Celebrating Christmas Past

When I think of Christmas, I think of my grandmother’s house – a two-story in the city, crowded and loud, its kitchen filled with ten more people than reasonably fit inside, with wooden and metal folding chairs placed all around (and beyond) the table.

When a guest arrived, four people had to relinquish their seats to clear the door. That cold blast of air brought love in from the outside – neighbors with cookies, friends of my grandfather, or the Avon lady. The scent of their leather coats hung in the chilly air.

The floor was linoleum, probably, and the metal chairs scraped, just as you’d imagine.

Poster-board decorations, dog-eared from years of use, some with faded velvety finishes, hung on the walls. Electric candles that bubbled water sat in each drafty window.

The light was harsh. The stove sat alone on a wall, and the big steel doors of the ‘icebox’ swung open and closed, attempting to satisfy the hungry crowd. Laughter crested and fell between the clanking of plates and glasses. Some would share chairs or sit on laps to secure what little room they could find. Others just stood and ate.

Holidays1There were deviled eggs, inordinately large bowls of salad, weathered baking pans filled with stuffed shells and veal parmigiana, and bread and butter. My grandfather would pour some Budweiser into an hourglass-shaped juice glass and push it towards me.

After dinner, my grandmother would make it a point to seat the kids in the middle of the floor, making everyone ‘ooh’ and ‘aah’ at each present we opened, to the point that it became a joke.

My grandfather would retire to his recliner and turn on the TV -probably a football game – or play music. I’d sit with him, usually, no matter what he’d watch. He’d hand me those Columbia House stamps, the ones you’d used to choose your “10 Free Albums”, and a piece of cardboard on which to stick them. Every so often, he’d get me seven or eight cassettes of my own, which I carried around in a case that may as well have been filled with gold bars.

He’d play Fats Domino, Connie Francis, and Bobby Darin on the eight-track – in the house, in the yard, in the car. Wherever he was, he brought his music (the way I’d later bring mine). And we’d sing. He’d rib me for “knowing all the words all the time”.

My grandmother would eventually coerce everyone into a round of Santa Claus is Coming to Town, complete with hand motions, though Christmas carols already crackled through a radio by the sink.

She would convince you that you needed a second plate of food – or a third – while my mother and aunt scuttled to clean the dirty dishes and clear the table.

My father and uncles would sit in the living room, talking in a frequency only understood by sports fans, or complained about ‘the alternator’, or ‘the radiator’, or the politicians. It was a language I would grow to learn.

And then my cousins and I would retire to an empty room or hallway to comb our Barbies, change their clothes, compare our Cabbage Patch Kids, and, of course, make up a dance to perform, mid-kitchen, for the entire family. We’d cartwheel and split in our footed tights, making the best of our nervous energy as we practiced.

From the kitchen, we’d hear a stray “What the Christ?” or a “Vaffanculo!” from my grandmother, which I won’t translate, because it’s Christmas. And then she’d laugh, with her hand covering her heart, talking fondly of her parents, or the fixes my uncles got into as children, as if she were trying to keep her joy from spilling out. She had the most beautiful laugh. It matched the twinkle in her eyes.

And my grandfather would play his eight-tracks, and snap his fingers, and take his Polaroids. And they’d slip me quarters and candy, even though it was Christmas Day.

Then I’d go home, bleary-eyed, with a bag full of ripped boxes, and sleep. And spend the rest of the week feeling the magic slowly wear off.

They’re all just echoes now – the eight-tracks, the aluminum pans, my grandmother’s laughter. Sometimes I close my eyes and wonder how their voices would sound in my house, whether she’d yell, “Steph, what the Christ?” if I wasn’t serving the soup fast enough, or if my grandfather would provide my kids a steady stream of bread and butter, just like he did with us.

And even though I’d sometimes give my left leg to have them back for a day – even a few hours – I know that they’re here. They’re here whenever I kiss my kids goodnight, when I cook a meal, when I smile at a stranger. They’re here.

