Believe in Santa…

I have been thinking recently about the person responsible for leaving treats in stockings and gifts by the tree on Christmas morning. Who munches on cookies washed down with warm milk by the twinkling lights of the Christmas tree? I believe it may be Santa Claus.

Do I think a jolly old man slithers down my chimney on Dec 24? Hmm…I’m not really sure. Although I do leave the cookies just in case. I think Santa Claus is alive in the spirit that ties us all together. At Christmas time, music is gentle and kind, people are generous and thoughtful, and the world around me twinkles with merriment and joy. Neighbors call out holiday greetings, children giggle and toss snow, families come together. It is in the dark hours of late December that we seek goodness between each other and share the bounty of our lives.

Last Christmas was a hard one for our family – our first to be separated into two homes. But it was alive with the spirit of Santa Claus. A friend surprised us with a card at the Christmas Tree Farm saying that our tree was her gift to us. A neighbor came by to help decorate it and brought us shiny new ornaments that sparkled in the colored lights while another came by with her massage table to give us Christmas massages. Throughout the month, we found gifts from a secret Santa peppering our home in unexpected places. Four days before Christmas, I got a call that my dad and step-mom were going to surprise us with a holiday visit from Indiana, and for the first time in over 25 years, I had all of my parents under the same roof for Christmas Eve and woke with them and my children on Christmas morning.

But even more was happening outside my home. In the weeks before Christmas, a good friend survived a dangerous surgery. Another friend’s husband found an amazing job that would allow her to stay home with their young daughters full-time. A woman I know who was afraid her cancer wouldn’t allow her to live through Thanksgiving found liberation from her pain enough to host Christmas Eve with extended family. My neighbor’s daughter healed from a surgery that she had to undergo three days before Christmas. With enough thought, everyone could remember something wonderful that happened around the time of year when Santa Claus makes his appearance. I found a few more pennies on the ground, I had good interactions at difficult meetings, I heard favorite songs and noticed the clock turn 11:11 more frequently (an enchanted wishing time). I magically found a sense of calm in the middle of an emotionally stormy time. It’s like that every year during the Christmas season.

Is it miraculous? Is it religious? I don’t think so. I think Santa Claus is simply the energy between us – the tie that binds us. At Christmas time in our culture, we peel off some of our cynicism and allow ourselves to be vulnerable and open to the kindness of others. Maybe there is a jolly old man in a wooly red suit sitting in the frozen tundra of the North Pole helping us to find this freedom to give and show the respect and love that we should show each other year-round. Maybe there isn’t. But instead of a bumper sticker asking what would Wellstone, Jesus or John Lennon do, what about a bumper sticker asking what would Santa do? WWSD?

Surely he wouldn’t pack away his good will with Christmas ornaments into a box in the garage on New Year’s Day. I can’t imagine him lying, honking and shouting unkind words to someone who doesn’t notice the light has changed or underhandedly trying to manipulate documents or situations to benefit himself. No, Santa would find the good in any situation. He would smile and open the door for the person next to him – of any age. He would donate what he could and would share his time and effort if he couldn’t give money or things. He would think before he spoke and wouldn’t lash out in hostility to innocent people because he was having a bad day. He would offer ten positives for every creatively constructed negative bit of information, and he would look for opportunities to share sparkly magic. He would compliment a pretty hat, he would notice bright earrings, he would be interested to meet a new friend. He would listen to friends’ concerns, remember their important days, light candles or pray to send energy to people having important events in their lives. And in so doing, he would bolster and grow his own stockpile of love and happiness because it would come back to him tenfold. How else could he share his magic with so many people around the world?

How can I not believe in Santa Claus? I live with the hope that I can somehow emulate what I think he stands for. I strive to share his magic with the people around me by being open, honest, loving, kind, fair and thoughtful. I donate my time. I try to treat people with respect –even when they aren’t returning the favor. I try to see where help is needed and offer a hand whether it’s picking up a dropped earring or raising funds for field trips. I’m human, and I don’t always succeed in these endeavors, but when in doubt, I try to live up to Santa’s example and tap into his spirit – at any time of the year.

