By no means do I consider myself a “baker.” In fact, on my list of culinary skills, I would probably put baking near the bottom, perhaps just above “candy making.”
But there is something about the holidays and having grown up with a “we’ll just bake a few pies for Thanksgiving” Mom, that I tend to feel overconfident when it comes to Christmas in the kitchen.
We have several friends who have taken cookie baking and decorating to new heights, an Olympics-level of skill that I could only hope for in my wildest dreams. Jennis, Leigh-Ann, and Jennie seem to effortlessly produce art with flour, sugar, and butter and their decorating often leaves me in awe. Whether birthdays, weddings, celebrations or holidays, they constantly amaze me with the photos shared on social media. My “Groovy 70s” cookies were made by Jennis Horn and they were a highlight of my birthday party. Her Christmas cookies are always amazing, you can see more of them on her FB page here.
But I digress. I stay away from cookie baking much like I would avoid trying to create French macarons. But I have found that simple quick breads are more my style.
Over the past few weeks I’ve made nearly two dozen mini pumpkin spice breads; throw in a couple of pies for Thanksgiving and I might begin to consider a career switch. Along with a few packets of instant hot chocolate mix they have made great gifts for our neighbors.
With Christmas approaching I’m considering switching up my recipes. Flipping through my copy of The Joy of Cooking” cookbook, I found a few handwritten recipes from over thirty years ago. My sister-in-law had shared a Bishop’s Bread recipe that might be fun to try again. There is a cranberry walnut bread that sounds like it would make a great appearance on a Christmas buffet table. I would love to find something pepperminty, though I suppose I could just sprinkle candy cane pieces on a chocolate-chip bread. That sounds tasty!
Happy Holidays friends. Whatever you make, it’s better shared with friends. And don’t forget the neighbors!
Harry Potter, A Forbidden Forest Experience is currently engaging fans and friends of the Wizarding World at Morven Park in Leesburg, Virginia. It’s hard to imagine the scale of the amount of effort that has gone into this production, from creating the animated props to laying gravel paths lined with Bose speakers, fog machines, and theatrical lighting through the forest of the park.
As we walked thru it, all I could think of was, hats off to the designers and other creatives (and the IT Department!) who had managed to produce something this massive, involving so many people and cross-disciplines, during the time of Covid.
The Forbidden Forest Experience operates on two entirely separate levels for me. There are enough vignettes—Hagrid looking out into the dark night with his dog Fang next to him for instance— that a fan of the books will be happy, lead along the trail hoping to discover what’s next around a bend or over a hill. But I’m more drawn towards the production side of the experience. LED lighting in the trees, gobos along the paths, the enchanting lighting effects of the field of mushrooms for instance.
Walk-thru experience have become more common recently. Christmas lighting displays are hugely popular and have grown in complexity the past few years. And really, aren’t we all fans of dinosaurs and the recreations of them? The Jurassic Encounter (https://nova.thejurassicencounter.com has plenty of dinos but they are the main attraction, not the environment.
The aspect that sets the Forbidden Forest Experience apart from any other outdoor adventure I’ve experienced lately is, literally The Forest. There are activities, vignettes, owls, spiders, centaurs and unicorns placed along the trail for everyone to enjoy. But it is the forest that becomes the main character in this drama. Dark, spooky, mist-shrouded or brightly lit in reds, greens, and blues, fallen trees or clustered oaks, white sycamores etched against the moonlit sky: the Forest is the King here. Playing throughout the experience is music from the movies and it really enhances the overall effect.
After searching online for the design group responsible for this adventure, I came across Thinkwell Group. The tagline on their website really spells it out, “creating custom, content driven experiences in the physical world.” Lighting effects were created by Adam Povey Lighting. I was surprised to learn that there are several other locations of the Forbidden Forest Experience currently available to see, one in Westchester NY; one in Cheshire UK at Arley Hall and Gardens; and one in Belgium.
