Sunday, December 22, 2019

Light Christmas

The whole thing started about a month or so ago when a notice popped up on the Park Place Historic Neighborhood site on Facebook. It came from the Lexington Parks and Recreation Department promoting its inaugural "Light Up the Block" Christmas contest, in which individual houses – or even entire city blocks – would be judged by their decorating skills.

It sounded like it could be fun, and it was all voluntary. All you had to do was register with Parks and Recreation.

The original Facebook post that I saw included some prompting by my neighbor, Kristi Thornhill, who wrote "Let's do this!"

But the days ticked by. No more thought was given to the project. I didn't hear anything more about this and, as the registration deadline approached, I thought the whole idea would die on the vine.

This is nice. I never saw this coming...
"Well, what the heck," I thought, and went to the Rec department to find out more about this project. I ran into Tammy Curry, the contact person behind the contest, who told me if I wanted to register our block, I had to get the name, phone number and email address of each participating resident. She gave me some flyers with the contest particulars and suggested I slip them into mailboxes or door frames.

This was already becoming more work than I wanted to do.

Tammy told me our block could register by email, but I'm old school and went the extra step: I went to all eight houses on our block, flyer in hand, knocked on doors and explained to each neighbor what I was doing. My pitch was that we were going to decorate our houses anyway, what could it hurt?

Fortunately, I'm on pretty good terms with my neighbors. I return all the tools that I borrow from them, we keep their mail for them when they go on vacation, or we roll out their trash containers, water their gardens or even cut their grass when they can't. Stuff like that.

So they all agreed to do this. We were registered as a block.

I really didn't think anything would come of this. I mean, there are any number of wonderful neighborhoods within the city limits, so I really didn't give us much of a chance.

But the other day, I happened to look out my front window. A white van pulled up and two people got out. They started hammering signs into a couple of the yards. I went out to look.

Oh my gosh. We were designated as the Best Block in the Light Up the Block contest. It also featured a house that was deemed as most unique (two awards!). One of the people hammering those signs into the ground was Tammy herself. She thanked me for registering our block and asked me if we'd driven around town at all to look at the other lights.

"Not really," I said.

"Well, you were the best block, by far," said Tammy. "It's great to drive down the street. Thanks for participating."

That night, I took another look at our neighborhood. We're not exactly McAdenville, but we're not bad, either. Lighted Christmas balls decorate several trees; a couple of Moravian stars hang from porch ceilings; candles are in almost every window, and strings of lights outline eaves and walkways on a couple of houses. It's a feast for the eyes.

We might have to step up our game next year.

Sunday, December 15, 2019

Sounds of the season

"Oh, for crying out loud," I thought, grumbling as I pulled myself away from the television, not wanting to be interrupted from James Madison's tight football game with Northern Illinois. "Who's ringing my doorbell at this hour, in this weather?"

Grumble, grumble, grumble.

So I reluctantly got off my sofa, padded into the living room and opened the door.

There stood my across-the-street neighbors, TJ Strickland and his wife, Christie, and their two precious – or is it precocious? – young children, Ellie and Jackson. Ellie might be 5 years old. Jackson might be 3.

The Stricklands bring the neighborhood some holiday cheer.*
They started singing to me. They were singing "Silent Night."

I melted like butter for a sugar cake. It's not often you get Christmas carolers at your front door.

I smiled as the Stricklands were singing, and they smiled back. When they were done, Kim came to the door. She had been on the phone with a neighbor, but when she heard the singing on our front porch, she came to see what it was all about.

"Oh, there's Kim," said Christie, and the next thing we knew, they were singing "We Wish You a Merry Christmas."

And they were pretty good, too. Even their kids knew all the words, which to me was impressive. And maybe precocious (Jackson added to the effect by wearing an oversized Santa hat). They all sang on key. Wow.

When they were done, we had a brief, happy chat with them, and told them how good they were and thanked them for coming to our house. Kim hugged everybody in sight because that's what she does, while I pretty much stood flatfooted with a silly grin on my face because that's pretty much what I do. Too bad we didn't have any eggnog or wassail to share with them. That would have made it perfect.

We did suggest they go to a neighbor's house – the one Kim had been on the telephone with – and off they went to spread the spirit on an otherwise cold, damp night.

As it turns out, the Stricklands did show up on a few more porches that night, singing the songs of the season and spreading their good cheer.

Every once in a while I might remark and write about what a special neighborhood we live in, of how the sidewalks and alleys bring us closer together, of how we socialize, commune and commiserate with one another, openly sharing our joys and sorrows. I've never seen anything quite like this in a neighborhood before and the experience can be humbling.

And fortunate.

Yes, I think I see it now: Our neighborhood is our Christmas gift to each other.

Merry Christmas, Stricklands. And Merry Christmas to all.

*Photo by Amy (or Jim) Horn.

