Just Please Don’t Tell My Husband

When I got married, more than 15 years ago now, my mother gave me some sage advice. “Sarah,” she said, “whatever he’s really good at, you let him do it, and you never ever learn how.” There’s a great deal of wisdom in those words. Of course she didn’t mean for me to be helpless and to rely on my man to take care of all the big stuff. What she meant was twofold:

1.       It’s important to build your partner up and let him know his contribution to even the simple things in your relationship is valuable.

2.       If you do that consistently, then you will never have to do the cooking on chili night.

My dad does make a mean pot of chili and he has a few other signature dishes, too. And somehow Mom can’t manage to master any of them. But I’ll let you (and my dad, since he reads this blog) in on a little secret. She’s a pretty competent cook, and probably could make chili if she had a mind to. (Sorry Mom, but after 50+ years, I suspect he already knows anyway).

I have a lot of respect for my mother, for both my parents, and for their long-lasting marriage, so I have done my best to follow this advice. But this week, my determination to do so has been tested. Because this past Tuesday was Pancake Day.

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My husband makes the best pancakes. THE. BEST. PANCAKES. Seriously. But me trying to follow his recipe? I’m not going to lie. This could go badly.

For many of my American readers, you may not realize that that’s how much of the world refers to what we tend to call Mardi Gras, or Fat Tuesday, or Shrove Tuesday. It’s the day before Ash Wednesday, that marks the end of the upbeat season of Epiphany, and the eve of the somber season of Lent on the Christian calendar.

Because Lent is observed as a season of repentance and often of denial of the flesh, Shrove Tuesday  developed, probably in the Middle Ages, as a day of feasting in order to use up rich perishable foods that would not be consumed during the next forty days leading up to Easter.

Flour, milk, and fats needed to be used up. To the English, that sounded like a good reason to whip up a batch of pancakes. According to legend, in 1445 in Olney in Buckinghamshire, one woman did just that. But she didn’t have very good timing, because when the bell rang out to announce the beginning of the church service of confession (or shriving service), she was right in the middle of cooking her pancakes. A devout woman, she dashed off to church anyway, arriving breathless in her apron, with her frying pan in hand.

In her honor, the Olney pancake race has become a famous annual Pancake Day tradition, featuring women (or men in drag), running a 415 yard course toward the church while carrying a hot pancake in a pan. In order to win, a contestant must flip her pancake during the race a minimum of three times, and arrive first to serve it, still hot, to the bell ringer.

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I once found a banana pancake recipe I wanted to try. My oldest son took one bite and told me that if he had to choose between that and slobber, he’d consider choosing my pancake. This could go very badly.

There are a lot of Shrove Tuesday traditions observed the world over, but this is by far my favorite. Someday I hope to participate.

And now I can, because I very recently learned how to make pancakes. I realize they aren’t terribly difficult to make, and it might be a little sad that a woman in her late thirties may not have known precisely how to do it, but what can I say?

I listen to my mother. And my husband makes amazing pancakes.

It has long been our family tradition that on Shrove Tuesday we eat pancakes (made by my husband, of course, because I never have to do the cooking on pancake night). Unfortunately this year he had to be out of town. I assumed that my sons and I would just go out to eat our traditional meal that evening. Until my oldest spiked a several-day fever and wasn’t fit to go to school, or to eat at a crowded restaurant.

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Actually, these turned out to be pretty good. Just please don’t tell my husband.

Still, tradition is tradition and so with trepidation I took down the old family recipe book and looked up pancakes, a recipe I might add, that is incomplete because my husband has tweaked it over the years. 

All I can say is I did my best, but I think his title of official family pancake maker is safe. And really it’s one skill I don’t mind not perfecting. There are plenty of other things I’m good at. In fact, according to my mother, I make the best blueberry muffins on the planet, a skill she just can’t seem to master.

 

St. Louis Goes Big, Warts and All

In 1874, Richard Compton, a sheet music publisher from the St. Louis area, hatched a large-scale plan to promote the city he called home. He was attempting to capitalize on an artistic trend in which cities across the United States were engaging. He recruited Camille Dry, an artist who specialized in pictorial maps.