So if you’re at all feeling like you may be missing the joy of those passed this season, rest assured that you’re not.

It’s just inside you now, and all around you.

Pop

steph54

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2015: The Year of Gratifyingly Grating Grammy Nominations

Imagine my delight as I woke up this morning to a partial list of this year’s Grammy nominations. It’s a special time of year when nods are given to movies, music, and television, affording us the opportunity to cheer (and jeer) as we see fit.

I had a whole lot of fun with music this year, allowing myself, in the darkened corners of my office, hidden from the prying eyes of the public, to download songs at will. Any songs I wanted.

What makes this year special is that most of the songs nominated for Record of the Year have been made fun of, parodied, and/or plucked to death by social media. Even by me.

And my deep, dark secret is I own them all. I’m not even (that) ashamed to say it.

First, let’s talk about Fancy, by Iggy Azalea, ft. Charli XCX, shall we? When I think of Iggy Azalea’s voice, a few things come to mind – sandpaper being rubbed on my face, long, sharp beds of nails, frothing Rottweilers. If you’re a fan at all of English grammar, I’m afraid you’re drinking from the wrong cup of Cris’. Truth be told, it’s a train wreck that will not stop fascinating me. She’s a tall, beautiful, blonde, young Australian, groomed by the lyrical stylings of the Dirty South. My husband didn’t even believe the sounds he heard had originated from her body. I actually had to play him a video clip. And, even then, he walked away confused.

That said, I bought the song. I play the song. Sometimes loudly. And I have neither an explanation, nor an apology. It’s just catchy. In addition to Fancy, YouTubers can find the parodies I’m So Pregnant, I’m So Married, I’m So Cranky, and Weird Al’s version, Handy. You know it’s gotten real when Weird Al returns from virtual obscurity to parody your song.

 

I’m partial to Sia. Chandelier would be my pick if I were doing the picking. The soul in her voice just moves me. But we’re not living in my world. This song wasn’t shredded to the extent of some of the others, but the video, whose concept I admire, but didn’t truly love, was. If you’ve been wistful about Jim Carrey’s Vera de Milo years, suffer no more.

 

The next nominee, I’m afraid, has managed, for the most part, to escape the scathing eye of the media. He also happens to be the only man on the list. Accident? He also performed the song flawlessly at this year’s MTV Video Music Awards.  Needless to say, Stay With Me by Sam Smith is a great song, and a solid contender.

I’ve had a love/hate with Taylor Swift for a long time. She never provided the oomph I prefer in female vocalists. She was so wispy and ethereal, I imagined she’d just escape into the atmosphere with a strong wind. She didn’t possess the steel behind her words the way Pink and Katy Perry do. Like a moth on a summer evening, I found her ignorable. And then came Shake it Off. I managed to avoid this song with for a while, switching it off the radio, changing the TV channel, never clicking the links. Then, one night, YouTube beckoned me, in its soft, saccharine voice. Steph, it purred, Just watch it once. It won’t hurt you. And I did. And the girl poked fun at herself. And she was actually entertaining. There’s something to be said for an artist who doesn’t take herself too seriously. And then I, like most fourteen-year-old boys, fell just a little in love with her.

 

 

The last Record of the Year nomination, I honestly still can’t determine whether I love or hate. I’m not sure I agree with the message (though I’m supposed to, I guess?), I’m not a fan of the attitude, and it really strikes me as a one-hit wonder, but I can never get this song out of my headAll About that Bass by Meghan Trainor is one of those anomalies, like (ironically) Baby Got Back, or I’m Too Sexy, that just grows roots in your consciousness and never, ever leaves. I’ve really heard enough songs about asses to last me two lifetimes, but the effervescent quality of this quirky masterpiece has a penchant for burrowing deep into the recesses of your brain. And it’s spurred parodies as well, most notably, the viral Thanksgiving video, All About that Baste, by the fame-hungry Xmas Jammies family, the Holdernesses. I haven’t personally, and refuse to watch, but won’t forsake you the opportunity for more butter.

