Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Let's Go Back to Summer - Heron on Don's Birthday

Last September Don and I went out for dinner on his birthday. On the way home we decided to go a different route - that would take us home the back way - avoiding freeways and busy highways.

Just as we turned onto a side road we saw a Heron flying low across the road and we watched where it landed. We parked on the side of the road - and here is what we saw. Fortunately I had my new camera along.

A Great Blue Heron on the shore of a tiny pond.

Earlier in the day a neighbor and I had been standing outdoors talking and we saw something land in the top of a big tree. We couldn't make out what kind of bird it was so I ran indoors and got my new camera and we could make out the Hawk that had landed in the tree.

And with the 140x Zoom this is what we saw! Amazing!

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Winter Solstice

At last the shortest day of the year - a time of celebration and good cheer. The sun is coming back - the days are getting longer - there is hope of spring again - though we have plenty of rain, wind and cold weather - at least is is better than a few years ago, when our world here in NW WA was covered in two feet of snow and more was coming down.

This is one of the favorite celebrations in our family - some are making "sun" cookies with yellow frosting - some are making art that reminds them of spring and sunshine - others are simply enjoying nature and thinking of the good things that have passed through our lives this past year.

Newgrange, in Ireland (Irish: Dún Fhearghusa) is one of the passage tombs in County Meath, one of the most famous prehistoric sites in the world and the most famous of all Irish prehistoric sites.

Newgrange was built in such a way that at dawn on the shortest day of the year, the winter solstice, a narrow beam of sunlight for a very short time illuminates the floor of the chamber at the end of the long passageway. This light lasts for 17 minutes on the day of the Winter Solstice. There are many prehistoric sites around the world that are also engineered in this manner.

The Roman midwinter holiday, Saturnalia, was both a gigantic fair and a festival of the home. Merry-making took place, and the halls of houses were decked with boughs of laurel and evergreen trees. Lamps were kept burning to ward off the spirits of darkness. Schools were closed. Friends visited one another, bringing good-luck gifts of fruit, cakes, candles, dolls, jewelry, and incense. Temples were decorated with evergreens symbolizing life's continuity. Many of the modern Christian Christmas traditions were taken from ancient Solstice celebrations, in an attempt to combine the pagan with their beliefs.

In pagan Scandinavia the winter festival was the yule (or juul). Great yule logs were burned, and people drank mead around the bonfires listening to minstrel-poets singing ancient legends. It was believed that the yule log had the magical effect of helping the sun to shine more brightly.

Yule log

A Scandinavian Yule tree - lit with candles.

Mistletoe, which was sacred because it mysteriously grew on the most sacred tree, the oak, was ceremoniously cut and a spray given to each family, to be hung in the doorways as good luck. The celtic Druids also regarded mistletoe as sacred. Druid priests cut it from the tree on which it grew, with a golden sickle, and handed it to the people, calling it All-Heal. To hang it over a doorway or in a room was to offer goodwill to visitors. Kissing under the mistletoe was a pledge of friendship. Mistletoe still has a special place in our Christmas celebrations.

There are great traditions to build on and enjoy this time of year. A wreath is a good place to start - a symbol of the circle of a year. After making the wreath and making wishes for the coming year - it can be placed outdoors. After the new year the wreath can be recycled back to nature - or it can be saved and burned in the Summer Solstice bonfire.

If you like - add some pine cones spread with pnut butter and rolled in bird seeds - to welcome our feathered friends to our homes.

Making desserts is a great way to celebrate - and add birthday candles to the dessert - which often might have the shape of a sun on it. Each family member can light one candle and give a thankful thought about the past year - or a hopeful thought for the coming year.

Big fires in the fireplace - or burning candles if you are not so fortunate to have a fireplace - are both symbolic of the solstice celebration - calling to the sun to come back and shine stronger for a spring and summer of growing food.

Gift giving is a wondeful tradition on the Solstice - either opening one of the many gifts under the tree - or having special gifts in a basket to share with family and friends on this wonderful day.

And baskets of food are often taken to friends and family as part of the Solstice celebration. Don't forget some of those sunny cookies.

And of course singing is a great part of any Solstice celebration - Deck the Halls, and Carol of the Bells are two very significant songs sung at this time of the year. Reminders of our connection with nature and our connection of our past to our future.

