Holidays

This category contains 17 posts

Santa’s Sub-Contractor Wraps Up the Holidays at O’Donoghue’s, Dublin

A pox on you ‒ yes, you up there with the fake snow machine!

Here’s how to lose the Christmas spirit yourself in 1 day, after advocating it to everybody else for 1 month.

Overly warm and windy weather has dogged me this entire 25,000 kilometer journey and caused all kinds of mechanical and morale problems this Christmas season. Strikes didn’t help, either, and elicited a common response from fellow citizens: derision, not sympathy.

(Case in point: London Tube operators who, due to holiday pay grievances, messed with the post-Christmas, annual-for-decades-if-not-centuries football matches. They already get 42 days of paid vacation per year, not counting national holidays, which is exorbitant even for Europe. They’re deservedly on everybody’s black list now, even Santa’s.)

Despite everything, on December 24 we ‒ Team North Pole ‒ were 99% on schedule, subtly delivering a few final gifts around Ireland while families were away from home attending Midnight Mass.

(Nine Lessons and Carols at St. Patrick’s, Dublin’s Anglican cathedral, is earlier, so if you traditionally open your gifts on Christmas Eve, folks, honestly that’s a time crunch for me.)

All in all, it was a stellar holiday season. If my customer satisfaction surveys come back positive, maybe I’ll be asked to reprise my role next year.

So, I rested on Christmas Day and let other people do the driving ‒ and the cooking ‒ for once.

But come December 26, I’m in a really bad mood. Some guy with a sick sense of humor sets up this dry ice machine right off Grafton Street, generating what looked at first glance like real snowflakes!

Except it was 10C and, strangely enough, wasn’t snowing on the next block over.

He was blowing this snow-like substance from this retail store ledge above the street (and was up to no good because when I tried to take his photo later, he ducked behind his truck), which made it seem so real that after-Christmas shoppers were looking up in the sky in confusion, even tasting the flakes to be sure.

Then, frowning, started looking around for the Candid Camera.

That’s aggravated holiday cruelty, getting our White après-Christmas hopes up like that!

Faiche Stiabhna, St. Stephen’s Green, runs along downtown between Grafton Street and Trinity College. St. Stephen’s Day ‒ called the Feast of Stephen in the King Wenceslas carol I wrote about from London ‒ in the Republic of Ireland, Boxing Day in the UK, and Day-After-Christmas in the USA are all the same thing.

And it used to be a day of fasting, although not for religious reasons.

On one unforgettable 1990s family trip around Great Britain over Christmas, we nearly starved to death Christmas Eve onward, not realizing that outside of London not even grocery stores would be open for most of the following week.

(Some Christmases, I give my brother-in-law a package of McVitie’s Digestive Biscuits, a joke that to this day he does not appreciate.)

But times, and economies, are different now. St. Stephen’s Shopping Center’s floor-to-ceiling banner proclaims “OF COURSE we’ll be open!” on our namesake’s day, starting at 11:00am.

Sure doesn’t seem to me like there’s any recession in Ireland…ka-ching, ka-ching…and the newspaper headlines the next day screamed, “Holiday Spending Off The Charts.”

With this much consumer optimism, the Irish economy can’t be as bad off as France’s Nicholas Sarkozy and Germany’s Angela Merkel claim…unless the Irish government itself spends every day like it’s St. Stephen’s Day.

Smiling all the way, because “we’re a happy lot,” says Oliver O’Donoghue.

When I arrive at 15, Merrion Row, I call Carol O’Donoghue, Oliver’s daughter, on my mobile. Wait on the street, I’ll come down to you, she yells over the din. (The family lives in the building.)

I’m staying overnight 2 floors above one of the happening-est (and arguably loudest) pubs in Dublin, in my favorite neighborhood: right down the street from St. Stephen’s Green and the Shelbourne Hotel, which I didn’t realize was quite so lovely and expensive until Bill G. was no longer paying for me to stay there, with a steep corporate discount.

I’ve parked the sleigh at the airport for 5,50€ a day. Not bad for an “oversize vehicle.”

O’Donoghue’s is open on St. Stephens Day, too, lunchtime onward. Then it’s standing room only ‘til at least 2:00am the next morning, everyone letting their hair down after a day of family Christmas traditions, which I suppose can be heaven or hell, depending on your family.

“Oh, we had a few people ‘round,” says Oliver, 3rd-generation pub owner and master of the understatement.

“You’ll find the Irish don’t take much to pubs and when they do, they don’t stay long,” says a regular, ordering just “a cup of tea, please, and a slice of toast,” having rather over-enjoyed Christmas.

Another name for St. Stephen’s Day: the Morning-After Blues.

So, a little over a month after leaving the North Pole to bring holiday cheer halfway across the globe, I’m at 35,000 feet heading NW, with a tail wind for once.

The reindeer know the way to carry the sleigh, as another carol goes (kind of), and as we pass over Greenland, they pick up speed.

Because it’s starting to look like home.

Thanks for keeping me company during my 2011 Christmas travels. May the New Year 2012 bring you the best of everything!

Santa’s Sub-Contractor Sings Carols with the Philharmonic, London

My invitation must have been lost in the mail.

To Wills and Kate’s first royal Christmas party as a married couple, of course.

This mix-up is understandable, since I haven’t been home, wherever that is, in over a month. But you’d think that Kate’s American Bridesmaid ‒ read my Royal Wedding Week coverage here ‒ deserved at least a follow-up phone call from the Wales’ social secretary!

No worries. Happy Christmas and let’s meet for tea after New Year’s.

So, rather than judging best-dressed royal party guests, I’ve been invited to judge the “Best-Dressed Shop Windows” in Cambridge!

In the categories of Originality, Festivity, Visual Impact, and Coherence, from a field of 8 semi-finalists chosen by “local experts.” So I’m not the only judge with “credentials unspecified.”

