Archives for posts with tag: Christmas

Do you believe in Christmas miracles?

About a week ago, it seemed that we had a lock on a white Christmas.  Two snowstorms each dropped about six inches of snow on the ground.  Our world was robed in a one-foot-thick blanket of pristine white powder, softer than the fluffiest fleece.  By day, we were bathed in the light and warmth of the reflected rays of the sun and by night, we basked in the cool, silvery phosphorescence of amplified moonlight (or would have basked had we ventured outside).

Then, rudely, we were subjected to 24 hours of steady rain accompanied by temperatures reaching into the mid 60s.  The warm shower rinsed away the snow and by yesterday morning, almost all of it had disappeared.  Any clumps that remained—mostly spots where plowed or shoveled snow had piled up—were icy and grimy, dirtied by the splashing of passing cars and covered by windblown debris.  With no snow in the forecast, our hopes for a white Christmas had vanished.

But then, just before sunset last evening, we noticed a slight sparkle in the air just as the last rays of light were streaming through gaps in the clouds.  We did not give it much thought until later, after our Christmas Eve feast, when we spied scattered glints of reflected light coming in through the dining room windows.  We switched on the floodlights that illuminate our back yard and there before us was an expanse of sparkling white.

Unbeknownst to us as we were eating our celebratory meal, just enough snow had fallen to coat every surface with a thin layer, only a fraction of an inch thick, of icy white crystals.  There was not enough of it that I needed to shovel, or even sweep (thank goodness!), but it was more than enough to ensure that Christmas morning would dawn thoroughly and unquestionably white.

The mini-snowstorm might not have been a miracle—the National Weather Service has missed forecasts before and will undoubtedly do so again—but it certainly seemed miraculous, appearing as it did without warning and in just the nick of time (the St. Nick of time?).   The sight of it lifted our moods immeasurably as we headed off to bed to dream of the presents and stockings that would be waiting for us this morning.

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No holiday is given shorter shrift than Thanksgiving.  The run-up to it is short—it is practically non-existent, in fact—and the celebration is sandwiched between two holiday grandstanders:  Halloween—one of the flashiest holidays—and Christmas, whose season seems to start earlier and earlier every year.  On the holiday calendar, Thanksgiving does not get much attention.

In supermarkets (for example), the Thanksgiving items often will occupy only a narrow section of seasonal shelving and then only for a week or two.  During that same period, the canned pumpkin and stuffing mixes will share the space with half-price trick-or-treat candy and a vast selection of Christmas goodies.  The brightly-colored candy canes and foil-wrapped chocolate Santas visually dominate the muted earth tones of Thanksgiving packaging.

And once the turkey has been consumed, the Thanksgiving holiday is almost instantly forgotten.  After all, the next morning sees the dawn of Black Friday, an event which has become almost more spectacular than Christmas itself and which has stretched through the weekend and into the following week to include Small Business Saturday and Cyber Monday.  For some retailers, the sales extravaganza begins Thanksgiving night (talk about no respect).  Ads may make brief, comical references to Thanksgiving leftovers but that is usually the extent of it.

Really, it’s a shame.  And not just because Thanksgiving is overshadowed by commercial activities.  It’s too bad mainly because Thanksgiving is such an elemental celebration.  It is observed by essentially everybody, has no religious affiliation and is almost entirely about family.  Yes, food is the central physical component—the equivalent of the presents at Christmas—but the holiday focuses on sharing that bounty, rejoicing in belonging to a social group (not just a traditional family), and expressing our gratitude for everything we have.

 This Thanksgiving, in addition to everything else I am thankful that the holiday has not (yet) been entirely crowded off the calendar.

Greetings from the future.

What’s that, you say?  Today is January 6, 2014 so how can this post be from the future?

Well, it may be January 6, 2014 in the real world but in my blog’s timeline, the date is currently October 24, 2013 (my most recent post).  In fact, the garden engineer calendar has been stuck in October for quite some time now.  This is mainly because in the last two months, there have been many things to which to chose to say “yes” or “no” to.  With the garden fully dormant (spoiler alert:  the growing season has ended!), I elected to say “no” to it and its blog and “yes” to some of those other things.

