Merry, Bright, and Delicious

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It’s easy to fall back on decorating in the same way every year for the holidays, using the same treasures, heirlooms, and baubles. That’s part of what makes a tradition, and there’s nothing wrong with always putting your vintage Santas on the mantle, or filling a glass bowl with ornaments and greenery. Those looks are classic, and timeless.

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It’s also fun, though, to come up with a fresh new look for your home. I’ve decorated so many holiday venues–my own home, my clients’ homes, and showhouses galore! Here are a few of my favorite vignettes! I hope they’ll inspire you to create beautiful new tableaus this year.

russian folk tale

The display above was presented at the Whaling Museum on Nantucket. It’s one one I did several years ago for the Nantucket Historical Association’s Festival of Trees, inspired by a Russian Folk Tale called The Snow Maiden.  You can see her silhouetted in the white cathedral.  It celebrates my Russian heritage, which makes it all the more special to me and my family. Take some time to look into your own ethnic background and family heritage to see what legends and beliefs you can discover. Then introduce it to your holiday decor!

victorian christmas

A Victorian Christmas was the theme for this holiday house at the Lockwood-Mathews Mansion Museum in Norwalk, Connecticut, a National Historic Landmark dating to 1868.

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A custom-made sugar gazebo graces the mantle with sugar Christmas trees, and elaborate swags of fruit-embellished evergreens were in keeping with the traditions of the era.

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You almost expect to see Charles Dickens arrive on a visit from London, with his wife Catherine, and their ten children!

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The Dickens family was, sadly, no where to be found, though it does look as if they just left the table!

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Luckily for us, we didn’t need the Dickens family to have a wonderful dinner at this year’s Christmas Stroll on Nantucket. We have our very own Saint Nick–no, not that Saint Nick–I mean my stepson, Nick Fasanella, a fabulous chef and owner of two San Francisco restaurants who comes and cooks for us. It doesn’t hurt to start the dinner preparations with a visit to the Scallop Shack for fresh Nantucket Bay Scallops right out of the water.

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Once Nick picked out the freshest, most delicious looking scallops he could find, he headed home to prepare this fabulous menu:

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Nantucket Scallops and Corn Chowder in a Mashed Potato Basket

(pronounced “scollops”)

(Serves 4)

Step One: Mashed Potatoes

6 Medium sized Yukon Gold Potatoes

1/2 cup whole milk

3 Tablespoons Butter

Salt and Pepper to taste

Bring 4 quarts of water to a boil and add potatoes that have been cut into quarters. Simmer for 15 minutes or until tender. Puree with milk and butter until smooth.

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Step Two: Corn Chowder

2 slices bacon, diced

1 cup onion, diced

1/2 cup celery

1 Tablespoon butter

1 Tablespoon all-purpose flour

2 cups half and half

4 ears corn

Slower render bacon, and when brown, add onion, celery and butter. Sweat until translucent (3-5 minutes). Stir in flour and toast for two minutes. Stir in half and half, bring to a simmer, then add corn. Simmer for 15 minutes. Check for seasoning.

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 Step Three: Scallops

Bake 8 slices of thin bacon in a 350 degree oven until nice and crispy; set aside.

(Keep oven set on 200 degrees after the bacon is cooked. Put four large dinner plates to warm in the oven.)

1.5 -2 lbs of Nantucket bay scallops

2 Tablespoons butter

4 Tablespoons Olive Oil

Salt and Pepper

Work in two batches. Heat a large saute pan and 2 tablespoons of olive oil, and 1/2 of the DRY scallops (pat both sides in paper towels) and then add 1 tablespoon butter. Cook for 1-2 minutes, then shake, flip, or roll the little fellas onto the other side for 1 minute.If the pan is properly hot they should be golden brown on both sides. Slide onto a plate and keep warm in the oven. REPEAT.

To Plate: Place a nice scoop of potatoes in the center of the plate, working inside out to make a circle. Add the chowder, 1/4 of the scallops, 2 crumbled slices of bacon, and parsley.

