December 27, 2017

A New Twist on New Year's Traditions

New Year's brings certain traditions....things like eating greens and kissing at midnight. There are other traditions associated with celebrating the end of one year and the coming of another. Instead of sticking to the status quo, I decided to try and put a new twist on some longstanding traditions.

Looking for a new way to ring in the coming year? Check out these three simple ways to incorporate tradition into your celebration.

1) Eating Grapes at Midnight

Eating grapes is a Spanish New Year's tradition that is catching on around the world. To really ensure good luck and good fortune in the new year, you must eat 12 grapes at the stroke of Midnight, one for each month in the coming year. 

via Whole Foods - Click for Recipe

But if you just want to incorporate some yummy grapes into your New Year's Eve party, try serving a sweet and spicy grape salsa. It's sure to be a hit at your party and the recipe can be scaled up for a larger group. 

Grape Salsa Recipe

2 cups green grapes (finely chopped)
1 cup green onion (finely chopped)
2 T cilantro (finely chopped)
2 T lime juice (or more to taste)
2 T olive oil 
Salt and Pepper to taste
1 tsp chopped jalapeno (optional)

Stir together ingredients and serve with pita chips or tortilla chips 

2) Black-Eyed Peas for Good Luck 

Black-eyed peas are considered by many southerners to be a lucky food to eat on New Year's Day. The peas swell when they are cooked, which symbolizes prosperity. And we can't ever have enough of that! 

For a new twist on this tradition, try a black-eyed pea hummus, which can be served with veggie sticks or crackers. 

Black-Eyed Pea Hummus

1 can black-eyed peas, drained
2 T tahini (optional)
Olive oil (to taste)

Add the peas and tahini to a food processor and pulse while adding olive oil until it has the consistency of a paste. Enjoy! 

3) Pomegranate Seeds for Love & Life 

In some cultures, pomegranates are enjoyed at New Year's because they symbolize love and life. Packed with vitamins and fiber, pomegranate seeds are not only tasty and delicious, but also healthy for you.

Start your New Year off on the right foot with a healthy breakfast option featuring pomegranate seeds, yogurt and granola. Whip up a parfait in no time, substituting your favorite nuts or flavors of yogurt. You'll feel great eating something tasty that is good for your body and soul.

What are your favorite New Year's traditions to enjoy this time of year?

December 22, 2017

Beautifully Broken Things

This time last year, I was feeling light-headed. It wasn't the joy of the coming Christmas or the cheer I felt in my heart from celebrating our favorite traditions. It was from paint fumes. My husband had sequestered himself in our basement where he was working on a top secret Christmas gift project for me. 

All I knew was that it involved spray paint. And lots of it. The more he painted, the more the fumes wafted up through our home's 1950s vent system and filled the air. As touched as I was that he had thought to make me something, I was also more than a little frustrated. Spray paint was not the smell I wanted to be filling my Christmas home. 

I tried opening the windows but it created sort of a vacuum, sucking even more of the pungent paint smell into our house. I tried to keep my heart in the right place, but my dizziness combined with my frustration didn't make for a good mix. 

Then, when it was time to pack up our car and travel to my folks' house where we planned to spend Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, I realized this thing he had made, which had been wrapped carefully in black garbage bags, wasn't totally dried or cured. So we brought the paint fume smell with us and enjoyed it for 100 miles. 

Still without a clue as to what this created masterpiece might be, I thought about possible options. My husband is not very good at keeping secrets, but he didn't give me any hints even though I asked for them. At one point he showed whatever it was to my mom and she burst into I figured it had to be something meaningful. 

Meaningful doesn't even begin to cover it. 

On Christmas morning, my husband presented me with a heavy, rectangular wooden board. Carefully covered in layers of pale blue spray paint, this was the source of our dizzying fumes. 

In the center of the board was a heart. The heart had been created in a mosaic out of small ceramic tiles, carefully fitted together like a puzzle to fill in the shape. 

If you knew nothing of the backstory, this piece would stand on its own as a beautiful work of wall art or home decor. But that's not the entire story. 

When my great grandmother passed away, the item I wanted most from her home was a vase. This was not just any vase. It was large and bright orange and stood out against the otherwise muted tones of her un-fancy preacher's wife decorating aesthetic. 

Always being drawn to bright colors and bold decor, I loved it and it was the only thing I really wanted of hers (besides some of her cake decorating books and an old recipe box). I was thrilled to have the vase in my home. It reminded me of my great grandmother, a really special lady. 