Now, I don’t know much about English decorative sensibilities, but it doesn’t take a Diplôme from Le Cordon Bleu to guess that the top prize is going to a food-related window display.

Bellina Chocolate House has taken 1st or 2nd place every year the contest has been held. Emporium 61 goes for vintage Christmas scenery, which will get the nostalgia vote. Origin8 makes way-out-there gingerbread houses and outdid themselves a few years ago with a…

meringue iceberg?

But my money, in more ways than one, is on last year’s winner: the kitchen store, Clement Joscelyne.

However, it’s time to do some bigger-time holiday shopping and that can only mean Harrods, the London department store so huge that it employs a Chief Giver of Directions.

I did take a taxi home later, but not because I had too many shopping bags to carry. My driver, initials K. L. according to my receipt, is a career military man who went right back to work after retirement to “keep exercising the grey matter” by driving around his home city, talking to “delightful young ladies like yourself.”

Why, thank you! I know this compliment had nothing to do with the orange-praline chocolates I just gave you.

Mr. K. L. and his wife have 5 children ‒ 1 son will be absent this Christmas due to his military service in Afghanistan ‒ and many grandchildren. He’s been married longer than I’ve been alive.

I asked him if he had a secret for a lasting marriage. “No, luv, but my wife does.”

And what might that be?

“On each wedding anniversary, she says to me, ‘It seems like yesterday, but if it were tomorrow, I’d say cancel it.'”

Evening comes early this time of year and, along with London’s non-royal best-dressed, I’m in the first row of the Circle balcony at Royal Albert Hall.

For the London Philharmonic Orchestra and Choir annual concert of Christmas carols old and new. Serious and secular. European and American. I know for a fact that nobody here was responsible for “Jingle Bell Rock.” (We have country singer Bobby Helms to thank for that holiday gem.)

Much less, “I’ve been an angel all year, Santa Baby, so hurry down the chimney tonight.”

Since the Middle East is never far from my mind, I read the following Facebook posts at intermission. About refugees, including children, from the Idleb province (closest to the Turkish border) of Syria, who’d been trapped in valleys, then hunted down and massacred by Assad regime forces.

“OH GOD!!!! Weeping!!!!”

(In the last few days, more than 200 men, women, and children have been killed like this, just in time for Arab League monitors to be told it was the work of “terrorists.”)

“The displaced people who have fled into the mountains from the villages of Jabal Al Zawiyeh district in the fog and rain of yesterday. The little boy laying on the ground was shot… The videographer, God bless him, sharing the danger the displaced are in from Regime forces… he asks the children, “where are your families?” they answer, “we don’t know, but we are very hungry.” Oh God, what will it take for this world to help these people?”

“PLEASE SHARE…PLEASE HELP GET THIS ON EVERY NGO AND GOVERNMENT AND EMBASSY WALL… CHILD REFUGEES, WOMEN AND CHILDREN in the mountains in winter, not even coats”

“In our hearts and in our prayers tonight, the displaced children of Idleb terrified of being found by the Regime soldiers who make no allowance for age or gender…and we just don’t understand how a Regime could be so cruel, and a world so cold hearted that these children have no rescue”

Then, in the first carol in Part 2 of the concert, our cast of 5,000 voices rang out: “Bless all the dear children in Thy tender care…”

As Dr. Ibrahim Othman and Hakam Al-Siba’i and Giath Mattar would tell us if they were alive, echoing the words of King Wenceslas on another cruel winter night long ago:

“Mark my footsteps, my good page, tread thou in them boldly…”

…and Syrians from neighboring districts took Wenceslas at his word.

News unfolding hour by hour on YouTube and Facebook:

How the gifts of love mounted for the people of Zawiya district as the Christian world prepares for Christmas (which we fear will be used as a time of great massacre by the murderer Assad, who well knows when the people of the west and the media aren’t looking), the people of Jobas and Idleb show us the real meaning of Christmas, giving to those in great need from full hearts, even when their own pockets are empty, and even bread and fuel not in their reach.”

“IDLIB: JOBAS: Gifts and donations from Children and adults for our people of Jabal Al Zawiyeh makes you cry, these dear hearts”

Children gathering donations for other children, knowing that the adults, maybe from their own families, who will make the precarious journey to deliver this lifesaving assistance, will risk all their lives.

Over 4600 kilometers and a world away, we sing with the London Philharmonic what the people of Jobas already know:

“Ye who now will bless the poor shall yourselves find blessing.”

Happy Christmas.

Santa’s Sub-Contractor Dances “The Nutcracker” with Polski Balet, Warsaw

You can file this post in “Jeanette’s Future Careers.”

Under “Least Likely.”

The home of the Polski Balet Narodowy (Polish National Ballet) is the lovely Teatr Wielki, filled with parents, grandparents, and kids, many of whom will be begging for ballet lessons after tonight.

Now, I love kids. I’ve spent the past week with various toddlers, happily attending pre-school Christmas parties and decorating gingerbread people (and animals).

But you don’t have to be a parent to appreciate the value of a good babysitter.

So, it’s date night and the grownups are in Balkon 1, Loźe E for “The Nutcracker.”

This “Nutcracker” version is different than any other I’ve seen before because choreographer Toer van Schayk changed the setting to 19th century Warsaw.

Warsaw being Stop #4 on Santa’s Sub-Contractor’s 2011 route, with the sleigh parked on Wierzbowa Street.

Awaiting snow!

(December in Poland with no snow is all the confirmation I need that global warming is real.)

The night before, we’d been sitting in a 2nd-floor café overlooking the lights of Stare Miasto, drinking winter tea ‒ with mango syrup and slices of citrus fruit, a huge carafe per person ‒ and playing the board game “In the Footsteps of the Pope.”

