For many, these next three and a half weeks before Christmas are a blur of activities. There are decorations to put up, trees to trim, stockings to hang, food to prepare, parties to attend, cards to mail; and for far too many folks, a seemingly endless shopping spree in overheated malls and box stores that are hard on nerves, patience, and pocketbook alike. It's hard to project a spirit of "goodwill to all men (and women)" when just getting out of a shopping area takes more than two hours due to bumper-to-bumper traffic from other shoppers also trying to do the same thing. I speak from personal experience.
In many parts of North America, particularly in the U.S., the economy has been humming along nicely this past year. In other areas, this is not the case. Job loss and fears of impending job loss are weighing heavily on the minds and hearts of many I know. Please keep them in your prayers that they will find employment soon to support their families. Other families are reeling from devastating fires in California, parts of the Pacific Northwest; and closer to home: southern Alberta, central and north central British Columbia, various parts of Saskatchewan and northern Ontario. They need our prayers too. Still others are missing loved ones from their lives, either through death, distance, or separation including that caused by parental alienation. Please hold these people close to your hearts as they traverse through this holiday season.
Several years ago, members of my family began phasing out the material aspect of the holiday season in favour of charitable donations in the recipient's name, with the Salvation Army and Edmonton Humane Society as two of our favorite charities as benefactors of these donations. Over the past four years, Chris and I have expanded this theme to our adult children to also move away from store-bought gifts in favour of handmade gifts in unique, reusable baskets, hampers, or other containers that they can use throughout the coming year. Christmas baking and other homemade food and drink and of course, our own handmade soap and bath products have found their way into their hampers. This year, there are a couple of new Strawberry Creek products not yet announced that will find their way into their baskets...and everyone else will learn about them in January. After all, something still needs to be a surprise!
Even our gift giving to our grandchildren is modest -- Christmas Eve pajamas and a book, one toy, and some of Grandma's homemade cookies are typical. We want these little ones to enjoy the excitement of brightly packaged gifts under the tree without raising material expectations above the true meaning of the holiday! The grandchildren are happy (well, the little ones aren't always super happy about new pajamas as a gift, but they love the book, cookies and toy!) and our grown-up kids have been delighted with their hamper of goodies. One cookie that I have made almost every year since 1979 is from a recipe from an old McCall's magazine (anyone else remember Betsy McCall paper dolls in each publication?!) called Swiss Cinnamon Stars. They are properly known as a Zimtsterne cookie, German in origin with Swiss and French variations. These pretty cookies are gluten free and dairy free and will fill your home with a cinnamon fragrance as they bake. The version I make tends to be pretty crispy and they are ideal with coffee or tea.
Swiss Cinnamon Stars (Zimtsterne Cookies)
3 large eggs
0.77 lb icing sugar, for the dough (powdered sugar, and some more icing or regular white sugar to sprinkle the surface you work on with,)
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
0.88 lb ground almonds (buy pre-ground almonds, also known as almond flour or almond meal)
baking paper or parchment paper
Separate egg yolks from whites and beat whites until stiff peaks form.
Slowly sift in the sugar and lemon juice, then beat some more for about 8 minutes.
Put aside 4 heaped tablespoons of the meringue - this will be used to top the cookies later on.
Add ground almonds and cinnamon to the remaining meringue and mix well. You might want to add a dash of rum or Amaretto for a decidedly grown-up cookie!
Cover the dough and let it rest in the fridge for about an hour.
Sit down, relax and have a cup of tea.
After an hour fetch the dough from the fridge.
Preheat the oven to 325°F.
Sprinkle a surface with confectioners' or regular white sugar and roll the dough to approximately 1/2 inch thick.
Cut the stars with a star shaped (yes, indeed!) cookie cutter.
Put the stars on the lined baking sheet.
Now get the reserved 4 tablespoons meringue from earlier. You might have to stir it a bit so it becomes a smooth mix. You also might want to add some more lemon juice. It's a matter of taste.
Now brush the cookies with the topping and bake them for about 8 minutes.
Cool on the baking sheet.
Store in an air-tight tin.
The cookies should keep for about two weeks.
What are your family's holiday traditions? One of our traditions is to purchase or make one new ornament for our tree each year. The ornament must be dated and ideally have some meaning for the year that is coming to a close. My ornament collection dates back to 1979, and each one is very special, especially those made by tiny fingers. They may not have much extrinsic value but the memories each invokes is priceless.