In many ways the vase was a source of inspiration for me in decorating my first home with my husband. Built in the late 1950s, it has a certain mid-century modern flair. So with the vase as a starting point, I pulled together other elements featuring the same bold orange, plus other complementary hues. 

For the first year or so after moving in, the vase sat on a shelf in our living room. As I am wont to do, I was moving some furniture around and changing up some of the nick knacks on our mantel. I had the bright idea to put the vase on the mantel because it tied in nicely with a bright, colorful painting featuring the same shade of orange. 

As I was holding the vase and admiring the painting in its new location, the painting began to fall forward. It's like everything happened in slow motion. Without processing what I was doing, I let go of the vase to catch the painting. It crashed to the tile hearth below, shattering into many, many pieces. 

I couldn't believe this had happened. I felt so dumb for making such a clumsy mistake. Even though it was just a vase, an inanimate object, what it symbolized for me was so special and seeing it broken into shards was just too much. When my husband rushed into the room, he found me sobbing, more for the loss of my grandmother than the vase, but still so sad by the loss of this symbol. 

He told me to go to the kitchen and get a drink of water while he cleaned up the mess. I heard him picking up pieces of ceramic and putting them in a black garbage bag, but I couldn't watch and I certainly couldn't watch him dispose of it in our trashcan outside. 

What I didn't know was that he didn't dispose of it. He hid the bag of broken vase downstairs where I wouldn't find it. And then those pieces of orange ceramic became the tiles in the mosaic heart he worked so hard to create for me last Christmas. 

As soon as I saw it, I knew what he had done. I couldn't believe that he had come up with such a special idea and brought it to life in this very meaningful way. We were joking today that he'd have a hard time topping that gift this year. And of course I don't really want him to try. But thinking about the heart and how much it means to me, I realized I hadn't shared this story before and so I wanted to. 

Things break. Sometimes valuable things. Sometimes a thing we love so much....and maybe there is only one of it and it can't be replaced. And sometimes there's no fixing it. No putting it back together. 

But broken things can find a new purpose. A new meaning. They can get a new life. 

If given the choice to have the vase back in exchange for the mosaic heart my husband made, I would say no thanks. That he wanted to take something broken and turn it into something beautiful for me is a priceless part of our story. I wouldn't trade that for all the vases in all the world. 

December 20, 2017

Simple Ways to Add Old Fashioned Fun to Christmas

Christmas is a time for nostalgia and remembering fondly all the things that you hold dear from the past. While I definitely love my mid century silver tinsel tree and bold hued shiny brite ornaments, I also love the quaint old fashioned traditions from Christmases long long ago (as the famous song says). 

Want to add some old fashioned fun to your Christmas season this year? Here are three simple ways! 

Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire

Just try to read the above line without singing it. Impossible, right? 

I did an experiment with my family at Thanksgiving. After spotting a bag of fresh chestnuts at Trader Joe's, I decided to try my hand at roasting them. Not having an open fire, I used the oven but they turned out just fine. The experiment was to offer them to my family and see what they thought. 

Nobody in my test group (including folks of all ages) had ever eaten roasted chestnuts before. Reviews were mixed...some liked them, some not so much. But the experience was memorable. And it's hard to eat a roasted chestnut without getting into the spirit. 

If you can't find raw chestnuts where you live, you might be able to find some already cooked options. Although we tried some of these from Whole Foods and the texture wasn't quite the same. 

To roast raw chestnuts, simply use a sharp knife to CAREFULLY score an X into the flat side and then roast them for 10-12 minutes on 400 degrees. They will pop open and you can peel them. 

Meet Me Under the Mistletoe 

Hanging mistletoe as a symbol of luck supposedly got its start from the Druids, but it was popular in Norse mythology as a sign of love and friendship, and this appears to have helped create its status today.

Just a basic sprig of mistletoe is great for your holiday decor, but why stop there? Add a bit of old fashioned holiday cheer to your home with a traditional kissing ball.

Originally used in England’s Middle Ages, “holy boughs" were made from woven together evergreen branches that held figures of the baby Jesus or the holy family. These were used during the holiday season to let visitors know they were welcome to enter.

The boughs fell out of popularity for a time, but were introduced back by the Victorians. Did you know it was common to use an apple or potato as a starting point for the decorated herbal topiary? Different herbs were selected for their symbolism, like lavender and rosemary for friendship and thyme for courage.

The kissing ball came to be a symbol for romance, instead of just good will. Dancers would waltz under the kissing ball, hoping for a kiss from a sweetheart. And eventually this became the symbol we know today.