It’s something like Monopoly, with routes of the pope’s real worldwide travels during his time in office. Whoever travels as much as he did, more than any pope before him, wins (and gets lifetime 1K status on Star Alliance).

We’re talking about Pope Jan Pawel II, of course. John Paul II, the “Polish Pope,” whose influence cannot be overstated in this country.

But imagine my surprise when, here in the “Nutcracker” audience, I look down at the balcony below us and see nuns. Real nuns, wearing habits.

Uh, sisters, should you even BE here? Men in tights and all.

Maybe you took a wrong turn? Archikatedra św. Jana w Warszawie (St. John’s Archcathedral) is a few blocks back.

On a more secular note, as we see dolls, fairies, and tin soldiers flit across the stage, I remember the worst news I’d heard all week:

ToysRUs has arrived in Poland.

To parents at the Sunday brunch: long before next Christmas, you’ll come to regret how excited you are about this.

(I don’t meant to brag, but there’s a reason I got Santa’s sub-contracting job and ToysRUs didn’t.)

OK, part of the deal is that you have to learn the ToysRUs advertising theme song, which is as far from Tchaikovsky as you can get and hasn’t changed since I was a kid.

To prove how catchy that song is, remember that a) I’m writing it from memory, and b) for the majority of my life, my family didn’t even own a television!

“I don’t wanna grow up, I’m a ToysRUs kid
They’ve got a million toys at ToysRUs that I can play with!
From bikes to trains to video games,
It’s the biggest toy store there is!
I don’t wanna grow up, ‘cause maybe if I did…

I wouldn’t be a ToysRUs kid!”

So, with a quick stop at the Ostrogski Palace, which houses the new Muzeum Chopina, to listen to timeless music from master pianist Frédéric Chopin and to see some of his instruments and handwritten manuscripts, we travel west to the home of composer Benjamin Britten…

Santa’s Sub-Contractor Meets with Demanding Customers, Stuttgart

You were just in Germany, they said. Why are those people getting twice as many gifts?

Because they’re 2 years old. TWINS.

Most of us don’t remember being 2, but our parents definitely remember. The “terrible twos,” as that phase of child development is commonly called in English, and most of us lived up to that title pretty spectacularly.

Then imagine if there had been twice as many of you.

Oy.

Let’s call them Twin A (her real first initial) and Twin B (who’s actually the oldest, and never lets you forget it) ‒ are their grandparents’ only, and long-awaited, grandchildren.

That’s what I call a gift “situation.”

Since 2-year-olds are demanding about everything, especially about doing everything “by myself,” it’s not surprising that they’d be really opinionated about their Christmas lists. While 2-year-olds don’t write lists, they carry them in their heads and point to items as they see them.

“I want that one.” If the answer is no, then we try “Siiiiiiiiii!” or “Jaaaaaaaaaa,” experimenting with the volume.

Fortunately for the twins, but unfortunately for everybody else, they can demand things multiple languages. Their parents come from different countries and up until recently the family lived in yet another country…complete with a local “grandma” who adored the twins and satisfied their every whim.

Then you move home, just in time for Christmas, to twice as many adoring grandparents.

European children don’t typically watch TV, so advertisers don’t have the same opportunity to create demand for everything from ant farms to alien robots. But there are still plenty of temptations in every store, just at 2-year-old eyeball level, where somebody in Marketing got straight As in product placement.

But 2-year-olds have a big weakness that cagey adults can, and do, exploit: they’re very easily distracted.

They’re also easily distracted by things that are FREE, like Christmas lights, trees, and ornaments. (But only from a distance; you break it, you buy it.)

Then there’s chocolate, which has its very own category.

My first afternoon in Stuttgart, the twins came back from the nanny…each carrying a burlap sack, a miniature version of what Santa gave me to deliver gifts, filled with chocolates.

They just weren’t interested in hearing that it was a gift and thus you’re supposed to wait until Christmas to open it. Come on, that makes no sense. Nikolaus would never say something like that.

The burlap sacks mysteriously disappeared after the twins went to bed that night, but the next day, on a completely different topic, the grownups mentioned c-h-o-c-o-l-a-t-e. Immediately, the twins said, ”Schokolade!”

2-year-olds who don’t speak English and can’t spell in any language know exactly what we’re talking about, proving that adults are fooling themselves and should’ve given up on that spelling thing long ago.

We’re careful not to mention our plan to visit the Ritter Sport Schokoladenmuseum in Waldenbuch, at which I bought 4000g of premium chocolate, including 75% Cacao baking chocolate (note to readers who live nearby), for a grant total of 20€.

Well, 20 Euros 54 centimes, to be precise.

There are ever so many sweets in Germany anytime, but especially at Christmastime. You can’t get away from them, even if you tried. The airlines pass out chocolate bars. Twice on every flight. Hotels leave little packages of Gummi bears on your pillow, then ask you if you left them behind on purpose.

And there’s nothing that motivates 2-year-olds more than repetition…and repetitive success.

If it works on Mom & Dad once, great, but it might be a coincidence. If it works twice, the idea has definite promise. If it works on grandparents and honorary aunts, too ‒ ladies and gentlemen, we have a winner.

The parental decision at hand: do we want a war now or later? Two toddlers amp’d up on sugar and hanging from the chandeliers at 23:00 when you’re dead-tired and will agree to anything, or two toddlers having a daytime screaming fit outdoors, where they have to compete with football fans and accordion music?

We’ll take Option 2, with Glühwein to go. (Since this is probably the last Christmas we might be able to convince the twins that dates are also in fact candy, that’s worth a try, too.)

For Twin A & B’s parents, who didn’t ask for the 2-for-1 family plan but after getting over the shock are really good sports about their double stroller life (and admit to having twice as much fun, on some days anyway), make it “mit Schuss” (with a shot).