There is food available and a merchandise tent at the end of the trail— it is Harry Potter and Warner Brothers after all. This isn’t a recreation of the Harry Potter World at Universal Studios (no theme park rides) but you can get butterbeer and a souvenir mug, t-shirts and hoodies, and of course adorable stuffed animals. We took home one of the Nifflers; keep an eye on your jewelry! If you consider going, ticket prices seemed a little high for what we are used to, certainly cheaper than Wicked tickets at the Kennedy Center, but more than what you would expect for an experience where you are doing most of the work, or at least the walking. There are family ticket prices. Take a lot of pictures: many of the participants came in costume and really added to the excitement. It is a non-cash event (credit only), something they do announce on their website. The parking lot as well as the road leading into the event area was well marked and well lit. Parking was an additional fee.
When we were there the evening temperatures couldn’t have been better. It was the day before the full moon in early November and a light jacket (wizard robes) was all we needed. The flashlight I had brought was unnecessary and the path could easily accommodate strollers.
The holidays bring no end of opportunities for musical and dramatic presentations. Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol seems to never run out of venues, whether performed at community theaters or touring companies. So it is also with The Nutcracker, or holiday sing-alongs to Hansel’s Messiah.
If, like many families, you have your collection of DVDs, then by now you may have already watched White Christmas or A Christmas Story. Or you may be more partial to new favorites such as Elf; How the Grinch Stole Christmas; or Home Alone. The Hallmark Channel serves up an endless supply of 25 Days of Christmas movies to get us all into the spirit!
It’s a Wonderful Life premiered in December 1946. It was not a commercial success by today’s standards (initial box office release places it near $3.5 million) and doesn’t fall anywhere near the top 50 highest-grossing Christmas films. (Dr. Seuss’ The Grinch (2018), at $512 Million takes first place, followed by 1990’s Home Alone $496 million. https://screenrant.com/christmas-movies-highest-grossing-box-office-mojo/
Yet it has taken its place on many Christmas movie lists as one of the most-loved holiday movies. Due to an oversight by the copyright holder Republic Pictures, It’s A Wonderful Life came into the public domain in 1974 and was shown repeatedly on television for many years. For many of us “boomers” WhiteChristmas and It’s a Wonderful Life are the definitive holiday movies.
It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play (full-length version) It’s a Wonderful Life is based on the story, The Greatest Gift by Philip Van Doren Stern and was adapted by Joe Landry in 1996. This past week we saw a wonderful performance of this charming holiday favorite by the Four County Players in Barboursville VA. The building is a beautiful historic school building from the 1930s filled with character. The stage of the auditorium of the Barboursville Community Center (formerly Barboursville High School) was transformed into the Manhattan radio station WBFR and side wings served as a “green room” during the play’s intermission.
The Players have been putting on a wide range of shows for over 40 years now. Looking through their website, musicals, comedy, and dramas abound and titles such as God of Carnage, The Laramie Project, and Chicago emphasize the wide variety and challenging pieces they have taken on.
It’s A Wonderful Life performed as a live radio play adds an extra depth to a story that has become very familiar over the years. The idea of watching actors, who are themselves portraying actors, who are telling a story set in the postwar 1940s makes this show both familiar and fresh. It’s as if we were being treated to a contemporary podcast, yet here the actions and expressions of the people on stage carry even more emotional weight than would a sound-only podcast.
Frank Kapra directed the movie, based on the 1943 short story The Greatest Gift by Philip Van Doren Stern, at the end of WWII. James Stewart had just gotten out of the Army Air Corps and the themes of faith and family, along with deep emotional trauma, surely resonated in his performance. It is a strange coincidence that this play takes the stage again 75 years after the movie’s premier, also at a time when the US has returned home from war.
Yet just as moving was the poigancy that Ken Wayne brought to his portrayal of the drama’s character Jake Laurents, voicing the play’s character of George Bailey. John Holdren’s portrayal of the radio show host was very impressive, switching from host to numerous characters seemingly at ease. Using only their stage scripts as props, or perhaps fussing with the fit of a garment, the cast brought multiple characters to life on stage. Very impressed by Sara Conklin and Katie Hutchins! A great delight was the onstage presence of two Foley artists producing an array of sound effects–from the sound of shoes crossing the floor; broken glass; wind effects; doors being slammed; to the swoooooshing sound of deep waters rushing under the bridge our main character finds himself standing upon.
