Archives for posts with tag: gift giving

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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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.

While engaged in elf duty these last few days, I realized that wrapping gifts is a good example of when accepting a less-than-perfect level of “good enough” can be a good thing.  Regardless of the choice of paper and ribbon, the crispness of the folds and the precision of the taping and bow-tying, the wrappings will be torn off and discarded by the gift’s recipient.  Often, in the case of an excited child for example, the opening will be done in a frenzy with little notice paid to anything except, maybe, the gift tag.

This is especially true of stocking stuffers, which in my house are numerous.  If I tried to precisely wrap and ribbon all of the candy, toys, novelties and other tchotchkes that go into our oversized socks, I’d be up all night for a week.  I know because for many years this is exactly what I did and exactly how long it took.  A few Christmases ago, however, I discovered the efficacy of tissue paper.  It is easy to cut and fit around small and often oddly-shaped items and with its soft and crinkly appearance can hide a multitude of taping sins.  Since then, I’ve been getting to bed a bit earlier this time of year.

In some ways, the wrapping and subsequent unwrapping of holiday gifts is similar to the mandala sand paintings created by Buddhist monks.  Packages are assembled (starting with the Black Friday ritual), decorated (albeit with varying levels of care and precision) and arranged under a tree, within stockings or on a table (or some other centralized location) to create an elaborate tableau, a detailed picture of generosity and love.  Then, on Christmas morning (or whatever holiday is being celebrated), the scene is ritually deconstructed as paper and ribbons are torn away and discarded (and aren’t we all excited children in this context?).

But there the similarity ends.  In the Buddhist tradition, the sand would be returned to nature (usually a river or other body of water) to symbolize the impermanence of life.  In our more materialistic culture, the wrappings are discarded (without ceremony) but the goodies remain.