Sunday, December 8, 2019

Getting carded

One of the things I really enjoy about the holiday season (other than sugar cakes and Christmas cookies) is getting Christmas cards.

One of the things I really try to avoid during the holiday season is addressing and mailing Christmas cards.

I guess I just don't have the patience it takes to sign, address and stamp the 50 or so cards we send to our friends, family, co-workers and, in some instances, annual acquaintances.

There's still plenty of Christmas cards that need to be signed...
 (I use the royal "We" here. Because Christmas carding has become such a torturous obligation for me, Kim is the one who really does all the work. When the first week of December rolls around, she makes sure we have Christmas stamps on hand. The cards were already purchased months earlier so we're not caught off guard when the season rolls around. She has a handy check list nearby to make sure we haven't forgotten anybody, or that we don't send one family two or more cards. Kim is my hero).

The one assignment Kim has given to me is to write short notes to my brothers and my two oldest and dearest friends inside the Christmas cards we send them. I don't mind doing this, although I have noticed that my handwriting has really deteriorated over the years. I used to have beautiful penmanship, especially for a lefty, since my words didn't slant in the wrong direction and I mostly was able to avoid lefthander smudge.

But now, it seems, all that is a distant memory. I find myself leaving out letters. Each line of my personal note usually tracks uphill or downhill, and I don't know why. I dot not only i's and j's, but occasionally e's, y's and c's. It's like I can't help myself. Maybe there's some medication for that.

Anyway, I feel bad about my lousy handwriting. It's embarrassing.

In the old days, when I was younger (How is it we were "younger" in the "old" days? I'm approaching septuagenarinism – shouldn't these be my "old" days now?), I not only enjoyed getting cards, but sending them off, too. There was a time when I would Scotch tape each card we got to a door frame in the living room, where the tree was. It was a unique and colorful way to decorate the room.

I know I'm sounding Scrooge-like, but I'm going to bet I'm not the only one who feels this way. I'm going to bet that if you're a boomer, and because time seems to fly by faster the older we get, it seems like we just finished addressing all those 2018 cards. What, it's here again? I just sent you a card.

I'm not sure when Christmas carding began. Some suggest it's the invention of Hallmark, but it seems it's actually a Victorian custom that began in England around the 1840s (see here).

I know, I know. You're thinking, "Well, if that's how he feels about it, I'm not sending him one next year."

Please, don't feel that way. I still enjoy getting cards. It's tradition, and I love tradition.

There, I just solved my own problem. Next year, Christmas carding will be a labor of love.

Sunday, December 1, 2019

The eatin' season

It's here.

Thursday's turkey, dressing and pumpkin pie have hardly been digested and yet Kim already is making plans to bake up some Moravian sugar cakes as Christmas rapidly approaches. She's right on time – today is the first Sunday in Advent, which means that the Eating Season has arrived.

Can Christmas cookies be far behind?

I love Kim's sugar cakes. Although she herself is not a born-and-raised Moravian, she married one. And ever since I can remember, sugar cakes have been the staple treat for the holidays. Nana Kessler used to make them as if on an assembly line, and her daughter – my mom – occasionally made them, too, although she was really the Tollhouse Cookie Queen.

But I cannot remember a Christmas without sugar cakes, even if it meant getting one or two from Dewey's Bakery back in my bachelor days.

Early in our marriage, Kim got hold of an actual Moravian sugar cake recipe from an actual Moravian, and life has been good ever since. Well, good for me, anyway.

The recipe was the old, traditional one (probably dating back to the mid-1700's) that required mashed potatoes and yeast, which meant you had to wait hours for the yeast to rise before baking actually happened. It was a time consuming process that meant she had to be on a high-priority mission to make these things, usually six to eight of them. Making and baking them pretty much wore her out.

But last year, while on an errand, we unwittingly stumbled into the Old Salem Bake Shop at the Marketplace Mall in Winston-Salem, where they offered packages of Moravian sugar cake mix. A mix! And it's the real deal. The Bake Shop features a high-end commercial bakery in the back room, which mass produces its confections for the historic Winkler Bakery in Old Salem, just a couple of miles down the road.

We had hit the Moravian bakery mother lode.

So we bought a package and Kim was able to bang out four sugar cakes from the mix. And they tasted great. It was like a Godsend (and just in time for Christmas. Imagine that) for Kim.

And like an unexpected gift, our kitchen smelled just like a bakery during this very efficient process.

So this year, we bought two packages of sugar cake mix.

Which now begs the question: What am I going to do with eight sugar cakes? (Hint: I actually have a pretty good idea...).

•   •   •

The eating season isn't just about sugar cakes.

There will be neighborhood parties to attend. And parties with co-workers. And family gatherings. We already attended a Friendsgiving foodfest last night, which I guess is another excuse to eat more stuff just hours after Thanksgiving. We've already bought our Mrs. Hanes cookies, so...

The eatin' season, indeed.