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.
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.
I like Thanksgiving as a holiday and I am glad I now get to legitimately celebrate it. As it is not related to a faith group or specific culture, it is inclusive (albeit that it is technically linked to a commemoration of colonising and persecuting an indigenous population) and everyone is off school and work at the same time. There is no frenzy of gift buying and wrapping, no decking of the halls (at least not for us) and so the focus is just on togetherness and feasting.
Being relatively new to Thanksgiving, I am only just gradually trying and testing different traditions and seeing which fit and which do not. This year, literally just two days before Thanksgiving, we had a painter in decorating our living rooms. The house was topsy-turvy, with boxes of art work, ornaments, books and possessions, shelves and cushions stowed absolutely everywhere else in the house. It was not conducive to organising anything and – in truth – I forgot to even meal plan until the day before. And that was the day when my oldest son came down with a sickness bug so we were housebound. Therefore, partly out of pragmatism and necessity and partly because I needed to use my time in other areas – such as putting the house back together – I took some lazy options and decided to try some American traditional foods.
I love green bean casserole. It’s delicious. That is partly because I load it with even more strong cheese and wholegrain mustard than the recipe instructs but it is just entirely scrummy. That’s a tradition I am totally on board with. Brining the turkey ensured that it was succulent and juicy despite its massive bulk. I am a roast potato fan but at least one of my kids claims he only likes potato if it is mashed so we decided to follow the American tradition of having mash. To make it extra creamy, however, I added sour cream and cream cheese. It was amazingly creamy and rich but my kids hated it. No actually they loathed it. Fail. Back to the drawing board with the mash then. We also used corn muffin mix rather than making them from scratch just because of time. They were OK but not amazing. The biggest fail of the day though was the stuffing. In Britain, stuffing is normally based around sausage meat. My intention, however, had been to make my mother-in-law’s recipe for rice and mushroom stuffing. Again, however, my timings being scuppered we opted to try out traditional American stuffing which is based around seasoned bread. It was horrid. Nobody ate more than a morsel of it because it was so entirely bland both in flavour and texture. Not doing that again. None of our desserts were homemade this year either. However, my husband and kids assure me that the pumpkin pie, pecan pie and fruit tart were delicious. So our Thanksgiving feasting traditions will continue to evolve until we get a mixture of things we all enjoy – or which the majority of us enjoy at least. And next year we won’t schedule lots of upheaval just before the holidays either.
The following evening, we took a trip out to Shady Brook Farm to see their Holiday Light Show. This was another attempt at forging a tradition since we had also gone there last year. The car drives through the displays of light which makes for some lazy spectating but keeps everyone contained and cosy. My kids each had a blanket in the car with them. The first section was themed around the song ‘Twelve Days of Christmas’ so we all sang the song, loudly, as we drove past each section of lights, often in a tuneless muddle but it was fun nevertheless. We also liked the sea themed section, the landmarks of the world and fairy tale sections. The displays all seemed to be the same designs as we had seen last year but that was OK as everyone enjoyed the twinkly lights – especially the tunnels of lights we drove through.
After the driving section, we parked up and wandered around the produce market section. While festive music played and synchronised lights twinkled and flashed, people were toasting s’mores around fire pits and aromas of salty kettle popcorn, melting chocolate and fried
dough filled the air, wafting at us temptingly from the surrounding stalls. We capitulated to temptation and bought a toasty hot funnel cake which the boys devoured in a matter of seconds, like hyenas ripping through a downed wildebeest. I should have made funnel cake and s’mores for Thanksgiving dinner.
Christmas was always going to be very different for us this year as we have always spent that time with the boys’ grandparents. This year it was going to be just the six of us. While clearly missing out on some of our family traditions as a result, my husband and I decided to spin that into a positive opportunity to establish some Pict family traditions of our own, tailor Christmas to the six of us, and determined to fuse established rituals and habits and fuse them with new experiences which – if successful – could become traditions to carry forward into future festive seasons.