And so, I’ll always leave out carrots for reindeer and look out at bedtime on Christmas Eve to see if Rudolph is dashing through the park outside or flying overhead in the starry, cold sky. And on Christmas morning, I’ll always look to see if the cookies are eaten – just in case. I don’t need gifts. I have plenty. I have two beautiful daughters that I love and of whom I am utterly proud, my mom has moved to Eau Claire, my brother and dad are healthy and having good lives. I have friends that surround me in my darkest days with hugs, love and support that I would never have imagined. My cup overflows. No, I don’t need things. I just wish we could all remember to keep out the spirit of Santa Claus when we pack away our ornaments and decorations. I wish we could continue treating each other with the love and respect he inspires in December. I see that devotion come out every year, I hear stories of unexpected kindness, and I find unexplained magic in my daily life. Is it a jolly man, a spirit, an energy? I don’t know, but I feel it and I see it shine when Santa Claus is near. And because of that, I believe.

Christmas Gifts

With the holidays fast approaching, people are trying to find the perfect gifts to give.  Some want to give a sentimental gift, others want to show their humorous side.  For many people this will be a chance to show how they feel about someone, and for others the gift they give will stylishly fulfill an obligation.  In any case, everyone wants to come up with a gift that will convey just the message they want to send.

Sometimes the memory of a perfect gift outlasts the given item.  The thoughtfulness or creativity that was woven into it inspires a happy feeling for years to come.  I recently asked a few women around the Chippewa Valley if they had any such gift memories to share.  Some had ones that warm the heart, and others had funny memories.  Here’s what they said:

Jan – One year when my sister didn’t have much money, I came downstairs Christmas morning, and her sewing machine cabinet was there by the tree. She wanted to give it to me for my gift, as she knew I loved to sew and didn’t have one. I protested, saying it was too much, but she insisted, a little teary-eyed. That was pretty cool.

Barbara – I grew up in a family where money was tight, and my mother made my clothes.  One year I begged for a robe I’d seen in the Sears catalog – it was beautiful. To my delight it was under the tree on Christmas morning, my first store-bought item, and I wore it until it was threadbare.  After my mother died many years later I was going through her things and found the pattern and some material from that robe.  She had secretly sewn it herself – complete with a borrowed Sears tag – so that I would have my dream come true.

Amanda – When I was a senior in high school, my boyfriend of 18 months worked with – and probably begged – my mom to allow him to get me a kitten for a gift.  She was a sweet little orange kitty who lasted quite a bit longer in my life than my boyfriend.  He went on to date my best friend four months later, and now she’s his wife.

Ann – My sweetest Christmas gifts came from my husband.  Three weeks after we met in October 1991, he went to Texas for work and was already thinking of being with me at Christmas.  My gifts came from that trip – a stuffed armadillo and a Texas longhorn sweatshirt.  And yes, I still have them.

Glenda – One of the best Christmas gifts I ever received arrived under the tree the year my daughter was 11. It was in a huge box, and I couldn’t imagine what a child her age could afford with her small weekly allowance. On Christmas morning she could hardly wait until I opened the big package and then several inside it, each one smaller than the last, each individually wrapped. At last I came to a small ring box, and inside was a gold ring set with a tiny ruby — my birthstone. She had spotted it in the jewelry store window and saved every penny she had to buy it for me. The little girl is now 40, and the ring remains one of my most treasured possessions.

Pat –  My Aunt Pepper was known for giving meaningful gifts, but one year she shook things up.  She gave me a crazy brown and white purse made of fake fur.  Its strap was a chain.  I was grateful for the gift that had been chosen and given with love, but I wasn’t about to take it out of its hiding spot in the back of my closet.  A year later, I found it again and realized that my hip aunt had been incredibly fashion-forward and given me something that was indeed very cool.  It became my favorite purse.

No matter what the gift or who the giver, there are thoughtful and funny gifts that pepper our memories.  Maybe it’s a piece of special jewelry or a traditional gift that passes between family members. It could be a child’s hand-made treasure or a gift certificate for romantic dance lessons meant to rekindle a flame.  In any case, remembering these gifts recalls the affection we shared and inspires us to keep the tradition alive.

My own memory involved a gift that didn’t cost much but is worth its weight in gold.  My brother works in Los Angeles and knows that my favorite Christmas movie is “It’s A Wonderful Life.”  Several years ago, a book came through his publicity office about the making of the movie.  He called Jimmy Stewart’s publicist and thoughtfully arranged to have it autographed to me.  In the movie, the actor’s tender character ultimately realizes how incredibly important each of our tightly interconnected lives is – a lesson worth revisiting at least once each year.  In my book he wrote:  “To Lesley – I send you all my best wishes and have a merry Christmas,  James Stewart.”  I wish the same for everyone.  Happy Holidays.


