Wednesday, December 30, 2020

Season's Greetings, Happy Solstice, Happy Chanukah, and Merry Christmas everybody! 

Although I've printed this story in years past, I wanted to post it again as a reminder for us all to remember those special holiday moments we can hang onto when things get hard. In that spirit, I thought I would share a personal story about one of my best childhood Christmas memories.

Growing up the youngest of seven children to working class parents who struggled to make ends meet, I remember many years when we didn’t have much at Christmas. As a family, we made wreaths and sold them at my uncle’s nursery to make extra money for Christmas presents. In addition, Mom and Dad pretty much went into debt on their Sears card to make sure we each had a present or two under the tree and a big Ham dinner on Christmas Day. I remember Dad complaining (covertly, of course) that he’d be paying for Christmas until July.

Flash to when I was about ten and I wanted to start ice skating lessons at the new rink that had just opened that fall. My mother sighed and reminded me that “money didn’t grow on trees” and that we couldn’t really afford it with Christmas coming. She also mentioned being concerned that it would be just like the baton twirling lessons that I quit after two weeks. Ever the determined child, I wouldn’t take no for an answer. I wanted to take skating lessons so badly, that I emptied my school bank account and used my life savings of thirty dollars to buy skates and pay for my first six weeks of lessons. After the first six weeks, my mom figured that since I was keeping busy, working hard in school, and getting myself to lessons every Saturday, she would invest the twenty bucks for another six weeks for Christmas…and then another six weeks for my birthday in February.

I went to as many public sessions as I could afford with my two dollar allowance so that I could practice. Sometimes, when there weren’t many people public skating, the rink manager would forget about us and let us stay on for the next session. I would use the pay phone to call home and excitedly tell my mother that I got another two hours for free. Pleased that I was focused, dedicated, and staying out of trouble—not to mention out of her hair—she would let me stay as long as I wanted. The rink became a second home. All this time, no one in my family had seen me skate. I was dropped off or picked up out front, I walked the mile to and from the rink, or rode my bike if the weather wasn’t too bad (no hills involved). By summer time I was getting darn good in spite of the fact that I was still skating on a pair of skates I’d purchased from Bradlees for twelve bucks.

When I wanted to go to a four week summer camp that would cost us eighty dollars, Mom was hesitant. She drove school bus and since school was out, she didn’t get paid in the summer months and money was tight. She said no, and I was crushed.

Until she showed up early one day to pick me up and saw me skate. I was jumping and spinning and skating like the wind. My coach, a soft spoken and sweet man we called Mr. S., told her that I was by far his best student and that I had a natural talent that was rare. Mom found the eighty dollars. She took a second job, got me private lessons, and thus started my journey into the competitive skating world. But by later that fall, it was clear that I was on the ice with a very competitive group of skaters and that "in the shark tank of figure skating, I was a guppy." (Yes, that is a line from one of my contemporary YA novels, ON THIN ICE, which is part of the Girls of Thompson Lake Series and is loosely based on my own turbulent journey).

Now realize that by the time I was ten, most of my siblings had grown up and moved out, and were either working, in the military, or had started families of their own. As much of an adjustment as that was, it did afford me a few perks, not the least of which was my very own room, and no line for the bathroom. That Christmas, everyone came home. My brother was a Marine and one of my sisters was in the Navy and I hadn’t seen either of them in over a year.  We were all there in our tiny living room sitting on the floor or piled on the couch and around the tree opening presents. I picked up the heaviest package that had my name on it. It said it was from Santa, but that ship had sailed several years before. Usually I had a clue as to what my presents would be, having ferreted them out in my parents closet. But that year, I had no idea.

When I opened the box and found a brand new pair of Riedell figure skates with Gold Star blades, I burst into tears. All of my brothers and sisters had pitched in and bought me the $159 pair of top-of-the-line skates. I hugged everyone in turn and we all cried. It was the best Christmas ever, and I’ll never forget that one moment when I knew without a doubt that I was loved. It was the last Christmas I had with my family before my mother was diagnosed with cancer the following year. I skated and competed for a few more years after that, and learned a lot about sacrifice and hard work. But mostly what I learned from those difficult times is that family is who comes through for you at the end of the day, and that Christmas isn’t about the gift, but about the love that comes with it.

