"Cows are my passion. What I have ever sighed for has been to retreat to a farm and live entirely surrounded by cows–and china." Charles Dickens

December 21, 2011

In the Bleak Midwinter

The three deer that we raised from near infancy, before Christmas outside of our home in 2010
(with chicken house behind). Sadly, the deer with the injured leg died on Christmas Day.
The other two are at our neighbor's farm, free to come and go, where the cattle aren't around to scare them.
They have been glimpsed frequently all year and the doe was even seen with twin fauns.
It is warm and balmy here in Kentucky, more mud season, really, and even my original nine chickens, almost three years old, have started to lay eggs again after their long autumnal molt. It hardly feels bleak or even like midwinter! And yet this lovely English carol, by Gustav Holst composed to a poem by Christina Rossetti (1872), is so beautiful that I wanted to share it with you on the Winter Solstice. I have sung it many times in various choirs and it is one of my favorite Christmas carols, its message both simple and profound.

In the bleak midwinter, frosty wind made moan,
Earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone;
Snow had fallen, snow on snow, snow on snow,
In the bleak midwinter, long ago.

Our God, heaven cannot hold Him, nor earth sustain;
Heaven and earth shall flee away when He comes to reign.
In the bleak midwinter a stable place sufficed
The Lord God Almighty, Jesus Christ.

Enough for Him, Whom cherubim, worship night and day,
Breastful of milk, and a mangerful of hay;
Enough for Him, Whom angels fall before,
The ox and ass and camel which adore.

Angels and archangels may have gathered there,
Cherubim and seraphim thronged the air;
But His mother only, in her maiden bliss,
Worshipped the beloved with a kiss.

What can I give Him, poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb;
If I were a Wise Man, I would do my part;
Yet what I can I give Him: give my heart.

A happy Christmas and blessed New Year to you all as this will be my last post of 2011 ~ I think.

You come back when you're ready!


December 17, 2011

I Wonder As I Wander

An old barn on our Kentucky farm, now fallen in completely, that is like an Appalachian manger. 
I'm sorry that we were unable to restore it or even keep it standing as I mourn these old structures.

I know I said I would not post again this month but I have a few free moments and wanted to share the story of my favorite American Christmas carol with you––and this one is truly American in every sense.

When I was a child I was fortunate to be privy to, and ultimately share, my father's musical interests. A Music major at the College of Wooster in Ohio, my father was an interim and occasional organist for many churches in the Akron area for over thirty years until the late 1990s. Music was his true and abiding passion. [His vocation was as a bank branch manager for several decades.]

So picture a suburban living room in the 1960s, a bit drab and beige with some gold tones for good measure, with a stereo hi-fi at one end of it. My father would come home from work, put on an LP record (that's "Long Playing" 33rpm record for you youngsters), still in his white shirt and tie, and often conduct along with the music. Sometimes we'd just listen and he'd interject and share with me what he knew about a particular piece of music. Under his tutelage I was exposed to Bach, Mozart, Chopin, Beethoven, Vierne and the more modern strains of Aaron Copland. From an early age, I learned the individual sounds of the instruments and the complexities of the fugue state. I learned about dissonance and harmony and the joys of a simple melody. [Later on the 1970s there would be the pop tunes from Burt Bacharach, The Carpenters and Herb Alpert & The Tijuana Brass.] I spent my childhood watching him, absorbing the music, begging for favorites to be replayed, and even, when no one was looking, inventing choreography and singing along to popular musicals and the more obscure (Rodgers and Hammerstein's Flower Drum Song, anyone?). I may well have missed my true calling!

For about a month at Christmas the house was filled with the dulcet crooning of Andy Williams, the sonorous bass of Ed Ames and the more raucous singing of Mitch Miller––even the folksy warmth of The Kingston Trio, whose "Last Month of the Year" Christmas album is probably my all-time favorite. [In the 1970s this would be rivaled by the quiet and soulful "Rocky Mountain Christmas" by John Denver.] Even when my father was at work, my mother would play Christmas music to fill our days. The music from their collection of Christmas albums is emblazoned on my soul in that sentimental way that music can muster. It formed the essential soundtrack of our holidays. Sometimes, for reasons both bitter and sweet, it can be painful to hear these albums again (and yes, I have several on CD now).

