Holiday Music Traditions

Christmas is a season rich in musical traditions.  Coming from a family steeped in music, I have fond memories of Christmas caroling out in the cold with family and neighborhood friends.  I sang in countless Christmas concerts, and mustered family members to play musical instruments in church for Christmas services.  It was a joy to see the tradition continue when our children were old enough to sing in Christmas concerts of their own.  And when they went on to sing in college choirs we were treated to some of the finest musical tributes of the season.

With college graduations behind us, we decided the trips to distant campuses were no longer necessary.  Instead, we have visited local colleges to sample their Christmas music.  It’s amazing the talent we have in our midst.

This year, however, I was drawn back to the past.  In middle school and high school, our daughter Karen spent five magical years singing under the direction of Julia Fahey in the Partners in Praise Girls’ Choir.  It was an experience that would shape her life, both musically and personally.  The music that the choir produced, the discipline that it required, and the mutual respect that each member had for each other were of the highest standard.  They traveled internationally, performed spontaneously in public places and sang in prestigious venues, but more than that, they won the hearts of all who heard them sing.  As Karen put it, Julia taught them so much more than just music.

So when I realized that I would be in the Twin Cities close to the time of their annual Holiday Benefit Concert, it was no decision at all to extend my stay long enough to attend.  As always, it was an evening that filled my heart as well as my holiday music quota.  The girls looked so young and I didn’t recognize a single one, but it was the same choir.  They still had the that special sound, the spirit, and they owned the music. When alumni were invited up to sing, I couldn’t stop the tears from rolling down my face as Karen took her place among the other singers.  They all still sang like angels, just with richer more mature voices.

I couldn’t get enough of the music that night.  This was one holiday music tradition that was well worth going back to relive.  I just may have to do it again next year.


Photography 101

Who knew that starting a blog would lead to another new interest?  I enjoy illustrating my blog posts with pictures, but my little point and shoot camera has limited capabilities.  So when the marketing gods wooed my husband into upgrading his fancy camera to the next new model, I gladly inherited his old one.  It seemed a prudent way to test the reality of my yearnings.  Would I really invest the time to learn how to use it properly?  Would it be worth lugging around instead of the small lump that so easily fits in my pocket?  Only time will tell.

I have a million pictures of Christmas Day, when it seemed justified to keep shooting photos with my new toy.  I took it to Bentleyville, the huge Christmas light display, and was quite pleased with the way I was able to capture the lights in the dark.

I ventured out at sunset the other night to capture the beautiful colors and enjoyed discovering the long shadows the sun cast across the snow.

And today I headed down to Canal Park where the lighthouses provided a stark white contrast to the deep blue of Lake Superior.  I deemed one picture good enough to grace the top of my blog pages, providing a new wintery theme.  I even tried getting a bit artsy with my shots.  Perhaps I still need a bit of practice on that front.

So far so good.  And I haven’t even ventured off “Auto” mode yet.

Non-Forced Relaxation

Mellow is just not in my nature. I have pretty much one gear – Go Go Go. Particularly in the mornings. I like to get up and get going. An early morning run is my favorite, getting in a good workout before settling into the day. Even at the cabin, I require my run and a brisk swim before hanging out on the dock with my coffee and magazines. In winter, I chomp at the bit waiting for it to get light and warm up enough to go out skiing. Intellectually I know conditions will improve as the morning goes on, but my heart wants to rush out the door.

The holidays change all that. Having a house full of family brings its own pace and set of priorities. There is nothing like the dim light of morning, when the great room is lit by only the Christmas tree, the fireplace and a few strategic lights. It oozes quiet and relaxation. Little grandkids wake slowly, snuggling in my arms or someone else’s as they gradually come to life. Each member of the family rises on their own schedule, but tend not to sleep in as late as they once did. I set the coffee brewing in the corner and start making the first of many batches of pancakes and bacon.

Even once fed, pajama clad family members linger on the couches. Reading is a favorite pastime, as is playing with 2 1/2 year old Ben’s newest toys. Recounting moments from the previous evening’s games is a popular topic. Routines have all been left behind, and no one feels the urgency to move on. Not even me.

Skiing – A Christmas Eve Tradition

First SkisI grew up in a family of downhill skiers. My parents spent their honeymoon skiing at the King’s Gateway in the UP. I learned to ski at the age of five, going up the hill between my dad’s legs as he rode the T-bar. Skiing was a family affair, rising early to drive to the ski hill, eating the lunch that Mom packed in the leather travel case, and skiing until the slopes closed. My best birthday present was the pair of Head skis my parents gave me – I felt like I’d reached the big league.

From an early age, I remember spending Christmas Eve skiing. All the excitement of Christmas seemed to crescendo, reaching its peak on that day. The anticipation of all the presents and the holiday made the day endless. We probably drove our parents crazy, snooping under the tree and getting under foot while they made the final preparations. So they instituted the tradition of going skiing. We’d ski all day and get home tired and happy, just in time for dinner and a hot bath.

In the early years, the whole family spent the day skiing. As we got older and my siblings got their driver’s licenses, they would drive us to the ski hill while Mom and Dad stayed home. I didn’t realize it then, but it must have been a welcome opportunity to prepare for Christmas undisturbed.

