Wednesday, December 29, 2010

The Calm After the Holiday Storm

I love the time between Christmas and New Year’s. It’s a small respite from the winter months that has a little bit of a magical lull. Kids are on school holiday, and business operations have slowed down. To me, this is the perfect time to take advantage of a little hit of quietude, and enjoy the calm after the holiday storm.

Here are some ideas about how to make the most of the halcyon days between holidays:

-Spontaneously invite friends over for drinks, dinner, or Christmas cookies. Keep these gatherings simple.  Don’t worry too much about the food.  It’s all about spending time with friends and staying cozy. Everyone has so many Christmas dishes and holiday treats still floating around, it’s easy to cobble together a meal or a festive get together from holiday odds and ends.

-Spend time with your family. Play games, go see a movie together (there are lots of fantastic, big-budget holiday productions of all genres in theaters now) or rent a movie and stay in.  These family activities can be as simple or elaborate as you want to make them, thanks to the little extra slack that comes at this time of year.

-Cultivate quiet. Everyone talks about peace this time of year; make some for yourself! Light candles, take a bath, make tea, or curl up with a new book you received as a gift this year. Take stock of this past year, and think about the things you want to bring into your life in the new year. 

The peace, silence, and stillness of late December is something to cherish. Extend hospitality, spent time, express gratitude, bring light, and have a very happy holiday.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Blending Christmas Traditions

Hot Toddies-continue traditions...

...and add new ones-No-Bake Missouri Cookies

Holiday time is a season rich with tradition. Now especially, we invest great energy and care into continuing the traditions we’ve grown to know and love. In my last post about Christmas Eve, I wrote about reinventing old Christmas Eve traditions or starting new ones tonight. The idea behind introducing a new activity or meal on Christmas Eve was to refresh the holiday experience. However, I realize that abandoning a timeworn tradition can feel strange. We feel hesitant to take the leap and try something new. 
I was puzzling over how to solve the dilemma when I had a Eureka Moment, thanks to a friend’s tree trimming, cooking making party we attended last weekend. When she extended the invitation, this friend explained that her family’s tradition was to invite their friends over to help bake and decorate the tree. I loved the way her tradition cultivated community. I also shared with her a tradition of ours: making hot toddies, our way to take that tiny edge off the stress off hanging breakable ornaments and attempting complex cookie recipes. Without missing a beat she said, “Will you make those for us on Sunday then?” And that’s when I had the Eureka Moment: 

Instead of abandoning old traditions in favor of new ones, blend and trade traditions with your friends and neighbors. Kind of a similar idea to the lesson in the saying “make new friends, but keep the old.”

Everyone was happy as a result of our tradition trade. The hot toddies were a hit with my friend’s family, and her family’s favorite Christmas cookie, No-Bake Missouri Cookies, were well received by mine. 

We also thoroughly enjoyed helping our friends with their holiday preparations. Many hands made light work. And at the end of the night, we went home with a tin full of freshly baked cookies!

What could be better? 

 I’m wishing everyone a holiday filled with love and light.

Merry Christmas to you and yours,

Monday, December 20, 2010

Christmas Eve Traditions, New and Old

Christmas Day is for the traditional dishes, time with your relatives, and the hubbub of a full house. On Christmas Eve, you’re allowed to improvise. 

Make Christmas Eve a night for your family and about your family.  Make it about what you love. The Christmas Eve and dinner that night can be special without being over the top. This is an evening that should feel comfortable, relaxed, and casual. Plan a meal of your family’s favorite food that reflects your everyday family culture at its best. I know one family that makes hearty American chili on Christmas Eve. Another family that lived in the Southwest makes tacos and chiles rellenos. In my family, a few years ago we started making osso bucco, a stew-like Italian preparation of veal shanks my girls and husband love. 

This Christmas Eve, try a new recipe, break tradition, or start a new one. Be unconventional! Every Christmas Eve, my girls each get to open one gift each. I can’t remember how this tradition started, but it stuck and became part of our family. When the girls were little, it boosted their anticipation of Christmas Morning, which I loved to watch. As they grew, opening one present became an opportunity to savor a special gift on its own without the clutter and chaos of Christmas Morning. 

