The Most Wonderful Time of the Year: Jedidiah’s Edition

This is a guest post by my handsome, but less-enthused-over-the-holidays husband.

Ah, Christmas. It’s the most wonderful time of the year, as they say. I mean, it’s not true, everybody knows that the most wonderful time of the year is the first weekend of the NCAA basketball tournament, but I digress. I don’t think people realize just how much of their life is spent in Christmastime. Just for argument’s sake, let’s say that the Christmas season starts halfway through November. Stores start putting Christmas stuff up right after Halloween, but it takes a couple weeks to build steam. By December 1 st it’s already at full speed though, so mid-November seems about right. That’s six weeks or so, or in other words: 12% of the year. What does that mean? 12% is a pretty big portion of your year, about 1/8 of it. You probably don’t spend an eighth of your time in a given year doing anything other than sleeping or working. But you spend an eighth of it in Christmasland. You’re probably saying, if you’re not Charlie Manx, where’s the
harm in that? To that I say: there isn’t! If you want to watch Christmas movies in October, or put up your lights early, more power to you. Whatever you do in the privacy of your own home doesn’t matter to me. What I have a problem with is when others force their holiday celebrations on me for an eighth of my year though, and of course I mean Christmas music.

Now let me say that – objectively speaking – there’s nothing wrong with Christmas music in theory. But in practice, the music is easily the worst part of the season. I mean, the whole tree-decorating bit is never fun, anything over like 5 ornaments is overkill. But it’s over in a few hours and you can move on. You spend weeks having to tolerate Christmas songs. And – again, objectively speaking – Christmas songs are the worst torture you can inflict on a person.

There are some really good Christmas songs, of course. It Feels Like Christmas from The Muppet Christmas Carol. It’s In Every One of Us by John Denver and the Muppets. Even non-Muppet songs too, like White Christmas, Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas, Good King Wenceslas, God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen….ok, that’s all I have, the rest are straight up rubbish. They range from the boring trudge that is Handel’s The Messiah, to the date-rapey skeeze of Baby It’s Cold Outside, to the wheezy synth farts of Simply Having a Wonderful Christmas Time. Something about Christmas just causes songwriters
to collectively lose their minds and write the worst nonsense they can, and our culture obliges them by playing it over and over and over for 12% of our lives.
My wife thinks that Christmas songs are “cheery”, but this smacks of PTSD from exposure to too many Christmas songs.

Christmas is a sacred time for people of faith – Christians in particular are celebrating the birth of their lord and savior. So why are most traditional carols depressing? Sure, there’s Joy to the World! and Hark! The Herald Angels Sing, and you can tell they’re happy songs from the exclamation
marks. But once you get past those you’re stuck with Silent Night, O Holy Night, It Came Upon the Midnight Clear, Away in a Manger, O Little Town of Bethlehem, and the list goes on and on. All low- tempo, low-energy songs that put you to sleep and drain every last bit of Christmas spirit from the room. It’s no wonder that Santa needs the 5000-reindeer power Kringle 300 jet turbine engine to keep his sleigh in the air these days.

Silent Night in particular is so depressing that, on a cold, miserable Christmas Eve in the trenches during World War I in 1914, with mustard gas and death in the air, it was the only song that a British soldier could think to sing. Away in a Manger may or may not be singing about a Jonestown-like mass genocide of little kids (Bless all the dear children in thy tender care, and….take us to heaven?!?!). And these are the songs that are supposed to be sung in celebration of the birth of Christ? It would be like, instead of Happy Birthday, we all sang Hurt by Johnny Cash to each other over a lit birthday cake.

By far the worst offender is the Little Drummer Boy, and it’s not really close. It’s garbage on every level. It’s not catchy, it’s repetitive to the point of seizure-inducing, and it’s as slow as a funeral march. But worst of all, it makes no sense. Picture the scene – Mary and Joseph are in a smelly barn. Mary just gave birth and is exhausted, but is gamely putting up with an endless parade of shepherds and magi and whatnot when all she really wants to do is sleep. Joseph is tired too – I mean, based on the pictures, Mary rode the donkey to Bethlehem while he had to walk the whole way, while also putting up with a pregnant woman on a donkey. They FINALLY get baby Jesus to sleep, and are looking forward to an hour or so of uninterrupted sleep before the baby wakes up crying, and what happens? This jerk kid shows up and won’t stop banging his drum all over the place, and what’s worse, he acts like he’s doing everyone a huge favor the whole time! Baby Jesus is awake, the cattle start lowing again, the chickens are squawking, and the poor new parents are so exhausted they’re probably hallucinating. This is a song only the sadistic could love.