A scene from Eli's award-winning heirloom manger–built of local cedar and manger people made out of clothespins.

One of the most haunting songs for me was Ed Ames' recording of the Appalachian carol, "I Wonder As I Wander." The lyrics read:

I wonder as I wander out under the sky
How Jesus the Saviour did come for to die
For poor on'ry people like you and like I;
I wonder as I wander out under the sky.

When Mary birthed Jesus 'twas in a cow's stall
With wise men and farmers and shepherds and all
But high from God's heaven, a star's light did fall
And the promise of ages it then did recall.

If Jesus had wanted for any wee thing
A star in the sky or a bird on the wing
Or all of God's Angels in heaven to sing
He surely could have it, 'cause he was the King.

I wonder as I wander out under the sky
How Jesus the Saviour did come for to die
For poor on'ry people like you and like I;
I wonder as I wander out under the sky.

I always knew of its "Appalachian" origins from the liner notes, but only recently learned that it was composed from a Kentucky folk balladeer by the name of John Jacob Niles (1892-1980) from Louisville. [And how would I know while spending childhood Christmases in northeastern Ohio that I would one day be living in Kentucky?]

Niles had heard a woman singing the song in Murphy, North Carolina and set about to record it. Here is more about the history of the song. And here is another choral rendition that isn't bad at all [I believe this arrangement may be from Englishman, John Rutter].

It is such a simple and beautiful carol and I love to hear it as much as my favorite Appalachian hymn, "What Wondrous Love Is This?" (which we sung, as a congregation, at our wedding). Both are written in a minor key so there is a natural sense of haunting melancholy and pondering to heighten the wonderment that is felt in the lyrics to these songs. There is likely even an African American Spiritual origin to the melodies.

Merry Christmas to you all and always remember to enjoy the music ~

You come back when you're ready!


PS. In case you are wondering where the many albums are now, they were donated to the Music Department at the College of Wooster in 2008 in loving memory of my father, James Henry Seiberling. He never discussed with me where he would like them to go but after spending seven years in storage at our house in New Hampshire, and prompted by our move South, I decided that he might have liked that his extensive and eclectic collection remain intact and shared with others. The most obvious choice seemed to be the present and future music students at his alma mater where he gave so generously over the years (and where they would have the state-of-the-art equipment, in a CD world, to play them). I hope that Wooster's music students are enjoying them in musical theory and appreciation courses as much as I did all those years ago in our Ohio living room.

December 1, 2011

At the Holidays, Less Is Always More

In recent years, since our move from New Hampshire, I've kept decoration to a minimum.
This is because so much is still in boxes and because we no longer have nine fireplace mantels!
Over the past few years, the holidays have become all about adjusting my formerly high expectations. Things happen: sickness, busy schedules, invariable moves or life changes. The important thing is to remember, first and foremost, what the holidays are all about: reaffirming our spiritual selves and/or being with family or friends in a relaxed, festive setting and celebrating those relationships. Of course, both aspects are easier said than done. What I've been dealing with, however, these past few years is a good old case of the holiday blahs and the overwhelming bittersweetness of Christmas Past (family departed or no longer near, places gone, a new 'familiar'). So it's been time to revise, rethink and reconsider what the holidays mean to us and how much is realistic these days.

This year I have been planning to sing with the Pleasant Hill Shaker Singers on Saturday, a musical group that I've joined in the past year. Unfortunately, I've had a lingering and rather bad case of a bronchial deal which set in hard after Thanksgiving. So I likely will not be able to sing or even attend, even though I've been looking forward to this for months.

