A Little Yule Cheer, Day 11: Small Pleasures, the First Half of Advent 2021

The past several months have been complicated for me, as I’m sure they have been for almost every human being on the planet. Life is like that. Really good things are mixed in with the rotten. It can be so easy to give into the negative parts and lose track of all the goodness and blessings that come our way every single day. For a long time now, I’ve tried to pay attention to the experiences that bring my heart joy in the midst of living this messy life. Because I’m trying to be intentional about enjoying the Christmas experience this year, my list today focuses mostly on that theme.

Small Pleasures: First Half of December 2021

  • Working through John Piper’s advent devotional An Indestructible Joy with Jay and Aaron. We are finding some of Mr. Piper’s writings to be over the top, which has generated a fair amount of laughter and silliness. With my twenty year old son, I’ll take it where I can get it, even if it means being disrespectful to a beloved theologian.
  • Spending time with Julia at Longwood Gardens’ Christmas displays. We overused the word “magical” to describe our experience.
  • Sipping Starbuck’s hot chocolate and listening to Chris Botti’s Christmas album on the way to work. Talk about feeling mellow. I was so relaxed when I got to campus, I practically melted out of the car.
  • Stumbling across Nora Jones’s live concert at the top of the Empire State Building on Youtube. (I mentioned this yesterday).
  • Learning to crochet. There is something about the focus, the feel of the yarn, and the repetition of stitches that I find soothing. It’s both mindful and mindless at the same time, which seems to be a good combination for me.
  • Watching Christmas movies with Jay. So far we’ve watched Holiday Inn and The Polar Express. White Christmas, A Muppet Christmas Carol and Christmas Vacation are still on the docket along with any other movies that catch our fancy.
  • Seeing Santa riding a fire truck. Every year our local fire department decorates all their trucks and drives through the neighborhood, sounding the sirens and blasting Christmas music. Santa is always waving from one of the rigs, too. The kids (and dogs) in the neighborhood love it and so do I!
  • Pisco-jitos at El Serrano. El Serrano is a wonderful Peruvian restaurant in Lancaster. The mojitos there are made with Peruvian brandy called Pisco. Who knew Pisco makes mojitos the best I’ve ever had.

Now that I’ve started thinking about it, I feel like I could go on and on with small pleasures. No matter how much hard stuff I have to wade through in this life, it doesn’t take me very long to find the good stuff if I make the effort to look. Do you have any small pleasures you’d like to share? Please do!

A Little Yule Cheer, Day 10: Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas by Nora Jones

My favorite secular Christmas is song is Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas. And, one of my all-time favorite musicians is Nora Jones. I wish I had the laid back ease at the piano that she does. And her voice! – what I wouldn’t give to be able sing like her. Last Christmas, Nora posted a casual video singing Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas and it is, in my humble opinion, a perfect interpretation of the song.

Nora has a new Christmas album out this year and it’s drenched in her signature jazzy/bluesy/folksy style. To promote the album, she did a live mini concert on Youtube from the top of the Empire State Building yesterday evening. If you have a few spare minutes, take the time to watch it. (The concert starts around 4:25). Nora is a pleasure to watch and her music will fill you with holiday cheer.

A Little Yule Cheer, Day 9: What Christmas Is All About

I am having the type of week that turns a person into a frazzled, exhausted Scrooge. The causes for my rotten week aren’t necessarily related to this holiday season, but they certainly impact my attitude toward it. Preparing for Christmas, with all its associated activities, becomes just one more stressor in an already overloaded life. Maybe you, like me, need a gentle reminder of the why of Christmas, the soul of the celebration beneath all the superficial trappings. Linus, in his simple wisdom, hits the nail on the head…

This was the reminder I needed. Thank you, Linus!

A Little Yule Cheer, Day 8: Sweet Little Strawberry Shortbread Cookies

(One of the ideas I shared in yesterday’s post about creating holiday cheer was to make a favorite Christmas recipe. If you don’t have a favorite recipe or you’re looking for something a bit different from the standard Christmas offerings, you’ve come to the right place. I’m bringing out and dusting off another cookie recipe I posted for the first time 10 year ago (can that possibly be true?). These beauties are fussier than my normal cookie choices, but they are delicious and worth all the effort. So, put on some Christmas tunes, gather your ingredients, and whip up some Christmas deliciousness.)

