but I have had a lot of spilling over to the next day because I tackled so much.I mean, it has definitely had me hating homeschool at times. The planning itself took a lot of time though, so if you don't have a baby in the throws of the terrible twos and just copied my ideas, you could probably reasonably accomplish even more than me without the need for much more than one or two glasses of wine ;) We also take extra time to incorporate our studies into spelling, which you may or may not want to do. We learn how to spell the names of the countries and their capitals and any words associated with the country (like kangaroo, platypus, koala, and echidna for Australia, coffee for Kenya, maple syrup for Canada, etc). Oh, and all of the books and videos, including the cookbooks, are available at St. Louis County Library, and I am happy to get you corresponding craft and coloring sheets for any of these days that I can. To be continued...

Monday, December 08, 2008

See if you can even follow this

Well, today I thought I had solved a mystery. When I was in elementary school, I learned that homonyms are words that sound the same but are spelled differently, to, two, and too, for example. It seems I am in the small minority as most people call these words homophones. This has always been annoying to me. Why are there two terms? Why didn't I learn the other term and why did everyone else not learn the term I learned? And furthermore, because I learned homonyms along with antonyms (opposites) and synonyms (things that are similar), it stands to reason that the -nym suffix is the correct one. And besides, the dictionary seemed to agree with me. However, the dictionary also agrees with everyone else! So what have I been teaching in grammar lately? Among other things, we have been going over antonyms and synonyms. I should have known it was only a matter of time before the homonym would come up. It did today, only I was too cheap to buy the teacher's manual, and the child's workbook doesn't call these words that sound the same but are spelled and defined differently any specific term. So I decided I had to figure this out somehow so I could teach it correctly. 

And after some internet research here is what I thought was the answer. Both words are correct for words that sound the same but are spelled differently. Homonym is actually a more general term for both homophones, words that sound the same but can be spelled differently (there and their, sea and see, tale and tail, etc.) and homographs, words that are spelled the same but can be pronounced differently (close and close, bass and bass, wind and wind, tear and tear, etc.). The examples I just gave of homographs are also heteronyms (spelled the same, pronounced differently with different meanings). There are some homographs which are not heteronyms such as bear and bear or watch and watch. These words have two completely different meanings even though they have identical spellings and pronunciations, and according to Wikipedia, that is what a homonym is (a word that is both a homophone and a homograph- when the other sources said it was either a homophone or a homograph). But that is annoying because it seems like a lot of words have more than one definition, which is all that is really being said when one says it is spelled the same and pronounced the same but means something different. But ultimately, it seems no one can really agree on is what a homonym is and therefore, the mystery has not been solved. But I did decide to go ahead and teach Amabel homophone, even though I like it better when everything ends with -nym. 

Thursday, December 04, 2008

Well Now That's Interesting

George has the day off tomorrow and wants to go out for breakfast. Our favorite breakfast place, City Coffee House and Creperie, is way over yonder in Clayton and that is too far from where we are now. So George was looking online for a place to go and I mentioned that there is a little coffee house on the little 20 yard strip that is downtown Eureka. He looked that one up and a whole lot of Christian coffeehouse stuff came up. Well, we should have known that anything called "Solid Rock Kaffee Haus" would be a "spiritual" place (my apologies to our pastors if they chance read this; I really have been paying attention in Sunday school). Anyway, because we are the type of people that loved the church scene in Four Christmases, of course, we also thought the idea of a Christian coffeehouse was a little, shall we say, thought provoking. And George said, "that coffee house is going to heaven when it dies!" Ba-dum-pum! Anyway, lest I actually sound like I know what I'm talking about, here is one of the links (christiancoffeehouse.info) that caught my eye; I'd love for you each to check it and voice your thoughts. I am kind of interested in a less (or more) cynical opinion. 