So, with a “Vielen Dank” to the pilot of flight LH 1773 from Istanbul, who not only found my Blackberry, but also answered my incoming calls on his way to the airport lost & found, we’re off on the next leg of our journey, 1200 kilometers and 5 degrees Celcius away…

Santa’s Sub-Contractor Finds Holiday Wisdom at Ayasofya, Istanbul

“Your church is back that way.”

Istanbul, like San Francisco, is a city where you often can see exactly where you need to go, but can’t figure out how to get there. A city where every street is Lombard Street and road construction is epic (and traffic has its own TV station, channel 21).

I wasn’t asking for directions because I planned to attend the Blue Mosque (although I did visit it later); I just needed to know whether the road went all the way through to the palm trees and the viewing benches in the distance.

Because that’s where I needed to turn left then left then left again, then right, to get to my guest house at 6, Akbiyik Street.

It was pure coincidence that I asked this question at the same time as the afternoon call to prayer, and they knew it. Just a little welcoming joke.

“My church” they were referring to is Ayasofya (in Turkish) or Haghia Sophia (in English). An icon of the Christian faith in these parts for the past thousand and a half years, it became a museum in the 1930s under Atatürk.

(Atatürk wasn’t his given name; it means “Father of the Turks.” Mustafa Kemal Paşa led the Turkish army to victory in Gallipoli in 1915, then after World War I got rid of the sultanate and created the modern ‒ and secular ‒ Turkish state, including women’s rights and mandatory public education, and famously not including derviç magic! Nearly every important building and institution in Istanbul is named after Atatürk.)

Ayasofya is across Sultanahmet Parki from the Blue Mosque, a bit like the Capitol and the Lincoln Memorial are on opposite ends of the National Mall in Washington, DC, all 4 monuments magically illuminated at night.

Having just come from the Christmas-crazy capital of majority Catholic Bavaria, suddenly seeing no immediate signs of Noël, except little leprechaun-green plastic trees at Starbucks, was oddly calming. In 16C weather, a ferry ride ‒ rather than a sleigh ride ‒ seemed in order.

(But, as in Munich, suddenly out of nowhere it’s 6C and pouring rain.)

Ayasofya, the Church of Holy Wisdom, dates back to the year 360 AD. Unfortunately, the church that Roman Emperor Konstantinos lovingly built was burned down by an angry public. Emperor Theodosios II tried again in the 5th century, with the same result.

Third time’s the charm, thought Emperor Justinanus (Justinian), who in less than 5 years built one of the architectural wonders of the world, religious or not.

And there Ayasofya has stood since 537 AD, unchanged, despite countless wars, famines, natural disasters, and changes in government. Which, said Justinian, was exactly the point.

In Constantinople, as Istanbul was called back then, Christmas was a relatively new concept ‒ 150 years new. But Christians living in those precarious times made pilgrimages to Ayasofya ‒ to its Weeping Pillar, if healing was required ‒ and, in the spirit of the season, all seemed light and right after all.

Which even among the poor, who were much poorer than most people who consider themselves poor in December 2011, inspired acts of charity, rather than inspiring overwrought decorations and competitive gift exchanges that seem to have hijacked Christmas holidays in our era.

But since Ayasofya is going to be around for another thousand years anyway, no-one will mind if I duck across the street to the Pudding Shop for some aşure (Noah’s Pudding) while the line dies down.

The story goes that Noah’s wife made this pudding with all the food left over in the Ark, after the waters of the Great Flood receded and the Ark came to rest on Mount Ararat, located east of here (near the borders of Turkey, Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Iran).

Aşure is a chef’s dream menu item: how else could you clean out the restaurant fridge, put all kinds of aging, random fruit into the same pudding, and legitimately sell it to customers for full price?

Don’t be put off by the idea, though. Noah’s Pudding tastes really good…and I bet it did to Noah’s post-Flood family, too.

Anyway, the Pudding Shop used to be a place where, if you were a hippy backpacker, you could eat cheaply but well and leave messages for friends, lovers, or fellow travelers. After 15 tram stops on the T1 from the airport, being squeezed in like…the Pudding Shops’s lamb and green hot-pepper kebaps (the Turkish spelling)…but thankful it’s December and not July, right in front of the Sultanahmet station appears that oasis of fresh squeezed pomegranate juice.

And who needs TV when you can people-watch on Divanyolu Caddesi over a white bean salad? Or fries with ketçap and mayonez?

Scooters veering on and off the sidewalk, giving a whole new meaning to “texting while driving.” Tourists from the Gulf veiled head-to-toe in black walking alongside nightclub-bound locals in stiletto heels and leather boleros. Crowds of football fans in red and yellow singing boisterously on their way to the Galatasaray (“Cim Bom”) vs. Barça match.

Today I’m wearing red and green, colors of Team North Pole.

“It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas…” blares Starbucks, although bowing to local preference sells carrot cake without the rooftop snow-like cream cheese frosting. “Sleigh bells ring, are you listening?”

That’s my cue.

It’s 5:00am when urban roosters start calling us to prayer, but God waits until 5:08am. Even though “my church” lets me go back to sleep for another hour or so, I decide not to.

Watching the sunrise over the Sea of Marmara, I’m starting to see the wisdom in that.

So, after getting some great gift ideas at Oyuncak Müzesi, the Toy Museum on the Asian side of Istanbul, but being very disappointed to find out that I just missed their kids wooden toy-making and -painting class…

Santa’s Sub-Contractor Sips Glühwein at Christkindlmarkt, Munich

Like I tell all my genius friends: don’t be an idiot.

In Germany in December, it tends to snow. At a minimum, wind or rain or both. Pretty much count on it. What you shouldn’t count on is the freak 13C forecast you saw on weather.com lasting for your whole trip.