Most of my cookies, regardless of the final result, begin with the same reassuring formula.  Combine dry ingredients and set aside.  Cream softened butter and sugar until pale and fluffy.  Add eggs, one at a time, along with the flavorings.  Gradually stir dry ingredients into the butter mixture until well incorporated.  Finally, fold in nuts, chips, fruit, etc.  To me, these are the simple, tried and true steps for cookie-making magic.

The other day I was yearning to bake some cookies.  My classes were finally finished for the semester and I had some time on my hands.  I considered all the standards I usually make this festive time of year – chocolate, snickerdoodles, molasses spice, peanut butter kiss, gingerbread, soft sugar.  Nothing inspired me.  My lack of enthusiasm for the usual led me on a hunt through the piles of books and magazines filled with cookie recipes I’ve been stockpiling over the years.  (I wonder, is recipe hoarding an illness?)

In the 2007 edition of Better Homes and Gardens Christmas Cookies publication, a shortbread recipe caught my eye.  I’d never made shortbread before and it seemed like it would be a fun challenge.  Besides, the cookies in the magazine photo looked so adorable, I couldn’t resist.  This recipe took me far from my comfort zone.  Freeze the butter?  No eggs??  Knead the dough???  I don’t need my Kitchenaid mixer?!  Very scary stuff, I’m telling you.  However, after taking the plunge, I can confidently say that there is more than one way to bake cookie magic in my kitchen.

These cookies are definitely worth the extra fussing.  Their subtle strawberry sweetness and tender shortbread texture make them pop-in-your-mouth yummy.  The bonus – they’re pretty enough for very special occasions.  At my house, a true test of a cookie’s deliciousness is how quickly it disappears.  All seventy some cookies were gone in less than 48 hours.  Now that is magic!

Strawberry Shortbread (originally printed in Better Homes and Gardens Christmas Cookies, 2007)

2 tablespoons strawberry preserves (I used my homemade strawberry jam)

1 cup butter, softened

1/2 teaspoon almond extract

2 2/3 cup all-purpose flour

1/2 cup granulated sugar

1/8 teaspoon salt

Strawberry Glaze

Coarse sugar (optional)

1. Snip large pieces of fruit in the strawberry preserves.  Beat butter, preserves, and almond extract in a large bowl with an electric mixer on medium speed until well blended.  Transfer butter mixture to a sheet of plastic wrap; shape into a six-inch log.  Wrap and freeze for 1 to 2 hours or until firm.

2. Preheat oven to 325 degrees F. Stir together flour, granulated sugar, and salt in a large bowl.  Add butter mixture. Cut butter into flour mixture with a pastry blender ubtil mixture starts to cling together.  Knead dough until smooth; form dough into a ball.

3. Divide dough in half.  Roll each portion of dough to 1/4-inch thickness on a lightly floured surface.  Cut out dough rounds with a scalloped 1 1/2 to 2-inch cookie cutter.  Place cut-outs 1 inch apart on ungreased cookie sheets.

4. Bake in a pre-heated oven for 12 to 16 minutes or until edges just start to brown.  Transfer cookies to wire racks and cool completely.  Spread tops with Strawberry Glaze; if desired, sprinkle with coarse sugar.  Let stand until set.  Makes about 54 two-inch cookies or seventy-six 1 1/2-inch cookies.

Strawberry Glaze

Microwave 1 tablespoon of strawberry preserves in a medium microwave-safe bowl on 50 percent for 30 seconds or until melted; snip any large pieces in the preserves.  Stir in two cups of powdered sugar and 1 tablespoon of milk using a wire whisk.  Stir in additional milk, 1 teaspoon at a time, to make a smooth glaze of spreading consistency.  Makes about 2/3 cup.

I made a few changes to the original recipe when I baked up my batch.  Instead of the preserves, I used homemade strawberry freezer jam.  I also substituted vanilla extract for the almond variety – I’m not a big fan of almond flavoring.

