Wednesday, December 22, 2010

A few lessons from the Grinch

I spent all night tonight wrapping Christmas presents and baking cookies. I got really into it and blasted my Christmas music and danced around a bit (something anyone who knows me will tell you I love to do)! When all was said and done, I had a stack of neatly wrapped presents and a couple of plate fulls of Pecan Puffs. Needless to say, I was in the Christmas Spirit tonight--when I went into the bathroom to finally start getting ready for bed, I noticed powdered sugar on my cheek...and in my hair.

I am really excited for Christmas this year, maybe more than I have ever been. This year, I get to travel to California and see my family for Christmas. Even better than that: I get to have TWO Christmases, one here in Germany on Dec. 24th with my wonderful German family and one in California on Dec. 25th. I get to spend two Christmases with two families I absolutely love. I couldn't be more grateful or feel more blessed.

No matter how excited I am for this Christmas, however, there is one thing I am still absolutely sick of and that is shopping. I am tired of trying to find the perfect gift, trying not to spend too little and not to spend too much. I am tired of trying things on to test the size. I am tired of slushing around in the snow carrying plastic bags filled with gifts. I just want to put the idea of gifts in the garbage! I am so happy to see the people I love. I feel so blessed at everything this year has given me. I want to bask in the warm glow of this Christmas. So why, oh why, must I give gifts and be stressed about gifts (wrapping them is the only fun part!).

Yesterday I had my very last lesson of the season with an adorable little girl who I love to teach. We had a Christmas party together, complete with homemade hot chocolate, Lebkuchen, Dominosteine, and candy canes. And we watched a movie, in English of course. The movie we watched was the recent version of "The Grinch that Stole Christmas" (with Jim Carrey). I had never seen it but I loved the theme of the movie (I had never read the Dr. Seuss book either).

In it, the Grinch sets about to ruin Christmas and encounters a little girl who is turning into a non-believer herself. The girl feels disconnected from and uninspired by Christmas. Her entire town is completely wrapped up in the extravagance of it. They buy presents, decorate their houses, have delicious feasts while barely having time or energy for each other. This little girl (together with some hilarious and ironic help from the Grinch) sets out to find the real meaning of Christmas. God how I wish that we could all be so brave...

This is what the Grinch and the girl discover:

“And the Grinch, with his Grinch-feet ice cold in the snow, stood puzzling and puzzling, how could it be so? It came without ribbons. It came without tags. It came without packages, boxes or bags. And he puzzled and puzzled 'till his puzzler was sore. Then the Grinch thought of something he hadn't before. What if Christmas, he thought, doesn't come from a store. What if Christmas, perhaps, means a little bit more."

So, this is my motto this Christmas....and, hopefully, for all Christmases to come. I want to be with my family(ies) and I want to tell them I love them. I want them to know how lucky I feel to have them and I want to give myself a time to reflect on all the blessings that have been bestowed on me this year. I want to enjoy conversation and traditions, smiles and hugs. I want to forget about the ribbons, tags, boxes or bags. I want to experience a little bit more!

There was a story on CNN today (the only channel we get in English) and it (part of it at least) really made me smile. It was about the city in Turkey where St. Nickolas, the basis for the modern day Santa Claus, was a bishop. The city really worships St. Nickolas...not only the saint but the even the modern version of Santa Claus complete with his fluffy white beard and unseasonably warm (for Turkey at least) red coat. Despite the influx of modern images of Santa and this city's love for them, even the youngest children are still quick to point out what the true meaning of St. Nickolas really is: St. Nickolas, they say, wasn't a fat guy in a red suit. He was a man who gave charity to the poor and left those in need special surprises from time to time.

How we make the current tradition of Christmas out of this story, I don't think I will ever be able to understand. But, I challenge you to rethink your Christmas this Christmas. What is the Spirit of Christmas really about? What thanks can you give and love can you share? What gift giving can you leave behind? How many less fortunate individuals can you help?

I will be spending my Christmas giving my family tight, never ending hugs, visiting my amazingly strong, incredibly special grandpa (who is in the hospital right now), and counting all my blessings.

Merry Christmas everyone! Let your hearts grow three sizes larger this Christmas and see how much more fun you can have and how much more merry you can be if you would just put the presents aside.

Friday, December 17, 2010

4th Advent

Sunday is the fourth Advent, the last Sunday before Christmas! This is very important because every Germans' ticking Christmas time bomb seems to be measured in terms of the 4 Sundays of Advent. The first Sunday is a really relaxed and cozy affair, filled with Glühwein and Lebkuchen (soft German gingerbread). By the time the last one comes around, you hear far more sighs of exhaustion and "I can't believe it"s--now we REALLY have to get on that Christmas shopping!

One thing is for certain, however: Advent is a really Gemütlich event. Each Sunday the Germans light another candle around the Advent wreath, much like my beautiful Jewish ladies light another candle for each night of Hanukkah. By the end of Advent, all of the candles on the wreath glow warm and bright, signaling that Christmas is only days away. And, if you are not careful enough, your whole apartment or house is a blazing inferno waiting to happen.

