Sunday, December 31, 2006

A German Christmas

There are a bunch of photos in this post, but if you reach the end and are still wishing there were more, I've included a link at the bottom to the Christmas 2006 photo album.

This year we got our very first Christmas tree. We've always spent a lot of time around the holiday visiting family so it never made sense to decorate at all before. It was very special to experience the excitement with Andrew and Elijah as we watched Greg wrestle the 15-foot tree out of the van and up the stairs to set it up in our sun-room.
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Christmas tree photos courtesy of Greg (take photo at slow speed while camera is set up on a tripod, to recreate the light effects seen here.)
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These ornaments were purchased at a Christmas market in Trier that we shopped at a few weeks ago:
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The bells, balls and drops are handpainted and glittery, cream and burgundy. We loved them as soon as we saw them.

This set was bought around the corner, and as soon as I saw the colors I knew that they belonged on our tree:
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See if you can spot Greg in this ornament.
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No? Here, look a little closer:
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This month, I've worked a lot on making this holiday really meaningful for our little family. I discovered just how important that was when our attempt to celebrate Thanksgiving on our own in November ended feeling a bit hollow. From December 1st, I had the boys open a chocolate advent calendar, one day at a time, and told them the story that makes Christmas meaningful to our family; Jesus' birth, etc. We printed out coloring pages that I found online, and stopped often at the large nativity scene displayed in the store window across the street. I also told them about who St. Nicholas/Santa was (I related one of the many stories surrounding his life, where he anonymously gives gifts to an orphanage), since Andrew was asking "what's that guy doing?" about every Santa statue and picture we saw set up in town.

Here in Germany, they celebrate Christmas for three days, and we did the same. On Christmas Eve we ate a light breakfast and the boys opened some gifts.
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Hannah and I then threw ourselves into preparation for one hell of a brunch: fried or scrambled eggs, home-fries (chunks of potatoes fried in butter and a few spices until crispy and cooked through), Schenkin Spek (might be spelling this wrong -- I probably am, but it's sort of the German answer to American bacon, which you can't find here. Very very salty, almost no fat, kind of similar to prosciutto. Pretty much just super thinly sliced cured ham), and cinnamon rolls. Very tasty. Dinner was a light, spicy shrimp stew over basmati (Gourmet recipe).

The next morning, Greg went to pick up my brother Jonathan (Jom) at the airport, and they were back here towards lunchtime. Hannah and I once again cooked like mad, this time all day. Our Thanksgiving meal in November had flopped in several ways, mostly due to the fact that we didn't take into account some German ingredients, and also the size of my oven (for some reason we chose to make a whole lot of baked dishes, and my oven is tiny and has only one rack). For the big Christmas dinner, we decided that we would plan things out as carefully as was humanly possible.

We started by choosing dishes based on the ingredients available to us locally, as well as things that would remind us of home enough to feel traditional. We sourced our family cookbook as well as the Christmas issue of Gourmet for this. Our menu ended up looking like this:
Flank Steak (Grandma's recipe, which is marinated and broiled -- delicious!)
Braised red onions (from Gourmet, and uses fresh Thyme sprigs and apple juice -- ends up coated in this syrupy glaze)
Smashed potatoes (Greg's recipe with dried oregano, tons of sour cream and butter, plenty of salt, and some potato skin throughout)
Cracked Wheat Rolls (Moosewood Celebrates: buttery, slightly sweet, and crunchy with Bulgar -- always a huge hit, no matter who I make them for)
Sweet potato souffle (from our family cookbook -- we have no idea why this is called a souffle when it's actually a casserole of mashed up sweet potatoes with a sugar/pecan crust on top. Hannah made it better than ever by oven roasting the sweet potatoes instead of using canned, and holding back on some of the sugar, which brought out the tuber's earthy flavor.)
Caesar Salad (Our family recipe, modified slightly because we didn't have enough cheese to make it the "right" way, but it ended up tasting even better with all of the rich food we'd been eating)