What is Thanksgiving?

Norman Rockwell did a pretty good job of showing just what the American Thanksgiving tradition should look like. In one of his most famous pictures, Grandpa looks on while Grandma sets an enormous turkey before him. Around the table generations of smiling family members await the moment when Grandpa will pick up the carving knife and begin the annual feast. It’s an image we know as Americans whether we have seen the picture or not, and we aspire to re-create it each year when our families gather and begin a celebration of abundance.

But in reality, it isn’t always like that. When I was in school abroad, I had Thanksgiving dinner in a swanky hotel restaurant. I’d saved up my British pounds for the special meal but was the only person in the restaurant aware that it was an important holiday and a time for turkey and cranberries; in London they couldn’t care less about an American tradition, but I was able to have a lovely baked Dover sole.

I shared this story with my friend, Ann, who laughingly told me she hasn’t had a traditional Thanksgiving since she’s been married. Her three middle- and elementary school-aged kids have never shared Thanksgiving with their dad. In Wisconsin Ann is known as a “hunting widow,” and there are women all over the state who nod and say that their life is the same. The men in their families are not sitting at the head of the table ready to carve a turkey on the Thursday holiday afternoon; they are sitting in a tree stand covered in blaze orange and waiting for a big buck to wander past. The women who share these stories at first seem subdued, but then a little smile creeps across their lips. They love it! Hunting widows relish the Thanksgiving holiday as a chance to gather with women friends, shop at wine sales and enjoy a week off from having their husbands at home.

At church I asked a friend who has traveled extensively if she has had any Thanksgivings that weren’t exactly “traditional.”

“Well, I’ve never had a Norman Rockwell experience,” Ruthie laughed. “I’ve had Thanksgiving in Venezuela three times, and the hardest part was finding the turkey!”

Her husband’s job had taken them to South America for three years where they celebrated with American expats and people from other countries who were interested in the tradition.

“Non-Americans are intrigued by the holiday because it isn’t religious and doesn’t require gift-giving,” she explained.

Twice Ruthie spent Thanksgiving in Copenhagen with her husband, a fan of pumpkin pie. Unfortunately, pumpkin pie filling is hard to come by in other countries, so he tried unsuccessfully to sneak a can through airport security on his way to Denmark. After a long explanation to the airport staff, he was let go – without the can of filling. Fortunately, there was a sign hanging in the Denmark airport advertising a shop that sold American foods. After a long train ride, a subsequent subway ride and a lengthy walk, Ruthie and her husband found the tiny shop. In it, there was one small shelf that contained mostly Pop Tarts – what must they think of American cuisine? – and a can of pumpkin pie filling. In Denmark, Ruthie explained, finding turkey was the easy part.

Pumpkin pie is, indeed, an important component of the Thanksgiving meal. In our home we have two different kinds. My mother prefers the old-fashioned variety, but my daughters have been turned on to a cream cheese type that is equally delectable. And pie isn’t the only dessert on offer. In years past, I have been invited to share Thanksgiving with close friends who recognized how difficult it was to be thousands of miles away from my California and Vermont family members. They took me in as one of their own, and when a birthday fell right on Thanksgiving Day, the birthday girl’s father and I spent hours creating a turkey-shaped birthday cake. We dipped cookies in melted orange-colored chocolate to make tail feathers and used an ice cream cone for a decorative hat. The masterpiece was ultimately presented with more fanfare than the poultry centerpiece had received.

Barb, a retired university professor, told me that she was surprised to find how many people are alone on Thanksgiving. In the first year after her divorce, she invited displaced students to her home to celebrate the holiday together. The students were displaced by distance that precluded their going home for a long weekend, so they joined together to become a family with whom they could share the holiday tradition.

Military service sometimes forces people to be apart at holiday times, too. Around the globe, American service people pull together on Thanksgiving to honor the holiday while their families at home lean on one another and create a new kind of family that celebrates with an empty seat at the table and waits for another year.

