Posts Tagged ‘holidays’

Every December, my husband and I pack our big suitcases with clothes and Christmas presents, trade our down coats for lighter wool ones, and hop a plane to Texas. We live and work two thousand miles away from our families and many of our dearest friends, but once a year, we get to spend about 10 days driving up and down I-20, seeing as many of our loved ones as we can.

stockings christmas texasStockings at my parents’ house

We started in Dallas, opening presents and eating at our favorite restaurants with my husband’s family. We saw a magical (if tearjerking) movie, and we drove out to East Texas to spend the day with J’s aunt and uncle, whom we hadn’t seen in five years. Despite four (yes, four) instances of the fire alarm going off at our hotel, we enjoyed having our own space – especially the free wi-fi and the cozy reading chair.

J’s niece, Annalynn (17 months), entertained us all. She’s a sweetie:


The day before Christmas Eve, we headed west to my hometown, stopping in Abilene for a long lunch with Shanna. My nephew, Ryder, was waiting for us when we arrived:

ryder book papa d

This kid is so much fun. At 19 months, he’s a bundle of energy, and we all spent large portions of the next few days chasing him around. He wasn’t sure about J at first, but bonded with him pretty quickly:

ryder jeremiah

(Throwing golf balls in the backyard is apparently big fun.)

We made, and ate, all our Christmas favorites: sweet potato casserole topped with pecans and brown sugar, fluffy mashed potatoes, hot rolls, whole cranberries in Jell-O, green bean casserole. We grilled ribs one night, steak another night, and toasted each other on Christmas Eve with eggnog. Even the boys (my husband and brother-in-law) got more than enough to eat:

food christmas eve jeremiah stephen

We went to my parents’ church for the Christmas Eve candlelight service, one of my favorite evenings in the whole year. Our beloved music minister, George, is receiving treatment for cancer, but he was onstage leading the carols, his voice as strong as ever. We sang “O Come All Ye Faithful,” Mom’s favorite, and ended with Dad’s favorite, “Silent Night.”

This was the year of the camel, since my dad is obsessed with the Geico hump day commercial. My sister even bought him a T-shirt:

camel t-shirt dad christmas

And we must have watched the commercial 15 times. The best part was watching him laugh:

dad betsy laughter

Ryder’s favorite gift was a tractor he can ride (closely followed by a pair of socks with tractors on them):

ryder opening tractor

His legs don’t quite reach the pedals yet, so we all took turns pushing him around.

ryder tractor fun

Mostly, we just had so much fun hanging out with my family.

mom betsy kitchen

(That’s my mom and my sister, in my parents’ kitchen – where we spent a lot of time.)

Christmas 2013 106

We ended our trip with three days in Abilene, where we lived for eight years (including our undergraduate years, J’s time in graduate school and our first two years of marriage). I never take many photos there because we’re too busy hugging everyone we know and talking as hard as we can, trying to catch up on all the news. But I did snap this photo of J playing dominoes with our hosts:

donagheys 42

So that was our Christmas. Merry, bright, magical, and full of hugs and Tex-Mex food. Pretty wonderful.

How were your holidays? (And happy belated New Year!)

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Advent: the waiting

Here we are again, at the turning of the year, when the physical world grows dark and quiet and the church begins to talk about Light.

Since Advent came right on the heels of Thanksgiving this year, we spent a good portion of that Saturday decorating and preparing. We started at church, where we hung pine garlands and set out cyclamen and poinsettias:

advent church window flowers

church advent brookline

That evening, we decorated at home, hanging stockings, playing Christmas music while we trimmed the tree, and setting out a stack of Christmas books:

christmas books charlie brown

christmas tree

I lit the peppermint-vanilla candle I bought in early November when I visited my family in Texas. It had been hiding in the cabinet, waiting, like the rest of the Christmas decorations. And although I’m burning it every night now, and the decorating is all done and the shopping is mostly done, I’ve still been waiting.