Some people say that it’s about giving what you can. The little drummer boy didn’t have a proper gift, so he gave what he could, which was his talent. It’s a nice sentiment at first glance, but closer observation renders it nonsensical. What if he had a brother whose sole talent was belching the alphabet? I mean, The Little Burping Boy would be more fun to sing, but apparently it’s only okay to give your talent as a gift if it’s socially acceptable.

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Both brothers should have just made a homemade card on a flat rock or something and just dropped it off the next morning after everyone got some rest. If some random punk showed up in the hospital room with a drum kit the night my son was born, I would have turned into Keith Moon on the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour.

Christmas should be fun! Quoting Elf and making candy and watching your kids get excited and finding clever ways to wrap your wife’s presents so she won’t guess what they are. It’s 12% of your life, for heaven’s sake, make the most of it. It would just be so much more fun if we cut our losses and started from scratch on the songs. Except for the Muppet ones.

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The Most Wonderful Time of the Year: Music Edition

This post has been on my mind since Thanksgiving, but I haven’t had much free time to write.  The original plan was to do a different holiday topic each day up until Christmas, but as usual, time got away from me.

Through the years, I have developed my own list of essentials.  My favorite holiday music, movies,  and traditions.  They are my must-do, must-watch, must-listen list that makes this time the most wonderful time of the year.  I’ve compiled a list of my favorite tradition songs as well as some modern editions in this first post.

We’ve had a barrage of performances at school this month in addition to our children’s own holiday recitals.  The quarter ended at school; grades were due.  I made Christmas presents for almost everyone.  Now I am almost ready for Christmas Eve…almost.

What keeps me going, keeps me moving at this time of year is the music.  In the background as I plan, grade, type emails, wrap presents, knit, make presents, decorate the tree, the music plays, and it makes my work cheery and light.

I have loved holiday music since I could remember.  I still have a musical stuffed Santa from the year I was born that plays “Santa Claus is Coming to Town,” and to this day, it is my favorite decoration in our home.  Even the music at church seemed somehow more harmonic and angelic.  When I grew older, I performed solos and sang in choirs.  Holiday performances became the most wonderful time of the year for me because I was doing my favorite thing—singing Christmas music.  Often rehearsals for these performances began in October, which is why I have never been bothered by the no Christmas music before Thanksgiving rule.  I had to sing it in October, so there was no avoiding it before Thanksgiving.

My husband on the other hand hates the thought of holiday music before December. He believes this is a travesty.  The kids and I get a kick out of sneaking a listen in the car on the way to school as soon as Sirius XM starts to play it.  (It’s not even a lie how excited I was to find the Hallmark Christmas Music channel there this year).  But he doesn’t love Christmas music even in December.  In fact, he often delivers diatribes about ridiculous lyrics or how they don’t make any sense.  (In fact, I’m allowing him to follow up with his own post here).

Without further ado, here’s my list of essential holiday songs:

Traditional:

“Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”–Judy Garland

This song is everything that Christmas is to me, which is why this is the only version of this song.  I am appalled each time I hear some artist add this song to his/her list of performances because I know he/she will sing “Hang a shining star upon the highest bough” and despite arguments for others, this is not the lyric.  The lyric in the only acceptable version is: “Through the years, we all will be together if the fates allow.  Until then we’ll have to muddle through somehow.”  That’s the message.  We go work through the year only to end it surrounded by our friends and family.  It’s what keeps us going until the holidays.  At least for me–because my favorite part is being with my friends and family—not hanging some star on the tree…which is the most random line in a Christmas song that I can think of at all.  We can thank Frank Sinatra for that one; however, his version isn’t even in my top 10 anyway.

“Merry Christmas, Darling,” The Carpenters

The Carpenters will appear on this list more than once because it is hands down my favorite Christmas album.  I played it so much when I made candy early in my marriage, that it may, in fact, give my husband seizures.  I still smell warm fudge when I play it.  This song is my favorite on the entire album.  Karen Carpenter’s voice swells on the line “I’ve just one wish on this Christmas Eve..,” and I am undone.  As I have lost some dear to me, that line is my one wish–“I wish I were with you.”

“The Christmas Song,” Nat King Cole

From the rising lines of the orchestra in first measure, I am hooked.  This song is such a part of the background of our family parties that I can’t imagine opening one gift without hearing his lovely baritone voice.

“Jingle Bells”, Barry Manilow featuring EnVogue

I have never liked the song “Jingle Bells.”  Call it trauma from all the bad versions I’ve heard at piano recitals during my childhood, but Barry Manilow’s version’s features a different syncopated chorus that you can’t help but sing along.

“Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town,” Bing Crosby

Nothing makes me smile more than singing “Rooty-toot-toots and rum-a-tum-tums.”  This is my only reason for including this song.  It is essential that I sing that line often each year.