By the late 19th century, every city that was a city had one, a map that highlighted (and exaggerated) its finer qualities. The details of these maps were stunning. Every street, every building, even many windows accounted for, they were designed to attract industry and promote trade.

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One book: St. Louis-Made Population Enlarger and Me: This Sort of Thing is my Bag, Baby

St Louis needed the boost. Its central location and close proximity to the Mississippi River had caused it to boom, but Chicago was booming at a faster clip. Just four years before Dry began his sketches, St. Louis had been embroiled in a scandal over the bribing of census takers to overinflate its population. (Inflate-gate?)

And so the plan was hatched. The artist responsible for producing pictorial maps of eight cities in five different states in 1871 and 1872, took to a hot air balloon (rumor has it anyway), tethered to the East side, and in about a year (probably working with a team), drew a map the likes of which the world had never seen.

Larger and more detailed than any pictorial map then or since, Dry’s work consists of 110 separate drawings, each about 11 x 14 inches in size, that when laid out, cover an area 24 feet long and 8 feet high. Because folding such a map would probably prove challenging, Compton published it, along with 112 pages of business listings, as a book titled Pictorial St. Louis: The Great Metropolis of the Mississippi Valley, a Topographical Survey Drawn in Perspective A.D. 1875.

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Dry’s map shows almost ten miles of riverfront and more than 40 square miles west of the Mississippi. This panel shows the Eads Bridge, which today is just north of the Arch. But not in 1875.

With a whopping price tag of $25 dollars (which in today’s money is quite a bit more than you’d shell out for your average convenience store road map), and a cumbersome title that didn’t yield great search results on Amazon, the project was a financial flop.

But this beautiful map remains as a point of pride for the city it depicts. Since last May, the Missouri History Museum, located in St. Louis’s Forest Park, has featured an exhibit entitled “A Walk in 1875 St. Louis.” The map has been blown up to 10 feet x 30 feet panels, showing exquisite details like the tents of a visiting circus, a man driving a herd of cows through the city streets, and a mob making a run on a local bank.

Interspersed with the map are the stories of the lives of St. Louisans in 1875, including the foods they ate, the clothes they wore, and the parasites they ingested in their drinking water. The special exhibit will be open through February 14, and I’m ashamed to admit I didn’t get there until time had almost run out. But I’m glad I saw it.

What impressed me the most was that while other cities used their beautiful maps to gloss over their warts, exaggerating and sometimes out-and-out lying to prospective businessmen and settlers in order to lure them in, Compton and Dry took a different approach. The warts are shining brightly on this map. St. Louis wasn’t a perfect Utopia in 1875 and I would never suggest that it is now.

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Missouri History Museum, just one of many places that makes St. Louis great. And wouldn’t it be fun to color?

But like Richard Compton, I love my city. I know we’ve had some problems. Race relations are tense, crime has crept up, and I hear some football team chose to leave us for LA (a city that in 1875, barely took up one page of map). The press has been unforgiving. Still, St. Louis is an amazing place with a lot to offer and I’m proud to call it home.

So here’s my idea. What the city of St. Louis needs to do is promote itself in a medium people can respect. We need to jump on the biggest trend to sweep across this great nation since the pictorial map craze of the 19th century and show off not just our warts, but also everything that is amazing about our city.

That’s right. What we need is a St. Louis-themed adult coloring book. A really, really big one.

 

That Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze

Chances are if you’ve been to a circus at some point, you’ve seen people risk their lives. It’s part of the thrill of the show. There are fire-breathers, lion-tamers, high-wire walkers, and sword swallowers to name just a few.

And while the circus used to be primarily about tortured exotic animals, unfortunate human oddities, and psychotic-looking clowns that haunt our nightmares, at some point the attention shifted to more and more dangerous performances of highly skilled human oddities as they defied the kind of grisly deaths that haunt our nightmares.