I had expected the drama to be a bit more “staged,” the actors perhaps just sitting around their microphones in a sound booth. Director and scenic designer Kerry Moran has laid out a beautiful set with the actors front and center. The actors were on their feet at the microphones most of the time, true, but the camaraderie and playful banter exhibited by their onstage characters brought a great deal of additional life to the drama. The action moves along at a quite lively pace. Our director knows there is an audience watching these performances: subtle yet at times dramatic lighting effects coupled with musical backgrounds fill in what could have been a staid production. And those costumes! Welcome to the 1940s.
This was our first time attending a Four County Players’ performance; what a great introduction to theater in Central Virginia and a start to the holiday season.
Book illustration by Scott McKowen from The Greatest Gift, published 1996 by Viking Penguin
I’m quoting from a former pastor who in truth probably quoted his favorite teacher. But it’s a truth whose veracity we don’t need to go far to ascertain. Whether from personal history or from our studies, we know how much a word of encouragement can mean to people. The writer of Hebrews in the New Testament says, “Encourage one another, and all the more as you see the day approaching.” He may have had a more significant day in view, but tomorrow approaches, well, every day.
But why the admonishment? What is it about our lives that would make a biblical command necessary? And if we are asked, directed or commanded as it were to encourage others, then how are we to go about it?
Earlier in the book (Hebrews 3:13) the author gives us a little more insight. “But encourage one another day after day, as long as it is still called ‘Today,’ so that none of you will be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin.”
In today’s vernacular we might put it like this, “encourage one another because life is hard and it just gets harder.”
Before our move to our townhome, we had lived in the same house for 22 years. In that time I learned the first name of only ten neighbors. Only ten from a neighborhood of over 200 homes. I resolved to do better in our new location.
At first I would wave to our new neighbors whenever I passed them on my walk to get the mail. Nothing. While the weather was still warm I would sit out on our porch and drink my morning coffee; again I would wave to the neighbors as they left for a walk or their commute to work. We might exchange a quick hello, other than that, nothing.
And then for Thanksgiving my wife had a great idea. Remembering the small Whitman’s sampler chocolates we used to get in our Christmas stockings, we decided to get a few and put them in small bags to hang on the doors of our neighbors. Nothing extravagant, just a note letting them know we were thankful for them this year.
The response was a bit overwhelming. From handmade thank you cards to gifts in kind (who doesn’t like to receive chocolate?), our neighbors began to stop by and leave small gift bags on our doorstep, always signed with their house number. Earlier in the year I had let our own small group Bible study know that one of my goals for 2020 had been to learn the names of my neighbors, and how poorly that was going. Now the names seemed to be pouring in!
From small gift giving, to conversations on the sidewalk, we have been getting to know our neighbors. We haven’t had to wait for another Snowmageddon to bring the community together in a massive one-time shoveling event. Even now we are considering how we might continue to encourage one another. I’m hoping for something along the lines of a 4th of July children’s parade and hotdogs, only perhaps a little sooner than July.
With our erratic weather we could still be in for a big snow storm in the new year. But at least when it arrives, I can call my neighbors by name. And that might just be the encouragement we need during these difficult times.
This year maybe, just maybe, we will have a white Christmas. Weather dot gov has our current forecast for Christmas Eve as rain showers likely before 1am, then rain and snow showers likely between 1am and 3am, then snow showers likely after 3am. Mostly cloudy, with a low around 28. Breezy. Chance of precipitation is 70%. Christmas Day should be partly sunny with a high near 33 degrees.
Listening to Bing Crosby sing “White Christmas,” more than once this holiday season had me thinking about all those Christmases past we enjoyed the snow. Growing up in Reno, I’m sure we saw lots of snow, snow upon snow, heaps and piles of snow.
