Once Within a Lowly Stable

And on that day, Joseph did bring Mary forth on a donkey.

It was hard to get that donkey to go towards Bethlehem . . .

. . . even when Joseph tried to bribe it with treats.

Even when Joseph commanded the donkey to repent.

Eventually Joseph and Mary did come forth unto an inn, but Lo!  There was no vacancy!

The innkeeper suggested they go unto the stable.

So they did.

Mary was exceedingly brave to ride sidesaddle on a donkey for so long.

Joseph shooed the livestock away.

Meanwhile, there were shepherds in the same country, abiding in the fields and saying, “Hey look!  Real sheep!”

There were also babes in sheep’s clothing.

Who were cute despite being false sheep.

An angel of the Lord did come down, and said “Fear not!” but it was rather fearful anyway and the shepherds did quake.

Meanwhile, the babe was born in the stable, and Mary smiled despite how shivery cold it was.

Then the shepherds did sidle on over, and Lo! did everyone smile forth for the camera.

Merry Christmas, One and All!


Cookie Day & Christmas Village

My kids have no school this week, and boredom isn’t an option.  Fortunately, there is a wonderful grandma in our life who is more than willing to let her grandkids trash her kitchen.

Jeffrey: expert cookie cutter

William: supreme dough roller

Eleanor: takes on any and all flour-sprinkling duties

June: absolute best at smiling for the camera

We made this many cookies.  Lo, the sugar rush was great in size.

To shake off the sweets, my mom and I took my kids to Ogden’s Christmas Village afterwards.  For those of you not in the know, this is a series of miniature cottages, decorated inside with holiday-themed dioramas.

Some of the cottages have little nooks especially designed for children to climb and explore.  Others have buttons to push for special effects (like an animatronic Santa waving his robot arm, etc.).  We were there early in the day, so my kids didn’t have to compete to see the special effects.

I loved this “Hansel and Gretel” house, although I’m not sure if my kids recognized the story.

My mom and I really liked this scene of snowmen at a lunch counter.  The snowman on the center stool foolishly ordered hot chili and, as you can see, has melted, much to the dismay of his friends.

The children’s favorite was a house showing a nutcracker workshop.  There were probably over a hundred nutcrackers on display in the little house — so fun for playing “I Spy.”  Thanks again, Mom, for a lovely winter day out!

And EVEN MORE Saints and Angels Sing

In my family, this is when Christmas really begins:

This is our ward Primary’s nativity pageant.  This year featured a very nervous Angel Gabriel:

A cow with sideways horns (my mom said, “Hey, there could have been a unicorn in the stable, right?”):

Three kings who couldn’t stop smirking:

Best of all, there was an adorable singing angel Eleanor:

A happy shepherd Jeffrey (he’s to the right of the kid with glasses):

And a sweet star William.

During the performance, poor William was stuck in the glare of the spotlight, so he looked like this:

Don’t nobody scowl like Wimmy.  But he was cheered up afterwards with one of these beautiful angel cookies:

Trust me, they tasted as good as they look.  They were made by a lady somewhere on the other side of town who bakes and sells custom sugar cookies out of her home.  SO IMPRESSIVE.  Brian and I bit the wings off first, to make them “ecclesiastically correct” angels.  Eleanor said she liked them because “they look just like me!”  You be the judge:

Best of all, all of the grandparents were there to watch.  Shoulder rides from grandpas are very important, especially if you’ve worked hard at memorizing the words to “The First Noel.”

And Saints and Angels Sing

Here in Salt Lake, the hottest holiday ticket in town is for the Christmas on Temple Square concert.  It’s free, but do dadgum popular that the tickets are issued via an online lottery.  This year over a million people entered.

Brian and I didn’t win, but our friends James and Laura did (er, rather, Laura’s dad won, but passed the tickets on to his daughter), and they invited us!

