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Paul often reads to me while I cook. With holiday preparations underway for Christmas 2016 Eve supper there was ample time for this week’s headline story in our small town newspaper of childhood Christmas traditions recalled. That led inevitably to stories from our own childhoods.

Sugar Plums first and then the Christmas tree

When we were young trees were decorated and packages arranged only after children were asleep in their beds presumably with visions of sugar plums dancing in their heads. Children were expected to wait to be called or at least past a certain early morning hour before Christmas could begin.

Bells in the family

We’ve always had bells in the family, not the thin metal, cheap ones but real harness bells, weighty and resonant. My parents prized a strand of five woven into a red rope that hung from a hook on the back door. On Christmas morning they were rung to signal me and three siblings that it was time to come downstairs accompanied by Santa’s deep-throated gravely, “Ho-ho-ho, Merry Christmas!” Our mother’s voice was never recognized in any hint of tone or timbre. Our father was by nature too guarded and serious to be so playful. Long after I knew their secret, it remains a special memory and a phrase like music that I can recall perfectly. Whether I say the words aloud or not, tomorrow morning the memory will connect me once again to Mother.

Who Santa really is

I was the eldest of four, each of us born five years apart. My parents grew concerned as I neared age seven that I might learn and tell the larger truth about Santa to the youngest. That Christmas Eve as they tucked me into bed, they revealed who Santa really is: the season’s love and generosity openly expressed and shared in gifts and greetings among cherished family and treasured friends. Parents, they said, are the real elves, surrogates who do the magic work themselves. They invited me to join with them for the sake of my siblings. The words were gentle and honest, words I emulated with my own children as they too began to participate in Christmas magic. But that night I closed my eyes and held my breath until my parents tiptoed away. And then I cried myself to sleep at the loss of reindeer who could fly and a red-suited stranger who visited all the world’s children in the night.

Guilty sled runner tracks in the carpet

Paul recalled a Christmas in Bronxville when his older brother waked him early on Christmas morning, “Wake up! Don’t you want to go down stairs to see what’s under the tree?” Paul was very young but savvy enough to see darkness outside and mistrust that it was past seven o’clock. “Just come look at my clock then!” which big brother had slyly set forward. So both boys navigated the wide staircase and flipped the switch to light the tree in a vision of sparkling light and color. That’s a strong, visual memory that Paul carries today. At long ago Christmases the children’s gifts weren’t wrapped but arranged openly beneath the tree. That year a train and a sled demanded immediate play. Tired after a while of their too early adventures, they went back to sleepy beds where their parents found them and when guilty sled runner tracks in the carpet’s deep pile gave them away.

Wishing you joy and peace and kindred souls

However you enjoy these wintry days, take time, as will we, to remember those who taught us by their example to love, respect, and be generous of spirit. Home is wherever and with whomever you rest your heart. May you be blessed with joy and peace and kindred souls. Merry Christmas to all!

Happy New Year

New Year blessings

As last year turns into 2016, once again we’re struck by how fast it went, a reminder to celebrate each day with joy, be grateful for our blessings and for all those with whom we share our lives. May your 2016 be filled with love and laughter, may your trials be light and few, may you have your heart’s desires fulfilled.

Treasures

Tomorrow begins the work of putting our holiday treasures away. If you haven’t already done so, consider cataloging the small things that reflect your family’s history, that carry holiday stories into the future, that bring you, your children, and your grandchildren joy when the boxes open, the tissue comes off, and the scene is set for another celebration of Christmas or whatever your family enjoys at year’s end.

A small boy looks at Christmas at Nana’s and Grandpa’s house!

There’s an eager, cheerful child in our lives who gives us a special reason to begin cataloging our seasonal treasures. The song is very familiar to him from Knutsen and Ludvigsens Beste album that helps put him to sleep each night. Apart from the happy lilt of the music, it says “Hallo! Hallo!” to each of you from both of us. So here are some of the Christmas treasures most meaningful to our family! It’s a mix of several cultures collected over a lifetime. Each item has a wonderful memory attached or several. There’s a book for a boy in the making with more to add, much to improve, a beginning . . .