We find many of our holiday celebrations come from variations of the ancient celebrations - bringing us all closer together, sharing our celebrations with one another.

Happy Solstice to all - we'd love to hear about your Solstice celebrations.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Christmas Cookies

Today is cookie baking day . . . come in for a cookie and a cup of tea !

. My friend Julie is doing a series of blog posts about Norwegian Cookies that are traditional in her family and I thought I'd post about some of the cookies that we traditionally have for the holidays - though not specific to any nationality - they are favorites that we just couldn't do without every year. Last weekend I finished mixing up three batches of cookies - and have a couple more chilling in the fridge - and yes, recipes are included.

My first and all time favorite is Russian Teacakes. As you might seen in previous posts, growing up in Alaska these cookies were always a big part of the Bishop's Tea at the Bishop's Residence in Sitka, Alaska during Russian Christmas.



cup butter softened


cup powdered sugar


teaspoon vanilla

2 1/4

cups flour


cup finely chopped nuts


teaspoon salt

Powdered sugar

  1. Cream together confectioner's sugar and butter. Add vanilla.

  2. Knead in flour by hand until completely mixed. Or if you have a Kitchen Aid Mixer that works just as well.

  3. Chill dough for about an hour.

  4. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F (180 degrees C). Grease cookie sheets or use parchment paper - my "new" discovery.

  5. Roll dough into a ball. Place 1 inch apart on cookie sheets. Bake for about 15 minutes.

  6. When baked, dip or roll in confectioner's sugar. Store airtight in layers with waxed paper in between.


3/4cup packed brown sugar

1 ½ cup butter softened

1 ½ teaspoon vanilla

3 eggs, separated (or 1 egg separated and 1 whole egg)

3cup flour

½ teaspoon salt

2 cup finely chopped nuts

Jam or jelly

Heat oven to 350ºF.

Mix brown sugar, butter, vanilla and egg yolks (or 1 egg yolk – save the white for later in this recipe - and 1 whole egg) in medium bowl.

Stir in flour and salt until dough holds together.

Shape dough into 1-inch balls.

Beat egg white slightly. Dip each ball into egg white.

Roll the cookie balls in chopped nuts. Place about 1 inch apart on ungreased cookie sheet, or parchment paper. Press thumb deeply in center of each. Fill the indentation with your favorite jam.

Bake about 10 minutes or until light brown. Immediately remove from cookie sheet to wire rack. Cool completely, or eat one or two right away – but be careful – that jam is like hot lava.


(for those of you who didn't get this recipe in a previous post) This is a NEW traditionally favorite cookie - simply because it is too good to not make for the holidays.

1 cup (2 sticks) butter, room temperature (do NOT use margarine)

2/3 cup sugar

1 t. vanilla

2 1/3 cups flour

1/2 t. salt

1 cup pecans, chopped

1 cup dried cranberries, coarsely chopped

Cream the butter until smooth (about 1 - 2 minutes). Add the sugar and beat until smooth and creamy (about 3 minutes). Beat in the vanilla. Gently stir in the flour and salt just until incorporated.

Fold in the chopped pecans and dried cranberries. (Make sure that the nuts and cranberries are evenly distributed throughout the dough.)

Divide the dough in half. You might have to knead the dough a bit to get it to stick together – this is a rather dry dough. Place the dough on a piece of waxed paper. Smooth and shape the dough into an evenly shaped log that is about 10 inches long and 2 inches wide. Then thoroughly roll the shaped logs in the waxed paper, twist the ends of the paper to seal the logs, and chill for at least two hours, or up to three days. (The logs can also be frozen for about two months. If freezing, it is best to defrost the logs in the refrigerator overnight before slicing and baking.)

Preheat oven to 325, with the rack in the center of the oven. Grease pans or use parchment paper.

Using a thin bladed knife ( I used a good thin, finely serrated knife), slice the logs into ¼ thick cookies. Place the cookies on the prepared baking sheet, spacing about ½ inch apart – the cookies don't really spread.

Bake for about 15 - 20 minutes, or until the cookies are just beginning to brown around the edges. Remove from oven and cool on a wire rack.

Makes about 48 shortbread cookies. What I like about these cookies, besides they are the best tasting in the world – is that you mix them up one day and then bake them another, when the kitchen is clean and there is no mixing-up-cookie-dough mess.