Pretty Paper, Pretty Ribbons 

One of my favorite school memories is making holiday ornaments with paper, ribbons and other decorations. My parents cleaned out their Christmas decorations a few years ago and distributed some of the ones my brother and I had made to us to put on our own grown-up trees. I have a little paper fan that I remember carefully folding from a bit of wrapping paper and then of course there are the infamous plastic spoon people we made one year. 

My husband and I went away to a little cabin last weekend to celebrate the holiday season and while we were there, enjoying the time being unplugged, I called on my  childhood experiences to make some new old fashioned paper ornaments. 

Using a simple tablet of holiday themed paper from Hobby Lobby (or any craft store), I made a few different designs, and a simple garland.

Check out a DIY tutorial for this cute paper ornament here.

There's nothing like a little bit of old fashioned cheer to make your holiday season truly special. I hope these ideas will inspire you to embrace something from days of old and make it new again. 

December 11, 2017

How to Accept a Gift

They say 'tis better to give than receive, but in many ways I think the adage is wrong. In my opinion, 'tis often easier to give, instead of better. There's something about receiving gifts that is hard for many people, myself included.

I wrote in the past about how to receive a compliment, but this goes a little deeper than that.

While recently traveling to New Jersey for a work training, I invited my mom to come along so we could extend my trip by a day or so and do some holiday sightseeing in NYC.

My first inclination for lodging was to go with what I knew, so I investigated the option of staying at the Paul, a hotel I had stayed at previously in the year with my dear friend on our trip to the Big Apple. In May when we'd visted, that hotel was available at a decent price and even though our room wasn't huge, it was hip and close to lots of things. And the beds were super comfy. But during November for my trip with my mom, that hotel's rates were more than double what they had been earlier in the year.

After extensive Internet searches, including checking prices, various locations, and tons of online reviews, I found a hotel that seemed like a good option. It was decently priced, not too far from our point of arrival & departure (Penn Station) and had gorgeous photos online. Plus the other folks who had stayed there had positive things to say.

I selected a small, modest room knowing we wouldn't be spending a ton of time there anyway.

When we arrived at the check-in desk, the hotel staffer told us in what seemed to me an apologetic tone, that she'd had to upgrade us to a different room, a loft. Even though the word upgrade would seemingly mean a better room, at the word loft I imagined my college dorm, with wooden bunked beds crammed in above tiny compact desks below. Oh well, I thought. Our trip is short and we don't want to spend a bunch of time in the hotel room anyway.

When we got off the elevator on the eighth floor and walked around the corner to room 808, I thought to myself....don't be disappointed if this isn't anything special. We're just lucky to be here.

Then we entered our loft. In the foyer, the walls were covered with a gorgeous black and gold art deco wallpaper, and there was a cool lithograph as well as a giant round gold mirror. That opened into a spacious living room and kitchen with sleek stainless appliances and a wide island with three stools.

In the living room was a white leather sofa, a big round marble coffee table and on the wall was mounted a television four times the size of mine at home.

Big windows and a set of French doors opened onto a balcony with chairs overlooking the skyline. Down the hall was a roomy bedroom with a king bed and across from it, a bathroom much larger than either of the ones at our own houses. It was covered in beautiful gray and white subway tile and had a big soaking tub on the left and a glass encased shower on the right.

My mom and I figured there must have been some mistake. This couldn't be our room.

"She did say she had to upgrade us," my mom said.

"Yeah, but this is more than just a simple upgrade," I replied.

This is unreal.

"Oh well, you should always look for little gifts and unexpected blessings at every turn," said my mom. She's pretty wise that mother of mine.

On the last morning of our trip, after my training had ended and we were free to have our big day in the city, I sat on the comfy leather sofa in that giant hotel living room, sipping espresso from our self serve machine and trying to prepare to soak up every moment of the day ahead.

I found myself thinking about the gift of the experience, including the incredible hotel room we'd never have otherwise chosen for ourselves had it not been for a happy accident and our fortuitous upgrade.

Here's what it got me thinking about gifts:

1) Gifts can come without warning when we least expect them.

2) Thinking we don't deserve them or they are too good to be true will only rob us of the joy of receiving and enjoying something we weren't expecting.

3) Acting like or believing we did something to earn them or deserve them removes God from the equation. They cease to be a blessing and become a barter system. This can set us on a dangerous path of working harder to receive things that we would have gotten anyway.

4) There is no shortage of gifts to be had. If we miss one, there's infinitely more to come.