I encourage you to start a new tradition in your family this year. Invite over close friends, play a new game together, or transform your Christmas Eve dinner. 

Tonight, you can do whatever you want.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Nesting, Part 1

By Rosanna's eldest daughter, Alessandra Wollner
About a week ago I signed the lease on my first post-college house. Despite the house’s quirks, I’ve fallen in love. From the moment I stepped across the threshold, I could feel it inviting me to fill these rooms, to make a house a home. It was an invitation I was more than happy to accept. 

It’s a big thing, moving into the first home of one’s own. Throughout this process, I’ve devoted significant psychic energy to one question: 

What makes a house a home? 
Nearly every waking hour finds me working on the answer to this question. The more I mull it over, the more answers I find. For now, here’s what I’ve got: 

Name Your Home
In Morocco, people name their houses—Dar Dmana, Dar Zaman, Dar Malek, Dar Afram. In Arabic dar means “house.” Morrocan transplant and writer Tahir Shah devoted two whole books to depictions of life at Dar Khalifa (The Caliph’s House), his home hidden deep in the heart of a Casablancan shantytown. 

I like the idea of naming a house. It acknowledges the fact that every house has a personality and a story, like us. Naming your house works the same way a pet name does; it deepens your fondness, drawing you closer to the object of your affection.   

Everything about our new house, from the inlaid wood floors to huge, verdant garden, feels charmed. And somehow, each furniture piece and decoration we add looks like it belonged here all along. In light of this enchanted environment, it felt natural when we started calling our new home “Magic House.” 

"Dar Danai" 

The Usable Used and the Free Store 
 “Home” to me means a place with soul. Homes acquire soul over time, which is why I much prefer to live in old houses rather than new ones. Magic House was built in 1890. 

The accrual of soul is the reason I furnish my home with previously owned or vintage objects and furniture. Chips and paint scratches welcome. Some people prefer the look of new Ikea products to found objects from their local thrift shop—that’s fine. Aesthetics are, after all, a matter of taste. I will maintain one thing: it’s easier than you think to find what you’re looking for secondhand; you just have to put a little time into the search. 

Almost anything you can imagine wanting already exists out there, slightly used but still perfectly usable. All it takes is a trip to Goodwill and a quick jaunt through ebay to realize that our world is stuffed with stuff. Now that I’ve seen what’s already out there, I find it nearly impossible to justify the purchase of anything new. Buying items secondhand is the way to go. It’s environmentally responsible and pretty fun, thanks to the thrill of the chase. Finding the thing I’m searching for often requires a little digging, but when I stumble upon it at last, the discovery always thrills me. Be forewarned: it’s also a little addictive.  

If you don’t care for Goodwill or flea markets, and lack the patience for online trolling, there is another place you can look. It’s close to home, you never encounter other shoppers there, and the prices can’t be beat. I’m talking about your parents’ basement. I call it “the Free Store.” 

Luminescent, Not Fluorescent
I detest overhead lighting. It’s unpleasant and harsh. Buy lamps. Floor, table, wall, whatever. Use 60-100 watt bulbs. If you’re not in the mood to buy new lighting, at least replace the harsh bulbs in your overhead fixtures with lower wattage alternatives. Full disclosure: these bulbs aren’t environmentally noble like halogen bulbs or fluorescents, but in this case I’m willing to bend my environmental ethics a little for the sake of an agreeable ambiance. 

This one is obvious, and almost stupidly easy to execute. Here’s how: 

Buy a bag of votive candles. 
Take them home. 
Put them in holders.
Light them. 
If you don’t have holders, light the candles anyway. 

Any candlelight, even naked, adds instant warmth and sophistication to a space. Whenever my friends come over for dinner, they’re always inordinately impressed by the presence of lit candles. At which point I pull out the bag of unlit votives and reveal their country of origin: CVS. 

Original Art 
Original art and ambient lighting are the keys to making a space your own. Original art displays your aesthetic and creates an atmosphere unique to you. Note the adjective here—original art. Van Gogh still lifes, Matisse cutouts, and Warhol Campbell’s Soup prints do not count as original art. 