By coincidence, as we were discussing this plan, I was invited by my six year old’s teacher to talk to her First Grade class about Christmas in Scotland as part of their “tradition trade”, and that gave me an opportunity to synthesise what the key customs were from our own family and cultural background, focusing on the ones that were most important to carry forward. Of course, most things are just the same as in the US – letters to Santa, stockings hung on Christmas Eve and snacks left out for Santa and the reindeer. Traditionally in Scotland a turkey or a goose would be the centrepiece of the meal but we decided that, so soon after Thanksgiving and with the price of them, we would have a plump chicken instead. We definitely wanted to have roast potatoes and roasted parsnips which led Mr Pict on a quest all over town trying to find some. I am assuming those are not such a popular root vegetable in America. The kids in the class had just about heard of them though only my own child could recognise them in the photo. Shame because parsnips are actually my favourite vegetable. Mr Pict and our 8 year old also wanted brussel sprouts. To me they smell like sweaty bum crack (the word for which is a shuck in Scots as in “If ye didnae hae a shuck ye’d droon”) and taste acrid and bitter. But they are traditional and so they too were purchased. Normally there would be Christmas pudding (round and steamed and served ablaze) and Christmas cake (hard, dry fruit cake covered in a layer of marzipan and icing) but none of us really appreciate those so we continued our own tradition by opting out of those and having different desserts instead. As you will gather, reader, most of our festive rituals revolve around our mouths and stomachs. One thing I thought I would have a hard time finding in the US was Christmas crackers, as I know they are not part of the festive culture here. For the uninitated, these are tubes of thin card covered in cheery paper and closed at each end and, when pulled, they make a bang and the contents are revealed, said contents being a paper crown (which it is compulsory to wear), some wee toy or item, and some corny jokes. I was so thrilled to find some in a local discount store that I literally jumped up and down with glee as I snatched them off the shelf.
Here’s my 6 year old pulling a cracker with me over Christmas dinner:
And this is my husband and me wearing our cracker crowns:
So those were the old traditions; now for the new.
The first was not of my own design. It was part of the Elementary School’s programme and something I understand is done in schools up and down the land – but it was new to us, of course, and that was Polar Express Day at school. I have a love-hate relationship with the movie ‘Polar Express’ (I’ve never read the book) in that I like the concept of taking a journey to rediscover the magic, wonder and joy of belief but to my mind that is rather undermined by the dead-eyed mo-cap animation of the human characters, some of the misery being just too cold and gloomy and the fact the central character is difficult to like. Not my thing it’s fair to say. My triumvarate of Christmas movies are ‘Nightmare Before Christmas’, ‘Muppets Christmas Carol’ and ‘It’s A Wonderful Life’. The last day of school before Winter break was designated as Polar Express Day so the boys went to school in their jammies, had hot chocolate and other treats and made crafts and generally had festive fun. It was a charming way to end the term. I am glad they could be part of that tradition.
The weekend before Christmas, we took the boys to a nearby Holiday Light Show. It was at the same farm where we had experienced Halloween fun and purchased pumpkins so it covered a vast area. We drove through the Light Show which was fun and cosy. We each oohed and aahed over each design. Some of the designs were really elaborate, with lots of mobile elements or animations, but the simple ones were also very effective. There were themes as we drove through, starting with designs indicating corporate sponsors, the Twelve Days of Christmas, fairy tales, the nativity, world landmarks and animals. My favourite part was driving through a tunnel of twinkling lights. It made for a lovely evening and next year we might even stay longer in order to toast marshmallows over the fire pits but we had not had our dinner so we went for a nosh up at Cracker Barrel instead.
We’ve always done the tradition of new jammies as a Christmas Eve gift because, frankly, I want the kids to look decent in the photos of Christmas morning as well as giving them some new pyjamas just because they could do with them. This year, however, we upscaled the Christmas Eve gift a little. I bought each of the boys a Christmas tree ornament that was perfect for them in order to serve as an annual reminder of their first Christmas in America, the idea being they would then have it to start their own individual collections of tree ornaments when they eventually grow up and leave home. Mr Pict’s contribution was to forage for some European sweet treats for us to munch along with some luscious hot chocolate.
In the end, all of our forging of traditions old and new worked a treat and we had a superb Christmas. We were relaxed and content throughout the day and most of all the boys were blissfully happy and that ultimately was the critical thing. We were striving to make their first Christmas in America a memorable one and that mission was accomplished.