Gingerbread Pigs

Here is my favorite recipe for Gingerbread Cookies - online - isn't that handy dandy?!? Or you can use any Gingerbread Cut-out Cookie recipe you like. I found my copper pig cookie cutter many years ago.

These pigs are very popular at our house - got to have that traditional Christmas Pig!

And then there are Sugar Cutout Cookies - but you can find a zillion recipes for those online - or maybe you already have your favorites. Don likes them flavored with Almond Extract.

Today I have baked 10 logs of Summer Sausage, 3 dozen sugar cookies, 2 dozen big Gingerbread Pigs, 3 dozen Pecan/Cranberry Shortbread cookies, dozens of Russian Teacakes, more dozens of Thumbprint cookies with home-made raspberry jam and two loaves of bread for the stuffing on Christmas day - it has been a most excellent day!

And what are your favorite holiday treats?

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Christmas Lights

We took a nice drive the other night to look at the Christmas lights - a long time ritual in our family. We've been doing this for over 47 years now.

Here are last year's lights. It is interesting that the houses that had lots of lights last year and not the same ones this year - perhaps the people moved away?

This year we found lots of pretty lights in Ferndale - we'd not been there before to look at the decorations.

One house had lots of wooden painted characters . . .

This one looks like Texas - or Australia . . .

Set on a hill - very pretty . . .

This one turned out prettier when I moved the camera a little, that the one that was in clear focus.

Entering downtown Ferndale - these lighted wreaths lined the streets . . .

These big lights changed color - from blue . . .

to red . . .

to green . . .

Have you been out to look at Christmas lights this year?

Friday, December 16, 2011

The Reason - - -

This is a wonderful time of year, and in some ways it makes me sad to see some harshness in a few people - claiming that they have the exclusive rights to the winter holiday celebrations. There are many, many Reasons for this Season - all around the world.

This is my all time favorite bumper sticker - it says so much - in just one word.

There are so many festivals at this time of the year - and so many good things to celebrate. These are in no particular order - just Reasons why we celebrate our love for each other. It is often said that if we didn't have a winter celebration we would make one up - to bring cheer to this time of the year.


December 8 - Day of Enlightenment, celebrating the day that the historical Buddha (Siddhartha Guatama) experienced enlightenment. It was originally celebrated in Japan, China, Korea and Vietnam and now around the world, and is a day of meditation.


The Solstice is celebrated around the world, with tributes to nature and giving of gifts to friends and loved one. The main celebration centers around nature and this poem is a great tribute to the Winter Solstice.

The Shortest Day

And so the Shortest Day came and the year died
And everywhere down the centuries of the snow-white world
Came people singing, dancing,
To drive the dark away.
They lighted candles in the winter trees;
They hung their homes with evergreen;
They burned beseeching fires all night long
To keep the year alive.
And when the new year's sunshine blazed awake
They shouted, reveling.
Through all the frosty ages you can hear them
Echoing behind us - listen!
All the long echoes, sing the same delight,
This Shortest Day,
As promise wakens in the sleeping land:
They carol, feast, give thanks,
And dearly love their friends,
And hope for peace.
And now so do we, here, now,
This year and every year.

- Susan Cooper
Author of The Dark is Rising novels


December 6 - though originating in Greece - this holiday is celebrated around the world now. It is celebrated in many ways—the bishop may lead a town parade, hold a Saints' Day Worship service, visit schools, hospitals and homes during parties or St. Nicholas might come at night and leave sweet treats and small gifts for children.

St. Nicholas is the Patron Saint of sailors, merchants, archers, thieves, students and children. St. Nicholas is the model for our modern Santa Claus and however he comes, Saint Nicholas reminds us that giving is more important than receiving, and doing for others is the faithful way to live.


Christmas festivities in Mexico begin with Las Posadas, nine consecutive days of candleight processions and lively parties starting December 16.

Children gather each afternoon to reenact the holy family's quest for lodging in Bethlehem. The procession is headed by a small Virgin Mary often perched on a live burro, led by a little Joseph. There are other children - dressed in colorful costumes and carrying decorated walking sticks and paper lanterns. The children stop at a designated house and ask for lodging for the Holy Family - and are turned away, because there is no room at the inn (Posada), this is repeated at a second and then third home - the third home says there is room in the manger and then the children are invited in for fun and games, and the chance to take a whack at the pinata and a mad scramble for the fruits, sugar cane, peanuts and candies in the pinata.