YUM.

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To see more of Chef Nick’s great food, check out www.tackosf.com.

 

The Story of Grace

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There are several definitions of “grace;” they range from a sense of propriety to charming behavior, from a divine virtue to a prayer before a meal. Grace can mean a musical trill, or an act of kindness. To me, Grace will always be my mother’s name, and the legacy she left me of living a life filled with light, and love.

 

A maxi coat wearing mother, taking her little girl to school, finds room under the yards of material to shelter both of them from the icy snow flurries in London, England on November 29, 1969. (Photo by Express/Getty Images)

 

I wrote about her final gift to me one Christmas long ago in a blog post called  Christmas with Grace.  I have the love-worn and gently aging quilt that she made with her own steadily weakening hands in her last months with us. It is one of my most treasured possessions. Because we said goodbye to her in December, this month always brings the most poignant memories flooding back to me, and sometimes, more magical opportunities to remember her.

 

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On a cold Christmas Eve several years ago, I needed some last minute items from the grocery store before they closed, and had quickly done my shopping. As I was hurrying to my car, I noticed an elderly woman standing alone, holding a bag. She looked like she was waiting for someone, and I hesitated before stopping at her side. I didn’t want to bother her, but I had a feeling that something was wrong.

 

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“Hello,” I said to her. “I noticed that you’re waiting here alone. Is everything all right? Can I be of any help?”

She looked at me, and now I could see the worry on her face. “Oh, everything’s fine,” she told me. “It’s just that I don’t drive anymore, and I had called for a cab, and it doesn’t seem to be coming. Maybe if I just wait a little longer…”

Snow was falling, beginning to accumulate on the sidewalk and parking lot. The roads were not in good shape, and surely would be getting worse.

“I’m heading home and would be happy to drive you,” I told her. “Do you live nearby?”

She nodded, and said, “Only a few blocks, but I can’t impose on you. I’m sure the cab will be here soon.”

I started to walk away, but I wasn’t at all sure the cab would arrive soon, or at all. I turned back toward her. “Please, it’s not an imposition–at all. Let me help you. I’d like to.”

She peered at the quiet street, watching the swirling snow, then finally said, “All right, then. If you’re sure…”

I helped her into the car and soon we were turning from one dark and slippery street onto another, until at last we reached a small home in an older neighborhood. There was a light left on over the front door, but the rest of the windows were dark. I hated to leave her there alone.

 

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“Can I help you in with your bag?” I asked her. “I can help you get the lights on before I go.”

Suddenly I could see alarm in her eyes. She was an elderly woman, living alone, and she didn’t know me. She stammered nervously, reaching for the door handle. “Oh, no no no, I can do it myself. Really. I appreciate your help so much, but I’ll be fine–”

I knew she was anxious, so I didn’t press her. She gathered her things and had one foot out the door when I said, “Wait–I don’t know your name!”

She looked at me, and smiled. “Grace. It’s Grace.”

The walkway was white with snow, and she took her time on her way to the door. I remained in the driveway with my headlights on until I saw her safely inside.

 

Surprise!!

 

Grace. Her name was Grace. I turned on the radio, just as “O, Holy Night,” began to play. It was a peaceful night, and I felt warmth spreading from my heart all throughout my body, as if I were being held by someone, as if I were being embraced.

There are mysteries in life, things I can’t always understand, and things I can’t explain. But there are other things that I feel with a sureness that defies any logic that might explain away what I know to be true in the world:

We all have angels of our better nature, and angels by our side on earth who are our friends and family, just like the family I had waiting at home for me that night. And sometimes, there are angels around us who we feel rather than see. For me, there will always be one angel in particular who I am reminded of each Christmas.

Her name is Grace.

 

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Simple Giving

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Each year, when the family is gathered together, we talk about our plans for the holidays. In recent years, inspired by how a friend and his family in Switzerland found a deeper meaning in Christmas,we have agreed to celebrate in a simpler way.