 

Best photos come from best practices

The photographer in me shares a quick list of best practices:

  • Indoor photos in low light pose challenges to photography. Tack sharp comes from using a tripod, a chair back, a table top, whatever works to stabilize the camera. It matters! The eye is drawn where the focus is sharp so use it to emphasize the most important details. The opposite is also true; soft focus can be used to minimize the background and/or less important features;
  • Good light and saturated colors can be used that way too as the human eye is drawn first to brighter and more saturated areas of an image;
  • People are interested in other people! Children are always intrigued by faces even–and maybe especially so–when they belong to caricatures;
  • Move in close to your subject; walk to zoom so the subject fills the frame;
  • Before you click the shutter, check to see if you’re reflected in the shiny surfaces you’re shooting and move or adjust if that’s not intentional;
  • It’s always best to get color right in camera rather than afterward. Auto white balance works well in most modern cameras, but the mix of indoor lighting–incandescent lamps, compact florescent bulbs, and modern LED decorative lights–compounds the trouble. If your photos look weirdly color cast, perhaps overly blue or orange, you have a white balance issue that can be improved either by pre-selecting a camera program like tunsten or florescent or after the fact in software where temperature and tint sliders can work well;
  • Let your shots tell a story. Most of all be creative and have fun.

 

To each of our family members and friends, here’s a wish for a very Merry Christmas! May you be surrounded by those you love–present at your table, connected by phone or email, or in special memories.

Christmas Inspiration

Each year we look for inspiration from the trees and decorations of others. Our children are grown and, as we’ve seen most of them at Thanksgiving time, there’s a luxury in decorating or not. Today I’m posting my favorite Christmas tree of the 2015 Christmas season as seen in the foyer of Swan House, an elegant, late 20s neo-classical home designed by architect Philip Trammel Schutze for the Edward Inman family of Atlanta. Inspired by this lovely scene and in an excess of exuberance, we went all out in our own Christmas decorating here in Richwood Valley. Tomorrow I’ll post our own Charlie Brown tree for a smile! But for now there’s Christmas Eve supper to prepare.

May all the best and your hearts’ desires come to each one of you!

Wishing you a very Merry Christmas!

My favorite 2015 Christmas tree in the foyer of Swan House, Atlanta, Georgia

Italian holiday in the Reiti Valley, central Italy at its best. This was early morning and the pink tint infused the sky and the day.

Italian holiday in the Reiti Valley, central Italy at its best. This was early morning and a pink tint infused the sky and the day.

 Italian holiday!

Here’s an early morning in the fertile Reiti Valley climbing a steep mountain toward Greccio and a complex of stone buildings clinging precariously to the vertical face of the mountain. This was the priory and church founded by Brother Francis in 1223 after locals asked him to stay and promised to build a home for him and his followers. He told them that close proximity interferes with a contemplative life but agreed to stay for a while in a spot no further from Greccio than a stone might be thrown. What a lovely day for an Italian holiday celebration!

Scene of the first Christmas creche in 1223

Clinging to the sideslope, it was in this place in 1223 that Francis of Assisi celebrated the first modern Christmas with a scene from the Bethlehem stable.

 First Christmas  crèche in the modern way

This place is best remembered for the first popular Christmas crèche, a tradition since spread throughout the world. As a consequence Greccio is full year’round with Christmas tradition and dozens of crèches in the tiny shop. And so it happened that once upon a time in the month of October, I celebrated an Italian holiday with traditional Italian food and customs here at Greccio followed by supper in Reiti a few miles away at Santa Maria de LaForesta.