If you’re worried about cost, don’t be. Original art doesn’t have to be expensive. Take a trip in to your local thrift or antique store. I guarantee you’ll find at least one thing worth hanging on your wall that costs between $5-$50. Another good place to keep an eye out is at your weekly farmer’s or flea market. Local artists often make appearances at these venues to get their work out to the public. Etsy is another place to find a treasure trove of cool, original art. Watch out though—the site is extensive. Sucks me in every time.

My favorite way to procure original art by far is to collect work done by friends and family. When I can, I buy their pieces to support their work. Sometimes though, I get lucky and they give me a painting, print, drawing, or sculpture, much to my delight. A growing collection of paintings by my stepmother, Barbara Van Wollner, populates my walls. Whenever I move, I find a new place of honor to hang a painting by a visionary family friend, Carols Perez. Recently, we received a housewarming gift from Janet Delaney, a photographer who also happens to be a friend, mentor, and the mother of a college friend. Seeing her print in our kitchen every morning never gets old.

I love looking at these pieces and knowing someone I love created them. Needless to say, owning pieces by such brilliant artists whom I personally know also comes with an excellent set of bragging rights. 

By Janet Delaney

By Carlos Perez

By Barbara Van Wollner

Returning to the original question—What makes a house a home?—it’s obvious that our answers will vary; our homes are intimate reflections of our selves. Our homes telegraph our personalities and values to everyone we invite inside. In them we display items that expose our passions and hang photos that reveal whom we love and where we’ve come from. Regardless of how differently we answer that question that inspired this post, it’s undeniable that all of us seek the same essential things from our homes: comfort, safety, and rejuvenation. So—

How does comfort look? 
What makes you feel safe? 
What restores you? 
The key to figuring out what makes a house a home hinges on articulating the answers to these three questions and envisioning them. Once you do that, then congratulations—

you’re home. 
 *Still thinking about what makes a house a home. Check back soon for Nesting, Part 2

Magic House

Monday, December 6, 2010

Holiday Prep

The holidays are coming. This is an exciting time of the year filled with parties, special events, and family gatherings. For precisely the same reasons, the holiday season can also be hectic.    
Anyone who’s been responsible for holiday preparations knows what a challenge it can be to manage the many obligations surrounding this time of the year. The holidays require a lot of prep work and produce that nasty, all too familiar byproduct: stress. 

 The holidays give us two wonderful opportunities. This time we set aside to celebrate ensures that we join together and experience community, for a moment at least. These moments are precious, and unnecessary stress should not mar our happiness during this time of year. The best way I’ve found to take the edge off the holiday season is simple: plan ahead, which is especially helpful when it comes to one very important holiday activity—baking cookies.
Before the holiday festivities get into full swing, I try to do as much legwork as possible. That way, when the time rolls around for parties and gifts, I can enjoy these special moments with my family and friends to their fullest. When it comes to holiday cookies, I have two tricks.

Trick 1
Make and freeze the dough first, then thaw and bake the cookies later. This is a great strategy for cookie-making gatherings, to keep the time commitment reasonable and the labor pleasant.

Trick 2
Make and bake the cookies, then freeze them and bring them to room temperature in the tin. To thaw frozen cookies, just take the tin out of the freezer and let the cookies warm up; you don’t even have to turn on the oven. Afterwards, I make sure to store the cookies in the same tightly sealed tin in a cool, dry place.
By prepping the dough and getting a few batches baked before the holidays rev up, it means I have enough time to make cookies to give away as gifts. Every year, I bring a batch of cookies to our neighbors, either on a Rosanna platter or accompanied by a set of our holiday mugs. Heartfelt gifts are my favorite gifts to give. Homemade gifts are the most heartfelt, the clearest way to express love and goodwill. I often don’t find the time to make gifts but, with a little bit of planning ahead, I’ve found a way to find the time.

Pre-baking your holiday cookies is just one example of how to plan ahead during the holidays. Use this idea as a rule of thumb—apply it to gift shopping, party planning, and holiday meal preparation to ensure you enjoy this holiday season to its fullest, brightest extent.