I waited for various holiday events: our children’s Christmas pageant at church and our office holiday lunch, both of which happened this week. We ordered in from Chipotle at the office, blasted Christmas music, and all of us wore festive hats:

joy committee hgse party

At church, my husband reprised his pageant role as a wise man. That’s him on the left, in the turban (my scarf), with the “frankincense” (a tea tin from my collection).

wise men brookline

I was a spectator/costumer/enthusiastic picture-taker. The kids were angels and various animals, and I welled up at the familiar words, spoken by Sierra, age seven: “Unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.”

brookline pageant christmas

I’ve been soaking up the quiet in front of the tree every evening, playing all my favorite Christmas CDs, finally rereading Winter Solstice (after finishing my Harry Potter reread). I’m dipping into Watch for the Light when I can, savoring the words of Madeleine L’Engle and Kathleen Norris and Alfred Delp, still looking forward to the words of Brennan Manning and Annie Dillard and Gail Godwin.

I’m still waiting, though, for a few cherished traditions: the Christmas Eve candlelight service at my parents’ church, family gifts on Christmas Eve night and stockings on Christmas morning, eggnog with my dad around the fire and the reading of the story from Luke 2. Some traditions have shifted, or are shifting, to accommodate travel schedules and new family members, but always we are together, and that is best of all.

I’m also waiting as we are all waiting: for Christ to come, for the Light to break forth in the cold darkness that sometimes surrounds and overwhelms us. I’m waiting for the day when sorrow and sighing will flee away, when the wilderness will rejoice and blossom, when all the trees of the field will clap their hands.

I’m finding comfort in the words of Isaiah this Advent, in the majestic phrases like the ones I used above, which speak of joy and gladness and the dawning of a new day when sorrow and suffering have no place. That day may still be a long way off, but for now, I am content to rest in these words, and wait.

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sunset cape cod

You say grace before meals. All right. But I say grace before the concert and the opera, and grace before the play and pantomime, and grace before I open a book, and grace before sketching, painting, swimming, fencing, boxing, walking, playing, dancing and grace before I dip the pen in the ink.

—G.K. Chesterton

We often say grace before meals at our house – sometimes a spontaneous prayer, sometimes the old Lutheran blessing I learned at my grandparents’ kitchen table when I was a child. We fell out of the habit for a couple of years, but have come back to it. I like the ritual, the brief pause to give thanks before plunging into a meal and an account of our days.

We say grace, too, before Sunday night dinners with friends, joining hands in a wonky circle around a long wooden table. When it is Amy’s turn, she always says, “We are so thankful for all that we have been given.” When she says, “Thank you for our family,” I know she means both her blood family and us, the family we have chosen, the family we have become. Tomorrow, when we gather in our church basement with Amy and her kids and some other friends, to eat and celebrate and be together, we will say grace, and perhaps we will sing about thankfulness.

I don’t always say grace verbally at other times of the day. But in one way or another, I am saying grace all day long.

I say grace at the sunset and the sunrise, at the streaks of gold on the horizon and the deep cobalt twilight of the Cambridge sky. I say grace before snatching half an hour with a cup of tea and a good book. I say grace before traveling to places known or unknown, before spending time with family or friends.

I say grace when I receive a text or an email from someone I love, and when I walk across Harvard Yard to Morning Prayers, the bells of Memorial Church ringing through the crisp, cold air. I say grace when my colleagues make me laugh, and when I pull off a complicated piece of writing, and when a package of shiny new books comes in the mail. I say grace when I cook a delicious meal or wrap up in a warm sweater or watch a good movie.

Every year around this time, I reread W.S. Merwin’s poem “Thanks,” which admits a prickly truth: saying thank you can be difficult in a world that is often dark and dangerous. But I believe the very act of saying it, and Chesterton’s parallel act of saying grace, both create pinpricks of light in the darkness. No matter how dark it gets, or how mundane the days can seem, we have much to be grateful for.

This week, as I bake treats and wash dishes and laugh with my husband and call my mother, I will be saying grace, and saying thank you.

Happy Thanksgiving, friends. See you next week.

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maison blanc window

It’s that time of year, when the stores put up their Christmas window displays (already?) and everyone starts making gift lists and travel plans. I love the sparkly, starry magic of the Advent/Christmas season, but I do not love the anxiety that sometimes comes with trying to find the perfect gift for every person on my list.

After years of swinging wildly between different methods (including a couple of years where I tried to make every single gift), I’ve finally come up with a few holiday-shopping strategies that work for me.