But now that the holiday season has passed (another spoiler alert:  Thanksgiving and Christmas have already occurred and were the best ever!), I have time to loop back and fill in some of the missing posts from the end of 2013.  My brother made the excellent suggestion that I simply do a single, catch-up summary but I’m afraid that I am much too literal- and serial-minded to be able to do that.  Besides, some of the posts were already (mostly) written.

Instead, over the next week or two I will continue the chronology that garden engineer has been following from the start, including only those posts that pertain to actual events during year’s end.  For topics that are less temporally fixed, e.g., season recap, soil testing results, planning for this—I mean next—maybe I do mean this—year (time travel is difficult), I will wait until after I have caught back up to the present day.  With luck, that will be soon.

For those readers who feel that 2013 ended too quickly, this might be a welcome extension of the fall and holiday seasons.  Others may wish to skip ahead.

So Happy New Year (when you get here).  Until then (to paraphrase Doc Brown), “Back to the Past!”

It has formally been summer since last Friday (June 21) but if I had to base my assessment of the season solely on the weather, I’m not sure I’d agree that it is summer.  With the exception of a few days at the beginning of the month, it has been as cool as it was back in April and May.  And then there’s the rain:  Almost five inches so far this month.

Weather aside, not everyone would agree that summer started on the summer solstice, especially those living in the southern hemisphere where the seasons are the opposite of ours on the north half of the planet.  I was reminded of this by a recent post (from Australia) by BetR2 (see “Am I Learning or Just Confused??? When is the first day of the season again?”).  For her, the start of winter was the source of her confusion.  It seems that there is no consensus as to what officially starts (or ends) a season.

Growing up, I was taught that summer occurred during June, July and August; fall spanned September, October and November; the winter months included December, January and February; leaving March, April and May for spring (although spring almost never lasts three months, even in the northeast US!).  BetR2 was similarly instructed, it appears, although of course, the seasons—and not the calendar—are reversed where she lives.

Others (such as the folks at Google) base the seasons on the astronomical milestones:  the summer and winter solstices and the autumnal and vernal equinoxes.  Followers of this philosophy tend to be staunch despite the irony that summer begins with the days getting shorter and winter with the days getting longer.  I think there is some meteorological basis for this, however, due to heat lag.  In summer, the nights are not long enough for the day’s heat to dissipate and as a result, it continues to accumulate after the shortest night occurs.  The temperature gets hotter even as the days grow shorter.  Eventually, though, the conditions reverse and we start heading back towards cooler days and, eventually, winter.

Another practical approach is to use holidays as the demarcation points.  In the US for example, summer “officially” begins with Memorial Day (the last Monday in May) and ends on Labor Day (the first Monday in September).  Christmas often considered a good time for winter to start (although some would argue for Black Friday, which follows Thanksgiving and opens the holiday shopping season).  To round out the seasons, Easter makes a nice transition from winter to spring, with its obvious connotations of rebirth.  Naturally, there are strong cultural, ethnic, and religious influences on this practice.

However defined, it is now summer (in the northern hemisphere) by any calendar.  All we need now is for Mother Nature to catch up.

We’ve never done much to celebrate Easter.  Growing up, the focus was on a family get-together with a spotlight on the food:  lots of candy, of course, and ham for dinner.  But now I live on the opposite side of the country from my family and few of my friends observe Easter rituals (or those of Passover, either).  We rarely do a social gathering anymore or anything, in fact, that might be considered traditional.

One year, we spent the afternoon helping friends move furniture.  I don’t recall why they decided to do this chore on a holiday but once we got their vehicle loaded up, they headed off to deliver the cargo (somewhere, presumably, not closed for Easter).  That left us hungry for dinner but too tired to cook.

We decided to swing by one of the restaurants in town and because we didn’t have a reservation, we ordered a couple of pizzas to go.  While waiting for them to bake, we sat at the bar and I had a glass of wine.  The proprietress thought I might like one of the Pinot Noirs that is not usually sold by the glass but opened a bottle for me anyway.  That’s hospitality!  It was a delightful—if unconventional—way to observe the holiday.