My daughters and I were invited to have Thanksgiving at the house of a Canadian family several years ago. The family had lived in the United States for three years at the time and was happy to share their traditions with us. Kady sewed turkey-shaped placemats, and her kids made decorative place cards. We talked and laughed and ate until we were stuffed. They had adjusted to our feasting tradition just fine.

“We celebrate Thanksgiving in Canada, too, but we do it a month earlier,” Kady clarified. “But this Black Friday thing? We definitely don’t do that!”

Ah, yes…the holiday tradition of shopping. In other countries feasts are shared in honor of the harvest, and celebrations are held in which gifts are exchanged. But is there any other country in the world where people cap off their holiday with a revered day of shopping? And Thanksgiving wouldn’t be complete without someone falling asleep in front of a football game – another sacred institution.

But shopping, football, feasting and hunting are secondary to the true tie that binds this holiday tradition together. Deeply tucked in between the Black Friday ads, reclined barcaloungers, recipe cards and hunting gear is the magic that keeps us celebrating this annual feast. Norman Rockwell captured one part of it in his painting, but he couldn’t encompass it in its entirety. Rockwell depicts family, the element that glues us together and packs the airports during Thanksgiving weekend, but family isn’t limited to the people who share a gene pool. Family includes all of the people with whom we share laughter, love and life. At Thanksgiving we honor the people who came before us and treasure those who have held our hands when we have faced life’s biggest challenges and enjoyed its smallest pleasures. It is said that we can’t pick our family, but the people who open their hearts and share themselves with us become a treasured kind of family that can be as strong and reliable as any genetic connection. At this time of year – no matter where we are – we welcome the excuse of a harvest feast to celebrate family – however we define it.  What a tradition!

Why December 25?

Carols ring from in-store speakers, twinkly lights sparkle on rooftops, menus are being planned and families are poised to gather.  Christmas is near, and people all over the world are counting down the days until December 25.  Some do it in a purely secular spirit and look forward to holiday parties and Santa’s treasures.  Others take a more religious view to the holiday and focus on the celebration of Jesus’ birth – but not a birthday.

Scholars agree that biblical clues indicate that Jesus was not born on December 25 but that the day has been widely agreed upon as a celebration of his birth.

Why not celebrate Jesus on his actual birthday?  Records do not exist for that specific date, and biblical clues are conflicting.  One thing is certain, though, he wasn’t born in December. Bethlehem is chilly and often rainy in December, and the shepherds are not in the field.

The bible suggests that Mary and Joseph were headed to Bethlehem in order to register for a census and pay taxes in the city of Joseph’s origin.  Because farmers were done with their harvests in the fall of the year, that would have been the most logical time for such a census and taxation to take place – when the farmers were flush and finished with work.

Fall is also a time of harvest festivals and celebrations, and it’s a time when Israelites would make a pilgrimage to the Temple in Jerusalem for Sukkot, a week-long celebration that follows Yom Kippur.  This would be a time when homes and inns would be overflowing with family and friends gathering to honor the harvest and join in their religious ceremonies.  It would be a time when a too-full inn might offer a stable as lodging to a young expectant couple.

Two other festivals encourage Israelites to gather in Jerusalem: Passover and Shavu’ot. These happen in the spring of the year and inspire some thought that Jesus was a spring baby. This theory would coincide with the shepherds tending their flock in the fields at night because spring lambing would require around-the-clock observation.

There are more detailed clues, too, that are given in the bible’s book of Luke. Here, the pregnancy of Mary’s cousin, Elizabeth, is detailed. Luke writes that Mary conceives during her cousin’s sixth month of pregnancy and that her son is born six months after Elizabeth’s.  Through a complicated exploration of biblical clues, the date of Elizabeth’s conception can be narrowed down to June, Mary’s to December, and the ultimate birth of Jesus to September.

If it’s possible that Jesus was an autumn baby, why do we celebrate his birth in the darkest days of winter?  According to Reverend Julianne Lepp, a Unitarian Minister educated at the Candler School of Theology at Emory University, it has ties to pagan traditions.

“The early beginnings of Christmas, in fact, have direct roots in the winter solstice celebration that took place at Saturnalia in honor of Saturn, the god of agriculture,” Lepp explains.  “When Christianity was introduced to the Roman Empire in the early 4th Century, the church allowed the Saturnalia tradition to continue, but concluded the week-long festival with a day dedicated to the birth of Christ, or Christ Mass, better known today as Christmas.”