1. Start early. I am a staunch advocate for enjoying each holiday as it comes – it makes me slightly sick to see candy canes and stocking stuffers fill the stores right after Halloween. And while I love the red cups at Starbucks and the Christmas music, I am committed to savoring November (and Thanksgiving).

But a little planning ahead for Christmas shopping can save your sanity in mid-December. (Especially if, like me, you often travel a long distance for the holiday and need to get your shopping done early.) So…

2. Make a list. Or, in my case, a spreadsheet. Yes, I’m serious. I have a simple Google spreadsheet with the names of everyone I need to buy for, along with gift ideas and the names and prices of items already bought. I can track who I’m buying for, what I’m buying, and how much I’m spending, all at the same time. (Bonus: I can check it at the office if I’m planning to do a bit of shopping on my lunch break.)

3. Decide how many gifts you can reasonably make. If you are even remotely crafty (and I am), it’s tempting to think you can make gifts for your entire family, and maybe you can. But you will save some serious time (and stress) if you consider what is possible for you – and what handmade gifts will actually appeal to everyone on your list.

For example, I am a knitter, but my sister does not wear scarves (they make her itch, no matter what they’re made of) and my husband already has more handknit hats than he’ll ever wear. And most of my family lives in Texas, so they don’t need many knitted winter items. But this year, I am making a few pairs of cozy slippers from this fun book. And if I’m tempted to make anything else, I’ll consult this handy make-or-buy flowchart from Anne at Modern Mrs. Darcy.

4. If you see a reasonably priced gift you like, buy it. I am a maximizer by nature – I like to weigh all the options and I tend to second-guess myself, especially when I’m buying a gift for someone. (Also, the men in my family – my husband, dad and brother-in-law – are much more difficult to shop for than the women or the kids.) But at Christmas, as at other times of the year, I’m on a budget, both money- and time-wise.

So, if I see a book I know my dad will love (like American Triumvirate, about three incredible golfers) or a DVD my mom has been wanting (like Downton Abbey, season 1), I go ahead and buy it. This saves me a lot of mental back-and-forth, and it saves time, since I don’t have to go back to the store and buy it later. (The examples above are both gifts I bought last year, which were huge hits.)

5. Take the pressure off yourself. For me, this means not pushing myself to make every gift (see #3 above) or to buy everything from handmade shops or local stores. I am a huge fan of local, independent businesses and sites like Etsy – and I do buy a lot of gifts from those places, especially my favorite local bookstores. But if my brother-in-law wants a certain country album or I find an adorable outfit for my nephew at GapKids, I go ahead and buy them, from big-box stores if necessary. (See #4 above.) There’s no sense in buying a quirky handmade or local gift if it’s not what the person really wants.

6. Have fun. I know holiday shopping can be stressful, but ultimately it’s fun to buy (or make) a gift to light up the eyes of someone you love. (Someone please remind me of this when it’s Dec. 15 and I’m still struggling to finish up my list!) You may have a few panicked moments (I have them every year), but ultimately, a bit of planning and a little less pressure can make the shopping experience much more enjoyable.

Also: shop windows at Christmas are wonderful, no? They make me long to curl up by a fire with a cup of hot cocoa and Sarah MacLachlan’s Wintersong album. (That window at the top of this post is from Oxford, long ago, and the one below is from Boston – my beloved Brattle Book Shop.)

christmas books bookshop window tree stockings

How do you shop for the holidays without losing your mind? (I’m always looking for additional tips.)

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We’ve hauled our tree and ornaments up from the basement, put on the Christmas music, and decked our halls. As per tradition, I snapped photos of a few treasured ornaments to share with you.

red boots ornament

Sweet Bethany sent me these red boots last year. They look just like my full-size red wellies.

eeyore bell ornament

This bell-ringing Eeyore was a gift from a high school boyfriend. He spent years hiding in a drawer, till I found him, dusted him off and put him on the tree.

green christmas ball ornament

My friend Courtney gave me this glass ball back in seventh grade. Her familiar, loopy handwriting makes me smile.

teapot mount vernon martha washington

J and I visited Mount Vernon this summer on our trip to D.C., and came home with this wee reproduction of Martha Washington’s Blue Canton everyday teapot. It brings to mind three of my favorite things: travel, tea and adventures with my love.

snowman ornament christmas tree

This snowman’s origins are lost to history, but he’s been part of my family’s Christmas collection for many years. I love his red hat and tiny bottle-brush tree.