Cookie bakes, like getting together with
friends or family to make and give cookies,
are also a lot of fun. I did this in 2008
with some of my Mennonite friends
[for some recipes that I used: click here].
About six months ago I started planning a Cookie Swap for some friends, from near and far, on our farm here in Kentucky. I invited friends on Facebook, I started making lists, I was even getting ready to send out the real invitations, too. Well, since that time we've realized there will be a big basketball tournament for our oldest son on the same weekend. As we've committed to that sports life for the next several months, and not knowing exactly when his games will be that day (and not wanting to miss them), I can't really plan a big event at the farm that weekend. When I suggested the "snow date" of the following weekend, it was understandably not an option for most everyone as they all have prior commitments: some family from Tennessee couldn't even come up the first weekend, after planning on it for months. Things happen.

In the meantime, the day after Thanksgiving––and planned just as the turkey was roasting––we drove six hours to see an old friend in Akron, Ohio. As Robin pointed out, we have known each other almost 45 years! That's since kindergarten in 1967 at Old Trail School, my friends. We've seen each other, and our families, a handful of times since our high school years but each time it is as if we just pick right up where we left off. There is such a comfort and longevity to our friendship and it truly warmed my heart to see her–and the city where I grew up (and one of the most special places there). It was crazy to do as I was starting to feel the effects of the cough, but had just considered it fall allergy-generated at the time.

Santa Claus and my festive husband at Stan Hywet Hall & Gardens, just last week.

Stan Hywet was built by my great-grandparents
and will celebrate its centennial in 2015.
The other thing we did in Akron on our 36-hour whirlwind was to tour Stan Hywet Hall & Gardens for their annual "Deck the Hall" Holiday extravaganza. If you are near the Akron, Ohio region this holiday, I highly recommend this for a shot of seasonal joy. We've been to this finely preserved museum home many times over the years, but never at the holidays, and we all dressed up and had a blast. The morning before our trip, while getting the Thanksgiving dinner prepared, I figured we'd be spending a "quiet" weekend at home. But were able to do this because of Hilton Honors points that allowed us a free night's stay, the fact that we had to run up north of Columbus at some point before winter weather for a pick-up of some equipment any way, and because we knew this kind of opportunity is slim-to-none. Also, there was a clear and balmy weather window and we could cover our animals for 48 hours through means of feed delivery and shelter.

So the point of all of this is that I've learned––a lot––as a woman of a certain age, of any age: when you make plans, God laughs. But, most of all, I'm learning to embrace the spontaneous, especially at the holidays. It is often doable and very affordable at the same time.

Here are other sure fire and affordable ways to preserving your sanity and making the holidays special for you and your family:

Henry learns how easy it is to make homemade cocoa.
  • Is it snowing out? Stop what you're doing right now, go outside and run around in it, and then make some hot chocolate (it doesn't even have to be homemade, but that's an easy proposition) and pop in a favorite Christmas movie or classic old television program to watch as a family.
  • Record, or watch as a family, the television premiere of the documentary Becoming Santa on December 7 at 9pm on the OWN Network! My old friend Jack Sanderson, who stars in it and wrote it, promises that you might just believe again or at least find some holiday magic. If concerned about younger children viewing the film he says: "We say that the film is not really for anyone who is expected a visit from Santa. That said, when children that believe in Santa have watched, we have explained that Santa has many regional representatives." We can't wait to watch as a family and I've also ordered a few as gifts on Amazon.com ~
  • A pre-Christmas vacation "snow day" from school (and, ideally, your job) is like a gift in itself: take the time to just enjoy your children and don't worry about gift-wrapping or baking or anything else, unless it is something you can, and want to do, all together: make a gingerbread house, make cookies, or just watch movies in your pajamas!
  • Is Handel's Messiah playing in your area? (Most small towns even have a Messiah-sing these days.) Take your family to hear it and you will be filled with the most beautiful holiday music ever written. Better yet, sing along with it, as many allow. It's usually free.
  • Do you want to make cookies but don't want the fuss? Buy some premade cookie dough or a mix, whip up some cookies, and decorate with sprinkles and canned frosting. (Did I just say this? Really!? Mrs. I-Won't-Use-a-Cake-Mix-Catherine? But seriously, it's not about what kind of cookie, it's about the memories made while making it.) 
  • Find a group of friends and go caroling at a local nursing home: it will warm their hearts and also warm yours, free of charge. 
  • Gather up a box of groceries and take them to your local food pantry. They are especially in need this year. Or drop an anonymous basket of goodies on the door step of a neighbor and mark it "LOVE, SANTA."