One of the turning points for the circus came in the middle of the 19th century when a young Frenchman named Jules Léotard went swimming in his father’s pool in Toulouse. A skilled gymnast, Léotard swam a few laps and then thought he might have more fun at the pool if he swung above it. He rigged up a series of apparatuses resembling dangling pull-up bars and began swinging, launching himself from one to the other. Soon he was performing elaborate acrobatic maneuvers above the pool.

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Jules Léotard and his bulging muscles. Fetch the smelling salts!

And a terrifyingly dangerous circus act was born.  Léotard performed on the trapeze above straw mattresses in his home town and soon he found himself flying above large crowds in Paris and London. The practical, tight-fitting costume he designed both for flexibility and for making the ladies swoon at the sight of his bulging muscles, came to be known as the leotard. And that song about flying through the air with the greatest of ease? That was about Jules Léotard, too.

Today the flying trapeze is an iconic act in the world of the circus performances. And it’s one of the reasons I won’t attend a circus. Now I don’t care much for the animal training or the clowns, either, but I really really don’t like to watch people risk their lives for the sake of my entertainment. It’s just not my thing.

But I am fascinated by the performers who do it. So a few months ago, I wrote a little flash fiction piece about a circus acrobat performing on the trapeze. I entered the story into a contest sponsored by the group Wow! Women on Writing. And the story won third place, which was very exciting. If you’d like, you can follow the link and read “The Greatest of Ease” and some other lovely flash pieces on the Wow! website.

Then, if you’re a really super amazing person, you can also check out an interview with me that was posted on the Wow! blog earlier this week. In it I talk about the story, about my forthcoming novel, and a few other writerly kinds of things.

I hope you will find it entertaining, because though it would be pretty cool if someone wrote a song about me one of these days, this is pretty much as close as I ever plan to get to risking my life for the sake of entertaining an audience. And I think it’s also unlikely I’ll ever wear a leotard in public. Because that’s the kind of thing that haunts my nightmares.

The Dark Days of Pinball: How I Nearly Took a Sledgehammer to a Snowman

Seventy-four years ago, on January 21, 1942, Fiorello La Guardia, then mayor of New York, finally got around to addressing what can only be described as a scourge on the good citizens of his city. Long before loosie cigarette vendors and giant cups of killer soda, New York still had its fair share of problems. The biggest one of all was pinball.

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Fiorello La Guardia, then mayor of New York, probably addressing the public about the dangers of pinball.

 

Mayor La Guardia wasn’t having it. “Pinball,” he explained while gesturing wildly, “is a racket dominated by interests heavily tainted with criminality.” He issued a directive to the NYC police department, expressing that the rounding up of pinball machines throughout the city was to be their top priority.

Over the course of a few weeks, police raided seedy pinball establishments confiscating more than three thousand machines. Then the mayor himself, a grand politician, took a few highly publicized swings at them with a sledgehammer, smashing them to bits.

Time and resources well spent, I’d say. But then I’ve never been very good at pinball, a game of some skill and a lot of luck.

And right now I feel as if I’ve been playing it for the last three days. We had a long weekend this past weekend, with Martin Luther King Day on Monday and an additional teacher inservice training day for our school district on Tuesday.

My sons are eleven and eight, close enough in age to be really good friends and also terrible enemies, sometimes in the very same moment. So while we all enjoy the occasional break from school, it can start to feel like an elaborate game of pinball.

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You know, the one thing I didn’t think to do was take my kids to an arcade to play pinball. Huh. photo credit: P1010858 via photopin (license)

 

Everything is going along fine. Their imaginations are running wild and they’re having fun. Then they get bored. They fight. Someone ends up crying. I start yelling. I take a deep breath, pull back the spring loaded pin of creativity and launch them an idea, something new to try, a game to play, a project to work on, a friend to call, or a book to read. It works for a little while. Enthusiastic and hopeful, they bounce off the walls and I rack up a few creative mom points. Until they get bored. They fight. And someone ends up crying.

By the end of the day on Tuesday I had pretty much exhausted every idea I ever had for keeping them busy. We were on the brink of something terrible. And that’s when it started to snow.

The call came around 10:00 that night. The boys were tucked in and sleeping and I was just beginning to relax, unwinding from the woes of the day before heading to bed myself when we received notice there would be no school the next day.