In fact, Emperor Constantine was a Christian convert who sought to combine pagan worship and Christianity. Mithraism and other pagan religions honored the rebirth of the sun at the winter solstice, and it married well with the Christian birth of the holy son.  Rome first celebrated the birth of Jesus on December 25 in 336AD, and Pope Julius I made it official in 350AD.

“In seeking the return of the light we seek to restore balance,” says Lepp. “It is an age old quest of restoring our tired hearts and rekindling joy in the darkest of nights. It is the real hope of the season.”

This hope is reflected in the Christian and pagan traditions that remain dear at Christmas time.  Yule logs burn brightly under mantles festooned in holly – both customs that come from the Scandinavian celebration of solstice.  Candles burn as they have since Saturnalia festivals when they were given as gifts to chase away darkness. Wreathes, pagan symbols of life everlasting, decorate front doors.  Colorful decorations on evergreen trees recall the original fruits, nuts and cookies that were hung reverently on trees that showed power over winter demons by maintaining their color throughout the winter months.

Even more recent Christmas traditions can be traced to the rebirth of light at the winter solstice.  Santa’s sleigh may stem from a Norse myth of Freya who rewarded good deeds with gifts in the days following the winter solstice that she doled out from her stag-drawn chariot.  And Santa himself is a warm and shining light that emerges in the darkest days of the year to bring joy around the world – just as the sun is beginning its reemergence into the northern hemisphere’s coldest days.


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Valentine Fun for All Ages

Mid-February has celebrated both fertility and romance for 2000 years, but Valentine’s Day has only been considered a holiday for children in the recent past.  Now many kids learn the traditions of the holiday as early as preschool broadening the scope of the holiday to make ageless fun for everyone.

A decorated shoebox stuffed with humorous cards and a few small candies has been a typical American elementary school experience for the last 50 years.  During that time, busy lives, multiple children and exposure to media have forced an evolution from simple, homemade salutations into store-bought squares printed with Sponge Bob and Strawberry Shortcake.  But there is still room for old-fashioned paper hearts, stickers, lace and glue.

Steve Langhorst, principal of Bierbaum Accelerated School in St. Louis, Mo., says that parents should use discretion in recognizing Valentine’s Day with their children.  Instead of focusing on adult romantic love, they might take this opportunity to reinforce the qualities of friendship and caring in their children.  At school, he likes it best when he sees kids passing out personally created cards with an exchange of kind greetings.

Says Langhorst, “The messages we do encourage revolve around friendship, not love, but still being kind and nice to all.”

So, what about creating a custom card?  They don’t look as fancy, and they aren’t always perfect, but they can be simple to make.  A paper heart makes a happy face with an upside down heart sticker as a perky nose and one right side up for a sweet smile.  Glue on two googly eyes, and it’s a valentine to share. has lots of simple ideas that are easy to make and encourage quality family time that can be squeezed into a busy schedule.  Start in January on the project so that the creation, dedications and signatures happen a few at a time and remain a fun after-dinner activity instead of a rushed obligation.

In addition to exchanging valentine cards, many schools have classroom parties or special snacks to share.  Kady Carroll, a Canadian mother of three who is experienced with treat creativity, suggests dipping marshmallows on craft sticks in melted chocolate and then pink sprinkles.

“Arrange the sticks in a vase of crumpled tissue paper, and offer a bouquet of sweets to the class!” says Carroll.

At home, too, Valentine’s Day can be a special celebration of family love and appreciation.  Start the day off with a red and pink valentine breakfast.  Red food coloring added to milk, oatmeal or scrambled eggs will make your little valentines smile.  Decorate a bowl of pink yogurt with sliced strawberries that look like little red hearts.  For a mid-day surprise, slip secret notes into lunch bags with heart-shaped sandwiches.  At dinner, create a valentine pizza together.  Shape the dough into a heart, and let the kids pile on their favorite toppings.

For a sweeter activity, roll out the dough!  Store bought cookie dough bakes up as well as scratch, and decorating cookies with the kids can brighten up a frosty February weekend.  Pink, white and red frostings can be slathered on heart-shaped cookies and decorated with red hot candies, conversation hearts, fancy frosting shapes, words and candy sprinkles.  Decorate a box for the confections with paper, markers and stickers, and a heart-felt gift is ready to share.