Whee!  A big, spectacular musical extravaganza!  This is what it looked like:

Big, brassy and sassy.  There’s the big choir, and and orchestra and a handbell choir (who, bless them, wore the dorkiest vests imaginable.  They made my heist-movie gloves look positively stylish).  Also featuring: the most modest dancewear money can buy!

Yup, the theme was “Christmas Stories,” which somehow translates to “Renaissance Faire Folke.”  Hence, a stage decorated to look like a castle, and heralds playing trumpets, etc.  I did think a line was crossed when a guy in chain mail started doing ballet.

But, whatever.  The choir (along with Jane Seymour) did a lovely “story-behind-the-story” monologue/choral arrangement of “Good King Wenceslas,” which is one of my favorite carols.  Brian and I did have a bit of a snicker when we noticed that the choir changed a line in one of the verses.  Instead of “bring me flesh and bring me wine,” they sang, “bring me flesh and fruit so fine.”

So, now “fruit so fine” is our codeword for any kind of alcoholic drink.  (“Dude!  That guy on the corner totally reeks of fruit so fine!”)

Believe it or not, though, my favorite part of the evening was just hanging out with our friends James and Laura.  It’s been ages since I’ve been on any kind of double date, and it was plain old fun to sit and chat while waiting for the concert to begin, and stroll through Temple Square before and afterwards.   If you’re reading this, J&L, thank you again so much!  It was just the right amount of holiday cheer to get me through a very busy, stressful week.

Kentucky Fried Tree

Brian’s parents asked if we would bring our kids down to help them decorate their Christmas tree.  We were more than happy to oblige.  Here’s what it looked like at the start of the process:

You can see exactly how high the kids can reach — look at how all the ornaments are clustered together.  Distribution improved once the grownups got involved:

Cute, eh?  I enjoyed finding ornaments that had Brian’s baby pictures on them.  He was a really cute chubby baby and yes, William pretty much looks exactly like him.

Brian’s family has a tradition of putting some odd unusual object on top of the tree.  This year, my kids nominated Colonel Sanders.  Some of you may remember him from the Ugly Lamp Party:

I tied a ribbon around his neck to attach him to the tree, and we decided to say that the loops on the bow were his “angel wings.”  (Maybe Buffalo Angel Wings?)  It’s Finger Lickin’ Good!

Sweets & Treats Reprised

Last year, the women in my family attended the Santa’s Tea Party at the Grand America together and enjoyed it SO much (scones!) that we decided to do it again this year.


From left to right: Katie, Eleanor, June, and Emmaline.  Ready, set, tea par-tay!

Emmeline spent a good amount of time on Grandma’s lap:

And naturally Kathryn and Katherine were also party buddies:

I was buddies with the food:

NOM NOM NOM.  I am a total sucker for teeny sandwiches.  You can pretty much get me to do anything for a sandwich the size of a postage stamp, so think of the possibilities if you had a sandwich the size of a football!

Even the children’s sandwiches were cute.  This is a fancy pb&j idea that I have to steal:

Orders of hot chocolate came with little cappuccino cups of whipped cream:

This was all fine and good, but what Eleanor was really interested in was meeting Santa Claus.

Katie came along with her, and we were worried she would cry, but instead she was far more interested in getting Santa’s beard.

Meanwhile, dessert:

I was in heaven.  My mom was of the opinion that it wasn’t as good as last year, but I suspect that was mainly because my sister and her children weren’t able to come (they are awaiting a new baby brother back in Pittsburgh).

However, pates des fruits and citrus madelines did do a little something to assuage the pain of missing Liz.  Eleanor was completely satisfied afterwards:


Lights! Camera! Action!

Here’s the secret to successfully visiting Temple Square at Christmastime:

  • Go early in the month
  • Go on a weeknight
  • Get there before 7 pm, to avoid hordes of youth groups (bless them, but they obliviously walk through family groups and kids get lost)
  • Avoid snowy days
  • Hats, gloves, scarves.  And a big ol’ bunting for baby.
  • If you’re lucky, you’ll have all the above factors and there will warm-ish temperatures, too.