I am staunchly devoted to my mismatched, eclectic, storied collection of ornaments – unwrapping them each year is like opening a series of tiny gifts. I’ve come to love the tradition of sharing them with you on the blog. Check out my first, second and third ornament posts for more stories.

What kinds of ornaments hang on your tree – do you have matched sets or a colorful hodgepodge?

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When I moved back to Oxford to spend a year earning my master’s degree, I shared a wee house in East Oxford with three English girls.

One of my new housemates, Lizzie, worked at Starbucks. In fact, the first time I met her, to introduce myself and pick up my house key, was at Starbucks on the High Street in central Oxford. I sipped nervously at a raspberry smoothie, studying the blue-eyed girl across from me, hoping she wouldn’t regret opening her home to an unknown American she’d met via Facebook.

Before long, Lizzie transferred to a new Starbucks shop in Headington, up the hill from our house. Despite my preference for independent cafes, I dropped by occasionally when she was on shift. I am not a coffee drinker, and I don’t particularly care for Starbucks teas (my usual drink of choice there is a chai latte). But in early December, I was hankering for a peppermint hot chocolate, so I stopped in and ordered one.

red cup with journal

The girl at the counter, one of Lizzie’s co-workers, stared at me in confusion. “We don’t have any peppermint,” she said.

I frowned. Surely she was mistaken? Even across the Atlantic, the red cups and red aprons had come out in November, and the board behind her touted various holiday drinks. And I knew from my own time as a barista that many cafes keep peppermint syrup on hand year-round. No peppermint? At all?

I shrugged. Perhaps they were out. “I’d like a regular hot chocolate, then.”

A few minutes later, Lizzie came over to the table where I sat, sipping my non-minty drink, and I told her they’d better order some peppermint, since the holidays were approaching quickly.

She stared at me with the same look her co-worker had worn.

“No peppermint? She’s mad! We must have a whole case of it in the back room!”

After another second or two, we both burst out laughing.

The next week, when I dropped by and ordered a minty hot chocolate, Lizzie stared at me with a straight face, her blue eyes dancing. “We don’t have any peppermint,” she said.

As her co-worker (a different one this time) stared at her as though she’d gone mad, we both cracked up again.

It’s been five years, but every time I order a peppermint hot chocolate, I think of Lizzie, and smile.

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I can’t remember a time when I didn’t love Christmas.

My family celebrated with gusto every December, dragging the huge fake tree and ornament boxes out of the attic, wrestling with the lights while we listened to Elvis and George Strait and Kenny G. My mom made the simple felt stockings and later the velvet-trimmed ones that hung from the mantel. My dad proudly claims the title of “head elf,” and his favorite part of Christmas morning is bringing each of us a stocking stuffed with goodies, then sitting back and watching as we pull out gift after gift.

I also grew up in a church where the pianist and organist pounded out carols through December, both instruments nearly obscured by the towering trees flanking the pulpit. Wreaths wrapped in red and gold ribbon hung from columns lining the walls, and every Christmas Eve, we dressed up and filed into pews to listen to more carols and a brief sermon on Jesus’ birth. At the end, we lit the candles we’d been clutching the whole time, stood up in our pews, held our candles aloft and sang “Silent Night.”

In all my growing-up years, though, I never observed Advent – not consciously.

As a high school senior, just weeks after 9/11, I traveled to Washington, D.C. with some fellow students for a mock diplomatic conference. Our itinerary included a tour of the National Cathedral, and in the gift shop afterward, a book on an end-cap display caught my eye: Watch for the Light, a collection of readings for Advent and Christmas.

watch for the light

I’d heard of Advent, vaguely, but I knew little about this season of waiting and preparation before Christmas. Some impulse prodded me to buy the book and take it home. And every year for the last decade, I’ve pulled it out again.

The concept of Advent – the waiting, the counting down, the joyful anticipation – is present in the Christmas season, whether we name it or not. It is the undercurrent thrumming in our veins as we buy gifts, plan meals, hang stockings, light candles. It is there on the calendar and in the travel schedules. We are all waiting, even as we rush around, for something miraculous, a flare of glory in the night.