“O Holy Night,” Josh Groban

There are so many beautiful versions of this song, but recently my favorite has been the version by Josh Groban.  I am also a sucker for the Christian-poppy version by Cindy Morgan and Bryan Duncan from 1995.  Not because it is particularly amazing or even a good version, but it is the Christmas duet that my uncle and I sang when I was in high school.  Nostalgia, folks.

“It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year,” Andy Williams

This song encompasses what I feel about the season. It’s an essential list of all I enjoy at this time, and Mr. Williams’ version is the best. (My husband’s own version follows a close second for its solid accuracy and truth.)**

“Christmas Waltz,” The Carpenters

The Carpenters, A Christmas Portrait, is the first time I heard this song.  With lyrics as sweet as candied ginger, it brings me joy and has me waltzing in the kitchen and singing as I spread royal icing on gingerbread men.

“What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve?”, Harry Connick, Jr.

Nothing.  We never do anything on New Year’s Eve.  Honestly, we fall asleep even before midnight.  But I still love the promise of romance in this song and all its sweet simplicity.

“Sleigh Ride,” Leroy Anderson

I can’t imagine the holidays without this song.  Orchestras often end their Holiday Pops concerts with this song, and I have clear memories of walking out of the Wichita Falls Symphony Orchestra’s annual holiday concert into the cool, crisp Texas air arm-in-arm with my dad singing along.  I wish I could do that again, but I live it a little bit each time I hear it.

While singing these songs signals the start of my favorite time of year, I have grown to also love these contemporary versions:

Modern

“Believe,” Josh Groban

“Silver Bells,” John Legend

“Cold, Cold Winter,” Ingrid Michaelson

“Present without a Bow” Kacey Musgraves with Leon Bridges

Guilty Pleasure Bonus:

“Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays,” *NSYNC

Amber’s Essential Christmas Playlist

https://open.spotify.com/embed/user/1224894745/playlist/5vPuo3rTmfK9vJrpsgUroO

*My husband’s version of “The Most Wonderful Time of the Year” features the line “The kids jingle belling, and I’m what-the-helling.”  This line describes his entire feeling during the holiday season, and we love him for it.

The Year in Review & Goals

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2015 is over.  I’m mostly glad. It’s not that 2015 was terrible;  I’m just ready to move on.  There are a lot of changes already on the horizon for 2016, and I’m looking forward to seeing where this takes me.

As a family, we had some exciting moments.  I attended the Douglas County Apple Awards as my school’s representative.  We took our 2nd trip to Disneyland over Spring Break. My sister-in-law had her first baby. Jedidiah competed on Jeopardy!  Disney released Episode VII.  The Royals won the World Series.   We had a lot of excitement, but I’m ready for some changes.

People keep asking:  “What’s your resolution for 2016?”  I hate that word.  It’s become synonymous with  broken promises and unachieved dreams.  Instead of thinking in terms of resolutions, I’ve begun thinking in terms of goals instead of resolutions for 2016.

I’ve also learned for goals to really work, they have to be SMART goals.  I first learned this term in the business world, but after two years of teaching, I started seeing this infiltrate education as well.  SMART goals are goals that are SPECIFIC, MEASURABLE, ACHIEVABLE, REALISTIC, and TIME-BOUND.  Sounds boring, right? But I’ve based my SMART goals on Neil Gaiman’s often-shared New Year’s wish from 2001:

May your coming year be filled with magic and dreams and good madness. I hope you read some fine books and kiss someone who thinks you’re wonderful, and don’t forget to make some art — write or draw or build or sing or live as only you can. And I hope, somewhere in the next year, you surprise yourself.

– See more at: http://journal.neilgaiman.com/2007/12/as-i-was-saying.html#sthash.KON3f9M6.dpuf.

If you don’t read his New Year’s wishes, you should.

So I’ve devised my goals into these categories:

  1. Magic and Dreams: It is a dream of mine to lose weight.  Sounds silly or predictable…but I haven’t lost all the weight I gained with Max five years ago!  I often start diets, but peter out once my spring semester takes over my life.  I have lost a few pounds here or there, but I find that I haven’t really set a goal around this.  So here it is:  I will lose 25 pounds by Memorial Day.  I will track this through the Weight Watchers app each week.  I will track my food daily.   I know I will feel better and be happier.
  2. Good madness:  I’ve taught the same material in my freshman class for the past few years. Like other teachers, I can fall into a rut of doing the same activities especially if time is becoming my enemy. This year, I will take one risk in the classroom–try something new–once per month.  I will track this through my blog as well as my Bloomboard app.
  3. Books:  Reading goals.  My husband sets them.  My friends set them.  I never had.  It’s all I do, really.  Read.  However, I am usually reading for school, not for myself.  This year, I will read 6 personal selections.  These are books I choose for myself.  I will track this through my blog.
  4. Kisses:  This might be TMI, but I do neglect to spend time with my husband especially during the school year.  This year, one night/ week, I will not plan, grade, or answer emails after I leave school.  Instead, I will come home, eat dinner,  put the children to bed, and spend one-on-one time with my husband. I will track this in my planning calendar.
  5. Art:  I have wanted to make something of this blog, and although what that “something” is has not fully formed in my mind, I have neglected to follow through with posting as often as I would like.  For me, writing a blog takes inspiration and time.  Even with those, my posts don’t always take the shape I wish they would.  However, I am done with these excuses.  I will post at least once per week whether it is long, deep, and inspired or just a  blurb about the day.  I will track this through my WordPress dashboard and the blogging calendar I bought months ago, but never opened.

So here’s to a New Year.  To magic, dreams, and good madness.  To books, kisses, and art.  How will you live out this New Year’s wish?

Christmas Day without a Turkey

IMG_0898A month ago, we had turkey, dressing, green bean casserole, pumpkin pie, and other traditional holiday foods.  I love those foods, but a month later, I’m not ready to eat them again.   A few years ago, we started a new tradition–one that includes beef, wine, and hearty vegetables.  Instead of turkey and dressing, etc., we have Boeuf Bourguignon.

Usually my holidays go off without a hitch. Not this year.  As I began to prepare our holiday feast, I realized no one had ever bought the meat.  There was yelling, tears, frustration, but finally, SAFEWAY came to the rescue.

I like this recipe on Christmas Day because it takes very little time away from my family.  I’m not spending hours in the kitchen basting a previously feathered beast.   I get to enjoy the excitement my children have as they run down the stairs to see what Santa brought them.

The recipe is simple enough.  I can throw everything in a pot in about 20  minutes and let the rest slow cook away….And the smell is amazing.

I have adapted my recipe from Ina Garten’s Barefoot in Paris with Julia Child’s famous recipe.  Truthfully, I’ve made this recipe so many times that I don’t really follow a recipe anymore.  I’ve found techniques I like and techniques I don’t like.  Now I get to  “eyeball” it.

I use my kitchen scissors to cut bacon into one-inch strips (called lardons).   I cook them on medium heat in about 2 tablespoons of olive oil in my Le Creuset enameled cast-iron Dutch oven.  If you don’t have one of these, you should invest in one.  I bought a whole set of Le Creuset cookware with a commission check ten years ago, and I use it more than any other cookware in my kitchen.  It is completely worth the investment.  It also looks beautiful in the kitchen, which is an added bonus.

After about 10 minutes, I remove them with a slotted spoon and set aside.  I keep my scissors close to me to ward off unwanted bacon thieves.

While I sautéed the bacon, I seasoned my cubed chuck roast with salt and pepper and then dredged the meat in flour.   Once I removed the bacon, I added the meat in small batches, searing on all sides.  I do not cook the meat through but remove it once it’s been browned.

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To the remaining fat in the pan, I add sliced yellow onions.  Then when the  onions are translucent I add the sliced carrots.   Once the onions begin to brown,  I add minced garlic and cook a minute or two more, make sure not to burn the garlic.  Then add the bacon and meat back to the pan.

At this point, you can become showy.  You can flambé your stew with brandy or Cognac.  We were out of both Christmas morning, so I skipped this step all together.  I didn’t notice a tremendous difference.  It’s a great trick, however, if you want to impress your in-laws. (If you choose to do so, add about 1/2 cup of brandy, light it with a match, and step back until the alcohol dissipates.)

I then add a whole bottle of dry wine.  We like Cabernet but a good Pinot Noir works as well.  I like Cabernet because it has a nice peppery flavor.   I add enough water to the pan to completely cover the meat and vegetables. You can add beef stock, but I have come to love Better the Bouillon beef paste.  I add 2 tablespoons of it to the pot with 2 tablespoons of tomato paste.  I add more salt, pepper, and dried thyme.  Once the stew comes to a low boil, I cover it and  put it in a 250 degree oven for about 2 hours.  I check it after 90 minutes to see if the meat is fork tender.  If it’s not, I leave it in for another 30 minutes or so.

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When it’s finished, I put it back on the stove.  I add frozen pearl onions and some mushrooms that I sautéed in butter beforehand.  I cook it another 15 minutes until it thickens.

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I realize there should be a finished photo here, but my camera ran out of batteries.  Still, the pot looks pretty yummy. With a lovely salad and French country bread, it really is a warm winter meal.  I know that Christmas has come and gone, but it would be a perfect supper for New Year’s Eve or Day.