The process of cutting in the butter and turning the mixture into a kneadable dough takes some time and muscle.  Just be patient and don’t be afraid to get your hands dirty.  Whenever I wasn’t working with the dough, I kept it cold in the fridge.  I rolled each half of the dough out only twice to keep the cookies from getting tough.  With a 1.5 inch scalloped cookie cutter, I made about seventy-five cookies.  I’m sorry I don’t have an exact number; I began counting after I had already eaten several directly from the hot cookie sheets.  Finally, for the glaze, I used at least two tablespoons of milk to create the desired spreading consistency.  There was more then enough glaze to cover the entire batch – even the ones I ate right out of the oven, had they actually lasted that long.

A Little Yule Cheer, Day 7: Easy Ways to Bring Some Christmas Spirit Into Your December

In the midst of the craziness that is December 2021, it may be difficult to find any excitement or joy in the preparation for Christmas. We can get so caught up in the stresses of life and the busyness of the season that we forget to take time to enjoy the very things that make this time of year so special. Today, I’m offering a list of inexpensive and accessible activities and practices that encourage us to slow down and practice mindfulness, subsequently opening our eyes and our hearts to the magic of this Christmas season.

Listen to Christmas music throughout your day, in whatever style makes you happy. Classical or classic. Vintage or pop. Trans-Siberian Orchestra or Chris Botti. It doesn’t matter as long as it gets you in the Christmas spirit.

Engage in a daily advent meditation or take time to work through an advent calendar. Those few quiet minutes each day will give you an opportunity to reflect on what and why you are celebrating and will help to build anticipation for the arrival of Christmas day.

Watch a favorite Christmas movie/show or two or a Hallmark Christmas romance. At my house, must-see movies include White Christmas, A Muppet Christmas Carol, and National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation.

Make some handmade decorations for your home or your tree. My kids enjoyed stringing popcorn, but there are so many fun crafts to consider. Make paper chains, cut out snowflakes, bake gingerbread ornaments. It doesn’t have be to time-consuming or expensive, just fun.

Take time to turn on the Christmas tree lights and enjoy the ambiance. December can be such a hectic time of year that we often forget to be still and live in the moment. Sitting beside a twinkling tree in the evening is a wonderful way to unwind. It’s even better if you get to do it with someone(s) you love.

Add a hot beverage to the above experience. The beverage of choice doesn’t matter – hot chocolate, London Fog, spiced cider, mulled wine, whatever – as long as you love it and you savor it.

Make a favorite Christmas recipe. Sharing the finished creation with others bumps this activity up a holiday cheer notch or two.

Take an evening walk and enjoy the neighbors’ Christmas lights. Free and healthy. It’s a win/win.

Light an aromatic candle. Or simmer fragrant fruits and spices on the stove. Scent is a powerful mood booster. Use your favorite Christmas scents to enhance your mood and enjoyment of this most wonderful time of the year.

Work on a Christmas themed puzzle. I realize puzzles aren’t for everyone. If you do enjoy puzzles, though, working on one with a Christmas scene is a relaxing way to focus on the holiday. My husband and I just completed a puzzle with sugar cookies decorated like Christmas sweaters as the theme. It was so much fun!

Read a Christmas novel, a compilation of short stories, or a non-fiction work. Any book with a Christmas focus or setting will do. Pick a genre you like to read and spend some quality time in someone else’s Christmas story.

Or, read some children’s Christmas books. I dare you to remain Scroogy after reading Claude the Dog: A Christmas Story or Who’s That Knocking on Christmas Eve or Who’s Coming to Our House?

Find a way to help others. Volunteer at a non-profit organization. Purchase toys for under-privileged children. Financially support your favorite charities. Nothing generates Christmas spirit like generously giving your time, talents and treasure to others.

Attend church services Sunday mornings in December. The songs and sermons will keep the focus on the reason we celebrate Christmas. You never know – you may learn something new about the Christmas story that could change your perspective on the holiday or on your life.

Attend a Christmas Eve service. Spending time focusing on the miraculous birth of Christ is the very best way to grow some Christmas spirit. The worship experience is also excellent preparation for the celebration of Christmas Day.

Try one suggestion. Or try them all. I’d love to know if anything worked for you. I’ve only touched on a sample of all the ways to enjoy this holiday season. If you have any other suggestions, please share those in the comments, too.