It’s one of the most magical times of the year in here in Northwest Montana. Our landscape is being transformed into a winter wonderland; just yesterday my quaint small town started putting up holiday decorations - miles of garland and glowing wreaths attached to lightposts and storefronts. I'm busy dreaming up a sweet backdrop for the annual "Christmas at the Coop" celebration after the Night of Lights parade - Santa Clause is coming to town in just two short weeks! You don't want to miss it. The Shops at Station 8 is filled with sparkle and red plaid. It has never been prettier in the store. I'm wearing a cozy sweater and cute leather boots as I pull down totes of Christmas lights to have them ready to decorate the rooftop. The turkey is thawing in the fridge, and my Czech daughter is at this moment hopping on a plane to come see us. I love this season of joy!
I read an article recently about brain research which connects gratitude and happiness. Reflecting on thankfulness, mindful acts of kindness, and gift giving truly make us happier. No wonder it is the most wonderful time of the year! I love sitting down with my girls prior to Thanksgiving to write down a list of that for which we are most grateful. I'd like to make it a daily practice - imagine what a difference that could make in our hearts! I haven't even begun to think about Christmas shopping yet, but I have spent a lot of time lately thinking about memory-making and how to spread more kindness and cheer this season. Behind the sparkle, each of us have our hardships and struggle. Rather than feeling powerless, I'm choosing first to spread love - and the best method I've found is in the form of a small gesture, a smile, and a cookie.
One of our favorite traditions of the season is baking together - dozens of sweet treats which we will package up on pretty plates and use to fill festive tins as gifts for our neighbors.
The girls and I will spend an afternoon digging through our recipe boxes, pulling down stacks of cookbooks from the cupboard. We reminisce about the cookies of Christmas past. We write our shopping list - giddy to add sugar and marshmallows, sprinkles and chocolate, molasses and maple syrup to the basket - items outside our everyday consumption. We go wild and throw in a bottle of corn syrup, too. It is a season of decadence. We will start our cookie baking a few days before the big event- my sister Amy will don an apron and bake up dozens of sugar cookies and her family favorites with her kids too. And my step mom will add in her treasures - she is a creative and incredible baker - surprising us with homemade peanut butter cups and Oreo truffles.
While our valley has seen unprecedented growth in the past decade, for the most part our neighborhood has remained unchanged - some folks have been here since before I was born (and I wasn't born yesterday, friends). I love these sweet friendships and enjoy employing this small gesture as a way to make new folks feel welcome to our neck of the woods.
Bundled against the cold, we decorate a hay trailer with twinkle lights and blanket-covered straw bales. If it is especially cold, Pop straps a propane heater to the center of the trailer to keep the grand-kids' toes warm. Us grown ups tuck a little warmth into our thermoses. Then, Grandpa’s old tractor, a 1945 Ford 9N, pulls us down the dirt road while we carol, singing together above the din of the engine.
It’s not a big production. We sing "Jingle Bells" more than once. Little Henry will likely sing a solo of "Grandma got Run over by a Reindeer" which seems a real possibility given Grandma is likely to have chased a dozen deer and the wolf from her yard that very night. We don’t always sing in key or remember the second verse to “Come All Ye Faithful”.
We simply deliver offerings of sweets, wishing the good folks who live near us a very, merry Christmas.
More than wish lists and big packages under the tree, I hope these moments of giving, of happiness and the gratitude we have for this life and our community are what dominate my children's memories of the season. This is the feeling which lasts and for which we long for throughout the year. There are so many ways we can show kindness and foster a happy spirit of gratitude. Here are some ideas:
1. Pack a shoebox full of carefully chosen art supplies and toy for Operation Christmas Child. Take your kids to buy the small items which can be purchased with crumbled dollars saved from chores and lemonade stands. Aren't we so thankful for the never-ending supply of Crayons at our school?
2. Donate to a local coat drive. Have your kids help pick out a coat for a stranger. Don't just look for the least expensive option, but insist your kids find one they would like to wear. Aren't we so glad we have clothes which keep us warm?
3. Send Christmas cards. Purposely include people who may feel lonely this time of year - service men and women, a widow in your community. Aren't we so fortunate to have a family and friends to spend the season with?
4. Volunteer to ring the bell for Salvation Army or empty the penny jar in the bucket (who carries change? You have to bring it with you for this purpose!) Aren't we thankful that we don't have to count the pennies!
5. Make a wishlist using the World Vision Gift Catalog or something similar. How fun to buy chickens or pigs as a gift for someone! Aren't we so fortunate to raise our own food?
There are a gazillion ideas for random acts of kindness, but I say forget the random and instead be mindful of what you are grateful for and find joy in giving to others.
And of course, we love giving sweets to others. We love to imagine the joy felt when biting into a sweet treat - an exclamation of whoopie, of joy. My girls say their secret ingredient is love. Don't we know we all could use more of that.
I hope you'll be inspired to put together a plate of cookies for a neighbor or a co-worker. While we haven't settled on a set list we are hoping to add some new recipes to our cookie platter this year: sugar cookies (always and forever), gingerbread whoopie pies, chocolate crinkles, buckeyes, fudge, and peppermint-chocolate bark. I'm dying to try my hand at a soft peanut brittle like they serve at the Davenport in Spokane. Maybe we'll roast some nuts to toss in as well. If you haven't picked up a copy of Where Women Cook Holiday 2019, hurry and get one before they are gone! There are so many wonderful ideas for holiday treats and even a couple from yours truly.
I hope your holiday plans will include a lot that is merry & delicious!