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When I was in my 20s, I managed a nonprofit art gallery.

Aside from just being a really amazing job, one of the perks was that galleries are on really great P.R. lists, meaning we would get the most beautiful posters in the mail.

Some of them ended up on the walls, but far more of them received a more, shall we say, ephemeral and, ahem creative, use.

Wrapping paper.

Sounds a bit horrifying, I know. Full color, quality paper, beautifully designed museum and gallery posters, torn to shreds on Christmas morning. But we would get dozens of these things a month. It was always a good day when I got to the mail first, because I learned this trick from the gallery director, and we would try to beat each other to the best ones. Granted, some of them we kept– I framed a gorgeous Agnes Martin “poster”; it’s actually a full color offset lith on rice paper. I gave others to friends.

But most of them ended up under the Christmas tree. To give you some perspective, I worked there from 1981 to 1986. I still have several posters from this period, rolled up and waiting to be used.

The point, of course, is that most of these, even the very beautiful ones, were bound to end up in the trash. The thing with “creative re-use” is that you can’t be afraid to creatively reuse things, just because they seem so, well, useful.

What do you “creatively re-use” for the holidays?

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A community of crafty DIYers? Yup, knee-deep in Christmas ornaments.

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We gave up the tree. We’d actually experimented with this a couple of times while the kids were still around, largely due to my (Xan) discomfort with the holiday, but they weren’t ready to relent. However, with the kids living on their own, we’re now on our third treeless year, and having a blast finding creative ways to use the dozens and dozens of ornaments. Being a slightly obsessive organizer, I’ve got them sorted into little box according the theme: skating ornaments, animals, ethnic, artsy, religious, santas, etc. So far this year, though, I’ve only managed to decorate the goat.Goat Xmas

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Treeless here at our house too. When we lived in Palm Springs, I (Sincerely, Emily) was still at a point where I decorated the house. As the years went on, I was working full-time and doing art shows on weekends and some evenings. Eventually, I was beading non-stop and doing arts & craft shows full -time. January was the start of a busy season of art/craft shows in my area and the tree and decorations seemed to still be up in April. There came I point that I just didn’t go all out with the decorations anymore.

I truly enjoy the decorating part, I love seeing all the ornaments and the memories as I hung them on the tree, but I really dislike the take-down part. So, even though we are in Texas now, and I am not beading up a storm and doing arts/craft shows every-other minute, I still do not put a tree up (unless my mom visits). I MAY still wander up to the attic this year and dig out some things to put around the house, and then again, I may not.

For this post, I did manage to unearth one of my favorite ornaments (I have several). I love the clear sparkle of glass or crystal on my tree with the white lights. I have many other ornaments of color, but love the mix in the glass & crystal for the sparkly factor they bring.

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I found these ornaments at a store in Bayfield, WI one January long long ago. Oh, I think I will head up to the attic now and find one of the smaller trees to bring out.

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What are your favorite Christmas decorations?

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The past two weeks have kept me more busy than normal. Volunteering, working on things for a banquet, a party here, meetings, etc., all mixed in with doctors appointments. I was really ready for these past weeks to be over.

A few nights ago was one of the parties and a group of us have been working for several months to get the decorations finished. It was a lot of fun, but also a lot of work.

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Bringing a group together and working to come up with ideas that we all can agree with and be happy with can be a challenge. We really wanted to keep the decorations simple, but make a statement with an old-fashioned Christmas theme in mind. From a center piece on each table that was a simple as a stack of wrapped presents, to foot after foot of red and green paper chains. From a small handmade box with a treat for each person to other die-cut things on each table, I think we were successful.

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The banquet went very well, and we had a lot of very nice complements on the decorations. That put a smile on my face.

Have you come up with some simple and creative ways to decorate for a large party or banquet? 

Sincerely, Emily

You can see what else I am up to over at Sincerely, Emily. The topics are varied, as I jump around from gardening to sewing to making bread or lotion and many things in between.

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During the Hannuka festival I like to drive slowly through my heavily Jewish neighborhood and look for the menorahs.

It’s one of the more charming traditions of Hannukah (which is a tradition with much charm), that the menorah is placed in the window, so everyone knows “we celebrate this here.” Judaism has many public expressions of private faith; it’s a religion of bravura and courage, which I suppose it has needed to be.

While my parents were raised as Christians, I was raised to mistrust religion, so I’ve been somewhat on the other side of the windows for all of the winter traditions. I see the candles and the lights and the stained glass from the wrong side. No question, it’s beautiful from either perspective, but I’ve always imagined the interior of worship places to be a warm and mysterious communion where everyone knows the same thing; something I don’t, and can’t know.

Religion is a foreign language to me.

When my kids were born, I vowed that they would at least understand what was going on on the other side of the window, and we marked all the Judeo-Christian holidays with outward accoutrements: food and stories and decorations. We read the Hannukah story and lit the candles. We had a tree and presents and read Dylan Thomas and St. Luke. Easter and Passover, Hallowe’en and Purim. If I had it to do over, I’d add Ramadan and Diwali, as well as Solstice and Equinox celebrations. Oh well, I’ll have grandchildren someday.