(Definitely don’t take any guidance from what I’m wearing, since anything above freezing feels like summer to me, compared to -20F at the North Pole last week.)

So, it’s not terribly insightful to check all your cold weather and rain gear ‒ in fact, all your gear, period ‒ in your suitcase, only to have the airline send it to Chicago. I know it’s inconvenient, but go ahead and use 4 bins at the security checkpoint and you’ll thank me later.

In Alaska, we call it “dressing to walk home.”

That’s how I end up sharing a late-night cab from the Munich airport with some guys from a global IT consulting firm, who actually travel quite a bit, but in parts of the world where leaving your swim trunks behind is the more pressing problem.

So, in this taxi we have a combined IQ of 550 and not one suit jacket for the keynote speech.

Lufthansa gave them each a few hundred Euros as compensation for the untimely Chicago reroute, one of many great reasons to fly Lufthansa (raves this uncompensated spokesperson), so they needed to do some impromptu Christmas shopping.

Legitimately buying gifts for themselves, unlike what you get caught doing every year.

Knowing Munich pretty well, I can help, but not literally. My generous holiday spirit doesn’t extend to sitting outside dressing rooms at department stores. But I’d be happy to meet you later.

And there’s only one place to meet in December in Munich and that’s under the Glockenspiel.

There are fabulous Christmas markets all around Europe, but it doesn’t get much better than Münchner Christkindlmarkt at sundown. Losing your luggage on an international trip is one way to turn into the Grinch, but starting out my Christmas-spirit-promoting job in Marienplatz feels almost like cheating.

So, after a few hours of speed shopping ‒ something like speed dating, but a lot more expensive and you’re stuck with the results for longer ‒ they drop their combined 550 bags at the hotel and we head out again into the brisk wind.

With slightly less complaining this time.

“Hot chocolate?” asked one guy, hopefully. Oh, Señor: we can do so much better than that.

Glūhwein is hot mulled wine, usually red, although you can use fruit wines, white wine, or even beer.

The classic German glūhwein spices are cinnamon, cloves, vanilla, and citrus, optionally “mit Schuss” (with a shot of hard liquor). Elsewhere ‒ in Scandinavia, Russia, the UK, throughout Europe ‒ you’ll find a host of other flavors, including apple, nutmeg, honey, currant, even black pepper!

Whether you’ve been calling it vin chaud, grzane wino, glögg, vin fiert, Глинтвейн, sıcak şarap, or karstvīns for the past 600 years, glūhwein puts the cheer back in “Holiday Cheer” and beats back colder Decembers than this, all for a mere 3€ a glass.

Although it might take quite a few glasses to test that theory.

There are lots of good glūhwein recipes on the Web, but I have one objection to almost all of them: never use cheap red wine! Use the same quality red wine as you would to drink at room temperature in a wine glass.

When I mentioned this, we happen to be sharing a table with the one demographic that couldn’t care less: rowdy football fans excited about a match between 2 teams we’d never heard of.

My paternal ancestors immigrated from Nordrhein-Westfalen, Germany and undoubtedly brought a glūhwein recipe with them to South Dakota. One of the great-grandmas was apparently known to store bottles under the bed and, look-y here: we have a nice fermented beverage for…medicinal purposes!

Favorite glūhwein of the day? “Glūhwein nach Oma’s Rezept.”

Grandma’s Special Recipe.

So, with a wave to good friends on the Italian/Slovenian border, who are really disappointed we don’t have time to stop by for dinner and the night (in their 4-star hotel), we continue flying SE to…

Santa’s Sub-Contractor Clocks In at Christmas Headquarters, Alaska

Ironically, I took this job for the short commute.

Over the next month, I’ll travel over 15,000 miles/25,000 kilometers, helping Santa Claus, Saint Nicholas, Noel Baba, Święty Mikołaj, Chris Kringle, Père Noël, Daidí na Nollag, Babbo Natale, Agios Vassilis, Der Weihnachtsmann, and Father Christmas deliver delightful gifts to the people who’ve been very good all year and lumps of coal to the procrastinators and wishful thinkers ‒ you know who you are ‒ who’ve been very bad all year and are frantically trying to make up for it all in the last 4 weeks.

Good luck with that, say my North Pole colleagues.

This year’s gifts came off the elf assembly line days or weeks ago and are being loaded onto the sleigh as we speak. Next year, think ahead.

Although we all know Santa Claus normally delivers all his gifts on Christmas Eve, this year hit the North Pole hard financially ‒ hoping to “go green” this Christmas, Santa invested heavily in Solyndra ‒ and as a result had to lay off some of his toy-making and request management staff and was forced to outsource his distribution.

I outbid FedEx and ToysRUs and won the contract for 2011 holiday season, in part because I was already in Alaska for Thanksgiving and Santa didn’t have to pay for my relocation.

Bonjour! Jeanette here, newly hired Chief Transportation Officer and porte-parole du Père Noël. I’m Santa’s press secretary and ambassador-at-large for this holiday season.

And do I ever have my work cut out for me.

It’s painfully obvious that people have lost the Christmas spirit, and I’m not just talking about Christians. This black-hole world economy and world conflicts brewing far and near have made for a world-record-miserable year…

…and did I really sign up to get everybody back in the groove by December 25? I may have to give back my signing bonus.

But in what’s most likely blissful ignorance, I’m waxing the sleigh anyway, saddling up Rudolph ‒ that’s Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, for those of you who had perfectly happy childhoods without ever wearing battery-operated red blinking noses in school holiday music programs ‒ and ready to embark on a 6-country, 3-continent delivery route, trying to cover in 1 month just a small part of what Santa does in 1 night…or I’d try to pass over Nairobi, Auckland, and Santiago, too.

If this Christmas works out, maybe I’ll bid for a Southern Hemisphere route next year.

