From my family to you and yours, I wish you a wonderful festive season filled with joy, peace and love. I also want to thank you for reading my blog posts this year, for your lovely comments, and great conversation. I send you best wishes for 2018.
I participate in a Secret Santa holiday gift exchange with a group of friends. I gathered together a collection of gifts for my assigned friend with ease, as she is very easy to shop for, but I realised that I did not have an appropriate greetings card to send. A couple of years ago, we decided to stop sending holiday cards. We wanted to reduce our carbon footprint and more meaningfully invest the money that would have been spent on cards and postage (and international postage is expensive). We, therefore, donate the money to a charity every year instead. I wanted to send some kind of card or letter to my gift recipient, however, so I decided I would deploy my art skills to create a card. The time between being assigned a friend’s name and having to send the parcel was very tight so I decided to keep things simple with a quick mixed media painting. I have been transforming my preschool students into Elves so that gave me my inspiration: I decided to create a portrait of my friend as a festive Elf. Her favourite colours are red and hot pink and her eyes are green so that gave me a (coincidentally festive) colour palette to work with. I am not a portraitist but I actually managed to create a good likeness of my friend. She should be able to recognise herself. I hope it makes her giggle when she opens the parcel and finds this personalised greeting inside.
If you are a regular reader of my blog, you may have noticed that it has been quiet for a while. You may also have noted that – other than finishing off my extended Inktober challenge – I have not produced any art in weeks. The reason for both is that I was laid low by some mysterious nasty viral thing. It probably all started on Thanksgiving Day when I spent a large chunk of the day at Urgent Care. That illness then segued into what I thought was a sinus infection. I get sinus infections a couple of times every winter so I am used to just treating the symptoms and pushing through. But then I started to feel really cruddy. Seriously awful. What I assumed was a series of separate cruddy illnesses was, it appeared, probably all part of a bigger illness. A nurse friend diagnosed me with ‘flu from a distance but who really knows. I just know it was completely debilitating and was the most ill I have felt since I had ‘flu when my 8 year old was a newborn. During my entire working life, I have had seven sick days off work; three of them were this month. I had fevers, chills, aches, zero appetite, and a pounding headache that stretched from the backs of my eyes all the way down my neck. Thankfully my kids are all now old enough to largely fend for themselves and get themselves to and from school because I really was not functioning as a human being let alone as a parent. Since recovering, I have been very tired – perhaps with some sort of post-viral fatigue – so I have had almost zero free time because staying on top of regular work, chores, family life, and festive planning is taking me longer than usual. Still, worse things happen at sea and I am thankful to have my health generally. That, however, is why I have been absent from blogging and why I have not spent any time at my art table.
Still, I was desperate to do something arty because I don’t feel fully like myself unless I am doing something creative. I, therefore, picked up my Art Journal because it does not matter a jot if I complete the page or not or make a mess in my art journal. I looked at last week’s Art Journal Adventure prompt which was to use a quotation. I am not one of those people who has inspirational quotations to hand so I was pondering what to write while overhearing my kids, who were decorating a gingerbread house in an adjacent room. They were listening to Christmas music so that gave me my inspiration. I have been thinking about practicing some brush lettering for a while so I thought that writing down some festive words using a brush dipped in watercolour paint would be an easy, fuss-free way to fill a journal page. My brush lettering still needs a great deal of work, especially since I have a tendency to be inconsistent and to lapse into just using my own handwriting, but it was fun to practice and it was therapeutic to sit down at my art table again and splash around in some paint.
For a fun festive activity, I bought some blank wooden nutcrackers for my sons to paint. I am actually not a huge fan of nutcrackers – I find them a little creepy – but my kids like them. I think they appeal to them for largely nostalgic reasons: my mother-in-law has a large collection of nutcrackers so the kids associate them with fun-filled Christmases spent at their grandparents’ house. Somehow, despite my mild aversion to nutcrackers, we now have a small collection of our own that appear every December. Now we have four more!
The nutcrackers were created by, from left to right, my 11, 13, 7, and 9 year olds.
Incredibly, this is our third Christmas in America. However, this year was our first Christmas in our new home since the first year we were in rental accommodation and last year we were vacationing in Florida. It has been fun properly decorating this house for the festive season for the first time, determining the logistics of where gifts should be left, where they should be opened, and cooking Christmas dinner in our kitchen for the first time. It is almost as if spending Christmas in our new home has cemented its status as “home”. When we left our home in Scotland, it was emotional because of all the memories and traditions connected to that house. Now we are making new memories and connecting the house to new traditions. Since it was just the six of us and no travel was involved, we also had the pleasure of a very relaxed and chilled Christmas Day. My bonus gift was that my husband took charge of Christmas dinner so I had a day off from cooking. He’s a pretty good cook so that was delicious treat as well as giving me time to just sit on the sofa and flick through some new books. Bliss.