Skyline view of the old city center of Bern, Switzerland (an Unesco World Heritage Site) during a winter twilight. Some snow visible on the rooftops of the buildings. Between the houses, the spires of the most imposing churches of the city can be spotted, as well as the dome of the Switzerland's Parliament House. HDR Image.

My friend and his family live in a tiny storybook village. I’ve been there, and it’s magic. Their new way of celebrating began when their son, Theo, came home one Christmas Eve from college and told the family that he had heard the local village butcher was going out of business, and closing that night. As a family, they totaled up the cash value of their presents, and decided to return them. Instead, they brought the cash amount to the butcher and his wife in an envelope that very night. Their business was saved. They all cried with joy.

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And so it goes. Instead of the rush to buy gifts and spend money for things we don’t truly need, we focus on giving from our hearts. There are so many creative options! Last year, some people read aloud from passages or poetry that are favorites.

My aunt gave blankets to the Sioux Native Americans to help them get through the winter. One person crafted a lovely handmade ornament for our tree, others made donations to Greenpeace, or did acts of kindness, such as visiting shut-ins. We all shared our stories at the table, and it was a very uplifting and joyful time. Noisy, too!

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We do like to keep the tradition of giving gifts to the children, as a symbol of the gifts of the Magi to the Christ child in the manger. As they grow up, we’ll explain the significance of this. So our little Luke, Vidal, and Richard Thomas will all have gifts. That’s half the fun–watching them open things so joyfully!

Frank and I are gifting a live pig to a family through our favorite charity, Heifer International. Hopefully, he’ll be on his way soon. Livestock gives the village the gift of independence, and the piglets are shared in the village to spread the abundance.

heifer pig

We’ll also share photos of our “adopted” child in India, a little boy named Nik (just like my stepson, Nick!) through Childfund International. Not only does he share Nick’s name, but they share a birthday: September 10th! His father is so ill with diabetes that he can no longer support the family. Now they have money for insulin, and clothes for Nik so he can attend school. I’ll even show the family Nik’s report card.

childfund international

Watch a Childfund International video here. 

I chose the title of this post to be the same as the name of a wonderful book by Jennifer Iacovelli, the author of Simple Giving: Easy Ways to Give Every Day

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Jennifer began a blog, Another Jennifer, in February 2010, to explore the topic of philanthropy and what it meant. As a fundraiser for a non-profit organization for several years, she was getting frustrated with her progress in raising money to support good works, and urging legislators not to cut public funding.

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Jennifer Iacovelli

Her book, Simple Giving, takes her blog one step farther. She hopes to inspire readers to do more giving in ways that are meaningful. Giving doesn’t always mean writing a check. It can be taking the time to write to your legislator about an issue important to you, or bringing doughnuts to your local fire department. You might check on an elderly neighbor, or just write a thank you note to someone who has done something for you.

“Three things in human life are important. The first is to be kind. The second is to be kind. And the third is to be kind.”

–Henry James

In addition to Jennifer’s simple suggestions for daily acts of kindness, she shares some ideas for charitable giving to organizations you might not have heard about before. There’s Nearby Registry, a website that allows you to shop for unique gifts from local shops and nonprofits. Or To The Market, an online marketplace that showcases handmade goods created by survivors of abuse, conflict, and disease.

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Molly Bears makes weighted teddy bears –so they feel like you’re holding an infant–for families who have experienced any form of infant loss, free of charge. Climate Counts holds companies accountable for their influence on climate change. Ark Project Now is based on the movie Evan Almighty, when Steve Carell’s character asks Morgan Freeman, who plays the role of God, “How can we change the world?”

And Morgan Freeman replies, “One act of random kindness at a time,” and writes the abbreviation, A-R-K, into the sand with a stick.

Lovely young brother and sister write words in the sand together

One person can make a difference; one person can change the world. Let me know what you choose to write in the sand, and how you’ll bring hope to people who may have lost theirs.  I’ll share it here, and on my Facebook page.

Happy Holidays.

Word "Hope" handwritten in sand at beach.