5) Gifts never come in exactly the same packages or the same way. One day a gift might be the opportunity to stay in a fancy hotel room that costs more than twice what you paid for it. Another day it might be a WWII veteran at a convenience store who thinks he knows you and greets you with a warm handshake and "It sure is good to see you. It's been too long." This will bless your heart in so many ways.

6) If we focus on what we perceive to be the negative, we will lose our ability to see all the gifts around us that are right in front of our noses. Kind of like the Timothy Busfield's character in Field of Dreams who couldn't see the baseball players while they were practicing on the field only a few feet away.

7) If we thinks gifts come with strings attached, it is often because we are guilty of giving gifts with strings attached. Cut the strings and just enjoy the gift.

8) Life will always be an adventure if you believe another gift is just around the corner. You won't know what to expect but it will be wonderful never-the-less.

9) Giving a gift brings joy to the giver. Accept any and all gifts with grace and gratitude.

You will likely receive at least one gift this holiday season. You'll probably give a gift too. Maybe just keep these things in mind.

December 6, 2017

Christmas Gifts for People Who are Hard to Shop For

It's officially the Christmas season and I haven't bought a single gift. Usually I try to give gifts that are a combination of handcrafted and locally sourced. Sometimes this isn't possible, but I love finding unique Christmas gift options for those people who are notoriously hard to shop for.

As we have more and more things, it seems like we need less and less these days. Again, that's why those unique, personalized or quirky gifts are sure to delight and surprise their recipients.

Here are some options that I'm considering giving as Christmas gifts this year:

The Gift of Something Handcrafted or Handmade

Handmade gifts are awesome. Nothing says I really thought of you like a gift of something truly unique. If totally handmade isn't an option, go with a personalized gift to make your friend or loved one feel special. 

When I need something personalized in Knoxville, I visit Me & Co in The Gallery shopping center (with Chili's near West Town Mall). Me & Co owner Michelle has been blessed with some amazing creativity and awesome handwriting. She can customize and personalize just about any gift you can imagine. 

She created a gorgeous piece of art for me that incorporates my wedding date which is still one of my most treasured possessions. As I was planning my wedding and it looked the forecast was calling for rain, I snagged some basic navy umbrellas and took them to Michelle to personalize for me and my bridesmaids. Even though the day ended up being sunny and bright, that umbrella is a sweet reminder to make lemonade when life serves up lemons. 

Michelle creates original art and she also customizes things like Christmas ornaments, both of which would make a wonderful Christmas gift for those people who are hard to shop for. 

Me & Co. also has some really adorable gift options that need no customization at all. From the wall art and frames to Scout tote bags and other containers, you won't have any trouble finding something you want to take home. They even created their own custom candle for the holidays, aptly named Tennessee Christmas and it smells heavenly! Pop it into a cute bag with a box of matches and it's an instant hostess or teacher gift! Maybe don't send the matches to school with your child though...

The Scout clutch is one of my favorite things at Me & Co right side is silver and the other gold and when you add the gold tassel, it is all kinds of chic for your holiday parties. Would you believe just yesterday I used a zip-loc baggie to hold my lip gloss and other items? I could be using this right now! 

The Gift of Something that Helps our Earth

Got a birder on your Christmas gift list? Maybe your hard to shop for person just loves nature and enjoying the beauty of their own backyard. Birdfeeders and food for the birds make wonderful gifts, especially when they are as cute as these from Wild Birds Unlimited! 

These seed characters are a fun addition to any bird feeding station, especially around the holidays. And they even have cute names, like Dash (the gingerbread man), Buttons (the snowman) and Rascal (a cute raccoon). 

They incorporate a mix of many birds' favorites: seeds, nuts and fruit and can help you attract many of your favorite backyard birds, including chickadees, woodpeckers and goldfinches.

The Gift of Something that Removes the Guesswork 

How many of you have a person on your hard to shop for list who happens to be a guy? I've definitely struggled in the gift department for my beau. He's kinda picky and doesn't use a lot of things so it always seems like he picks out his own gifts, which totally ruins the fun surprise. 

Gift baskets for guys are a great option and they have some pretty cool ones at Wicker & Wire, a new shop in Knoxville. There are all sorts of options to include in your gift baskets, as well as unique containers too. They will wrap up the gift basket for you using items you have chosen or you can go with one of the pre-made gift basket options in the shop. Easy peasy. 

I also saw a bunch of cool stocking stuffers for the guys in your life, including brass beard combs (but of course!) and money clips with clever quotes. 

I hope these Christmas gift ideas inspired you for those hard to shop for people on your list this year. It's important to remember that it's the thought that counts, but a little sweet gift always brings a smile to any face.