The courtyard at LaForesta leads to the vineyards and gardens where once the friars grew their food. Today it

Italian Christmas holiday at Santa Maria de LaForesta, Reiti, Italy

Mondo X at the former Franciscan cloister

Christmas dinner was held at a former priory now the home of Mondo X, a self-help group of recovering alcoholics and drug addicts who established their own rule, not overtly religious but based on the Franciscan way, emphasizing beauty, hard work, and dialogue. Their record of success has led to several dozen locations throughout Italy. This one at Reiti earns money for their ministry and the upkeep of the former Santa Maria de La Foresta by serving as a lodge and restaurant. Thirty years ago The New York Times published another traveler’s visit to a hilltop monastery in Tuscany which suggests how little things have changed, perhaps only improved with success. The link is one to follow when you aren’t hungry as you surely will be after reading it.

Brother Sun, Sister Moon

This place in the hills has long been a resting spot for renewal and locals say it was here at this very cloister deep in the forests of 1225 that Francis wrote the Canticle in Praise of the Creatures with petitions to Brother Sun, Sister Moon, Brother Fire, Sister Water, acknowledged as the first work of literature in the Italian language (actually in the dialect of Umbria and translated into Italian). Based on their theory that substance abuse results from low self-esteem and a lack of productivity and personal responsibility, today’s Mondo X appears to be a solid concept for treatment well suited to the modern world. Here at LaForesta Mondo X members live off the land, maintain the stone structures, restore the vineyards, press the wine, care for their guests, and earn back their lives.

Italian holiday

It had rained earlier in the afternoon but within the hour the courtyard was filled (much to our delight) with abundant and colorful appetizers

Christmas Feast

We arrived to find appetizers and champagne in the cloister garden: tempura herbs (rosemary and thyme) with fried sausage-stuffed olives and chunks of a very good Parmesan. The Christmas feast began with polenta and fried pig rind in a white cheddar sauce. Very tender, moist, and well-seasoned turkey was served alongside shredded cabbage and other vegetables grown in the cloister gardens. Dessert was the traditional Italian panettone served on a spider web of dark chocolate and heavy English cream.

After dinner we strolled the beautiful gardens and vineyards; then off by myself I discovered someone had laid a heart of chestnuts to which I added the last, completing the design and thinking how much I wished Paul was here to share the beauty.

Italian holiday

I added the small chestnut at the bottom to someone else’s heart found serendipitously along the cloister wall.

This would have made a good Christmas post but figured to give you time to plan. If you extend your trip or your interests to Assisi check out the bakery window with luscious treats served fresh each morning with steaming expresso which I wrote about here two years ago! Ciao!

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Merry Christmas from Light Pixie Studio!

This is how Mother Nature decorates our Christmas tree in the central meadow at Richwood Valley. How fortuitous that Mr. Cardinal stopped for a rest between flights to the creek from the forest to take a look around and brighten the winter with red. It’s a Merry Christmas kind of day.

As Light Pixie Studio has developed over these past ten years, the greatest and most unexpected pleasure has come from the stories heard and the clients met. So as not to spoil someone else’s Merry Christmas surprise, I chose not to send Christmas greetings to you until the actual day was past and the gift given. Three months ago I received a Polaroid spoiled with age, one that had been pinned up as a reminder of happy winter scenes and Christmases long ago. My client was a son acting as agent for himself and his siblings. They grew up with the winter scene below just outside their window and–with this as backdrop–merry Christmas memories evolved. Their mother is now a widow living in a smaller home not far away. That Polaroid was her memory link to happy times with husband and young children in the home someone else now owns. I restored the image and added the top of the central tree where the camera cropped it away. Then it was enlarged to life scale and printed on heavy archival cotton rag, framed for their mother’s new home for a renewed Christmas memory of those happy days.

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Light Pixie’s creative fuel

Thank you for making another successful year at Light Pixie Studio. Your visits and comments at the website are valued greatly; they are fuel for my creativity. Your stories are inspiring and your commissions and other purchases always appreciated. Here’s wishing you and yours a wonderful season full of joy and peace! Take time to say thank you, make amends, give with a generous heart, and may you receive your own heart’s desire whatever good thing that may be! Merry Christmas