Watching movies and being cozy by the fire on a New England winter's day.

It's very hard to commit to not giving gifts at the holidays and I know our holidays will never be like that. However, you can modify your expectations whether for economy or sanity. Here are some ideas for easy, affordable gift-giving:

  • Give fewer gifts and limit your list: do you have to give each child in a family a gift? How about a special book or edible gift for the entire family to enjoy?
  • Buy on sale throughout the year or when you see something affordable and "just perfect" for someone. Make a running list, so you don't forget, and hide items in a secret cupboard, or box, in your house (just remember where you put them!). Throughout the year, I also like to pick up quality, fun items for friends when I see them at yard sales or craft fairs or my very favorite haunt: used bookstores.
  • Make creative coupons for special favors or gifts-in-kind, and either print them off your computer or make simple cards (this is especially good for children to do when they have a gift budget).
  • Mail order can be your friend: look for special bargains around the holidays and the latest enticement, free shipping! You're also saving on gas and the hassle of malls.
  • Do you have a special magazine that you enjoy? Support print media and, when renewing your subscription, give one to a friend. Most magazines that we subscribe to are offering 2-for-1 renewal offers now.
  • Make and give something homemade: baked, sewn, knitted, crocheted, crafted or even preserved in your kitchen earlier that summer. [I am planning on raiding my preserve pantry big time––and my homemade vanilla stores! Here's the blog post on how I made it.]
  • If you don't craft yourself, support those who do! You can often find some great holiday decor, floral arrangements and homemade items at local craft fairs and holiday bazaars. You are also supporting local artisans when you do so.
  • This is a postcript: don't forget that my book, The Pantry–Its History and Modern Uses is still available from my website at the affordable price of $16.90, including shipping! I am happy to sign and inscribe (and ship directly) to anyone on your list! It makes a great and affordable gift for the foodie, food historian, or kitchen-lover in your life!

Above all, less is more. Here's an easy step to preserving your time and your mind this December: make a list, or several lists, on a quiet day in November, perhaps even in the afterglow of Thanksgiving, and check them twice. I'm also here to say, from experience, that most of the time as a mother or woman, you just need to give yourself the break that you need at the holidays and unplan. Go ahead. Do it! Take, along the way as my great-grandmother used to say to her children, "the ruthlessness to rest." If you can, take a nap! Above all, get more sleep than you might otherwise take for yourself: whether working or at home with the family. So, above all, don't overschedule. To give yourself chunks of time, first overplan: dream big, then take away. You'll feel liberated when you do.

New Year's Resolution Tea with friends!
Here's how! First, put on the list/calendar those absolutes: meetings, get-togethers, school or church events, and work-related expectations and then add in everything else. Allow yourself the fun of going big–but only at first and only on paper. 

Then ask yourself and consult with your family, especially if there are events that might include them, the following question around each event or activity
  1. Does this event or project enhance the holiday season or add stress to it? 
  2. Is it all family-inclusive and not more individually-based? 
  3. Does it celebrate my family or friends? 
  4. Does it involve a lot of extra planning? 
  5. Is it fun or meaningful, or both? 
  6. Is it something that might wait until January (eg. think New Year's cards/letters or something as simple as an email or Facebook card on-line; even gift-giving and lunch with friends: one of my favorite things to do was a New Year's Resolution Tea with two friends back in New Hampshire–we'd write out our goals, have some goodies, and share gifts)? 
  7. Is it something school or work-related that you really have to be doing? [And believe me, from prior experience, some schools can really pile on the holiday stress with so many extras.]
  8. Above all, if you are completely overwhelmed or have a tight budget (and who doesn't these days?), plan no more than one involved task or event that involves the entire family. 