Craft stores, supermarkets and greeting card companies tempt romantics in February with projects, treats and communiqués for all ages.  It is the one time of year when we freely express love and affection, and even children are in search of the perfect way to convey their sweet message.  When asked what kind of valentine the average kid would prefer to receive, 9-year-old Elijah McCarty responds with a blush and a shrug, “I guess it would depend on who it’s from.” That message remains ageless the world over:  It’s about who you fancy.  The rest is just delicious, pretty and fun.

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Create valentine fun all day long and bring the magic of friendship and love into your life:

*Make a treasure hunt with clues written on paper hearts for your valentine to sleuth out.

*Take a tulip, valentine or baked goods to someone who is alone on this day and remind yourself and your kids of the loving spirit this holiday celebrates.

*Bake a heart shaped cake and pile on the frosting.

*Send photo valentines to loved ones who are far away…this might be a great time to make up for belated holiday greetings that just didn’t get done in December!

*Have a candlelight dinner for the entire family and tell stories about how friends and loved ones came to be cherished in your life.

*Write down ways to help others on paper hearts and put them in a jar.  For the weeks following Valentine’s Day, pull out a heart and implement the suggestion:  Clean a playground, visit a nursing home or cook for a local shelter.  Spread the love of the season.

*Celebrate Valentine’s Day all week by dedicating each day to a different family member.  On Johnnie’s day, carry him piggyback downstairs to breakfast and let him choose a special after-school activity.  Suzie might get to choose what the family will have for dinner and plan an outing. Let the kids decide what special things to do for Mom and Dad on their honored days.

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Gingerbread Houses


Icicles hang from a snowy rooftop, brightly colored bulbs shimmer from frosty eaves and candy cane decorations line a curving sidewalk. This isn’t a scene from a holiday greeting card — it’s what you can create with a good gingerbread recipe and a touch of creativity.


For centuries European bakeries have turned out gingerbread houses using molds created by master craftsmen. In France, a special guild was formed for these bakers of “pain d’epices,” and an annual fair ran for 800 years to celebrate their special breads. But it was the Grimm Brothers’ story of Hansel and Gretel that earned these sweet houses their spot in history.

“They were very popular in Switzerland, where I grew up,” explains Guido Landoldt, the executive pastry chef at the Hyatt Regency Lake Tahoe. “We used beautiful molds that were hundreds and hundreds of years old and carved into hard wood.”

Those antique molds are no longer available, but don’t let that stifle your creativity. There are many other ways to make this tasty seasonal centerpiece.

The most traditional way is first to bake the gingerbread that will become the walls, doors, chimney and roof. After the gingerbread cools, decorate the exterior walls while they are flat on a work surface, but be sure to frost the interior as well as exterior corners for added strength when you assemble the cottage.

Landoldt suggests royal frosting as the best glue and claims it’s stronger than liquid nails. Mix three egg whites, 1 pound powdered sugar and a pinch of cream of tartar together gently.

“Use a paddle instead of a whisk and mix slowly for seven to 10 minutes to avoid incorporating any air molecules,” he suggests.

Cover your icing with a damp towel until you are ready to begin gluing and decorating your project. Be sure to have plenty of pastry bags and frosting tips on hand to create different textures.


If baking isn’t your forte, start with a kit. John and Janet D’Orsi have been making this possible since 1981 at the Gingerbread Construction Co. in New England <>. They ship undecorated kit houses as well as fully finished houses anywhere in the 48 contiguous United States.

Don Granger, a retired construction worker in New Auburn, Wis., appreciates the particulars of construction and enjoys building gingerbread kit houses with his grandchildren.

“Making a gingerbread house with youngsters gives them an experience they couldn’t have without an adult,” says Granger, “and at the same time it teaches them where things go and why.”

Granger’s experience has taught him that creativity in decoration is part of the fun. He has used green frosting on overturned ice cream cones for trees, cotton candy for smoke and jelly beans for festive lights. To create a landscape, he covers a board with foil and paints it with diluted royal frosting. A path of chocolate bars lined with candy canes finishes the scene.


Not up to building an entire house? Consider the Betty Crocker recipe for gingerbread cookies from <>. These take less time and are delicious to eat. Frosting can still drip from eaves, shredded wheat can line the roof and peppermints can adorn the front door.