In honor of the last Advent (which will be here in only 1.5 days) I am posting a cookie recipe that my mom gave to me last night. They aren't anything out of the ordinary but they sure are good. And I promise they are a cinch to make! I made them last night, exhausted and with a headache, and then had like 7 people from all over the world ask for the recipe today in my German course.


Pecan Puffs

1/2 lb (225 grams) butter
2 Tbsp (25 grams) sugar
2 Tsp (5 milliliters) vanilla extract
2 C. (125 grams) sifted flour
a dash of salt
2 C. (100 grams) chopped pecans
(you will need powdered sugar at the end as well)

Mix ingredients in the order given. Roll into small balls the size of large marbles (or bouncy balls).

Bake on a cookie sheet for 30 minutes at 325 degrees F (160 degrees Celsius).

Dip and roll in powdered sugar when they are slightly cooled.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Welcome Weekend

It's early Saturday evening and I am enjoying a cozy evening home with Peter. He is fully and heatedly immersed in his favorite past time: Play Station Basketball. I am relaxing on my computer and trying not to cringe as he shouts German profanities at the television.

It's not really glamorous or romantic, but I still find these moments quite sweet. He and I spent so much time apart at the beginning of our relationship that we never got to share the more mundane things in life. So, now that we can, I try to savor every moment.

The weekends are perfect for this, partially because Peter is really only home on the weekends and partially because they are always just so low-key. I love waking up late and making a hearty breakfast, talking over coffee and scrambled eggs. I love lazing around on the couch in my pajamas, playing board games or catching up on this weeks' How I Met Your Mother. I love cooking a delicious soup or, like last night, a yummy German meal. And, I love doing this all with my silly little (huge) kitty cat!

It's the weekend evenings when I am lounging on the couch with Peter, with a glass of red wine or a beer in my hand, that I think about how lucky I am. To enjoy that is special for any couple. But, for Peter and I to be able to enjoy that (after having lived apart for so long)? Now that is really a miracle.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Beautiful Things #1

My mother sent me this today. It is a recipe for Peanut Blossoms (one of my holiday favorites) written by her mom. I love all things that are old; but, this is filled with love, too. Happy Holidays!

White Christmas

My dad raised me on all sorts of Christmas music. When I was a child we listened to Christmas music by everyone from Tony Bennett to *NSYNC. But, Bing Crosby's "White Christmas" is by far my favorite. There's something about it--maybe that it sounds like it's coming out of an old, shiny wood radio--that transports me to a different time.

I can hear the laughter of children playing in the street. I can smell the fresh cookies (not made from a roll of dough bought in the supermarket refrigerator) coming out of the oven. I can see a family decorating its tree through frosted windowpanes. Of course, they have those big lights strung all across the tree and the children have thrown the tinsel on haphazardly. I can feel joy and love, everywhere.

In this world, there is no Black Friday, no Tickle Me Elmo. Christmas is a family holiday made to give love and get love. Not presents. Sharing smiles, hugs, kisses while Mr. Crosby sings...this is Christmas.

Now, there is something distinctly American sounding about Mr. Crosby's rendition of this holiday classic. When I listen to it, my pictures are of an American family in the 1950s, not a German or a French one. But, this time of year Germany embodies the same spirit that the song calls to mind. That's what I love about Germany at Christmas. There's a nostalgic feeling; a feeling like you have left Facebook, Twitter, computers and cellphones behind; a feeling like you have left the buying behind; a feeling like the one I think Christmas is supposed to have. It's jolly. It's warmhearted. It's a time to give love and get love. It is not focused on presents.

Of course, Germany hasn't completely escaped from the commercialization of Christmas. Children still want presents and get presents, friends still exchange them, and stores still have huge sales to get people to buy. But, somehow, the feeling is different. All of that seems to be in the background. This is not a holiday about impressing and being impressed.

Instead, people spend a lot of time at the Weihnachtsmarkt, Glühwein in hand, chatting and smiling. Everyone seems relaxed, not frazzled. And never have I ever seen anyone running from party to party, looking like a marathon runner by the end of the night. Christmas is calm, joyful and, above all, about the people you love.

I enjoy Christmas here immensely. If my family were here with me, I would enjoy Christmas far more here than I ever have in the U.S. That is why this year I have tried to give myself the best of both worlds: the 24th (and before) in Germany and the 25th in California. I get my Christmas markets and my Glühwein, my smiling faces and my vibrant, merry spirit. And I get my family--after the insanity of preparing for the holiday has passed.

Until Christmas comes, I will continue to listen to Mr. Crosby (and his friends Judy Garland and Frank Sinatra) and all of the other Christmas music I have come to know and love over the years. I will fill this Christmas up the brim with joy and laughter, hugs and smiles. I will make this Christmas only about giving and getting love.