Comparing this year’s visit to last year’s, I must also say that not being 7 mos. pregnant also increases the quality of the visit.

Smaller crowds were definitely a plus.  This was the first year the kids have been able to see the automated “Nativity” program that plays every 20 minutes or so. Usually the audience is massive and impossible to penetrate.  The kids were wowed, especially when they projected a star on the side of the Tabernacle.  Hey, you would be too, if you were six!

Smaller crowds also meant I had time to take a shot of this cool luminary.  It’s made of die-cut metal, and there were several, all depicting scenes from the life of Christ.

Eleanor noticed the seagull statue next to the Assembly Hall:

I used the moment to tell the story of the “Miracle of the Seagulls,” but didn’t mention that the Seagull Monument was the world’s first public statue commemorating bird heroism.  And if birds get to sit on statues of human heroes, shouldn’t humans get to sit on statues of bird heroes?

Dashing in and out of the various buildings on the square does wonders for numb fingers and toes.  Jeff was miffed that we didn’t stay to do some impromptu family history research.

It was beautiful, although I must admit that my favorite part was the walk to and from the car.  We parked next to City Creek Park, and all the man-made “streams” and “ponds” had been drained for the winter.  The kids went wild with running in and out of the dry stream beds and dashing under the bridges.  Adorable.

Last tip for a successful trip: lots of cream on top of the hot cocoa afterwards!

Festival of Sneeze

It’s actually the Festival of Trees.  But the convention center was so packed that I truly feared being sneezed upon.  I didn’t look at the trees so much as stand in a line and shuffle past them.

For those of you not in the know, SneezeFest is a fundraiser for Primary Children’s Medical Center.  People decorate Christmas trees and donate them to the festival.  Rich people buy them.  Money is raised for a good cause and all is well.

Some people get creative with the trees, and the results are adorable.  There was a Pooh tree . . .

Later, a Coca-Cola polar bear tree.  (A tribute not just to a product but a specific ad campaign for that product)

The children were especially taken by this little Lego tree . . .

. . . we found the Angry Birds tree amusing . . .

. . . and I loved the Barbie tree mainly because it gave up all pretense of tree-hood.  It’s just a conical pile of boxes.

Eleanor’s expression in the above photo pretty much sums up our attitude towards the evening: basically good but kinda overwhelming.  After seeing 100+ trees you get tree-blindness, and everything becomes a blur of twinkle lights.  Add to that the gingerbread houses, wreaths, candy shoppe, craft booths, live entertainment, and a children’s game area, and, well.

I’m exhausted just writing about it.

Special thanks to my mother-in-law, Kathryn, for coming with us!  I don’t think I could have survived without the extra adult to herd the kids.  It’s been ten years since I’ve been to Festival of Trees, and I think it will be another ten more before I go again.  Beautiful and fun, but whew!

Christmas With Bells On

It isn’t too late to write about the holidays, right?

I spent much of this past Christmas season lifting dumbbells.  Or, rather, these:

English handbells!  Owing to an out-of-the-blue phone call from a family I knew in high school (but hadn’t had contact with for 15 years), I became part of a handbell choir in late October.  The bells are owned by Steve and Renee, who lived in Virginia back when I did, but have since retired and moved to Sandy.  For decades, Steve has hauled out his bells every holiday season and rounds up a bunch of music enthusiasts to practice and play carols here and there.  I was part of his bell choir when I was a teenager and absolutely adored it.  It was thrilling to have the chance to play them again.

Each member of the choir is assigned two bells and its accompanying accidentals.  My job was to mind the bass E and F — two of the heaviest bells, hence the name “dumbbells” — which were assigned to me because I can read bass clef.  The clappers of each bell are held silent by a rubber “spring” (I think you can kind of see it in the picture.)  That way, the bell only makes sound when the ringer flicks his or her wrist hard enough to overcome the spring, allowing for accurate note-playing.  To silence the bells, you hold them against your chest, which means I had two little sore spots just below my breastbone after the first rehearsal.