Another year, we decided to go to a movie.  When we got to the theater (co-located at a shopping mall), we found it and all of the other stores shuttered.  Unlike Thanksgiving or Christmas, Easter seems to be the holiday when everything closes.  We ended up back home.

So instead of planning a formal gathering or going out, we’ve made Easter weekend a celebration of spring and the rebirth of the garden.

This past Christmas, we sent bottles of Crown Maple Syrup to some of our friends and family.  Rachel had read about the producer, located only an hour north of us, in a food magazine and we thought the syrup would make a nice gift from a Hudson Valley source.

We didn’t get any for ourselves, though, figuring that a visit to the farm would make a fun field trip when the weather turned warmer.  Well, the weather is still cold—it feels more like winter than spring—but the sap has started its annual run.  We looked up the location, programmed it into the GPS/GIS and set off into the woods.

The home of Crown Maple Syrup is Madava Farms in Dover Plains, New York.  After driving north on the Taconic State Parkway, exiting onto a county road and then turning off onto a one-lane dirt road (soft from recent rains), we were expecting to arrive at a small, rustic farm like the one we visited in Vermont two years ago.  However, when we reached Madava Farms’ front gate—with its shiny stainless steel and geometrical design—we started to get the idea that something else was in store.

Instead of a centuries-old farmhouse, we found (at the end of a newly-paved driveway) a large, gleaming retail and production facility that includes a shop, restaurant and tasting room (in addition to the machinery necessary for distilling maple syrup) housed in an attractively-styled wood-framed structure (maple, naturally) reminiscent of an Adirondack hunting lodge.  It also made me think of some of the glitzier wineries in the Napa Valley.

The property is only a year old and was built by a wealthy energy investor.  That the founder is a graduate of the Harvard Business School is readily apparent.  The syrup is well-branded, there are high-end foods and related products (e.g., cookbooks) available for sale, and a variety of activities on-site (tasting, tours, dining, hiking).  Clearly, the business plan is to create a maple-syrup-based experience and not just to sell product.  It is also clear that they are succeeding.

Part of me recoiled from what initially felt like heavy-handed marketing.  But after walking around and observing the operation and its staff, I quickly came to appreciate its quality.  First and foremost, the syrup is very good.  We tasted their dark and medium amber products and both were smooth and clean-tasting.  Further, the syrup is attractively packaged in clear glass bottles that might remind some people of single malt scotch.

Although there was a high risk of pretentiousness on the part of the staff, we did not observe any (even if there is some unrestrained pride; no sin there).  The woman pouring samples in the tasting room was friendly, solicited and answered questions enthusiastically and was very knowledgeable about the production process.

And I have to admit that I am a sucker for architecturally-exposed industrial equipment.  The facility includes holding vats, a UV sanitizer, a reverse-osmosis water extractor, three-stage evaporator and the bottling line, all constructed from stainless steel, connected by precisely arranged and carefully labeled PVC piping and accessed by grated catwalks and viewing platforms.

And that’s just inside the main building.  Outside, the maple trees—which produce the sap from which the syrup is made—are interconnected by a network of small-diameter tubes which feed into larger distribution lines which in turn deliver the sap to distributed collection houses and, finally, into the holding tanks.  The tubes appear to levitate horizontally about four feet above the ground (on closer inspection, I found that they are supported by thin steel wires under high tension, strung between stout trees to carry the loads with very little sag) and are under vacuum pressure to keep the sap running (even when the weather is not conducive) and protect against leaks.

Before leaving, we bought a Maple Stick (puff pastry crisped in the oven with well-caramelized maple syrup) and started to plan a return visit.  Based on the length of the line, we weren’t the only ones enjoying the maple experience.

Yesterday evening, we arrived in Hawaii for the start of a weeklong vacation.  I’m not expecting any sympathy but it’s a long trip, especially coming from the east coast.  The distance is almost as far as Australia is from the west coast and takes most of a day to cover.  We left our house a little after 4:00 am and, after changing planes twice (an unfortunate downside to flying from our nearest airport) and driving for an hour, arrived in Kapalua shortly after 6:00 pm (11:00 pm at home).