Peace and blessings to all through this challenging time, and may the new year bring us one step closer to healing.


Tuesday, December 29, 2020

Christmas Movies (Brian Katcher)










Monday, December 28, 2020

Fun (and Friendship) on this Holiday by Dean Gloster

            For the last nine months of pandemic lockdown, a lot of us have been on an enforced holiday from our prior life. We’ve lost our old routines and traditions. And we’re just now figuring out the new ones.

            A delightful new routine for me is that I meet in the park Wednesday mornings with two of my friends, Hao and Martha, to do socially-distanced Aikido weapons practice in masks.

            It’s basically three buddies meeting in the park to play with sticks and laugh a bunch.

            From its Japanese origins, there’s a formalism and etiquette to an Aikido class (“Hai, Sensei!”) but our Wednesday morning sessions aren’t like that. We’re the grownup version of the kids who stayed after school to screw around some more with what we just learned because it’s so cool.

Social-distanced and masked weapons practice with Aikido Shusekai

Pictured: Joy Reichart, Sensei and author Mike Jung

Photography Dave Philhower

            We go over what we learned in our Sunday outdoor social-distanced-and-masked weapons class from the dojo where we study, Aikido Shusekai, and then do various form practice katas or trade off with two-person or three person practice drills.

            Our sessions are about 80% Aikido, 20% improv comedy, and 100% hanging out with friends and having a great excuse for it. At the end we sometimes exchange books or talk about T.V. or tease Hao about how much he mentions that he liked Uma Thurman in the Kill Bill movies. (Martha is currently trying to get him to branch out to other martial arts movies with attractive female leads, like 1993’s Chinese The Heroic Trio.)

            Hao teaches Tai Chi and has a background with Chinese sword. He’s great with flow, and there’s a practiced economy to his movement. Martha is from what she describes as a “circus family” and has a classical ballet dance background, where they always made her do the male parts because she was so strong. She leans into the enthusiastic. My background is fencing, various impact sports, and some PTSD that periodically turns exercise into a survival situation in my reptile brain.

            It’s fair to say we’ve got three different styles. 

            In this pandemic we’re also all a little bit in mourning still for what we’ve lost: I miss indoor classes, the physical conditioning and dance of hand-to-hand Aikido, the rolls on the mat, the absolute effortless magic of it when I’m an attacker and one of the black belts uses a sumi otoshi throw. (Honestly, while parts of Aikido are footwork and physics, some seems more like soft-touch sorcery.)


Nick Walker, Sensei

Pre-pandemic photography Azzia Walker

            If we all survive this epidemic (Hao and I are in our 60s, and I have bad lungs) it will be such a joy one day to go back to indoor, hand-to-hand classes.

 I miss hand-to-hand Aikido

Pre-pandemic photography by Azzia Walker

            In the meantime, though, we’re doing what we can to keep part of our skills, and along the way, we’ve created something new and different. Two Sundays ago, it was drizzling rain, so Hao missed our Sunday class with Aikido Shusekai. Martha and decided that we’d tell him that Sensei had shared with us a secret new technique she’d called the “Uma kata” and that we’d show it to Hao if we didn’t forget it by Wednesday.

            This set off days of text exchanges including the Limerick: 

            An Aikidoka once was somewhat partial

            To an actress in films rather martial

            So two of his friends

            Said, “Ooh we’ll tell him

            Of her secret moves rather artful.” 

            Fun was had. As I write this, a week later, there’s another flurry of texts. Perhaps inspired by The Heroic Trio, Hao is offering to show us Chinese sword katas, Martha is offering to fill in the missing gaps of our knowledge about martial arts films with women, and somehow in the process they have cast me as Wonder Woman in any film featuring the three of us.

            As with so much of life, I have no idea what’s going on. But I’ll be there Wednesday and just go with it.

            As you get older, it’s harder to make new friends. But it is possible, and when it happens it’s especially delightful because you appreciate it more.

Pre-pandemic photography by Azzia Walker

            And that’s where we are, now, in lockdown during this pandemic. On holiday from our prior practices and routines, we’re growing something new and different. As with other holidays, my friends, the ones we make these days should have some bright and unforgettable moments of new joy.