Very young children might not have the skills or patience to make a gingerbread house, but that doesn’t need to stop them. Beverly Cavanaugh, coordinator of the Early Childhood Center at Joliet (Ill.) Junior College offers this kid-friendly tip.

Use empty half-pint milk cartons to create a base for a graham cracker “gingerbread” house. Adhere crackers to the sides and top of the cleaned milk carton with royal frosting. Horizontally place graham cracker sticks for a log cabin effect, and make shingles from colorful gum or flat nuts.

To create a special gift, leave the spine of the container poking up between the graham cracker roof pieces.

“If you punch a hole in the ridge, you can hang it as an ornament,” suggests Cavanaugh. “Pipe more royal icing around the hole to look like snow on the roof.”

A picture slipped into the door or window can appear to peek out of the ornament which is easily preserved with a layer of shellac or a light wash of glue.

“After the frosting sets up, mix some craft glue and a few drops of water to make a thin wash for the child to paint onto the ornament,” directs Cavanaugh. “Embellish after the glue wash with iridescent sequins or other decorations for added sparkle.”

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Holiday Shopping Smiles



Be Nice

Everyone hopes to be on Santa’s “nice” list, but the mad rush of holiday shopping often brings out the naughty in people. Freeman Hall, author of the recently released “Retail Hell,” manages to put a funny spin on the torture sales associates sometimes experience, but in real life it’s not so funny.

Hall says shoppers should remember that during the holidays sales associates work crazy hours in stores that stay open late. Commutes are longer than usual because many stores require employees to park off-site, and they miss out on family events, parties and their own shopping time. They are tired, their feet hurt and they have been yelled at by 10 people before you ever arrive in their department. Take a breath, keep in mind that they are someone’s dad, sister or child, too, and be kind.

“The people who were nice always got the best from me,” says Hall.  “I didn’t care about the mean and nasty people – even though I was on commission.”

Here are some of Hall’s tips for maintaining sanity and keeping everyone smiling during the busiest shopping season of the year.


  • A smile and manners go a long way. Nothing ruins a sales associate’s day faster than a Scrooge on steroids. Greet him or her with a jolly smile, not a crabby scowl.
  • Misperception breeds contempt. When you greet a busy clerk who looks right through you, don’t be angry. She is likely working with a customer, answering a phone call, fixing a cash register and delivering a sweater to a dressing room – all at the same time. Don’t get angry, just try again later.
  • Make it fun. Humor is contagious and defuses tense situations.
  • Trust and respect your salesperson.  Don’t turn away great customer service by running away from someone you perceive as a pushy clerk.  They know what’s hot, new and might be tucked away in a stock-room drawer.  Don’t feel obligated to go with their suggestions, but their knowledge might save you valuable time.
  • Shop early in the day. That’s when sales associates are ready to give you their best service. If it’s closing time on a late night, they’re more interested in getting home than in helping you find just the right thing.
  • Let the sales associate know you care. If another customer is being obnoxious, make a funny face behind her back. Then tell his manager what a good job he did in fielding the hostility. His appreciation will inspire extra service for you.
  • Check your holiday diva at the door. Don’t have a tantrum about something over which the sales associate has no control. If the store has run out of boxes or a hot item, that’s the CEO’s issue. Buy your gift boxes at a discount store and shop for the item elsewhere.
  • Exercise patience. If the line is long, there’s a reason. Employees call in sick, people have complicated transactions, cash registers break. Go have a coffee, do another errand and come back later. If you must stay in line, pull a good book from your handbag and relax until it’s your turn.
  • Sales associates are not your servants. Overworked employees do not have time to pick up after you, so pitch in and help. If you can’t hang a dress on a hanger properly, neatly fold it and hand it to someone who can. Don’t leave it in a wad on the floor or shoved in a shoe rack.
  • If you must shop with children, bring books, hidden pictures or Game Boys. Play “Going on a Picnic” and list with them all of the things you’ll bring from A to Z. Everyone in the store will appreciate your effort, and you’ll wind up getting the best service in return.
  • Service matters. Shop at stores that take pride in their customer service and reward their employees for treating you well.
  • Spoil your helpers. Surprise an exhausted sales associate who has helped you regularly over the year with a latte or a chocolate bar. Your effort will make someone’s day, and you’ll probably get tips on hot sale items in the new year.

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