To any grownups who will admit to still believing that Santa is real, but especially pilot and engineer fans of this blog: we’ll have on board the latest stealth sleigh technology and top-flight, GPS-enabled reindeer. If and when we pass over your city, we’ll happily give you a test drive.

On the North Pole expense account.

So, with a quick stop at Union Square in San Francisco, California to light the Christmas tree and pick up some of those little blue boxes at Tiffany, we fly across the Atlantic to…

What a Difference a Day Makes

Whether you’re in the oven or at the beach, you’re still roasting.

On holidays, which is any time of year we manage to be together, our family likes going to the beach while dinner is cooking. (Alternate itinerary: hiking along a ridge overlooking the beach.)

While this tradition proactively burns off a few calories, true, and does help you feel less anxious when dinner smells so ready but the timer says (sob!) 2 more hours, here’s the real reason:

You might just meet some nice people at the beach who don’t have any particular plans.

Naturally you invite the lonelies home for dinner and every holiday season thereafter receive beautiful cards with photos of their beautiful families.

This past Labor Day weekend, we went to the beach as usual, content in knowing this time someone else would surely have a grill fired up, burger accessories at the ready, and a full menu of guests.

The beach was perfectly foggy and still and there’s nothing like salt air to make everything seem right again on an end-of-summer field trip before everyone goes back to school and work…including Congress who, unlike most of us, just enjoyed a 5- or 6-week paid vacation.

Supposedly visiting their constituents in their home districts, although after checking their alibis, funny how no constituents actually saw them.

But I wonder how many of our elected officials drove home last weekend from the beach, where we should’ve looked for them in the first place, past pumpkin fields and Christmas tree farms, wondering as we did: is it just our imagination, or do these holidays keep coming on us earlier and earlier every year?

Today, the 10th anniversary of September 11th, I’m thinking: where has the decade gone?

I was driving to work that Tuesday morning, September 11, 2001, when I heard the news over the radio. At first, it sounded like a replay for an anniversary piece about some other attack. Maybe the World Trade Center bombing? I scanned my memory for that date and came up empty.

Then I passed Starbucks and saw an out-of-place big-screen TV. I slammed on my brakes. Inside there were 4 baristas serving no-one and 100 customers ordering nothing.

Once we saw that infamous replay of the 2nd plane, United flight 175 from Boston to LAX, hitting the Twin Towers, any hope this was nothing more than a tragic accident was gone, overtaken by fear: at this very moment, are there more planes, circling over more cities?

Maybe even Seattle?

My colleagues and I dribbled into work, some learning about the attack for the first time, others already knowing and wandering around in a daze.

Facilities was broadcasting CNN onto movie screens in large conference rooms all over campus. Conference rooms filled with employees ‒ eerily silent, frozen in place ‒ missing meetings, phone calls, lunch, dinner…because nothing mattered except finding loved ones, and loved ones finding us.

And finding out who had done this, and why, and how in the world they’d gotten away with it.

(I didn’t realize until the next day that my family, mistakenly thinking I was on the East coast, had been trying frantically to reach me and getting voice mail.)

Then came our collective amazement ‒ and anger ‒ at how within hours of the attacks the FBI had identified all 19 perpetrators on the 4 airplanes and published detailed bios, yet somehow in all the months and years prior to 9/11 had never identified them at all, let alone as dangerous.

Despite bizarre details, telling anecdotes, and red flags just screaming for follow-ups that never happened. Right up until the very day of the attack.

(To be fair, the CIA already knew 2 of the men, Khalid al-Mihdhar and Nawaf al-Hazmi, were members of al-Qaeda with strong Islamic militant credentials, but because the CIA didn’t share that knowledge with the FBI or Immigration, known terrorists were given US visas with warm welcomes. Warm welcomes they promptly repaid by killing thousands of Americans.)

A few years later, the 9/11 Commission published a damning report. I read it ‒ all 585 pages ‒ and found it well-written, even engrossing. But a stark reality stayed with me: as long as we have at least 15 different intelligence agencies, with varying levels and traditions of secrecy, competing for funding and credit, even another disaster as devastating as 9/11 ultimately can’t and won’t prevent the intelligence community ‒ umbrella bureaucracy or no ‒ from eventually sliding back into exactly the “we-just-didn’t-connect-the-dots” situation that terrorists love.

In which they thrive.

In which, while TSA gropes kindergarteners, scrutinizes our brand choices in toothpaste, and wipes the insides of our pockets for explosives residue, young men traveling with no luggage, from countries with known terrorism risks, whose own fathers have reported them to the authorities saying they’re dangerous, can still buy one-way airplane tickets to the United States.

With cash. No questions asked.

But how a good friend of mine ‒ a European woman in her 40s, a mother of American-born children, a classical musician with performance credits on 3 continents ‒ is inexplicably on the terrorist watch list and has to go through lengthy, humiliating secondary screening anytime she flies…all because she inherited her Arab maiden name from her immigrant great-grandparents.

But today we remember those who lost their lives on 9/11, the victims who never saw it coming, and some whose last moments on this earth were filled with horror, and the rescuers who looked at it square in the face and ran toward it anyway, to whom we owe a debt of honor.

After almost 3,000 memorial services and beginnings of the World Trade Center cleanup and tragic reprisals against Americans who “looked foreign,” I remember how profoundly 9/11 stayed with us through that fall. Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s took on a new sobriety, even while family and friends carved pumpkins and counted shopping days, discussing holiday menus and what’s the story with him, her, and them becoming vegan since last year?

But before all that, before I moved overseas and began traveling to places where 9/11 was a news item, not an experience, I flew to Alaska.

The first state in which the FAA opened airspace after 9/11.

See, there were tourists on fishing trips in the wild who hadn’t heard anything about the terrorists attacks and were stranded, running low on provisions, day after day wondering why their rides never showed up. Kids who never made it home after school on 9/11 ‒ because their school bus is an airplane ‒ and were being cared for by generous local families.