            Wishing you all happy holidays and a better year ahead, and wherever you go, may you find the magic of friendship.


Dean Gloster has an MFA in writing for children and young adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts. He is a former stand-up comedian and a former law clerk at the U.S. Supreme Court. His debut YA novel DESSERT FIRST is out from Merit Press/Simon Pulse. School Library Journal called it “a sweet, sorrowful, and simply divine debut novel that teens will be sinking their teeth into. This wonderful story…will be a hit with fans of John Green's The Fault in Our Stars and Jesse Andrews's Me and Earl and the Dying Girl.” His current novel is about two funny brothers who have to team up with their friend Claire to save the world. It has the usual Dean Gloster novel ingredients: Death, humor, the question of whether it’s possible to save someone, a love interest to root for, dysfunctional parenting, and an off-kilter sensibility, including a mergers and acquisitions lawyer dad who is missing 57 percent of his soul.


When Dean is not studying Aikido or downhill ski racing—and, let’s face it, there’s less of that now—he’s on Twitter: @deangloster

Thursday, December 24, 2020

Feuerzangenbowl [Brenda Hiatt]

 Since we’re writing about holiday traditions this month, I thought I’d talk about one that might not be familiar to most of you, but that I’ve come to love—a German tradition, but with our own family twist.

The first Christmas after my older daughter had moved to Germany, she brought home the tradition of the Feuerzangenbowl. It involves a big pot of Glühwein (hot mulled wine) with a rum-soaked flaming cone of sugar suspended above it so that the melting sugar (and rum) drips into the pot. A festive sight, to be sure! According to our daughter, the tradition also involves standing around the flaming punch and singing Christmas carols to the “Fire Singing Bowl” as the sugar burns. Happy to have her home for the holidays, we cheerfully obliged and thus was born an enduring family tradition for Christmas Eve (to follow our traditional Christmas Eve pizza). 


A fancy one pictured on Wiki. (We use a big stew pot.)


Some five years later (after I’d learned a wee bit of German), I discovered to my amused chagrin that my daughter had fabricated part of the story. You see, Feuerzangenbowle does NOT, in fact, mean “Fire Singing Bowl” (though it does sort sound like that). Literally, it translates into “Fire Tongs Punch.” My daughter added the whole bit about singing Christmas carols, since she's always adored doing that and has always pestered the rest of us into singing along. (She’s a singer, you see. The rest of us are…not.) 


Still, the singing does add some extra fun to the tradition, especially as that 150 proof rum starts to kick in! And the rest of the tradition really is ubiquitous at Christmas time in Germany, both at private parties and their numerous Christmas markets. 


This, I’m told, is the largest Feuerzangenbowle in the world, at a Christmas market in Cologne (where my daughter lives):

That's me down front!

And here is how it’s typically served at those open-air markets, often with paper cones of candied nuts:


This year our extended family had planned to spend Christmas in Germany, but in 2020 that obviously couldn’t happen. (Sad sigh) Even so, through the magic of videoconferencing, we're going to at least attempt our usual family Christmas Eve Feuerzangenbowle tradition from opposite sides of the Atlantic. Wish us luck! 


And Merry Christmas!

Wednesday, December 23, 2020

The Mother of all Christmas Parties


By Christine Gunderson


This month we’re blogging about Christmas traditions. One of my favorite traditions started late at night in my bedroom closet.

I’d been kneeling for hours, surrounded by a chaotic pile of wrapping paper and toys. It was probably midnight, and I still had many presents to wrap before I could sleep.

            Then, like Thomas Edison with a guttering candle or Henry Ford in a carriage pulled by a really slow horse, I muttered, “There must be a better way.”

            And that’s when the idea came to me. A Present Wrapping Party.

            I lifted my scissor in the air, raised my face to heaven and vowed that as God is my witness, I will never wrap presents alone again.

            Instead of huddling in a closet late at night with a pile of toys and wrapping paper, I would send my family out of the house, invite friends over, spread the wrapping supplies on the kitchen table, push the furniture to the walls, provide food and drink and invite other moms to join me in wrapping our Christmas presents. We’d make it a party, instead of a dreaded chore.