 

 

So, is imitation the highest form of flattery? Is hate the new love? Does contracting a literal earworm or developing a migraine pave the road to Grammy fame? Does it even need to be a good song?

I don’t know, either.

Just cue up that playlist.

How to Become a Christmas Maniac in Seven or So Simple Steps

What is it about the holidays that brings out the certifiable lunatic in all of us? Now, I’m not talking the beat-a-brother-down-for-a-Keurig kind of nuts, or that someone-pulled-into-the-spot-I’ve-had-my-blinker-on-for-ten-minutes rage, though they are both very real and valid types of holiday crazy.

What I’m talking about is whatever happens to us physiologically when we crack open that smelly box of Christmas decorations and prepare to adorn our homes.

Ordinarily sane and peaceable people would say, “What ever are you talking about? Surely, you’re mistaken! No crazy comes out of those boxes!” But, au contraire, my friends. Au contraire.

After a too-long trip out for cookie ingredients yesterday, I returned home to find myself foaming at the mouth – and not from my soy latte. My husband had taken the liberty of putting some Christmas lights up on the front of our house. He was given specific instructions: Put the lights up around the garage doors.

Unfortunately, he interpreted the instruction just a touch too liberally, using some creative license to zig-zag the lights across the top of both garage doors. Who does that??

When I composed myself enough to walk though the door, my eyes had already started to glow a rich crimson.

“What is that? WHAT IS THAT???” I demanded, with the restraint of a thousand charging soldiers.

I didn’t want to know what that was, really. An interpretive display? MANSCAPING? I wanted the lights AROUND THE GARAGE DOORS.

No sooner did I turn the corner into the dining room when I found lights snaked about a third of the way up the tree – white lights.

“I hope you’re not planning on mixing colors there,” I snapped, wagging a finger at the tree.

“No,” he said, “I just like the way the white lights look on the tree.”

I could feel the hairs stand up on the back of my neck.

But the outside lights are COLORED!” I offered through clenched teeth. “You can’t MIX the COLORS!”

“Why not?” he asked, with all the innocence of a newborn puppy. And if I could have set the tree ablaze with my eyes, I would have.

“Because you CAN’T MIX THEM!

While I was at DefCon 6, mentally calculating both the social and emotional consequences of our unmatched Christmas lights, my attention turned to the decorations on the sideboard.

Should that basket be in the middle? What about the nativity? That wise man looks a little too close to Mary. He needs to be adjusted. Should I move that Yankee Candle? Is it too far to the left? Those kids need to STOP MOVING THOSE LETTERS. They spell JOY! If you MOVE them, THEY DON’T SPELL JOY ANYMORE!!!

I beseeched my husband to plug in the obscenity he called a light display outside, even though the strands were literally hanging in the air, about fifteen feet from the ground, with no extension or outlet nearby.

“I NEED to see what this looks like!” I scoffed, in my most socially acceptable driveway tone.

He dutifully climbed the ladder and connected three extension cords, one by one, in order to present them to Her Highness.

“Hmph,” I shrugged, “I guess it’s okay,” and stomped back into the house.

I had also returned from the store with a 52-, 56-, and 60-inch tree skirt, trying to find the perfect fit for ours, just as we had found the perfect spacing for the stockings, the greenery, and the ideal placement for the other eight similarly-scented Yankee Candles I’d been hoarding.

Magical.

Mind you, you can’t walk through the living room without stepping on a broken toy, a couch pillow, or tripping over a blanket. And there were a few days’ worth of mail piled up in the kitchen. And my daughter’s bedroom looked like it rode the teacups and then threw up. There was also, if it even bears a mention, some leftover stuffing on the floor from dinner.