Russian Christmas is celebrated on Jan 6. After the 1917 Revolution, Christmas was banned throughout Russia, along with other religious celebrations. It wasn't until 75 years later, in 1992, that the holiday was openly observed once again. Fasting is observed during the day and after the first star appears dinner is served - meatless but festive. The most important ingredient is a special porridge called kutya. It is made of wheatberries or other grains which symbolize hope and immortality, and honey and poppy seeds which ensure happiness, success, and untroubled rest. A ceremony involving the blessing of the home is frequently observed. The kutya is eaten from a common dish to symbolize unity.

Growing up in Alaska we often would go to the Russian Christmas Mass at this wonderful Russian Orthodox Church.

The christian holiday most widely celebrated - on Dec. 25, the day that the Solstice was originally held, according the the ancient Julian calendar. It is a time of feasting, families gathering and gift giving - in the tradition of the Wise Men bringing gifts to the Christ Child. Gift giving is also a time when we can give to the less fortunate in our communities and around the world.

An Iranian mid winter festival, celebrated Dec 11 or Jan 22 - depending on the region of the celebration, it was celebrated with grandeur and magnificence in ancient Iran. Today it is a festivity to honor fire and to defeat the forces of darkness, frost, and cold. The chief preparation is the gathering of wood, and everyone in the community is expected to contribute. When the fire was lit there was a blessing given for the whole community.

An eight day festival beginning in late December, commemorating the miracle of the oil after the desecration of the Temple by Antiochus IV Epiphanes, and his defeat in 165 BCE. The Menorah is one of the most widely recognized symbol of Chanukah. There is gift giving and feasting during this holiday - though not as lavish as Christmas, the focus is more on the spiritual events.

Too often we underestimate the power of a touch, a smile, a kind word, a listening ear, an honest compliment, or the smallest act of caring, all of which have the potential to turn a life around.


Begun as a Germanic and Egyptian Pagan festival of the rebirth of the Sun. It is now celebrated around the world, by Christians, non-Christians and even by the non-religious. Yule traditions include decorating a fir or spruce tree, burning a Yule log, hanging mistletoe and holly branches, giving gifts, and general celebration and merriment.


Celebrated in Balkan Slavic countries on the evening of Dec. 24, the meaning has shifted from Christmas itself to denoting the tradition of strolling, singing, and having fun on that special night. It specifically applies to children and teens who walk house to house greeting people, singing and sifting grain that denotes the best wishes and receiving candy and small money in return.

This is a Humanist holiday celebrated on December 23. Humanist philosophy is a progressive philosophy of life that, without theism and other supernatural beliefs, it affirms our ability and responsibility to lead ethical lives of personal fulfillment that aspire to the greater good of humanity. It is a celebration of "a Humanist's vision of a good future." They celebrate a positive approach to the coming new year. Celebrating on Dec. 23 then allows the members to also join in other celebrations of the season.

Their philosophy is summed up in the words of a song that is often sung at Christmas - "Be Good for Goodness' Sake".

A week long celebration honoring universal African American heritage and culture, observed from December 26 to January 1 each year. It features activities such as lighting candles in a candle holder with seven candles and culminates in a feast and giving of gifts. It was first celebrated in 1966–1967.

There are many, many more celebrations of winter holidays - each with special meaning to those that celebrate their special days. Many Reasons to remember we are all connected and these are special times that we can remember those who are close to us, those who are far away and those who don't have the same good fortune that we have. We can celebrate any holiday by giving to the poor, helping at a soup kitchen, taking coffee to those standing in the cold while waiting at the food bank, bringing blankets and gloves to homeless and being tolerant of the beliefs of others.

Each person carries the ability in their heart to be open and accepting and my wish for this season is that we all share our commonality and not dredge up our differences. Try to get to know someone who is different than you - get to really know them personally and you will find they have the same desires, hopes, dreams and plans that you do. They cry in anguish, smile and laugh in joy and love their families the same way we love our families. We are one!

“Remember the five simple rules to be happy: Free your heart from hatred.

Free your mind from worries. Live simply. Give more. Expect less.”