We are waiting for Jesus to come, again. But many of us don’t know how to name that longing. We experience it only as anxiety, a ticking clock, a growing sense of urgency for we know not what.

Some of the readings in my Advent book are so familiar now that half-memorized phrases leap off the page. I’ve learned a few of the shorter poems nearly by heart, by osmosis. Some of the essays tend toward the dry and theological, while others focus on social justice, childhood memories, characters in the Nativity story, or the act of waiting itself.

Like any familiar reread, the book and its readings strike me differently every year. Sometimes its words make my heart turn over; sometimes certain pieces leave me cold. But every year, there’s at least a flash or two of the serendipity that led me to the book in the first place.

And that, when I think about it, is the essence of Advent. Waiting, with longing and hope, for a joyous event that will change everything. But waiting can be long and hard, and it’s a gift when those moments of serendipity gleam in the still, dark night. Advent encompasses both: the daily grind (with the added responsibilities of the festive season), and glimpses of joy, seemingly out of nowhere, that remind us what we are waiting for.

(Some of us are posting our #adventpicaday photos on Twitter/Instagram again this year. You’re welcome to join us as we watch and wait.)

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leaves yellow orange fall boston common autumn

On Halloween night, on my way home from work, I stopped at the pharmacy on the corner for a last taste of candy corn. I couldn’t find any small bags (and my husband doesn’t like it), so instead I bought two slightly squashed (but still delicious) Reese’s peanut butter pumpkins. And then I looked up, above the gaudy orange bags of Snickers and M&Ms, and I saw boxes of candy canes.

The next day, I walked by the Starbucks shop in my building and saw those ubiquitous red cups. Already.

November is tough for me: the days turn suddenly short and dark, when the clocks flip back an hour and the clouds start to gather. I struggled with this seasonal shift in Oxford, but I find it more difficult here in Boston. Having survived two Northeastern winters (one unusually rough, one unusually mild), I am not sure what to expect this year. But I’m bracing for it anyway, and rather dreading the chill, grey, snowy days to come.

It would be easy to skip ahead to the relief of holiday cheer, to start playing the Christmas music I love, to ease the darkness of these days by living several steps ahead. Just a couple of weeks until Thanksgiving; just six and a half weeks until Christmas. Part of me would relish the chance to gloss over the days in between.

But this year, as last year, I am choosing to be present in November, to savor the trees still aflame with orange leaves and the crunch of their dried counterparts underfoot. I will keep taking walks at lunchtime, even when it’s wet or chilly. And I will practice gratitude.

Of course, I’ll be planning for Thanksgiving, which we’ll celebrate for the third time with friends in the basement of our beloved church. I’ll make pumpkin bread and sip chai, and yes, I’ve started my Christmas shopping. I’ll celebrate Candletime, which seems like a holiday (albeit a made-up one) custom-made for me. And I will take my Vitamin D pills and keep using my new light box, because I am already feeling the effects of the shorter days.

As the holiday rush revs up, I know I’ll be affected by it: the ads and songs and those red cups (which I do love) will become impossible to ignore. But I will keep trying to live in the present, no matter how mundane or hectic it seems. I will do my best to savor November.

Will you join me?

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the empty tomb

The empty tomb, Headington Quarry Church, Oxford

I remember walking to Port Meadow with Seth and Kayla before dawn on a gray Oxford morning, carrying communion bread and grape juice for our sunrise service. I remember sharing communion, and later pieces of a gigantic Cadbury chocolate bar, with thirty of my fellow American students and the professors who lived with and loved and shepherded us.

I remember hunting plastic eggs in our living room every year, running around in ruffly church dresses and white tights, breaking each egg open to find candy or a penny or a dime inside. I remember Dad’s glee at watching us search out every hiding place, and two baskets sitting on the fireplace – mine yellow, Betsy’s pink – with green stripes on their handles, filled with crackly Easter grass and goodies Mom had picked out especially for us.

I remember Mom hanging plastic eggs on the slender Chinese willow in our front yard, colorful harbingers of Easter bobbing and swaying in the West Texas breezes.

I remember ham glazed with brown sugar, fluffy mashed potatoes with lots of butter, hot rolls from the oven and fresh green beans, passing dishes around the table with the three people I loved most.