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

A Post From My Coffee Break

We don't get a television reception out here in the country, and we aren't in a position to splurge on cable, so we have been keeping up with our favorite shows online lately. Eli Stone, House, The Office, 30 Rock, and Samantha Who? are all available online. And that is really nice. I also just realized that Food Network has full episodes of Iron Chef America online. We love us some Iron Chef America! However, I am the type of person who leaves the TV on for hours during the day just to hear the noise. I did this even in my busy urban apartment, how much more do I need it in the quiet country?! I am tempted to wonder what in the world is wrong with me that I can't stand quiet and solitude, but I am just going to go with it being a personality thing and be okay with it. I just like people, even if they are TV people who can't see me. I like to hear Ina telling me how to fix crab cakes from the next room; even if I am not paying attention, she's there if I need her. I like to hear Giada cooking up pasta for her family while I am fixing PB&J for mine. But Food Network doesn't have all of that online. And, for some reason, I really miss commercials with online TV anyway. I know, I'm such a weirdo. Anyway, the point of me telling you all of this is to tell you what my dear, sweet sister did for me. She taped two long play video cassettes worth of Food Network for me! 

So this morning, I am having a late start to homeschool and enjoying one of my hot chocolate and coffee concoctions (in an extra big mug) while I enjoy a little Everyday Italian with commercials! I have already gotten up to do dishes and tend to children a few times, and that sound of chefs in the other room is like coming home! I know, I really am a dork. Well, the thing that prompted me to post about this was the commercials. I am getting a king sized dose of Christmas commercials (the best kind!) and I have to say that I do not understand the car commercials. They are always the same, someone covering their honey's eyes and leading them out into the snow covered driveway to reveal a brand new black luxury car with a gigantic red bow on it. And my thing is, who do you know, even know of, who has ever given or received a car for Christmas? Maybe a less expensive (we hope) car for a child, because that is the kind of things parents could do together, but what husband or wife is ever going to go make that type of purchase without talking to their spouse? And then I think, well maybe they are the kind of people who have a $70,000 limit on Christmas gifts, maybe that was their budget! But if that were the case, which I can hardly believe is true (I cannot imagine making that much money in a year, much less having that much to spend on Christmas), why are they advertising it on regular  channels like this is normal and people out there will see the commercial and follow in suit? I am sure I am putting way too much in this. I just wonder who their target audience is. Maybe it is a couple who will more realistically make the decision together and get a new car for Christmas because they are getting a Christmas bonus? I guess I should not pretend to be the typical Food Network viewer when I cannot even afford it in the first place! I just figure that this Christmas car commercial formula must work on some level or we would not keep getting it again and again, year after year. Not sure if this is the sort of thing you can say anything about, it's really just an observation, but I just thought I'd throw it out there. 

I reckon I better go educate my children now. Happy Wednesday! 

Monday, December 01, 2008

For Christmas

I can't get the colors quite how I want them for Christmas. These are the ones I want, but I can't get them where I want them. Oh well. Happy Christmas! I hope y'all all had a nice Thanksgiving. Are you kind of overwhelmed that it was so late this year after being so early last year? It seems like most people are.I am having a hard time moving into Christmas mode, except that I have already given my parents their Christmas gifts, am mailing my sister's family's gifts tomorrow, and am looking at my lit up, fully decorated tree right now in front of a window with a view of a yard covered in snow. So I guess I am not having trouble! Something still feels not Christmas-y though. And that could be because it is just now December. Or I think it may just be the homesickness. I am so blessed to have my ornaments so I really should not complain. I am, however, really missing my dishes, my linens, my couch, my shelves, even my coffee table and pictures of my family, and now, all my Christmas bakeware and the other little things I decorate with for Christmas. My friend Jessie had some insider information (and more than the typical person's gift for empathy and insight) and sent me a care package full of extra Christmas goodies. My favorites are pictured here, a set of three ornaments from Crate and Barrel, little children all bundled up in red sweaters and ready for Christmas play, and a great kids' apron from Ikea that really does fit me! 