Remote villages dependent on air freight, who’d started pooling their food, just in case.

The day of my completely full flight westward from Anchorage, the heat went out in our plane…everywhere except in the cockpit.

The flight attendants passed out blankets, coffee, and apologies. The captain left the cockpit door open for the duration of the flight, saying he hoped some warm air would flow back to us eventually.

This, just 3 weeks after 9/11.

Alaska tradeoff analysis: break countless new federal regulations on a flight carrying your postmaster, your pastor, and 10 of your relatives, or have to explain to your child’s teacher why you let his very pregnant wife in seat 3B catch cold on her flight home from the doctor?

And that’s how Americans went on after 9/11. Prudent, but not paralyzed. Devastated, yet determined.

Walking along the beach a few days later, we joked about our family tradition and how we really hoped to meet some people to invite home for dinner, but sadly no-one except us braved the icy wind off Bristol Bay.

Even the caribou stayed home.

Afterwards, we went to the airport to pick up other members of our dinner party, friends who were flying in for the weekend from the city.

We watched their plane circle around twice. Nothing ominous, we knew; just allowing another plane to take off first and giving visitors a 2nd-chance photo op of the tundra’s fall colors.

Then we watched it land safely, and soon family and friends, gifts and groceries, laughter and love came spilling out onto the runway.

Last Call to Wear White

Long before there were red states and blue states, there were white states and strict fashion Constitutionalists.

According to fashionable American ladies, or at least fashionable American ladies who received as engagement gifts copies of Emily Post’s runaway bestseller Etiquette in Society, in Business, in Politics, and at Home starting 1,000 years ago (OK, © 1922 onward), Labor Day ‒ in 2011, Monday September 5 ‒ is the last legal day to wear white…unless of course you’re the bride, in which case your main worry back in the day was supposed to be about deserving to wear white.

Deliberately choosing not to wear white at your wedding ‒ let alone threatening to wear RED, Mom ‒ might still, according to emilypost.com © 2011, “be upsetting to older generations.”

These older generations are welcome to be upset about any aspect of the wedding they are paying for.

Like any other rule of etiquette, or any rule period, there are dozens of subtly obvious workarounds. Call me beige, champagne, eggshell, seashell.

Cream, ivory.

Vanilla, latte, vanilla latte.

”Whisper” and “white clove,” too, whatever those are. Buy paint chips at your local hardware store.

So, what happens if you, a non-bride, do ‒ due to rebellion, forgetfulness, or wardrobe malfunction ‒ end up wearing white after Labor Day?

If you’re from the West, nothing. Or, even better than nothing, you get famous! If Diane Keaton/Annie Hall can wear white all year round, then so can we!

If you’re from the South, or Rick Perry’s Texas, you get pulled over by the fashion police, who for the good of the nation will detain you until Memorial Day: Monday May 28, 2012.

(If you’re under house arrest, we know you can’t resist temptation for 8 whole months to buy white contraband at jcrew.com.)

“Southern girls know bad manners when they see them,” so condescend the wearers of other faux-whites called magnolia, old lace, and pearl, including 2/3 of the First Ladies since I’ve been old enough to vote.

But today we have a First Lady from the Midwest, the fashion middle ground if you will, who looks great in white anytime, anywhere. Who actually looks great in almost anything anytime anywhere, save that puzzling red and black number you wore for Barack’s presidential acceptance speech, Michelle.

The one people call your “Black Widow” dress. Creepy.

I haven’t forgotten you all up North, where Darwin weeds out people who don’t follow the Labor Day rule. If you’re the unfortunate soul in the white parka with a flat tire on your white SUV in the middle of a snowstorm…you see where I’m going with this.

Leave the white-on-white motif to the polar bears.

Don’t read too much into this transition, but men don’t have to think about wearing white after Labor Day because most guys wear either what just came back from the dry cleaners or what their wives or girlfriends tell them looks good…

…but whose recommendations might not actually register this time of year, due to one or more of the following acronyms: NFL, NCAA, NASCAR.

Sincere apologies to gentlemen fashionistas, fans of tennis, soccer, and golf, and other offended constituencies. Imagine how sincere I’d be if had a looming deadline to bench more than half my wardrobe in less than a week!

Awhile back, I was invited to a “black & white” winter charity event. Since the invitation noted, cryptically, “indoor/outdoor,” and outdoor could mean any number of chilly degrees, I sent an inquiry to the hosts regarding the dress code. Even that sentence sounds expensive.

“I recommend perhaps a black wool cocktail dress with a white cashmere wrap,” was the reply.

Thanks for nothing, J.Crew: $502.55 plus shipping?

Listening to Mothers

Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad: here’s the latest of your daily democracy wake-up calls. It’s at your own peril, this not listening to mothers.

When Syrian mothers, wives, and daughters marched in the city of Banias, demanding the release of men in their families who’d been arrested during demonstrations, 100 of the men were released the next day.

Nice sound bite for the media, but you know perfectly well that’s not nearly all of those you imprisoned, maybe less than 10% (and you’ve arrested 8,000 people to date). If you thought this would appease us, you didn’t listen very well.

Had you’d asked us, here’s what we really wanted for Syrian Mother’s Day, March 21st:

No more killing. No more brutalizing. No more justifying.

Because you know better, Bashar. We’re ashamed of you.

(Some of these men were released with injuries worthy of this sober Facebook observation: “This (photos attached) is what can happen to you in custody of the Syrian secret police for less than 24 hours.”)

Mothers took to the streets of Damascus again on Monday (despite being attacked by Assad’s security forces in Arnon Square on Saturday). Because we know once Mom gets an idea in her head, there’s just no stopping her.