            And so we did. I enlisted a merry band of friends as co-conspirators and we were off and running. Our oldest children were in kindergarten the year we started the wrapping party. Now they’re masked high school freshman. 

Our guests were mom-friends from school, and our party expanded as each child entered kindergarten. We made new friends and the party grew. We grew in other ways too, as we made the transition from fresh, spunky kindergarten moms to grizzled veterans with teenagers and the thousand-yard stares of women who’ve been asked to volunteer one too many times. But through it all, we wrapped together.

            Friends arrived with giant rolling suitcases filled with unwrapped gifts. I bought wrapping paper on clearance after Christmas each year and pre-cut it into small, medium and large piles. We had scissors, tape, labels and pens, plus punch and my friend Andrea’s famous stuffed mushrooms. My friend Nicole provided mouthwatering bacon wrapped dates. We ate, we talked, we laughed, and we wrapped. It became my favorite event of the year.

            I loved it because in addition to being practical and fun, it was something we moms did for each other, and moms need each other at Christmas time.

Because let’s face it, moms ARE Christmas. Those magical childhood memories are all on us. Finding the right gifts, making things special, wrapping the presents from everyone to everyone else, using different wrapping paper and handwriting for the Santa gifts vs the non-Santa gifts, moving that damn elf, ensuring that no one, including the dog, is disappointed on Christmas morning. This is what we signed up for, unwittingly in many cases, when we had children.

For Christians, Mary is the original mother who worked incredibly hard to give the world a wonderful Christmas. But for those of us who are not quite at the Virgin Mary’s level in terms of patience and perfection, there can be lot of pressure and stress involved in our attempts to give our children a fantastic Christmas. The Present Wrapping Party allowed us to share that burden, to laugh while we carried the load together.

            Then Covid hit. There was no party this year for all the obvious, responsible, health-related reasons.

            So yesterday I parked myself at a card table in the guest bedroom, surrounded by wrapping paper and Amazon boxes and wrapped the presents alone with a book on tape for company. It was okay. Not a ton of fun. Zero laughter. But I’m hoping that next year the moms can join together again on the family room floor to laugh and wrap, supporting each other in our maternal quest to create a merry Christmas for the people we love.



Christine Gunderson is a former television anchor and reporter and former House and Senate aide who lives outside of Washington, D.C. with her husband, children and Star, the Wonder Dog. When not writing, she’s sailing, playing Star Wars trivia, re-reading Persuasion, or unloading the dishwasher. 




Tuesday, December 22, 2020

The importance of following and creating new traditions by Patty Blount

 All month long, we're blogging about our favorite holidays. I realize I'm a month late, but I'm raising a hand for Thanksgiving. 

Thanksgiving Pros

  • It's not a religious holiday so it doesn't exclude 
  • It's not a gift-giving holiday, so you don't have to go into debt
  • It's a meal-based holiday, which means you don't have to get creative with the menu unless you'd like to offer variety to those who don't like the traditional menu

Thankgiving Cons

  • That meal is darn hard to time so it's hot
  • Nobody has an oven large enough for all those sides

When I was little, we used to split Thanksgiving between two of my aunts'. Dinner at one house, dessert at the other. Over time, divorces, marriages, and relocations changed the landscape of our celebrations but not the heart of them. More recently, I've been sharing Thanksgiving with my sister-in-law and we alternate each year. 

Covid put a stop to that this year so I went on a quest for the world's smallest turkey. I found one under 10 lbs and we had a lovely day. 

At its heart, Thanksgiving is a peaceful holiday and I love that most of all. 

Monday, December 21, 2020

Favorite Christmas Carols (Holly Schindler)

 I'm a total sucker for melancholy carols. "Pretty Paper," "I'll Be Home for Christmas," or Joni Mitchell's "River." I think it's because, in the sadness, I can always detect a sense of hope. My head might be swimming with worries, but lights are glittering on all the houses. My heart might be heavy with a disappointment, but it smells like fresh, clean snow. It's cold, but there's a fire burning just down the street. 