But strangely enough, my memory seems to be playing tricks on me again. According to Shane Snyder, Meteorologist at the National Weather Service in Reno. “It has snowed 7 times on Christmas Day, with a dozen times there’s been snow on the ground on Christmas Day out of 120 years.” That means about 10% of Christmases in Reno are white. In 1910, one inch of snow fell. In 1921, five inches of snow fell. In 1965 it was 2.7 inches. Christmas Day 1968, we saw almost three inches of the white stuff. In 1972, 14.9 inches of snow fell. (Read more here)
Here in Northern Virginia I wouldn’t expect to see snow on Christmas, though one can always hope. According to the National Weather Service, from 1884 to 2016, there were only nine times where measurable snow fell on Christmas Day. From 1888 to 2016, there have been 19 times where measurable snow has been on the ground on Christmas Day. (From White Christmases and us: The history of white Christmases in the D.C. area)
December 25, 2009
It has been 11 years since the last time we had a White Christmas (December 25, 2009). The odds of a white Christmas in D.C. are usually not in our favor. For a true white Christmas, there must be at least 1 inch of snow on the ground. It does not have to snow Christmas Eve or Christmas Day. On average, only about 10% of Christmases in D.C. have 1 inch or more of snow on the ground. The last year with snow on the ground in D.C. was 11 years ago in 2009 with leftover snow we received from our blizzard on the 19th – 20th. Even more rare in recent years, it hasn’t snowed on Christmas Day in D.C. since 2002, 18 years ago. (WUSA9.com)
Several years ago we celebrated our anniversary at a cabin in the woods. Our anniversary falls in the first week of January and you honestly never know what the weather is going to be like when you book a reservation several months in advance. So it was with utter amazement and delight that we woke up on the second day of our trip with snow on the ground. Lots of snow. Northwestern Maryland will often get snow in the mountains when Northern Virginia only gets rain. But a surprise snowfall and I feel like a ten-year-old boy again.
The way 2020 has gone, I would welcome a little snow. Maybe just enough to shovel but certainly more than the dusting we have grown accustomed to. I’m not talking another Snowmageddon-2010 situation, maybe just a little Currier & Ives snow that brings out the best in the cardinals we see in our trees out back. But with all the talk of snow recently, I’ve actually got my eye on another Christmas destination, hopefully not too far off in the future. One that includes a sunny beach, maybe palm trees, and definitely a tropical beverage. Let’s go!
My earliest memory of an actual Christmas tradition in our family was that of the annual Christmas Tree Hunt. There may have been years where we purchased a tree from one of the many vendors around town—we would likely have bought ours from the guys set up on the church parking lot— but buying a tree was rare for us.
The hillsides and mountains around Reno where I grew up were covered with any number of trees. The Sierra Nevada mountains had pine trees, though little in the way of the traditional conical-shaped Douglas fir or noble fir. Those showed up in the parking lots around town, shipped down from Oregon. The ponderosa pines and sugar pines in the Sierra were a scraggly lot in their smaller sizes, though beautiful and stately once they were grown. But a five to six foot ponderosa pine had few branches from which to hang ornaments.
Our Christmas tree hunt generally focused on the smaller hills to the south of town, an easy hour-long trip to the hills outside Virginia City. There we could find the tree my Dad favored: Nevada’s pinion pine. The pinion pine is a squat, rather bushy style of tree. Very aromatic, quite a bit of pitch which would often be hard to clean off your hands, and lots of pine cones.
But because most of the trees we found ran towards the beachball shape, it would take a lot of trekking the hills until we found one that was suitable. Never mind if there were bare spots, those could be filled in later with strategically placed branches, cut and reattached with a bit of wire.
When I married, one of the holiday traditions I wanted to continue with my family was that of the Christmas Tree Hunt. My wife was onboard, and my son enjoyed the trips out to Ticonderoga Farm in Chantilly, especially the year it snowed. Most years the weather was warm and the hunt for a beautiful scotch pine didn’t take long. Acres of trees grown in well-tended rows took some of the “adventure of the hunt” out of the experience, but sipping hot chocolate around the fire pit while we waited for the tree to be bagged with netting more than made up for lost adventure.
Years later I finally broke down and we purchased a prelit artificial tree. We spray it with some winter scent (this year it is “Snowy Night”) hoping to enjoy some of that fresh-cut smell. Not the same, but it’s nice. I saw cars and trucks on the road coming back from Middleburg over the weekend, each one with a nice plump tree strapped to their roof. We just bought a new, prelit tree last year when we downsized to a townhouse. So we won’t be taking part in the Annual Tree Hunt any time soon. And truthfully, I think my days of wandering around the hills looking for that perfect tree are over.