Strangely, my husband, also not a Christian, has worked most of his adult life as a worship musician, in both the church and the synagogue. He knows the rituals inside out. He’s good at it, too.

Even though the kids are gone, and there’s really no reason to do it, I still light the Menorah and say the prayer. Yesterday I made challah. There are Christmas lights in my window and my yard.

Because the thing about the holy is that there is no “outside.”

Hannukah 1

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I have been looking around for a different cookie recipe to take to a cookie exchange that I am going to next week. In the process I came across a recipe for Pecan Pie Bars. My husband is a big fan of pumpkin pie and pecan pie, and my neighbor usually makes the pecan pie and I usually make an apple cranberry thingy. Well, this year, for Thanksgiving, I completely dropped the ball on desert and Wednesday night by husband asked if we were having pumpkin pie…. ahhh, no.

I did get him to agree to help me with the pecan pie bars and boy, they were great!

Pecan Pie Bars

Crust
1 1/4 cups flour
1/2 cup powdered sugar
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 cup butter

Preheat your oven to 350F/180C. crust: combine flour, powdered sugar and salt. Cut in 1/2 cup butter until your mixture is course crumbs. Pat the crumb mixture into an ungreased 11×7 baking dish. Bake the crust for 20 minutes, or until it is a golden brown.

“Pie” filling
2 eggs, slightly beaten
1 cup chopped pecans
1/2 cup packed brown sugar
1/2 cup agave syrup
1T cornstarch
2 T butter, melted
1 tsp vanilla

While you crust is baking, mix together eggs, pecans, brown sugar, agave syrup, 2 T melted butter and vanilla. Spread this mixture over your baked crust.
Bake for 20 minutes (350F/180C). Cool before cutting.

We cut our bars rather large (15 bars). I know I will be making these bars a few more times through December and will cut them much smaller (24 bars).

When I found this recipe, I didn’t have light corn syrup on hand, so I turned to our resident baker here at NDIN (Emily at Tanglewood Farm) about using a substitute and she recommended trying agave syrup. After I mixed the “filling” it seemed a bit thin and runny so I decided to add 1T of cornstarch to the mix. I have NO idea if this helped or not. All I can tell you is the “filling” was firm and came out fine.

When I decided to try this recipe I was looking forward to using my Vitamix to make the powdered sugar. Before I got started, I looked up in the cupboard, waaaaay in the back, just to make sure there wasn’t any store-bought powdered sugar still lurking up there. OH, MY! I found A LOT of powdered sugar up there. I can’t tell you when the last time was that I used any powered sugar, but I can also tell you that even though I gave away a ton of food before we moved to Texas (4+ years ago), somehow this powdered sugar came with us. Crazy! I can also tell you that this stuff in OLD. I probably would have bought this when I was taking cake decorating classes when we lived in Palm Springs. That was about 10 years ago. YIKES!

If any of you are from California, you will also laugh, because one of the packages is from Lucky (grocery store) and another box I found is from Stater Brothers. Lucky closed many years ago, but Stater brothers is still around out there.

What kind of treats are you baking this time of year?

Sincerely, Emily

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When I was a little girl, and well into high school, my mother and I would make gingerbread people every year for Christmas. And not just any gingerbread people. We would make a list of everyone we knew, and make portraits of them in gingerbread. I carry in my head a memory of every surface in our kitchen covered with gingerbread people.

Every year we would open up the cookbooks and search for the really good gingerbread recipe since we could never remember which one it was. Finally, in a moment of facepalming, I remember my mother writing “this is the one!” on the proper recipe.

After my mother died, I can’t remember if I kept this up, although I have a vague memory of trying to revive it with my own children. However, for whatever reason, “kids these days” or my ambivalence about baking, or a sense that people didn’t really appreciate the gesture, the tradition fell off.  I revived it a couple of years ago, making some for Wei’s church ladies, and my office mates.

When you lose someone you love, you hold tight to little things like notes and their personal belongings. My mother’s cookbooks are among my most treasured belongings, and her notes, in her precious hand, make me feel like she’s still here. I want to restart this tradition, maybe with my borrowed grandchild Tete, maybe with my daughter (or both of them).

So I started writing this and I pulled out the book with the gingerbread recipe, but…

No note.

No “this is the one.”

In my mind’s eye I can see the writing on that page. I have all my mother’s cookbooks, and yet it isn’t there.

So the tradition, in its entirety will continue. My daughter and I will see if we can identify the “good” recipe, just as my mother and I searched for it every year. I can see where this will become a family story, of the search for the best gingerbread recipe. It’s one of those things that makes holidays real.

Do you have a recipe for gingerbread men? Link it in the comments! Maybe I’ll use yours!

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