After briefly catching up with the friends we’re vacationing with (and who are generously sharing their timeshare), we went to bed around 8:00 pm.  Complete exhaustion has helped us adjust to local time (five hours earlier than at home) but the loss of a normal day is a surreal experience.

Still, I’m not complaining.  Hawaii is a beautiful place and the weather has always been nothing less than ideal in my experience.  It’s at about the same latitude as the Caribbean but it always seems balmier and, somehow, more welcoming.  Being out in the middle of the Pacific Ocean (as opposed to being nestled between North and South America as the Caribbean is) makes it perennially breezy and warm (and not oppressively hot and humid).  Of course, I’ve never been here in the summer.

In fact, I made my first trip to Hawaii in the winter of 1989 (Rachel spent the summer of 1983 in Lahaina but that’s her story to tell).  Rachel and I had survived our first year in Oberlin, Ohio and had treated ourselves to an island holiday (we were there for Christmas and New Year’s).  Ohio was in the middle of a cold snap and when we took off from Cleveland Hopkins airport, the frigid air was 14 degrees below zero.  When we arrived at the Kahului Airport in central Maui twelve hours later, the ambient temperature was a sultry 86 degrees.  A diurnal range, for us, of 100 degrees!

On the shuttle ride to our hotel (in Kaanapali to the northwest), the radio played, “Aloha Friday, no work till Monday”, which would have been a fitting welcome even if it had not been Friday (it was).

We took down our Christmas tree today (yesterday was the Twelfth Day of Christmas so it is now safe to do so).  For the last few years, I have been cutting off the branches and using them to fill the window boxes.  It is a convenient way to add seasonal decoration to the house.  It brightens the post-holiday mood and helps smooth the emotional transition to normalcy.

I find that the boughs will last until some time in February which is about the same time that my thoughts are turning to spring and its early manifestations (such as forced forsythia branches; see February 17, 2012).  I would make a reference to last year’s blog post about decorating the window boxes but it would draw attention to the fact that I still haven’t constructed a compost bin.

It is remarkable how quickly we adapted to the presence of the Christmas tree when we put it up four weeks ago and what a hole it leaves now that it is gone.  There is a feeling of loss, of something missing, a void.  But in as short a time, we will adjust to the normal state of the living room.

Every year in my household, we say “Best Thanksgiving ever!” or, like today, “Best Christmas ever!”  We say it sincerely but with some amusement because regardless of how this particular holiday may stack up to the celebrations of years past, we always say the same thing.  The oven may have broken down while the turkey was roasting (this actually happened to us a few years ago) or the tree may have fallen over and crushed all of the presents (I’ve heard stories but so far we have avoided this) but even so, it is the best ever!

And, of course, it is true.  Because the holiday we are celebrating today is the current one, the one in the immediate present, the one being actively experienced.  Last Christmas is now only a memory and next Thanksgiving a future possibility but today is happening now, and that is truly the best, whatever the details.

I hope everyone had the best Christmas (or whatever holiday you celebrate this time of year) ever.

Each year, I am amused (and sometimes panicked) by how quickly my holiday schedule turns from “Plenty of time” (my assessment in the week after Thanksgiving) to “Holy moly!  Where did the time go?” (a not uncommon exclamation when only a few shopping days remain).  Thank goodness for the internet and next-day shipping.

As I noted previously (see December 22, 2012), in past years I have been up late completing my preparations for our holiday celebrations.  In fact, there have been Christmas Eves when I have not gotten to bed until well after one o’clock (which is very late, for me).  More recently, I have made some effort to get more organized and to do less (where possible without sacrificing anyone’s enjoyment) and consequently, have been able to get to bed earlier.

But as exhausting as it is to stay up that late, I wonder if it wasn’t a good thing in at least one way.  At Christmas, I’m still a kid at heart and in my excited state, often find it difficult to get to sleep on Christmas Eve (the opposite problem of Sniffles in the 1940s Warner Bros. cartoon).  Staying up late and being so tired meant that I had much less trouble falling asleep.

Now, I’m in bed sooner but do not necessarily get any more rest.  And as late as I have been awake, I have yet to see Santa’s arrival.