I love my children, but when I thought about spending another day of launching creative ideas at them only to wind up with one (or all) of us in tears, I was ready to whack a snowman with a sledgehammer.

That’s kind of where Mayor La Guardia was at, too. Because he’d already spent years trying to clean up his city. He’d taken on crime, ridding the city of the slot machines that funneled gambling money to the mafia.

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And that is how you become the kind of mayor that gets an airport named after you.

 

And then the criminals launched pinball onto the scene. At the time, the game didn’t yet include flippers, and so involved much more chance than skill, pilfering, according to the mayor, “nickels and dimes given [children] as lunch money.”

He wasn’t alone in his crusade against the game. Cities across the US joined in the fight and banned pinball, sending it into the even deeper recesses of the shady underground, where only the most hardened of criminals could find it.

New York’s ban lasted until 1976 when a heated pinball-focused City Council hearing ended in a spectacular demonstration of skill by Roger Sharpe, by day a respected young magazine editor, and by night, a hardened pinball criminal from New York’s seedy underbelly.

Sharpe played for a bit with mixed reviews and then in one final attempt to impress, he called a difficult launch, and delivered. The City Council immediately declared that pinball was more than a game of mere chance and the ban was lifted.

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This could have been me. photo credit: Snowman Vs. Sledge via photopin (license)

 

Fortunately school is in session today, but if it weren’t, I’d have had to institute a ban on creative mom pinball. I’d have been making a few highly skilled calls myself, frantically launching my boys toward the homes of friends or grandparents. Because if they’d been home with me again today, I’m pretty sure I would have taken out a few snowmen with a sledgehammer.

Going Tiny in a Very Small Way

In a few weeks I will celebrate the third anniversary of moving into my current home. This most recent move, from Salem, Oregon, was the fifth in my fifteen years of marriage, and I’m sincerely hoping it is the last for a while. I’d like to let my sons go through school with a consistent group of friends. I’d like to think that when someone asks them where they are from originally, they might know how to answer. And despite all the bad press of the last few years, St. Louis is a wonderful place and we are very happy to be living so near our favorite city.

But lately I’ve also been thinking about the one big disadvantage of staying put. Because I’ve become obsessed with the television shows that highlight the tiny house movement. There are several different ones, but each focuses in on a person, or couple, or sometimes even pretty good size family that is looking to either build or buy a home that is somewhere in the neighborhood of 400 square feet or less.

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Tiny house. Big bludgeoning risk. photo credit: IMG_6224 via photopin (license)

I’ve tried for a long time to figure out what appeals to me about these shows. I know for certain that I do NOT wish to live in such a home. As much as I love my family, if I had to live on top of them every minute of every day, someone would get accidentally bludgeoned to death.

I think the reason these shows appeal to me so much is because of the stories of the people. Almost all of them say the reason they want to “go tiny” is, in part, because they want to rid themselves of the extra stuff in their lives and live more freely with less.

Doesn’t that sound amazing? So I’m a little scared to not be looking ahead to a move now that it’s been a few years, because every time we pack up to move, we pare down. And it’s amazing.

Without a move looming, the drawers are getting a little cluttered, the closets a little crowded, and the tower of boxes in the basement of outgrown clothes and toys and books that should be donated is beginning to teeter dangerously.

I’m afraid if this goes much longer, we risk becoming like Homer and Langley Collyer, a well-to-do pair of brothers that lived together in their family’s 5th Avenue Harlem mansion, along with all the leftover equipment from their deceased father’s medical practice, the possessions from their deceased mother’s separate house, stacks and stacks of newspapers, and fourteen pianos.

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So my closets don’t look like this. Yet. photo credit: bric-a-brac via photopin (license)

On March 21, 1947 the police received a call about a smell of decay emanating from the house. They dug their way in and discovered Homer Collyer dead. Nearly a month later, workers uncovered the body of Langley Collyer, crushed under the junk. Around 120 tons of debris was eventually removed from the house. The few salvageable things fetched $2000 at auction and the dangerous house was razed, making way for the small Collyer Brother’s Park at the corner of 128th and 5th Avenue.