I remember dark stage makeup and racks full of costumes and long hallways full of people mumbling their lines or studying the words to a dozen songs, the story arcing from Bethlehem to John the Baptist to Galilee, to Jerusalem to Golgotha and finally the empty tomb. I remember weeks of rehearsal, rehearsing in jeans and then in costume, memorizing every word to every song.

I remember my dad changing roles every year, from disciple to thief to wise man to Simeon, holding the baby Jesus and singing:  I have seen your glory. I remember watching Jesus perform miracles and break bread with His disciples and then hang from the cross (and gasping in shock, once, as he nearly fell off the cross). I remember the soldiers’ yells and Mary’s tears and the centurion’s quiet confession: “Surely this man was the Son of God.”

I remember Pastor Gary, tall in a light gray suit, raising his arms to the congregation and saying in his quiet, gentle voice, “He is risen!” And the thunder of voices answering back, “He is risen indeed.” And then the choir bursting out in the Hallelujah Chorus, because they could not keep silent any more.

I remember Val singing “Arise, My Love” in the dim Highland auditorium, his tenor voice soaring on the last notes like the joy of Easter itself, feeling it throb through my soul and nerves and fingertips: The grave no longer has a hold on you.

I remember a quiet Holy Saturday in East Oxford, and opening my window at twenty to midnight to hear a joyful cacophony of church bells ringing through an indigo sky.

I remember marching from Folly Bridge up to St Aldates, holding yellow and green balloons aloft and singing, with fifty or more others, at the top of my lungs, not caring who saw us because on this day we are fools for Christ, fools for Him who has defeated death once and for all.

I remember visiting Headington Quarry Church, where C.S. Lewis is buried, and looking at the lush green grass and the tulips and daffodils blowing over the graves, and thinking: Death does not have the last word here.

headington quarry church graveyard

The graveyard at Headington Quarry Church

Today I remember the triumph, so long ago, of life over death, and I give thanks.

He is risen, indeed.

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I’ve been slowly easing into 2012, doing laundry, running errands, making lists, and curling up under my new electric blanket in the evenings, reading or knitting or watching Friends (J got season 5 for Christmas). We spent New Year’s Eve at home, quietly; we spent New Year’s Day with friends, first at church and then at a cozy party replete with finger foods, mulled wine and laughter.

Perhaps because we were gone for nine days, I’m not anxious to clear out the Christmas decor. The Christmas cards are still decking our bookshelf (which stands in for a mantel this time of year); the Christmas chocolate will take us all month to finish, probably; and the Christmas tree is not coming down, not yet. And I’m still smiling over the memories of the good, good time we had with my family in Midland, and with so many beloved friends during our two days in Abilene.

At my parents’ house we spent a lot of time in the open-plan kitchen/living room, with twinkle lights and stockings, M&Ms and a few naps:

There was also – to everyone’s astonishment – four inches of snow:

It covered everything beautifully and melted two days later. My favorite kind.

My mom, after 30 years, has finally gotten her elegant “theme tree,” but she pulls out her eclectic Santa collection, and these wee reindeer my sister and I made from toilet-paper tubes and twigs, every year:

(They’re so crooked and handmade and adorable. I love them.)

We went to church on Christmas Eve, of course, and came back to open presents, and I read the Christmas story from Mom’s old, worn Bible (with a cuppa close by):

My sweet husband and I played a lot of pool – he won the series, 14-12, but I held my own, I’m proud to say. Doesn’t he look dapper in his new hat?

Stockings are my dad’s favorite part of Christmas – so he acts as head elf, passing out the goodies and donning his Cardinals Santa hat:

I didn’t take many photos in Abilene – we were too busy talking and laughing and hugging as many people as we could. Co-workers, roommates, our church small group, my beloved coffee ladies, anyone and everyone. So this photo of me with sweet Amber (friend and former colleague) represents all that love:

And, of course, we ate our weight in Tex-Mex food. (I have no photos of that – as we were too busy devouring enchiladas, burritos, chips and salsa, queso and fajitas. YUM.)

Family, friends, carols, gifts, games, food, long talks, lots of laughter – even a power outage on Christmas night that had us all sitting by the (gas log) fire, telling stories. It was a lovely Texas Christmas.

Perhaps you’ve already put the holidays behind you – but how were they? I’d love to know.

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