For dessert I made cranberry cupcakes with Dulce DeLeche frosting (Gourmet recipe), and Hannah made an apple pie. We also had countless dozens of cookies, which we had made for neighbors and friends, but somehow still had too many of.
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(Colorful Rice Crispy Treats, Molasses Crinkles, Fig Swirls, Shortbread-Dolce DeLeche-Chocolate Bars, Chocolate-Hazlenut Crinkles)

We planned out to the minute what time each thing would hit the stove or oven, and shockingly enough, even with all of those different dishes and mostly just the two of us responsible for it all, we pulled it off without a hitch. It was the most fantastic dinner that Hannah and I have ever made, I think, and we got it on the table before 6pm. We were terribly proud of ourselves. (In our family, holiday dinners are usually served rather late, because there's always *something* that needs to be done, or the person responsible for a particular dish isn't being...well, responsible.)
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(Elijah, eating the frosting and pecans off of a cupcake)

After dinner we still had time to eat dessert with the boys, sing some Christmas carols around the piano, watch Andrew and Elijah open the rest of their gifts, and have them call family back home to say "thank-you" and "Merry Christmas".

We put the little people to bed, ladled out mugs of Glu-Wine (spiced, sweet mulled wine, pronounced "vine") which had been warming in a crock pot, and opened the rest of the gifts. The evening was lovely, and I feel like we were all able to enjoy the true spirit of Christmas, as believed by our family.
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(Hannah opens a tiny album I made for her out of a tic-tac tin, sort of similar to Grace's -- sorry, I forgot to get close-ups.)

The next day was relaxed, full of left-overs, new toys, and tons of good conversation. (If you know my siblings and I at all, you will realize that the latter is never difficult to achieve.)

Two days after Christmas, Greg drove Jom and Hannah back to the airport for their flight to Italy, where they will spend the next few weeks before Hannah returns to school and Jom comes back here for another week or so.

The day after they left, with Greg back at work and siblings traveling, I was more aware than ever of my roll as "house-wife", "stay-at-home mommy of toddlers", and "pregnant person". This plunged me down the steep side of an emotional roller-coaster, where I wondered if I was even a real person, and was certain that my identity as "Faith" had been lost entirely. It's rather cool how pregnant hormones can let me feel things so starkly. Oi. Thankfully Greg is amazing, and a good listener. I wrote a bunch in my journal, and was over it in about a day. Now on to New Year!

Still want to see more? Click here for extra photos.

Friday, December 29, 2006


I've just found the most intriguing site. It's terribly interesting and rather voyeuristic, but I'm not sure that's such a bad thing, in this case. Regardless, it's a fascinating project. Check it out: PostSecret

Thursday, December 28, 2006


Two weeks before Christmas, Greg and I took the boys and met our friends, Jeff, CC and their 3-year-old The Other Andrew to Trier. Trier is the oldest city in Germany, and has a beautiful, large market square, which is especially interesting at Christmastime. They have a fascinating history; a comprehensive explanation here. In it's day, the city was known as "The Second Rome", and was an imperial capital of Constantine The Great. Random trivia fact: Trier was the birthplace of philosopher Karl Marx.

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We explored and shopped at the markt platz, stopped to hear street performers play/sing traditional German music, ate fried potatoes and sauteed mushrooms with parsley and mayonnaise (strange, I know, but that's how it was served), took a look at Porta Nigra, and went inside the oldest German church, the gorgeous Dom St. Peter, (also known as Trier Cathedral), where the Holy Robe (thought to be part of Jesus' robe that he wore before he was killed) is enshrined behind the alter. We took a bunch of pictures, which would make this blog rather slow to load, so I am linking to the photo album of our trip instead. I've included comments as the title to each picture; if you have any more questions about what you see there, leave a comment here for me.

I'll blog about the Christmas market at Burg Lichtenberg tomorrow (hopefully), and then finally get to our Christmas celebration here at the House Of Darling. I'm so behind on everything, but since we've got so many great pictures I feel compelled to share all of it with you and not just skip ahead as I am so tempted to do. Enjoy!

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Jingle Bells!

Ok, the podcast is up. Fastforward to minute 43 to hear cuteness.

We're still alive!