There’ve been attempts to have the park renamed, in order to honor someone or something perhaps more noble than the famous hoarders, but as then NYC Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe pointed out, “Not all history is pretty — and many New York children were admonished by their parents to clean their room ‘or else you’ll end up like the Collyer brothers.’”

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A teetering tower of donations. But no pianos, so that’s something.

I think it’s safe to assume there were some underlying pathological issues that led to the lifestyle and tragic demise of the Collyers, but I’m going to try to learn a lesson from them anyway. I’m not facing an impending move, and because I love my family and would hate to have to bludgeon them, I am not going to attempt to live in 400 square feet.

But what I am going to do is make a concerted effort to pare down as if we were planning a big change. Call it my 2016 resolution if you will. I will sort out the junk drawers, reorganize the closets, and haul off that teetering tower of donation boxes.  I will rid myself of the extra stuff and live more freely with less.

And it will feel amazing.

On the Shelf of Rarely Used Things

In a dark, unfinished corner of my basement there is a set of rough wooden shelves where we keep things we’ve nearly forgotten. The bottom two shelves are mostly crammed with recently refilled boxes of Christmas decorations.  But the top shelf contains even less useful items. The soft case for my saxophone I haven’t played in forever is there, along with some old computer parts waiting to be recycled someday.

And next to that sits a box that hasn’t been opened in more than fifteen years. The box was stored at my parent’s house for a while and then moved in with us when we had room for it. It’s traveled halfway across the country and back, been a little beaten up along the way, and gathered plenty of dust, but still it’s remained sealed.

Because what it contains is something I will never use again. I won’t get rid of it, either. At least not any time soon. What it contains is my ridiculously formal white wedding gown.

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Not an especially fancy wedding dress, but as I am not royalty, I still don’t have anywhere to wear it.

I’ve been thinking about that box a lot this week, and not just because I saw it as I stuffed away the Christmas decorations, but because this past Saturday I had the opportunity to join one of my nieces in her shopping quest for her own ridiculously formal wedding gown.

The bride will be getting married next fall on the east coast and her mother (affectionately known as the momzilla) decided to plan a Midwest gathering of epic proportions this holiday season so that grandma and most of the aunts and female cousins could participate in wedding dress shopping.

It was a really sweet idea, inspired in part by TLC’s Say Yes to the Dress, an inexplicably addictive show in which brides try on crazy expensive and ornate dresses that they will only wear once. And then everyone cries.

That’s pretty much how it went, too. On the designated day, eleven of us (including the bride and the momzilla) descended on an already busy bridal shop filled with rack after rack of white gowns. We were the largest group there that day, even causing the consultants a bit of grief as they lined up chairs around an elevated platform where the bride would emerge from her dressing room.

At the momzilla’s insistence, my niece tried on at least six gowns (this was an actual momzilla-issued mandate). Then she tried on just one more, one that wasn’t anything like she had imagined she wanted. And we all cried. Seriously, it happened just like it does in the show. She tried on lots of beautiful white gowns and she looked lovely in all of them, but this was clearly THE DRESS. The scene could have been scripted.

There’s a look that comes over a bride, a certain expression that signals to everyone watching that she is suddenly able to envision it all, that even if she didn’t know it, this is the wedding dress she’d been picturing herself in. And once she’s decided, there’s very little chance of persuading her otherwise.

Perhaps that’s what it was like for Queen Victoria when she broke with tradition in 1840 and donned a white gown covered in delicate English lace for her wedding to Prince Albert. Very few brides were wearing white at the time, but Victoria knew what she wanted. I imagine the first time she saw herself in that big white dress, she got that look, and cried.  She also started a trend.

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Queen Victoria in her wedding dress and veil, painted ten years later because she didn’t vacuum seal it and put it on a shelf in the basement. Franz Xaver Winterhalter [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Ten years later, most wealthy English brides chose white gowns and Godey’s Lady’s Book, the 19th-century American woman’s go-to guide for all things fashionable, had this to say about wedding gowns:  “Custom has decided, from the earliest ages, that white is the most fitting hue…It is an emblem of purity and innocence of girlhood, and the unsullied heart she now yields to the chosen one.”