We went to see Four Christmases last night. My parents were in town and offered us $30 and a night without the kids. How could we say no to that?! We had seen previews for Four Christmases months ago and thought it looked fun. I mean, Vince Vaughn is hysterical to me. When I went to look up show times on Fandango, I noticed that there were a lot of bad reviews. I clicked over to Rotten Tomatoes and found even worse reviews. We searched and searched for any other movie that looked even remotely appealing and found nothing. By that time I had a serious craving for popcorn and decided that it was my dad's money we'd be wasting if the movie was bad, and that it couldn't be any worse than the last movie we saw in the theater, Tropic Thunder (we went to see that after a recommendation from one of George's seminary professors!) Well, I have to say that we laughed the entire time. I cannot understand all the bad reviews. I feel the need to rebut them. So, here you go,  a rebuttal of bad Four Christmases reviews. 

First of all, I have an argument against average people's reviews. Some people had a problem with the fact that Reese Witherspoon's and Vince Vaughn's characters were not married. And okay, that is less than ideal. But really, why are you going to see this movie if that fact will ruin the movie for you? When was the last time you saw a movie where all the couples were married and the couples who weren't were in very innocent and appropriate relationships? It just doesn't happen in Hollywood. So get over it, or don't go to the movies. And let me just say that there were no bedroom scenes or anything like that. It was surprisingly clean. Some people had a problem with the fact that these two main characters were lying to and avoiding their families at Christmas. Again, why in the world would you go see this movie if you have a problem with that? Seeing and enjoying this movie does not mean that you would do that, but that you can laugh at and even, on some level, sympathize with the characters and the situation they find themselves in. It is, after all, the premise of the movie. Other people had a problem with the church scene. Oh dear, I really don't think I need to defend it to anyone who reads this blog. You all know me to be a faithful churchgoer and married to a man whose goal is to be a full time pastor. I laughed (and pastor husband laughed) out loud and often during the church scene. It was hysterical. 

Let's see, what about "the critics?" Honestly, critics seem to me to be entirely too self important to give the energy required to sift through their jargon-y commentary to find out exactly what they are saying. Most of them seemed to think it wasn't funny. And well, if you don't like the typical Vince Vaughn comedy or can't laugh at lowbrow comedy (not potty humor though, y'all know I can't laugh at potty humor! also, very very few lewd jokes, which I also hate), I reckon it isn't. And some seemed to think it was a little contrived. I have to agree on that point. What Christmas movie isn't? There are a few that do this seamlessly and artfully, but for the most part, it's going to have to end happy, seeing as how it's Christmas, and that means getting everything resolved quickly a la Brady Bunch. I have no idea why Vince Vaughn changed his mind at the end of the movie. I knew he would and I was glad he did, so I didn't really care. It could be that I went in with such very low expectations after reading all the bad reviews, but I just wasn't expecting a Christmas comedy to make me cry. I didn't want a Christmas comedy to make me cry. I wanted it to make me laugh. And it did. A lot. One last thing, another element of the typical Christmas movie that was lacking (and thank heaven for that) was the whole "magical" element. I am not sure if people were expecting that, or some sort of "heartwarming" moment where the Scrooge is transformed, but I count the absence of that type of worn out, sentimental silliness as something quite welcome. 

But please don't be mad at me if you go see this and don't like it. You may also keep in mind that some of my favorite movies are Zoolander and Love Actually. I am not comparing this movie to those, just letting you know what types of things I like. What else I like is makin' cookies. I will be making a lot this month. I will post anything I think worthy of sharing. I have already made dozens this week that I don't want to share. But I am really picky. And not just about cookies, I'm picky about movies too. And that's why I really think y'all will enjoy Four Christmases. I cannot say the same about the pumpkin mousse tart or the bread pudding I made for Thanksgiving, or the peanut butter surprise cookies, the Canadian maple-date cookies, or the chocolate chip pumpkin bars I made before and since. We'll keep at it though, I am sure there will be delicious recipes to be shared in the near future!

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