This is less a blog entry about the differences between America and Scotland and is more about the differences in experiences between living in a rural town in Scotland and living in the suburbs of a city that has a population as large as the whole of Scotland. Life can be lived quite differently as a result.
This year I did not even start Christmas shopping until late November. We obviously could not import any new items with us, either in person or in our shipping, which meant my usual habit of starting to buy Christmas gifts in the summer – if not earlier – was not feasible. Then we had a “bedding in” period during which time I almost forgot that Christmas was just a few weeks away. It was a trip around Toys R Us – just for browsing purposes – that snapped me back into present buying mode as my kids mentioned a few things they would like to pop on their Santa lists.
Living where I used to, leaving it so late to embark on buying gifts for four children would have had me hyperventilating. We had a few really lovely gift shops in town but none of them really stocked much in the way of toys, certainly not many for kids above preschool age. It was, therefore, necessary to travel to the nearest large town – which was over an hour away on boke-inducing roads and still a bit limited – or the nearest city – which was a five hour round trip. As both excursions required me to take my children with me, it was all a bit stressful, not least because of having to somehow make secretive purchases with them by my side. In recent years, therefore, I had resorted to using the internet to buy gifts. However, the internet only really works effectively and efficiently if you know what it is you are buying. If the children had asked Santa for a specific toy or book then the internet worked like a charm for price comparisons and ordering and delivering, all without me having to venture outside the house. Doing it that way also made it very easy to keep on track of the budget and number of gifts being bought as all the “receipts” filed into my email inbox. Of course, the downside of all this delivery of packages was that some companies liked to charge additional shipping costs because of our postcode. Sometimes the premium was pretty steep. We might have been just over two hours from Scotland’s largest city but those companies would make it seem as if their parcels were having to go through acts of derring do and explore the hinterland of civilization just to make it to us. More than once I had to have an argument with someone on the phone who claimed they were going to place an additional charge on our delivery fee because we “lived on an island”. That was news to me. Also more than once I would suggest they look at a map, follow the route and tell me when it was they thought the delivery was going to cross a large body of water. Ridiculousness. In any case, the internet could indeed work like a charm for Christmas shopping unless the children were not asking for anything specific or had only asked for one thing when more than one gift was required. The need for search terms to input into the websites means that browsing in search of inspiration can be a long, wasteful and frustrating enterprise. I estimate that last year I accomplished as much as 90% of my gift shopping online but that was only possible because I started in May.
So this year was very different. The advantage of not making a start until late November was that it coincided with the Black Friday sales. My boys happened to be asking for a fair few new and popular toys and, by jings, they turned up thick and fast in the online sales which made life easier and cheaper for me. Everything I bought them during the sales period was 50% or more reduced. Kerching! Once that period was over, I still needed a few odds and ends for them, stocking stuffers and the like. In previous years, I would have cruised sites like ebay to find some funny wee bargain items. This year, however, I could mooch around the local malls and find lots of cool bits and bobs for them. And, what’s more, I could do all of that completely child-free since – living a few minutes away from stores – I could fit it all in while the biggest three boys were in school and the little one was in preschool.
There is a downside to this ability to shop locally, however, and that was that the novelty of it may have got the better of me. In an effort to make their first Christmas in America really memorable and special, I may just have gone a teensy wee bit overboard on the present buying front. It was all a very good price so I’ve not burst my budget but my understairs cupboard does look a bit like Aladdin’s cave. And I had to wrap it all. I. Loathe. Wrapping. Nothing sucks the Christmas spirit out of me faster than having to sit on the floor for hours cutting patterned paper, getting trapped by unruly sticky tape and trying to figure out the engineering required to neatly wrap all those bizarrely shaped boxes. Which is one of the reasons I love buying lego for the kids. Nice rectangular boxes. It took me several nights and a bottle of wine to get it done, but as of last night all of my gift wrapping is also at an end.
Now I can sit back and let the festive mirth and holiday fun begin. Except I can’t because my house still looks like a warehouse and I still have a third of the shipping boxes to empty once I can figure out where on earth I am going to place their contents.
At least I don’t have to gift wrap those boxes!