But THE DECORATIONS!!

After stringing the rest of the lights on our monstrosity of a tree, I, of course, decided I wanted them to blink, so I proceeded to out pluck tiny bulbs, replacing them with mystical blinking ones. After a few minutes, I hated it all, and changed it back.

And the kids, with a little light prodding, put up their ornaments – not too high, not too low, not too close together. After a brief tree skirt fashion show, we were finished. The snowman was in the right place, the Santa was pointed in the right direction, and the garland was draped just so over the fireplace.

And then we oohed, and we aahed, and took pictures. And stood all Rockwell-style around the tree.

But there’s no garland on that tree, try as I did to find some that didn’t look like it was made at Mainway Toys. And it was nagging me.

And then the cat puked on my Christmas tablecloth.

But I’ve only yelled a little. So far.

That’s what the season all about, though, isn’t it? Joy, peace, and unconditional love?

My name is Stephanie, and I’m a Christmas maniac.

And I bet, deep down, you are, too.

tree

My Top (and Bottom) 10 Favorite Christmas Songs of All-Time

As I was driving this evening, quite literally, through the holiday bustle, listening to the holiday music channel on my satellite radio, I started to daydream. Don’t worry – I stayed in my lane. But I got to thinking about all the Christmas songs I love, and, conversely, the songs for which I do not have as much cheer.

So, without further ado, my Top 10 Christmas Songs of All-Time (and, ahem, my Bottom 10 Christmas Songs of All-Time):

 

Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree (Brenda Lee) - This song is like popcorn for your brain. You hear it in the car? You’re bouncing. You hear it at home, you can’t help but dance. It’s fun. And no one can turn the word ‘couple’ into a three-syllable word quite like Brenda Lee. I challenge you not to get a sentimental feeling.

Blue Christmas (Elvis Presley) - I’ll admit it. I was never an Elvis fan. Not young Elvis, not old Elvis, not Elvis-on-a-Stamp. I just never liked the guy. I couldn’t trust anyone whose lip curled so unnaturally. That said, I love this song because it sounds like he’s singing on top of an overloaded washing machine during the spin cycle. And who hasn’t knocked a few back at a Christmas party and channeled Vibrating Elvis?

All I Want for Christmas is You (Mariah Carey) – This is a sentimental value song. I’ve written about it a few times now. Long story short, my family ‘rings in’ the Christmas season to it every year. The season simply cannot begin without this song. That’s just a rule. And, honestly, there’s nothing quite as intoxicating as the first few notes.

The 12 Days of Christmas (Really, anyone. Who cares?) Why do I love this song? Because it’s so damned long. You can wander off, get a drink from the water fountain, snag a few sugar cookies, and use the restroom, all before jumping in on the next verse. And it has a way of becoming pretty funny after, say, nine, when nobody’s quite sure whether the lords are supposed to be leaping, or the pipers piping, or something should be laying eggs. And then there are the people who get winded trying to sing all the way through. It’s a good time.

Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (Burl Ives) – I love all songs – all media, actually – in which I can interject unsolicited commentary. Like a lightbulb!

Frosty the Snowman (Gene Autry) – Personally, I enjoy Frosty’s fast-paced life, the drama, the suspense. Will he melt away or won’t he? And it is a little magical to think about a pile of snow coming to life and cavorting with children. Let’s face it: We like snowmen. We just can’t get enough. (Author’s Note: The real reason Frosty was put on this list is because that’s the first record I ever owned. Once I got to this item, I realized that I would date myself by talking about the records I owned, so I decided not to discuss it.)

Jingle Bell Rock (Bobby Helms) - What’s not to love about this song? The bells? The guitar riffs? And it’s got a hop in it, just like Rockin’ Around the Christmas TreeHow come no one ever invited me to a hop? Or bought me a pop in a glass bottle? Or let me wear his Letterman jacket? This curdles my cold cream and gets my rollers all in a bunch. You know what? Never mind. I’m going to stay home and wash my hair.