I did plant a small spruce in the yard last year. Who knows but in a few years, it might be large enough to string a few outdoor lights on. But I’m not giving up my Balsam Hill tree. After all, it’s prelit.
I was in the 8th Grade when I heard the song “Turn, Turn, Turn,” by the Byrds. I didn’t know that it had been written and recorded years earlier by folk musician Pete Seeger. I only knew it from that jangly guitar version from 1965. And it was literally years later that I learned the lyrics were from the Book of Ecclesiastes. The wisest man in the known world certainly had a way with catchy lyrics.
This week during my walks thru the neighborhood, I was astounded by the rich color and utter confusion of fallen leaves along the path. Deep reds, bright chartreuse yellows, golden orange tones made walking slow trying to soak in all of the colors.
The wooded area near our home is bisected by an intermittent stream providing fresh water for the many animals (deer in the area?) found here, though primarily birds and squirrels are all I ever see. But this week we had several rains and strong wind storms. The stream rose up and washed clean a lot of the debris along its shore. The winds and rain had ground down the leaves or blown clear the walking path. Today the few remaining leaves are faded to grays and tans; the exuberant color display is over signaling a change in the season.
It strikes me as not coincidental that our national election comes at the end of the year. November has much to be thankful for, chief of which is that it is the last month before the slog thru winter. December, followed by January and then February. All cold months, colors faded to dark and light. But November seems to offer a brief moment of rest before the seasons change. An election offers the hope of future change just when we are beginning to think about the seasonal change to winter. “Winter is coming” somber voice, GOT; but first, let’s vote.
“By 1792, federal law permitted each state to choose Presidential electors any time within a 34-day period before the first Wednesday in December. A November election was convenient because the harvest would have been completed but the most severe winter weather, impeding transportation, would not yet have arrived,
Development of the Morse electric telegraph funded by Congress in 1843 and successfully tested in 1844, was a technological change that clearly augured an imminent future of instant communication nationwide. To prevent information from one state from influencing Presidential electoral outcomes in another, Congress responded in 1845 by mandating a uniform national date for choosing Presidential electors. Congress chose the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November to harmonize current electoral practice with the existing 34-day window in federal law, as the span between Election Day and the first Wednesday in December is always 29 days. The effect is to constrain Election Day to the week between November 2 and 8 inclusive.”
To everything there is a season, a time for every purpose under heaven: A time to be born, and a time to die; A time to plant, and a time to pluck what is planted; A time to kill, and a time to heal; A time to break down, and a time to build up; A time to weep, and a time to laugh; A time to mourn, and a time to dance; A time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones; A time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing; A time to gain, and a time to lose; A time to keep, and a time to throw away; A time to tear, and a time to sew; A time to keep silence, and a time to speak; A time to love, and a time to hate; A time of war, and a time of peace. Ecclesiastes 3:1-8
Let’s all be encouraged that whether you think this is a time of weeping, scattering, casting away stones, or a time of hate: that God has a time of peace ahead for us.
Shortly after we were married, we tried camping in a tent. Sleeping bags on an air mattress. Cook stove. Bathroom and showers a short walk thru the woods. Needless to say, we didn’t do it again. Sometime later, my son and I slept out in the tent one night on our deck; years later, I can’t remember if we stayed the entire night. I think we gave the tent away.
Through the years we’ve tried a number of different destinations to celebrate our anniversary. Whether a cruise or a resort, the brief two or three days in January we’ve spent have been a great opportunity to get away during one of the less-traveled seasons, and an opportunity to try new adventures.
The first time we stayed at the Savage River Lodge in the mountains of western Maryland, it was at the recommendation of friends. The log cabins were advertised as luxury accommodations and a welcome “unplugged” getaway (no TVs). King-size beds, luxe linens, breakfast muffins and juice delivered in a basket to our door in the morning, all wonderful. It seemed we had the best of both worlds, a camping experience without the sleeping bag. Or having to erect a tent on uneven rocky ground. And the snow that fell that January evening before we left was gorgeous, ensuring that we would return to this hidden gem.
It was several years later, and a different season, that we were finally able to try the Lodge again. Only this time we reserved a yurt.