Hi everyone! Terribly sorry for the long pause in blogging. (Alicia, I meant to write back to you, but it kept slipping my mind!) I've been crazy busy with Christmas gifts, etc. (Check my fiber arts blog if you're curious -- my family has already opened all of the gifts, so there's no possibility of spoiled surprises at this point.)

We've been to a Christmas market in Trier, a Renaissance festival/Christmas market at the castle in Burg Lichtenberg, Hannah flew in on Saturday and Jom will follow in a few days. I've knit a hat in two days, a pair of socks in three, created several tiny scrapbooks, done digital layouts, and stayed up until 2 in the morning wrapping gifts at least once.

We put up our Christmas tree, bought our very first set of ornaments, and I'm making an unusual tree skirt (sewn, not knit) which I'll post at the fiber arts blog in a few days. Hannah and I are still working on a garland that may or may not be done in time for Christmas.

Hannah and I will be spending the next few days baking like crazy to create gourmet cookie plates for the neighbors and for the Christmas Eve party we'll be attending.

If you just got our Christmas card and the return label says something about GA, please email me and I'll send you the new one. That was a mistake that made Greg oh so happy. ('Twas my fault, but I'm pretty sure it's not the end of the world)

We have tons of pictures from all of the above, and I'll post again when I can.

In the next hour or so my latest episode of my podcast will be up. If you want to hear the most adorable remix of Jingle Bells (courtesy of Andrew and Elijah), fast forward to somewhere around minute 45. (You don't need an iPod or anything else special to listen to a podcast -- just click "listen", and you can listen straight from your computer.)

Much love to all of you, and I hope that everyone is having a wonderful time preparing for the holiday.

Friday, December 01, 2006


It all started with these Advent calendars.
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There is an older lady that we often bump into during our morning excursions. She shops at the same places we do, often at the same time. Right away, she decided to "adopt" the boys, and every time she sees us she tells them things in broken English/German, and buys the boys treats (bananas, chocolates, cookies, whatever).

Today we saw her at the market, then as we were walking back home she caught up to us and asked if we were going into this one whole foods store we usually stop at. I indicated that we weren't; we'd stopped to watch a truck unload some furniture (the wonders of being a toddler's mom -- I get to stop and stare at anything). A few minutes later the lady came back with two advent calendars for the boys. I was so touched. Today is the first of December, and I'd forgotten all about the Advent remembrance. When I was little, several times I remember opening up window after window of a calendar, counting down the days until Christmas, thinking about the Christmas story, and I remember it really meaning something to me.

I have a Greek Orthodox friend in Georgia who has three little children, and as I got to know her, I became so jealous of their beautiful traditions surrounding their religious holidays. There was always something interesting and meaningful going on (including special desserts, crafts, etc.) that the children could actually get a hold of. They were always involved somehow, and that got me thinking about what I could do with Andrew and Elijah.

When we celebrated Thanksgiving with Hannah and her roommate a few weeks ago, something struck me. I had wanted to make it a very special thing -- Hailey had never experienced a Thanksgiving (being Australian, she'd never had the opportunity), and Andrew was finally old enough to understand it a little. Also, this would be our first real Thanksgiving on our own. Instead, it ended up being a dinner, dressed up food, dressed up us. But somehow the real meaning seemed to be lost. I thought of it all too late, but I began remembering the next day all of the little traditions that I've read over the years of how other families celebrate.

In my family growing up, there always seemed to be a general understanding of what the holidays were about (the major ones that we happen to celebrate: Easter, Thanksgiving, Christmas), which was probably due to the fact that my parents have taken the time to carefully teach us over and over the stories attached to the events, and how it's more than just Getting Together For A Huge Meal. However, we've kind of just fallen into traditions, like, the night before Christmas we usually read the Christmas story. On Easter, my Dad usually prays something about how we're thankful for the sacrifice that Jesus made for us as he blesses the food before we eat. On Thanksgiving, we....well I can't really remember what we do, but we do something. Everything that we do is very organic, grown out of the entire family's view and feelings towards that particular holiday, and everything that we do leaves me with that warm, special feeling I've come to expect around those times. As it turns out, when you take several of us out of the family gathering and set us off by ourselves, those organic things don't happen. Obvious, I suppose, but kind of an interesting discovery.