Little Drummer Boy (Harry Simeone Chorale) – This one is simple. It’s my grandmother’s favorite Christmas song. She used to get all misty when it came on, and say, “Steph, ooh, Little Drummer Boy!” and she’d continue, “Pa-rum-pa-pum-pum!” with a far-off look in her eye. It does, and always will, remind me of her.

Santa Claus is Coming to Town (anyone BUT Bruce Springsteen) - This is one of the songs that we all learn as kids. In fact, I’ve started teaching it to my son. Because nothing, and I mean nothing, beats threats from and old man you don’t know, who has total control over whether or not you receive anything for Christmas. Nothing.

Silver Bells (Johnny Mathis) – I love it. I do. And it’s so melodic. Just fun to sing. There’s not much to say beyond that. Except that it’s about precious metals and shopping. How could any woman not love it?

 

My Bottom 10 (If I never heard these again, it would be too soon.)

1961 reissue, utilizing the animated makeovers...

1961 reissue, utilizing the animated makeovers for The Alvin Show (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 

The Christmas Song (Alvin & The Chipmunks) – I don’t quite know how we came to love the Chipmunk voice. I’d like to think it was carryover from the ’70’s, maybe a little residue left over there, but I’m not feeling these fuzzy little freaks. And Theodore, with that godforsaken hula hoop.  Get a real job, Dave.

Feliz Navidad (José Feliciano) - Okay, fine. I’ll admit it. The first five times, it’s not so bad. We don’t know the words. We make noises that resemble the words. We sound like complete fools. And once you hit the tenth or eleventh time, the madness begins to set in. Especially in a store. And you can’t turn it off in a store…

Last Christmas (Wham!) - Christmas heartbreak, as extolled so geniusly by George Michael. Though I was also given a Wham! record, I can’t say I was ever a fan. I was always more confused by him than anything else. I remember standing in a record store, in the mall, just staring at the cover of his Faith album. I was about nine. I had no idea what the hell he was talking about.  Hey, George! Quit your bitching! The future shall bring many conquests.

Do They Know It’s Christmas (Band Aid) – Another gem from 1984, where the mega rich come together to beg for money to feed the poor. You know what else you could have done? Wrote them a check. Would have saved us twenty-eight years of grief. (Love you, Bono! Call me!)

Happy Christmas (John Lennon & Yoko Ono) - Never a Beatles fan. I know, I know. Sacrilege. And never, ever a Yoko fan. I’m glad Vietnam ended. I truly am. It was a long and miserable time for this country. But I don’t need (or want) to commemorate it every December. I just don’t. We should leave this one to the history books.

Merry Christmas Darling (The Carpenters) - I just never got into The Carpenters. And a big, fat NO to every version henceforth. This song just – How you say? – sucks.

Dominick the Italian Christmas Donkey (Lou Monte) – Never heard this song? It’s a treat. Do look it up. In the meantime, I will try my level best not to launch into a rant. This song is pretty popular around these parts, since a lot of Italians literally dropped anchor here, and count this little gem as part of their Christmas tradition. This song is about a loud, annoying donkey who enjoys kicking. And the guy swings in and out of Italian during the song. It’s a marscapone-covered train wreck. Stare at it for a little while, and then move along.

The Christmas Song (Nat ‘King’ Cole) – ‘Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire’ is a phrase I have no interest in hearing. Ever. Again.

Silent Night (Doesn’t Matter!) - Let me qualify this one. I like this song. A lot, actually. Despite my having been forced to sing it hundreds of times in fourth-grade Glee Club. I’ve forgiven that. What I hate about it is that it’s one of those songs, you know, like I Will Always Love You or The Star-Spangled Banner, that everyone knows the words to, everyone sings, and most people butcher. Some songs are best left to the pros. This is one of them. Let’s let Celine sing it. That’s why she makes the big bucks.