Following our early afternoon jaunt to Washington Crossing, we did something that appealed far more to the boys – we headed into the city to soak up some of the festive atmosphere. I must confess that I am rather short of seasonal sparkle this year. I think November arrived quickly and caught me off guard and I have felt like I have been playing catch up ever since. I have also been very distracted by other things that have required my focus so I have had little time to think about Christmas. That is all on top of the fact that for me the holiday season brings with it additional chores, tasks and errands to be ploughed through. I am not feeling all bah humbug about it but nor am I excited and enthused about Christmas yet. I was hoping, therefore, that a trip into Philadelphia to see the market and the lights would start to sprinkle me with glitter.
Our first port of call was the Christmas Village. I learned that Philly had a Christmas market by reading a blog article on Phoodie and the Beast but maybe all of my distractions have led me to overlook promotion for it. Sited in Love Park, it is quite a bit smaller than the European markets it is clearly emulating but the compact nature probably suited us best as there is only so much perusing of wares my kids will tolerate. Swirling around a central Christmas tree, the little wooden shacks were selling all sorts of things. There were lots of stalls that would interest if one was seeking handcrafted jewellery. There were also lots of stalls selling lovely Christmas ornaments. I rather liked wooden Santas, carved in Russia and Ukraine, but they were very much out of my price range. We also liked a stall bedecked in blown glass baubles but I resisted temptation as I have found that glass baubles and small boys do not mix. The boys were captivated by a stall selling puppets. I think had they had deeper pockets, they could have spent a lot of pocket money at that stall.
It has been a few years since I was last at a Christmas market – the last one being in Glasgow – and I rather liked the experience. There was enough to see and do without it being a time consuming slog or another episode of “dragging whining kids somewhere against their will”. The atmosphere was friendly and warm, with plenty of people milling around, lots of glistening lights, and the smells of delicious foods filling the area and making my stomach rumble despite the fact I was still stuffed full from a late lunch / early dinner. While the compact nature of this Christmas village was helpful to us as parents, it did mean that all the people milling about were like sardines. I don’t like crowds because I do not like physical contact with random people so that was another reason we did not malinger too long in the market. We did stay long enough to let the boys pick out two little Germanic houses that emit a charming glow when a candle is placed inside.
After the visit to the Christmas market, a hop, skip and a jump brought us to the Comcast Centre where – at the top of each hour – a “Holiday Spectacular” is broadcast on their gigantic screens in the entrance foyer. We arrived with ten minutes to spare which was just as well as it fairly filled up after our arrival and the kids would not have gotten such a good view. The show is broadcast on the vast LED screens in amazing high definition. I am no technology junkie. My husband might marvel at developments in TVs and such like but it is all lost on me. However, as one might anticipate from a telecoms giant, the technology was incredible. The figures on the screen looked entirely three dimensional. There were snowy scenes, penguins, the Twelve Days of Christmas, The Nutcracker, giant piano keys, Dickensian London, and aerial scenes of central Philly. It lasted about 15 minutes and my kids were spellbound throughout. Nobody moaned about standing or about being hemmed in by other people. That there is a Christmas miracle. The whole presentation was very polished and actually quite enchanting.
Darkness had fallen completely while we were in the Comcast Centre but the air was still warm. We are experiencing unseasonably warm temperatures in PA this December and are apparently on track for a record warm Christmas Day. T-shirt weather in December! The kids were loving it so we let them run around outside the building where there were spotlit trees and twinkly lights in branches to entertain them. I disrupted their play to try and get a festive photo of all four of them together. That did not go down well.
Next stop was Macy’s where I had heard there was a holiday light show at the top of each hour. We made it on time by the skin of our teeth but finding a position on the shop floor that afforded us decent views was impossible. The kids lost interest within minutes. It was also uncomfortably hot because of the combined body heat of all those people crammed together indoors. Frankly, the light show was also rather lacklustre compared to the broadcast we had just seen. We, therefore, left after a few short minutes. The kids were far more taken with the Macy’s window displays out on the street, a few of which were on a Peanuts theme.