Greg's family has rather universal (by that I mean that I've heard/read that a lot of people do what they do), planned traditions like their Christmas Eve thing, which involves singing Christmas carols (interestingly and kind of endearingly always the same ones, although a formal list is never chosen ahead of time -- probably because the same people pick the same ones each year "on a whim"), having communion together, and reading the Christmas story from the Bible. On Thanksgiving they do something too, although once again, the tradition escapes me (reading selected portions from the Bible? Not sure.), and that particular one is shared among all the uncles, aunts and cousins at the grandparents house. Easter always includes a massive egg hunt, put on by the uncles, aunts and older cousins. These traditions also do not suit us -- not because there's anything wrong with them, but because they don't mean anything to us outside of the setting they were previously experienced in. If we tried to recreate them ourselves, one or more of us would end up feeling silly.

It is very important to me, however, that Andrew begins to understand the meaning of the holidays we celebrate. What is the point, otherwise, of getting a pretty tree, giving him tons of gifts, and eating rich food, if it is experienced devoid of any context? He has absolutely gotten his arms around the fact that people will be sending him lots of stuff in the next few weeks that he'll be able to open at some point. This excites him to no end, and has given him a terrible case of the "gimmies". You'd think that he was a spoiled rotten child by the way he talks about it. But I realized that it's totally my fault. I haven't given him any other way to think about Christmas.

This is the long way of saying that I have decided to begin to institute some of our very own traditions. I've always scoffed at the idea of singing "Happy Birthday Jesus" on Christmas, because it seemed so shallow, but the other day I was explaining to Andrew how Christmas is not about getting gifts (although he will get many), but it's about celebrating Jesus' birthday and the fact that he lived such a wonderful life for us. Andrew immediately announced that we'd be singing Happy Birthday and blowing out candles. If it helps him understand it, and celebrate in the true spirit of Christmas, than Happy Birthday Jesus it is. There won't be a cake, of course, because we all hate cake, but it'll be in something else sweet and very special (to us).

The Advent calendar has presented another tradition idea that I intend to keep, and expand on. Before the boys took their naps, I allowed them to open the first window, making sure they understood that it was a Very Special Thing that we will be doing once a day as a countdown to Christmas day. As it turns out, each day has a tiny chocolate with a symbol on it. Today was a candle. They ate it gladly. After naps, we'll cuddle on the couch and read part of the Christmas story out of Andrew's Bible, and I'm going to print off some "Advent coloring pages" off the internet for them to decorate. We'll do similar things each day (I've found some crafts and stuff -- Google "Advent coloring pages crafts" and you'll find a bunch of such), following naps, so that they will begin to learn the story attached to this holiday, and maybe even start to grasp a little bit of the meaning and the specialness behind it.

I'm not sure yet what we'll do on the actual Christmas day; here in Germany, they actually celebrate officially for three days, from the day before to the day after, and that sounds nice to me. Greg will have off from work, so it'll probably happen naturally anyway, but I plan to have actual "things" going on each day, big or small. I'll let you all know about what we decide to do as the plans develop...I've got a few more ideas floating around in my head, and I want to talk with Greg about it more.

I hope that none of what I have written insinuates that the other traditions we've experienced are silly, innapropriate or devoid of meaning. It's just that, as our own little family is growing, we need to find things that mean something to us when we practice it on our own. I cannot stress this point enough, because I know that holiday traditions are something that are often very dear to the heart, and special to the memory.

For now, enough with the serious and the long. Let's look at a little bit of cute, shall we?

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Eating cookies and cold sausages on a bench. Lunch in Germany at it's finest.

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Elijah, ever prepared, has his umbrella up in case of rain (it was cloudy when we left and they were crabby, so everyone got umbrellas, and everyone smiled).

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The boys get these brightly colored eggs from the Egg Lady every Friday at the market. Elijah gets confused about things...before I noticed today, he'd already eaten half the egg, with shell. I managed to remove some from his mouth, but he definitely swallowed some.