My family traditionally gathers on Christmas Eve over tables groaning with food. It is an informal and large gathering -- last year we were almost 40 in total -- and the emphasis is on enjoying each other's company. Back at the farm on Christmas morning, it is usually just Chris and I, as all of our grown kids have in-laws and other family with whom they spend the day. Chris and I typically have a leisurely breakfast, followed by chores and then an afternoon watching movies in front of a cheery woodstove fire. If the weather is mild, we spend more time outside with the horses; if not we still bundle up to give oats, apples and carrots to our equine herd and invariably bring a lot of snow back into the house when we're done! Christmas dinner is an intimate candlelit experience and we never, ever attempt the Boxing Day sales the next day! Or the day after!
Whatever your personal circumstances are this year, I highly recommend employing strategies to de-materialize and de-stress your holiday season. I've included some suggestions from Homewood Health, a Canadian employee assistance program provider that helps people manage stress:
Manage the occasion. You may need to be more assertive and say ‘no’ to events that don’t add meaning to the holiday season for you personally.
Clarify family expectations. This may mean not giving a gift to every grown family member or rotating who will give a gift each year.
Lower your financial burden. Budget your spending and stick to it. If you can get through the holidays without major debt afterwards, you can enjoy the season without the guilt.
Get organized ahead of time. Plan ahead as best as you can to get your gift wrapping and other chores done before the last minute. Then give yourself the gift of relaxation rather than stress.
Remember that it’s the thought that counts. Don’t let competitiveness and perfectionism send you on too many shopping trips. Homemade, thoughtful, inexpensive gifts from the heart are often cherished far more than high-priced items.
Take short relaxation breaks. If you find yourself trying to sustain a fast pace, be sure to take some down time. Just taking a few minutes to take a few deep breaths and consciously breathe away tension can be a big help.
Make a list. Write down everything you’d like to do this holiday season and set reasonable priorities in order to get the most amount of joy from the limited amount of time you have to spend with family, friends, and co-workers. Remember, this year’s priorities may look different than those of past holidays.
Take care of yourself. For most people, the holidays go hand-in-hand with too much sugar, fat, caffeine, and alcohol, and not nearly enough exercise and sleep. One of the best ways to combat stress is to pay attention to your body’s need for healthy food, exercise, and sleep during this busy time of year.
Take time to laugh. If you get too stressed, take a laughter break and rent a funny holiday comedy. Laughter is the best medicine.
Make a change. With the holiday season fast approaching, make a commitment to yourself to find a deeper satisfaction in the holiday experience. Don’t just do things because they fit into your schedule.
Instead, consider if the event or activity fits in with your values and the meaning of the season. Remember, life is really about the journey. Savour the moments — allow yourself enough time to celebrate each activity before rushing on to the next.
Don’t let the hustle and bustle of the season steal away opportunities to be thankful for the people, experiences, and events that will make this year unique and memorable. Last, but not least, commit to taking some time to reflect on the deeper meaning and spirit of the holidays for you personally, for your family, and for humanity and the world.
My goal for December is to do what I can to promote peace and love, and I invite you to join me. Let's smile more at strangers, open doors for others, be gracious in traffic, and especially kind, yes, including on social media platforms. Let's pay attention to those less fortunate -- there is virtually always someone less fortunate than we are -- and find ways to be a blessing to them. Christmas can be a very lonely time for many. Not everyone will be surrounded by loved ones. If you know someone who may be alone for the holidays, please invite him or her to your home, to a cafe for a coffee, to a movie, to dinner. Give the gift of your time and presence; these are invaluable! If you are alone, please seek a friend; you may be doing him or her a kindness by reaching out! As Ralph Waldo Emerson said, "You cannot do a kindness too soon, for you never know how soon it will be too late".
Finally, I would like to thank each of you for your support and encouragement this past year, particularly of our soap studio, Strawberry Creek Farmhouse Soaps. I am humbled and inspired by your enthusiasm for our lovely products and deeply appreciate each of you!
May the blessings of this season be abundant to you and your loved ones. Merry Christmas, everyone. Please travel safely to wherever you are going. And let there be Peace on Earth for all in 2019. We surely need it.