I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus (John Cougar Mellencamp) - This is another song I actually like. Kind of. I don’t like sexual undertones in any of my Christmas songs, as we’ve recently seen, so I’m really all set with anyone smooching Santa. My issue with this song, though, is a guy, in tight jeans, bopping his head and licking his lips, sweatily belting out the lyrics. I find it slightly revolting.

Santa Baby (Madonna) - When I hear Madonna attempting to purr and pout the lyrics to this song, I get an overwhelming urge to grab her lips and twist them until she cries ‘uncle’. Think she’s still into that sort of thing?

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Kix Cereal Introduces New Packaging to Encourage Creative Play, Plus Giveaway!

My family and I had a blast this past weekend with a few cereal boxes. I know, I know. You can have fun with anything if you try hard enough. But these boxes were different.

New Kix Boxes Available Exclusively at Target

New Kix Adventures Boxes Encouraging Creativity, Available Exclusively at Target

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New Kix Adventures Boxes Encouraging Creativity, Available Exclusively at Target

Featuring bright colors and either a jungle or undersea theme, including removable animals and shapes that can be built into larger items, these boxes scratched our entire family’s itch to create.

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Matthew was ready to create!

I had my children each choose a character to begin. My oldest son chose a monkey, my daughter chose an octopus, and her twin brother chose a fish. With a large collection of brightly colored craft supplies, our children got straight to work creating a place where their chosen animal might live and play.

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Of course, they snacked on Berry Berry Kix to keep those creative juices flowing.

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They helped each other, gave one another ideas, and were able to put their newly learned safety scissor skills to excellent use.

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Just a touch of glitter…

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At the beginning of the project, I’d resolved to ‘stay out of it’, only helping to open or close containers, or clean up spilled glue or glitter. But, despite ourselves, neither Daddy nor I could resist the siren song of googly eyes and pipe cleaners.

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Our end result was a glittery undersea playground for my daughter (the crab was made with a little help from Dad),

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Maggie’s Undersea Playground

a wavy ocean scene for her twin brother (with a little help from Mom),

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Michaels Wavy Ocean

and a colorful “play forest” for my oldest son.

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Matthew’s Play Forest

All in all, we (and I mean all of us) had a great time creating worlds for our new friends, munching on Kix cereal throughout. And we can’t wait for the next time, when we’ll incorporate stories involving these characters at kixcereal.com, written by Soleil Moon Frye, creator of MoonFrye.com and host of the Oprah Winfrey Network DIY series, “Home Made Simple“.

The new Kix cereal boxes are available only at Target, while Kixcereal.com houses the adventure storybook series, as well as fun craft ideas, kid-friendly recipes, and creative play suggestions for parents.

Want to do some creating on your own? Simply visit the Giveaway tab on the Stephanie Bernaba’s Blog Facebook Page to enter to win one of two creativity kits (filled with awesome, colorful craft supplies), a $100 Target Gift Card (yes, really!), and one box of each flavor of Kix (Original and Berry Berry)!

My kids were excited about (and love) the cereal, the boxes, and the craft supplies, which we plan to enjoy well into the winter.

Kix truly is Kid Tested, Mother Approved (this one, anyway!).

Good luck!

 

I was provided food items and craft supplies on behalf of General Mills/Kix Cereal in exchange for this review. All views and images herein are my own. 

Eligibility Requirements: Valid email address required to enter. Entrants must be US residents, and must be able to provide a physical street address. One entry per household, please. Entries accepted until 6pm ET on November 20, 2014. Entries accepted only through the Giveaway Tab on Stephanie Bernaba’s Blog Facebook Page. A winner will be drawn by noon ET on November 21, 2014, and notified via email, the Stephanie Bernaba’s Blog Facebook Page, and at @StephBernaba on Twitter. Winner must respond via email within 24 hours or new winner will be drawn. 

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