After going big for a bit––as I'm want to do with any list of goals––cross off those things that don't matter or that perhaps you can do at a later time (or "next year"). Forget about them! Remember this holiday mantra: when in doubt, go small and stay home! Less is always more at the holidays!  

This is one of my favorite Christmas photos of all time: my friend Linda
and her grandson on the Santa Train in Putney, Vermont (and Henry by the window).
This was our annual family holiday event and in 2007 we brought our friends along.

A magical Christmas Eve! (2010)
No one is saying that you have to use all of your holiday decorations, or light up your house like a birthday cake, or get your tree up the day after Thanksgiving after chopping it down at the nearest tree farm, or shop until you drop throughout Black Friday or Cyber Monday or even Shop Local Saturday. You don't even have to make a single Christmas cookie! Your children will find their greatest happiness not by the sweet froth and manic frenzy that we might whip up for them, but by the time we spend with them and by the traditions you make together.

Roast beef and Yorkshire pudding are a Christmas day dinner no matter where we are.

In recent years we'd visit Bamma after Christmas.
Something else to keep in mind: in the old English tradition, Christmas has twelve traditional days of feasting and celebration until Epiphany on January 6th. Meanwhile, Hanukkah, the Feast of Lights, has eight. That's a lot of extra time to stretch things out, so use it! In our house we often do things "on the list" after Christmas: maybe that's when we have friends over for an impromptu dinner, or the boys have a few friends in for a slumber party, or when I sit down to write cards while the boys are happily playing with their new Lego sets (well, "happily" doesn't always last as long as I might like). It is sometimes when we plan a dinner at a restaurant and take in a special blockbuster movie. I might try some new recipes or plan special foods for an at-home New Year's Eve family night. It's also a great time to gather extended family together from further away: perhaps everyone wants to have their own Christmas at home with their immediate family. There is nothing wrong with saying, "let's gather this year between Christmas and New Year's" or, "how about Easter instead?"

This will be our first Christmas without Aunt Cynthia and we'll miss her.

I heard something quite profound on a documentary the other day about hyper-parenting. After mentioning the all-true reality of children only being "with us for so long, and then they're gone, like that," this father said "the more time we spend with our children when they are young, the more time they'll want to spend with us as adults." That was like a slap across the face. Yes, it's not about the perfect holiday: it's about the imperfect life, all bound together with the ones we love, and enhanced by the foods, rituals and traditions we love––for one, hopefully relaxed, month at the end of each year. Above all, do what you love to do and be with the people you love.

And on that note I'm going to keep things simple and make December a blog-free month this year. Yes, that's right. There are many old Christmas and holiday chestnuts over at In the Pantry where you can search the archives at your leisure.

Just keep smiling and remember the wonder of Christmas in a child's face!
In the meantime, happy holidays, a very Merry Christmas, and you come back when you're ready! We'll see you in 2012 ~

NOTE: Readers of this blog may remember this list–of my pre-holiday 'to do' list, written way back in January? Well, I haven't looked at it all year until tonight and surprisingly I've accomplished much of it (except for the big February clean-out and inventory of the boxes and boxes of Christmas decor!) And, because of that task, we have yet to start decorating the house...hopefully this weekend. If not, next. I love to make lists and to plan, but it's all in the execution. Sometimes I just absorb what I write: "so it was written, so it shall be done."

Another tidbit? I have not sent Christmas cards in three years. However, I still have the letters and the photos that I printed out for some of them. Best laid plans... So this year, friends and family will receive at least the cards and photos! I'm using things up and why not well-intentioned Christmas cards that never got written or sent when intended? [Yes, I even have the postage...]

Our Kentucky farm Christmases have been quiet, simple and lovely.
Someday I have plans for a major matriarchy with lots of family gatherings
in 'Catherine's Farmhouse of Dreams.' Build it and they will come!

Here is a link to a blog posting 
about our first Kentucky Christmas.
May your days be merry and bright:
And may all your Christmases be white!
I have lived in many special places over the years, or have been a part of them,
but our house in Hancock will always be 'Catherine's Christmas House of Dreams.'