Particularly when it comes to protecting her loved ones and making sure they keep on the straight and narrow, goals that aren’t mutually exclusive.

Sometimes the worst threat you can make to criminals is not that they’ll go to jail. It’s that you’ll tell their mothers ‒ or grandmothers ‒ about the bad things they did.

Because, I’m telling you, Ma’am: that there is a fate worse than death.

Questions mothers ask, even if you’re in your 30s and 40s: are you dressing warmly (take an extra fleece)? taking your vitamins (here’s a year’s supply)? being careful when you go bungee jumping, night diving, and ice climbing? (please spare me the details)

I’m not going to stop you from building that kit airplane (and test-flying it afterwards with your equally worrisome brother), but I’m going to worry about you the whole time, and that’s my prerogative.

I told you a million times growing up: Because I’m The Mom.

When you’re the mom or dad, you’ll worry, too. My dearest wish for you is that you’ll have kids exactly like yourselves, and then you’ll see why all that worrying was justified.

Mom Herting, we love you for it, despite your dearest wish probably coming true. Starting soon.

Although there are people I’d rather be a little less related to than others, I know I’ll hear from readers who lost the family lottery and have chosen their own families from among friends, colleagues, and extended others.

Bravo.

Bravo to my mom, who was a “chosen mom” to 11 kids who were at our house for various periods and reasons over the past 35+ years. I counted: we’re still in touch with 7 of them.

Bravo to a friend of my sister’s and mine, who recently posted some new family photos on Facebook that included a teenage girl I’d never seen before. (She and her husband are parents of toddlers.) Turns out, this teenager is the child of a child our friend’s parents took in years ago.

They’d staged an intervention and the biological mother agreed it was the best thing.

Catching kids about to be casualties of adult-created disasters, and caring for kids almost grown up, having never learned the meaning of that word, continues in our friend’s family to a 2nd generation.

Which reminds me of another mother’s funeral I attended a few years ago. When I arrived, I was ushered up to one of the front rows. Since I wasn’t family, I couldn’t figure out why.

Until I looked at all the other people sitting in those rows and realized that none of them were family, either.

We were all friends of her children, and their children. Cousins many times removed. Kids she’d taught in elementary school. One boy who’d come over for a weekend sleepover and whose mother just never came to pick him up.

So he stayed. For the duration. Come to think of it, he gave one of the eulogies.

His mother, not in quotes, had specified this seating plan in her funeral arrangements.

Then there are some loving mothers who, tragically, have to bury their sons. Like Khaled Said’s mother, Laila Marzok.

Khaled Said, whose brutal, senseless murder at the hands of Egyptian police so enraged Egyptian youth that they launched a peaceful pro-democracy revolution that successfully ousted dictator Hosni Mubarak in February.

On the last night of his life, Khaled had encouraged his mother to go out and visit her sister, and she had. She came home around midnight to find him not there.

Uncharacteristically, he didn’t come home, or call. His mobile phone went directly to voice mail. Sensing something was wrong, she went down to the cafés along the seaside to look for him.

There she found his friends. She asked them whether they’d seen Khaled. They looked at her strangely.

You didn’t know? they said. He’s in the morgue.

…and she screamed and screamed, not believing.

The Egyptian police had dragged Khaled out of one of those cafés, beating him mercilessly before carrying him away. The business owners nearby had tried to intervene and in doing so had been attacked themselves.

Mrs. Marzok then went to the morgue to identify her son…and hardly recognized him. (Good news today: Dr. ElSibaei, Egypt’s top autopsy and forensic specialist, who fabricated the results of Khaled Said’s autopsy to favor the police version of events, has just been fired.)

It’s difficult to believe in a cause when you’re the one who has to lose a loved one in its defense, yet still she believes. She thinks of her son every day, and the life he could’ve had in a democratic Egypt, but she knows it’s what he would’ve wanted.

So, on Egyptian national TV, she put her arms around a young man her son’s age who will have that chance.

…and she demonstrated in Tahrir Square for 2 weeks with Khaled’s friends and peers. “I will stand with them,” she told BBC (with an English voice-over), “and be their mother.”

This is Mother’s Day season around the world. American kids, heads up: Sunday May 8th is this weekend. I’m bound to get testy emails from people whose mothers live far away and didn’t get those cards and flowers in the mail already.

Thanks for nothing, Jeanette, for posting this reminder too late.

Hey, I’m not your mother.

For expatriates in France, remember that Mother’s Day is May 29th this year and La Fête des Mères follows quickly afterward on June 7th.

No, a single gift, bouquet, and dinner will not cover both events. Do not offend your future French mother-in-law over this.

Then there are mothers who shouldn’t be mothers to anyone…like Ms. Mixon, name unknown. (There’s a good reason why she might want to be vague about that.)

In 2009, her son Lovelle shot and killed 4 Oakland, California police officers and injured a 5th…and raped 2 young women…all on the same day.

Afterwards, she marched in a vigil in his honor, at which he was called a “hero” and his killing “genocide.” Police shouldn’t have shot him because he was a good boy.

Face it, Ms. Mixon: your son was a monster. He was a one-man crime machine.

How fortunate he was stopped, permanently, before he hurt anybody else. (After his death, he was implicated by DNA for several other felonies.) Because he would’ve, and in your heart you know that.

And I think so did she.

My freshman year at university, this kindly older lady worked in the admissions office. A mothering type to students who needed help navigating the mysteries of enrollment, which turned out to be almost as difficult as getting a degree itself.

I heard that some of the staff had donated money to her son’s defense fund. He was in prison for some terrible crimes, but because everybody loved this secretary, as she called herself (although that job title had already served its time), they gave willingly.

No way could that sweet lady have a child who did any of the awful things he was accused of. Surely her son had been unfairly targeted in some cruel miscarriage of justice.

That lady was Louise Bundy. Her son’s name was Ted.