I think "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" has got to be the song of 2020. "From now on, our troubles will be out of sight," or "Someday soon we all will be together if the fates allow" are lines tailor-made for our holiday this year. And never more has my wish been stronger for a better year to come--not just for me but for quite literally everyone

I've never meant this more than I do this year, but really: Happy holidays, all! 

Sunday, December 13, 2020

Our Family Tree-O: Traditions in Our Nontraditional World (Jodi Moore)

Like some of you, our family has had to work most holidays. We’ve been a part of the entertainment and hospitality industries since Day One of my husband’s and my relationship (no, really – I helped him DJ a fraternity party on our first date.) Over the years, we built a successful mobile disc-jockey company together. My husband has managed clubs, overseen restaurants and banquet facilities and now is a Master Trainer for alcohol education. One of our sons has been involved in theater since he was four, and now is a brilliant onstage triple-threat/choreographer/director. Our other son has been active in food service since high school (he’s also an amazing video game designer/entrepreneur.) I'm one proud wife/mama. But I digress...


When others need to play, we work.


We’re not complaining. We truly love what we do.


But with extended families living between 3 and 4 hours away – in opposite directions – and each expecting us to travel, our own ‘traditions’ had to take a backseat. Often, there wasn’t even room for them in the car.


We soon realized that it’s not the date that’s important. What matters is that we’re all together. What matters is the love.


A couple of years ago, ‘our’ Christmas was January 4.


That doesn’t mean we don’t have our own traditions, however. And since writers love the rule of three, I thought I’d share a special ‘tree’-o:


1. Letters to Santa


We started this tradition when the boys were little and continue it to this day (yes, our ‘boys’ are now 31 and 33.) We all write out our letters and ask the other members of the family to ‘mail’ them. The important part? All letters must tell Santa the things we’re thankful for before asking for anything. Warning: you may need tissues.


2. Ornaments to Commemorate the Year


I love ornaments so much, we had to get a second tree three years ago. But what I really love to do for our boys (and now their girlfriends too!) is find ornaments that showcase their accomplishments for the year. That way, each year when the kids decorate their trees, I hope they can feel pride in not only what they do, but the amazing talented people they’ve grown to be. 



Of course, I do this for ‘us’ too (35 years married, 40 years together, 10 months pandemic 24/7 and we still like each other.)



Oh, did I forget to mention that before we went to dinner on our first date, Larry and I participated in an event at a nursing home where we taught disco-wheelchair? And that we actually met at a disco competition (he was a judge, I was a contestant) and that we still love to dance?


And that our first movie date was Lady and the Tramp?


I may be a little biased. Nah, it's the absolute truth.💖


3. Box-in-a-Box


Credit here must go to my husband, Larry. You wrap a tiny gift in a box, then place it in another box, which you wrap, and so on and so on and so on. I don’t remember when it started, but it's produced a treasure trove of memories, giggles and anticipation. It’s also escalated into quite a challenge. Over the years, the ‘unwrapping’ itself has become an undertaking...from an abundance of duct tape on duct tape to using casting material, to freezing one of the boxes in a block of ice! This was last year’s, courtesy of one of our sons and his girlfriend. Yes, they not only wrapped the refrigerator, but everything in it (including individually wrapping the eggs). And yes, in keeping with tradition, there was a gift in there for Larry, and he had to unwrap everything until he found it!



This year, like many of you, our holiday will be different. But our traditions will continue, and we will all be together as soon as it is safe. Because again, the date doesn’t matter. What matters is the love.


Wishing all of you a blessed, safe, happy and healthy holiday season! Love, Jodi xoxo









Thursday, December 10, 2020

The Back of The Tree by Sydney Salter

One of the wedding gifts that my husband and I received - 28 years ago now - was a box of Christmas ornaments. Ugly weird Christmas ornaments--the weirdest was a big bellied elf with legs shaped like an anchor. In the box were scrolls with quotes, a helmet saying "Tally Ho!" and a funny little elf carrying a tray of cookies. 

Since we couldn't afford many ornaments, we hung these ornaments on the back of our first tree. 