A yurt. I didn’t know what it was, but I wanted to try it. A vague recollection of a long forgotten movie, horsemen riding across the steppes, round…tents?
But a yurt at Savage River Lodge, well that held the promise of comfortable bedding, an indoor bathroom with hot showers, and would certainly not be like our earlier tent experience.
Our yurt was made by Pacific Yurts of Oregon. And SRL has taken the experience up quite a notch: hard wood flooring with radiant heat, a tiled floor bathroom featuring on demand hot water shower, a gas log fire place along with a portable air conditioner for climate control, and luxury micro-fiber bed linens which were incredibly soft. We walked in and were simply amazed.
At 30 foot diameter, these open floor plan “tents” are seemingly immense. A high ceiling without a center tent pole helps to create a more spacious and open feel than the two story cabins on the property. French doors open onto a private deck with seating and a view of the forest. Our enclave consisted of four yurts (eight in total) set in an open glade of ferns, across from another four yurts set further back from the road.
A short walk up to the Lodge revealed several seating areas on the patio and deck surrounded by flowers and views of deer in the meadow below. We found a seat at the fire pit in the evening and met several of the other guests. All of us were impressed with our hosts’ commitment to striving for an eco-friendly resort: 65% of the electricity used is supplied by 325 solar panels on the property.
When I spoke with owner Mike Dreisbach, one of the things that stood out to me was his commitment to repurposing and using local sources. He mentioned that the timber frames and lumber for their Cornucopia Cafe in Grantsville MD used materials from a 130-year-old barn. The huge boulders that were being placed in the current landscaping project are sourced from a quarry nearby.
If you are interested in any of their other green initiatives, or considering where you might “go green” in your own home, they have a list on their website here.
The tent experience was certainly unlike any other I have ever had. Hardly a tent, our “glamping weekend” has me thinking of similar ideas for weekend getaways. We’ve stayed at a lighthouse in Puerto Rico, a seaside cottage and a mountain lodge; perhaps a treehouse might be our next experience. We are looking forward to trying something else in the New Year. What about you? trying something different this coming year?
Each year in mid-December, thousands of volunteers gather to lay wreaths at the head of the graves of America’s honored dead. According to their website, over 253,000 wreaths were placed by volunteers for Wreaths Across America (WAA) at Arlington National Cemetery. “This year, there will be more than 1,700 participating locations in total across the country, supported by nearly 4,000 fundraising groups, with more than two million volunteers coming together all across the nation.”
LTC Colonel Victor M. Torres, my wife’s father, was laid to rest there this past fall with full military honors. Saturday was our first visit since the internment service and truthfully, I didn’t know quite what to expect. Seeing the vast fields of white stones and red ribbon, each representing the life of one our citizens who had served our country, was very moving. Gazing out at all those grave markers, each bearing a wreath set in place by an army of volunteers, brought the words of a familiar Christmas carol to mind.
Mild He lays His glory by, Born that man no more may die; Born to raise the sons of earth, Born to give them second birth! Hark! The herald angels sing, “Glory to the newborn King!”
If you are interested in the work of Wreaths Across America, or if you would like to donate to their yearly effort, you can find more information on their website, wreathsacrossamerica.org
He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him. 2 Corinthians 5:21
Leafing thru my worn copy of The Joy of Cooking cookbook, I came across a recipe from my step mother I had stuffed in there years ago. I seldom even use the printed cookbook anymore; like many people these days I search for recipes online. But there it was, a relic as it were from the distant past, her offering to me for a holiday long ago.
What was intriguing to me, apart from the fact that it’s over 30 years old and written on one of those preformatted recipe cards that you keep in a file box, was what she had written on the back of the card.
After the paragraphs of ingredients and cooking instructions and notes on what baking pans to use, she leaves me these final words. “If you have a microwave oven, butter a piece and warm it for 10 or 15 seconds—delicious!!! at least that is what your Dad claims—I don’t eat such goodies!!
To this day I am still amazed that she thought of a way to make my holidays special, home-made if you will, by sending me something she couldn’t even enjoy. It’s a gift that has only grown better with time.
But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us. 2 Corinthians 4:7