The bells are made of brass, which can tarnish easily if they are touched often, so everyone wears little white cotton gloves during rehearsals and performances.  It always made me feel like a magician ready to pull a rabbit out of something.

It’s fun to play something so percussive, especially with all the various techniques we use to achieve different sounds out of the bells.  Bells are shaken, hit with mallets, muted with thumbs, swung up and down, waved back and forth, plucked, “marked” — this is when you slam the bell down on a table covered with foam to make a staccato — and “mark-lifted,” where you slam the bell down and then immediately lift it to make a kind of pluck-echo.  My favorite technique that I got to do involved ringing the bell, and then gently brushing it against the table in circles, making a kind of dinnnnng-wing-wing-wing sound.

My favorite performace of the season was on Christmas Eve.  We played for a community sing-in at the “rock church,” an old LDS chapel just west of the state Capitol buliding.  The chapel is old-fashioned and lovely, with a high arched ceiling delicately edged with swirls of gilding and paintings of flowers.  People from the neighborhood (as well as the “bell choir groupies,” as our families were called) came in street clothes to sing carols and hear the bells.  Afterwards, we all got to drink cider.  In the choir, you have to wear all black for performances (thank heavens it’s easy to find maternity shirts in that color) and one of the other choir members handed out little crocheted pins that looked like Christmas wreaths that she had made for us.

My entire family was able to be there, excepting my sister, whose daughters hadn’t been feeling well that day.  My stand partner, Mike, and I had fun pointing out our families’ various teenage hairstyles to each other.  (His son is fifteen and lanky; my brother is fifteen and has a wicked ‘fro.)  Eleanor was excited to sing the two or three carols that she had learned in church this year, and I could hear her little voice singing out loud and clear.

Afterwards, Jeffrey held my hand as I helped carry whatever lightweight choir-related objects I could out to Steve’s truck.  He was both excited and hushed at the same time, in that way that can somehow only be accomplished on Christmas Eve.  It was a wonderful evening.

The Most Photographed Christmas Pageant Ever

My ward has a tradition of putting on a children’s Nativity pageant the Sunday before Christmas.  It’s something that always makes me want to get down on my knees and personally thank the Primary presidency for.  Nothing makes me feel the true Christmas spirit like this little 30-minute presentation. My mother-in-law, my parents, and my brother Alex all drove to see it.  My parents declared afterwards that the pageant is “when Christmas really begins.”

Jeffrey was a shepherd.  He’s always been a shepherd, and will probably be a shepherd until the day he turns 12 and is deemed to big for the program.  He actually sang some of the songs this year, which is a big step for him.  (He knows all the songs; he usually just kinda freezes in front of an audience and does nothing.  But not this time!  Hooray!)

Eleanor was a sheep.  She was asked to come dressed in “animal colors” — black, brown, grey, or white — and was near despair when she couldn’t find white pants in her dresser drawer.  Eventually, we were able to convince her that khaki would be okay.

Two of my Wolf Scouts got to sing a small-group song with a pair of girls, and I pointed them out to my mom.  She said, “Yes, it’s funny how fast you grow attached to them, isn’t it?”  I replied that my scouts were pretty easy to get attached to.

The kids sang sweetly, and there was only one small moment when someone forgot their lines.  I highly suspect that the kid who played the “drummer boy” had his lines taped to the edge of his drum.  And the Angel Gabriel blew a retractable trumpet that looked an awful lot like a vuvuzela.  All in all, a most excellent program.

Afterwards, there were star-shaped sugar cookies, which made William rather happy.

The center of the refreshments table had this sweet little stable made out of gingerbread.  See how they used pepitas for the roof and dried oatmeal for snow?  My mom and I want to try this out next year.  I have a whole box of animal cookie cutters I inherited from Brian’s grandma.  Mmmm, gingerdonkeys and gingerpigs!  Can’t wait.