In the world of fashion, I guess ten years ago probably is considered the earliest ages, but whether the custom was long-standing then or not, it certainly is now. More than ninety percent of today’s American brides wear white on their wedding days.

I suppose it’s practical enough, if you plan to never wear the dress again and just have it cleaned and vacuum sealed into a box that you’ll put up on the basement shelf of things you rarely use until the daughter you may or may not have rejects it in favor of THE DRESS she saw in Modern Bride Magazine.

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What my wedding dress looks like now. At least I think it’s in there.

 

But that was one tradition Queen Victoria didn’t start. In an era when most brides simply wore their best dress and then wore it again, Victoria re-wore her veil for Christenings and other important life events and she re-purposed bits of the delicate lace.

Now my dress might be used again someday. I don’t have daughters, but I have a lot more nieces, and maybe someday there will be future daughters-in-law who might want to give it a try. But I’m not holding my breath. Because there’s something magical about that moment when a bride sees herself in THE DRESS, the one that, even though she may not have known it, is the one she’s imagined sealing up in a box to store forever in her basement on the shelf of rarely used things.

 

Santa Claus: A Fat, Jolly Kleptomaniac with a Raging Coke Addiction

In 1931, Michigan-born illustrator Haddon Sundblom was approached by the Coca-Cola Company to reinvent the image of Santa Claus. The artist had a lot to work with. The legend which had begun with the generosity of a 4th-century bishop was Americanized by Washington Irving in 1809.

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Coke and Santa Claus, forever linked by the efforts of Haddon Sundblom. That’s effective advertising.

In 1823, thanks to the poetry of Clement Moore (maybe), he became a jolly elfish figure with magical flying reindeer.  During the American Civil War, artist Thomas Nash gave St. Nicholas his more familiar name. Santa Claus became an enthusiastic Union supporter dressed in fur from head to toe.

American artists Rockwell, Wyeth, and Leyendecker captured the essence of Santa Claus in the early 20th-century. The jolly fat man received a fur-trimmed stocking cap, wide black belt, black boots, and a large bag of toys. This is also when red and white became his undisputed favorite colors.

By the time Sundblom got hold of him, Santa already resembled a Coke can in the American imagination. But Santa was still elfish, stern, and a little bit too much like a random fat guy in a funny suit. Evidently, that didn’t make people want to run out and drink Coca-Cola.

Sundblom solved the problem by recruiting his neighbor, a fat, jolly salesman, to model for him. The result was a magical looking image of a warm and friendly man people the world over began to identify with. For thirty years, Sundblom breathed life into his Santa. He played with toys, relaxed by the fire, and pilfered the Christmas feast from the refrigerator.

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A jolly Sanata demonstrating for an innocent child that it’s perfectly okay to snag a drink from someone else’s fridge without asking permission. By User:Husky [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

All this he did with a warm smile and a bottle of Coke. The images captured the imagination of the world, even in nations where “Santa” was more often portrayed as a wiry bishop. The rumor spread that Sundblom and Coca-Cola invented the iconic red and white suit of the American Santa Claus.

But it isn’t exactly true. What they did was standardize Santa as a fat kleptomaniac with a friendly face and a raging Coke addiction. And Christmas has been all the jollier ever since.  

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Creeptastic. Seriously. photo credit: Elf on a Shelf Playing with Knives via photopin (license)

 

My kiddos have outgrown their Santa years, and thankfully we never got into that creeptastic Elf on a Shelf thing. But they appreciate the magic of the legend, and they’ll have a hard time getting to sleep on Christmas Eve. Because our stockings are still hung by the chimney with care, and my boys know St. Nicholas soon will be there.

He’ll be jolly-ish as he assembles surprises late into the night (maybe we could use an elf on our shelf). He’ll drink the Coke left for him on the hearth because he’ll need the caffeine. And before he stumbles bleary-eyed into bed, he might even raid the fridge.