Fast forward 28 years later, and Anchor Legs has morphed from a weird gift to a beloved tradition. Every year the focus of our family tree trimming party is finding Anchor Legs. He is the King Of The Back of the Tree, ruling all the strange ornaments we have collected. The little elf is his henchman. He rules an entire kingdom of characters. Every year includes lively debate about which ornaments belong on the back of the tree--ornament beauty being in the eye of the beholder, of course. 

Granny fulfilled a bucket list goal when she found Anchor Legs this year! 

When life (JoAnne) gives you a box of weird ornaments, something that initially looks weird and ugly just might end up becoming something absolutely cherished. I think there's a 2020 message in there somewhere... 

Happy holidays to everyone! 

Sunday, December 6, 2020

Holiday Fun in a Tough Year (Mary Strand)

This month we’re blogging about our favorite holiday things. My own main December holiday is Christmas, but I’m all in for celebrating everyone’s holidays! (I’ve been promised a Hanukkah party that’s now postponed until 2021. Still, I can’t wait!)

In 2020, when most in-person events are severely limited or more likely cancelled in the United States, where COVID-19 still rages uncontrolled (wear a mask! keep your distance!), it seems EXTRA important to make the holidays fun.

We start every year, Thanksgiving weekend, by trying to outdo the Griswolds. I won’t horrify you with photos of the whole childish spectacle that is our front yard right now, but here’s our Santa.

I’m not generally into baking (although I’m STELLAR at patronizing local bakeries), but our kids (now 20 and 22) have always insisted we make an exception in December. Thus, rum balls, meringues, frosted cutout cookies, krumkake (Norwegian girl here!), and pies will consume us (and vice versa) on December 19.

How do I know it’ll happen on December 19? Because, for the first time ever, I’ve put together a December “fun” calendar! With input from the whole family, I’ve set aside specific days (usually evenings) for family activities like skiing, skating, sledding, driving around to check out holiday lights (yes, including ours), decorating the house for Christmas, reading and hot cocoa in front of the fire, and hiking at Minnehaha Falls. Sunday nights are set aside for holiday movies. On a few specific nights, one member of the family gets to choose dinner, likely takeout.

The family that skis together ...
okay, still argues about "fun" calendars!

But the holiday season, no matter which holiday(s) you celebrate, is also about helping others. The main activity on which our whole household agreed was “give to the poor.” (Okay, skiing was probably a tie.) (And “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation,” accompanied by Chinese takeout, made it a three-way tie. But I digress.)

So we’ve chosen two main charitable-giving projects this year. I don’t proselytize, but IF you’re looking for ideas, here’s what we’re doing.

LOCAL: Here in Minnesota, there's an organization called My Very Own Bed, which provides brand-new beds to Twin Cities kids who have recently moved into stable housing. Each bed comes with brand-new bedding and a stuffed animal. (You can donate at the website OR buy specific items to be donated HERE.) They also accept in-person donations of new or gently-used books, and we like to donate actual things when we can (especially books!), so I have a pile of new children's books ready to deliver to a dropoff site in a week or so.

NATIONAL/INTERNATIONAL: A recent article in The New York Times by Nicholas Kristof talks about impact giving: “gifts with meaning” that change lives. This year’s suggestions include Camfed, which helps send girls in Africa to school, and OneGoal, which helps low-income American students 
— 96 percent of them of color — get through high school and steers them toward college and lifelong success. We’re going to send a donation to both. You can check out his suggestions at

A LOT of people need help, more this year than perhaps ever before. Our favorite charities are usually about feeding, housing, and providing books and education to those less fortunate than us. But you might prefer to directly help a neighbor or friend who’s struggling.

While I’m at it, my favorite year-round charity here in Minneapolis is Foothold Twin Cities, which provides one-time donations to assist low-income families with the unexpected expenses that traditional assistance programs don’t cover. Every dollar donated to Foothold goes directly to a family in need.

Again, I’m just offering ideas to those inclined to take them and run with them. But helping others makes everyone in my household feel good, and it’s way less fattening than rum balls. Not that I won’t have rum balls, too.

May your holidays, whichever ones you celebrate, be merry and bright.

Mary Strand is the author of Pride, Prejudice, and Push-Up Bras and three other novels in the Bennet Sisters YA series. You can find out more about her at