We had not intended another stop off on our trip into Philly. However, as we strolled past the Municipal Buildings Plaza, my kids were overtaken with a fit of nostalgia. They had spent a lot of time playing in this plaza during our first ever trip into Philadelphia. Their rosy glow was ironic given that that particular trip was a horrendous fail. My husband having to take a lengthy work phone call combined with the kids pitching fits at every opportunity made it an incredibly stressful trip. Apparently, however, they had fostered fond memories for this place. The plaza is the location of a collection of sculptures depicting gigantic gaming pieces, dominoes, Monopoly markers. A group of teenagers were using it as a skateboarding park but they were soon pushed to the edges by my mob who were excitedly running and climbing and leaping all over the place. It was a fun conclusion to a fun evening. I might even have felt the first twinkles of festive spirit stirring in my soul.
One week into December and our holiday traditions are underway. Despite not being Christians, we celebrate a secular version of Christmas as both Mr Pict and I were brought up with Christmas and wanted to keep those traditions going when we had kids of our own. Of course, some of the traditions we had back in Britain have had to be mothballed since we emigrated to America. Pantomimes, for instance, do happen here but are far too expensive for us to attend so no more pantomimes for us for the time being. We have, however, started new traditions since moving here. It seems those are already ingrained since the kids were determined that we were going to do the exact same things this year that we have done before.
First among these was the Holiday Light Show at Shady Brook Farm. We first went in 2013 for our first American Christmas and then again last year. I offered a suggestion that we do something different this year, another light show even, but the kids shot my suggestions down. They want repetition and tradition. So off to Shady Brook Farm we went. I think the kids like that we drive through all the illuminations, cosy in the car, not having to wander around in the chill night. They had fun seeing old favourites among the lights and spotting some new additions. Then we parked up and got out to see the tree and buy some kettle corn and visit the farm shop. The place was jam packed with people, however, so we didn’t stay too long.
December also means the return of advent traditions to help the kids count down to Christmas Day. We have a small wooden chest full of drawers that gets open every day plus a Playmobil advent calendar, both traditions we have had since the kids were tiny wee, but now we also have Noel, our Elf on the Shelf. Now there is a tradition I regret starting. We don’t do the whole “magical” bit. The kids know fine well it is me who moves the Elf each night and they know that the Elf is not reporting back to Santa. For them, finding Noel each morning is just a fun wee treasure hunt. They look forward to seeing what Elf s up to, either some kind of antics or else a message for them regarding a festive activity. All harmless fun except that I have to remember to move the ruddy Elf every evening. Already, a mere week in, I have had to get back out of bed in order to go and move him somewhere, having been jolted out of the land of Nod by the sudden remembrance that Noel is exactly where he was the 24 hours before. I am also struggling to be very creative with him. Some people do these amazingly elaborate set ups with their Elves. Not me. I just hide Noel somewhere. If I do a set up, it’s usually something that makes the kids chuckle rather than create magic. Noel pooped chocolate into a jar the other day. On the first day, he was found under the Christmas tree with a bottle of liqueur. That was just as well since I failed to move him that night and I had the excuse of an Elf hangover for why he hadn’t moved.
One day, Noel the Elf was found with a gingerbread house ready to be decorated. I once baked a gingerbread house from scratch but I had a conniption trying to get the walls to stick together with icing and it ended up looking like a total hovel. I discovered prefabricated gingerbread houses when we emigrated and, therefore, they can become part of our family’s holiday traditions without me losing the plot. The three younger boys had a lot of sticky fun decorating the house and eating the surplus construction supplies.
We decorated the house for Christmas right after Thanksgiving. Mr Pict would rather wait until later into December but all the hassle involved in decorating makes me want to have it last for a good few weeks, more return for my investment. I don’t go overboard. We don’t decorate the exterior of the house. Yet. Mr Pict wants to get stuff for outside but I don’t know that I could deal with the additional hassle. Bah humbug. Sorting out the twinkly lights for the Christmas tree was quite enough stress, thanks very much. It was worth it though: the formal living room has a lovely glow to it now.
The sweetest thing, however, is that my 6 and 8 year old boys made their own advent calendar. Playing outside in the garden one evening, they gathered up 12 rocks and decorated them with a sharpie in order to depict the Twelve Days of Christmas. They then brought it indoors and arranged it on the kitchen floor as a surprise. Which it was. A delightful surprise. I do love it when my kids are creative, experience a spark of inspiration. We now have the rocks arranged on the windowsill. Just to add to the cuteness, my youngest keeps singing that the third day is “three henchmen”. I am now changing the lyrics in our household. That’s another new holiday tradition.