Brule trailsI’m still a skier, but I’ve long since traded downhill for cross-country skiing.  I love the quiet, the trails, the constant motion and the challenge of the uphills. So this Christmas Eve found me out in the woods instead of out on the slopes, but still skiing. It seemed so right. And just like in years past, it helped stem the tide of my anticipation. It’s not the presents under the tree that fuel my excitement these days, it’s the arrival of my IMG_9427 trimmedchildren and their children. The cooking and baking are nearly complete for the holiday meals, the house and tree are decorated, and the presents are all wrapped.  I’m ready to trade empty nesting for a house full of family, noise, and togetherness.  The new house will be overflowing, putting airbeds into use and slipping grandkids into small corners to sleep.  But that’s what memories are made of.  Bring it on – it’s Christmas Eve!

Singing The Messiah with Mabel

I’ve always wanted to do a Messiah Sing.  It sounded like great fun – the audience and the performers are one and the same.  An orchestra is provided, and singers come together to sit in the auditorium and sing Handel’s Messiah from beginning to end.  So when I saw that St. Scholastica had a Messiah Sing, I decided I’d go.

I’d sung a number of pieces from The Messiah in my high school and college choirs, so I knew some of the sections would be very familiar to me.  In fact, I doubted I needed the music for “For Unto Us” and of course the “Hallelujah Chorus.”  Something that monumental sticks with you for life.  I knew there would be pieces of music I’d never seen before, but I was counting on my rusty sight reading skills and the more experienced singers around me to carry me through.  I recruited a friend to go with me, and I was ready for the challenge.

But I had another reason for going.  Back last summer when we were cleaning out Mom’s house, we went through all her old music.  I found a score for The Messiah that had belonged to her mother, Mabel, with her name hand written on the cover.  It felt like a treasure and I claimed it for my own, hoping for this very opportunity.

Mabel was a music teacher and the first music supervisor for the Iron River, Michigan public schools in the first quarter of the 1900s.  She was known for loving “show business” and the musicals she put on, both in the schools and in the community.  She also greatly enriched the music program to serve all students in the schools.  We found a tribute written about her for the town’s centennial celebration.  One phrase jumped out at me, “Surely no one belonging to the mixed chorus could ever forget rehearsing ‘The Hallelujah Chorus’ from Handel’s famous oratorio, ‘The Messiah.'”

The score sat on my bookshelf until last night.  So as we progressed through the music singing, I found Mabel’s notations for the first time.  It felt so deeply personal to see her markings for expression, for breathing, for dynamics.  I loved turning the brittle yellowed pages, knowing she had turned them, probably directing that school choir.  It made the evening special, bringing back my musical roots and reminding me of my own musical training starting from a young age.

I never knew my grandmother, Mabel.  She died when my mother was 16.  But she left behind a musical legacy that lived on through my mom and on down through me and my own children.  I am so very thankful to her for that.  And I look forward to next year, when I will again bring her score to sing The Messiah.

Christmas Cookie Experiments

It seemed like a good idea.  Rich’s dad mentioned Tinker’s Dark Cookies last year, so I tucked the idea away and thought I’d add them to the package of his favorite Christmas cookies that I send him each December.  I managed to procure the recipe through pure luck.  My sister-in-law happened to be down visiting Dad in Florida, and she copied the recipe out of his wife’s hand written cookbook.  I was in business!

Until I read the recipe…  Hmmm, a list of ingredients, two conflicting sets of times and temperatures for the oven, and a note that warned not to grease the cookie sheets.  That’s it.  I figured I could deal with that, but on looking more closely I realized the real problem.  It called for 1/2 box raisins, 1/2 box currants and 1/2 package fruitcake mix.  Just how big were boxes and packages way back when she made them?  It was probably in the 60’s or so, as Rich remembers the cookies.  And there’s no asking his mom or Tinker any more.

Technology to the rescue.  Surely this recipe must lurk out on the internet somewhere.  After numerous google searches, haunting recipe sites and trying all combinations of descriptions and ingredients, I gave up.  It’s not there.  So next I tried the history approach. What does Sunmaid have to say about their packages back in the 60’s?  Nada.  They’re not telling. Not unless you’re interested in those little snack boxes.

I was on my own.  I was going to have to guess at the quantities.  In my mind, it boiled down to this:  Have packages increased in size along with the super-sizing of American palates?  Or have they shrunk with the marketing ploy that avoids raising prices by reducing the quantities we are buying?  Or have they done both?  In the end, I decided on the middle road, and just used existing package sizes.

Mixing up the batter, it seemed more cake-like than cookie dough.  It was rich and dark with molasses, spices and lots of fruit.  And no eggs.  I Cookie dough after adding more fruitcrossed my fingers and baked a cookie sheet full.  Rich was my official taster and quality critic, and I waited as he delivered his verdict.  He remembered more fruit and less nuts.  And the cookies spread more than his mom’s. Okay, version 2. Dumping in more of each fruit and making the cookies smaller resulted in a pretty nice little cookie.  Yes, that’s closer he declared!

Good enough, I figured, and finished baking the rest of the dough.  And Tinker's Dark Cookiesfrom the other room, Rich commented that they smelled good – just as he remembered.  The positive feedback was appreciated, as I waded through the uncertainty of this process.  I had to taste a few along the way for my own reassurance, and had to admit they were pretty tasty.  Moist and sweet, they’d be great with a cup of coffee.

The cookies have all been boxed up with care, and the package is in the mail.  I’ll know if it was a good idea or not when Dad samples the contents.  If they meet with satisfaction, I’m golden.  I have carefully recorded my own precise measurements and methods for these  cookies.  I hope I’m done experimenting on this recipe.