I Need a Little Christmas

P1140041 (640x480)Anyone ever notice how December is overloaded with fun things to do? Christmas concerts, holiday events, office parties, productions of The Nutcracker and A Christmas Carol—the list goes on and on. Invariably, I miss some things—I haven’t been to view the gingerbread house competition at the Grove Park Inn in years—or I squeeze in too many and overwhelm my family with seasonal outings.

I might even suffer from FOMO (Fear of Missing Out) syndrome. As usual, I’m self-diagnosing. Like most of us living in the age of easy information, I did a quick search online and concluded that some of the symptoms seemed to fit. Unfortunately, my desire to experience as much of life as possible can have a negative impact. This week’s crisis resulted from my overcommitting my youngest son: he’s on the MATHCOUNTS team, a basketball team, and an Envirothon team; he plays chess and cello, and he is a Boy Scout. It’s a lot to manage, and sometimes things fall through the cracks.

I still haven’t resolved his latest schedule conflict. Consequently, a dark cloud has been hovering over me this week. Now is the time when I could really use the magic of the North Carolina Arboretum’s Winter Lights display. But we viewed that sparkling spectacle on Christmas Day itself. Christmas Day was the only day that worked for our crowded calendar, so a very cold Christmas evening found five warmly dressed Flemings wondering and wandering through the festive Arboretum. (Two Flemings opted to stay home.)

While the lights were as spectacular as ever, I don’t plan to go on Christmas Day again. Christmas Day felt rushed: Christmas breakfast, stockings, and gifts in the morning; a family game or two in the afternoon while I attempted to roast a turkey without the assistance of my mother or mother-in-law; Christmas dinner with my husband’s parents; and then the visit to the Arboretum. It was just too much. I hope I’ll learn from the experience, but I doubt it. Anne Shirley may have the gift of not making the same mistake twice, but I do not. I always plan to retrench, so to speak, but the lure of that wonderful experience or opportunity gets me every time.

This year, the Arboretum’s lights were wonderful. There’s an irony to the Winter Lights exhibit, in that the beauty of the natural world needs no enhancement. Nonetheless, the addition of artifice to natural beauty makes for a dazzling result. If memory serves me, this is the third year for the Winter Lights show, which is the brainchild of someone who once worked as a Disney Imagineer. Each year, they add more special touches. I’m not sure what the highlight was for me—perhaps the tall Christmas tree’s lights that were synchronized with music? The Quilt Garden’s lights were synced with music as well. It was too cold for us to spend as much time outside as I’d have liked, but I still took pictures (even though that meant taking off my gloves). It was so cold that my son’s phone stopped working briefly, but he was so impressed by the brilliant displays that he uncharacteristically took as many photos as I did.P1140058 (640x480)

Here, without further embellishment (because they need none), are a few photos from the Winter Lights show. If you’d like to see the effect of music added to the lights, you can click on the short videos that I uploaded to YouTube. The price of Winter Lights is a little steep, especially if you have multiple children, but . . . every year, I find myself going back. What can I say? It’s as if Disney comes to us. For a couple of hours, I feel as if I’ve been transported to another world, where all is shining and serene.

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As for the overcommitment crisis, I must “‘trust to Providence, as Mrs. Lynde says.'” My son and I are now listening to the audiobook Anne of Avonlea: it’s not quite as good as Anne of Green Gables, but there is much wisdom mixed in with Anne’s mistakes and whimsies. What would we do without the errors of others to give us hope? Or without the displays of beauty—natural and unnatural—that are to be found all around us, if we but look for them?

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Biltmore Does Decorations

IMG_1525 (640x480)A few years ago, my husband and I splurged on season passes to the Biltmore Estate. It’s an easy drive from our house, and we like to walk or bike on the extensive grounds as weather permits. In recent years, the Biltmore has had special costume exhibits—Dressing Downton in 2015, Fashionable Romance: Wedding Gowns in Film in 2016, and, in 2017, Designed for Drama: Fashion from the Classics. So we keep renewing our passes in November, figuring we’ll regret it if we don’t. Coming in 2018: an exhibit of costumes from Titanic in February and, in the spring, Chihuly glass in Biltmore’s gardens!

My husband had a day off this week, so we gathered the children who were willing to go and went on a daytime tour of the Biltmore. There is also a Candlelight Christmas tour, but it costs extra, even for passholders, and we were already paying for our two college kids, who don’t have passes. The evening tour features musicians performing in various rooms; apparently, a Victorian-style Santa makes an appearance. Still, I was satisfied with strolling through the beautifully decorated mansion while sunlight filtered in through the windows. Happily, someone was playing Christmas music on the organ while we were in the Banquet Hall, which showcases a 35-foot live Frasier fir that is replaced twice during the Christmas season!

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Posing with the lions in front of the Biltmore is a long-standing tradition.

Since I’m really supposed to be shopping today—Christmas is in three days! Yikes!—I’ll go straight to sharing the pictures that I took on Tuesday. Cameras used to be off limits inside the Biltmore House, but perhaps the power of social media changed that ruling. Visitors are now permitted to take non-flash photos inside George Vanderbilt’s mansion. Inveterate shutterbug though I am, I have mixed feelings about taking pictures in the house: inevitably, there is a logjam in the line moving through the rooms as people stop to take pictures. On the other hand, I wouldn’t have these pictures to share with you if pictures were still banned.

In deference to my college son, who claims that as a small child he was dragged through the Biltmore House on numerous occasions, I tried to keep my picture-taking to a minimum. I will tell you, though, that every single bedroom or sitting room had at least one tree, not to mention the garlands and wreaths festooning mantels and doorways. But, at a certain point, I put my iPhone in my purse and tried to leave it there. Here is a tiny glimpse inside the glimmering magic of the Biltmore House in its Christmas glory:

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Since it was a pleasant day, we strolled out onto the Tennis Courts and down to the Conservatory. Then we headed over to Antler Hill Village, which has been gorgeously decorated with lights. On our way, we spotted some deer grazing—not an uncommon sight at the Biltmore Estate.

Fortunately, it was just starting to get dark as we left, so we got a partial experience of the lights at Antler Hill Village at night. Happily, passholders can bring non-passholders onto the Antler Hill part of the Estate after 5 p.m. Maybe we’ll make it back before the holidays are over—but maybe we won’t: we still haven’t seen the Winter Lights at the North Carolina Arboretum or gone to see the gingerbread houses from the annual competition at the Grove Park Inn this year. Asheville is an awesome place at Christmas-time!

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Ginger All the Way

My children's Hansel and Gretel gingerbread house, November 2006

My children’s Hansel and Gretel gingerbread house (November 2006).

For 22 years, the Grove Park Inn has sponsored a gingerbread house competition: these edible creations take gingerbread architecture to a new level! Many hours of planning, baking, assembling, and decorating go into the construction of each gingerbread “house” — and, usually, some heartbreak as well. Aside from the base, all components of the house must be edible.

Little House in the Big Woods gingerbread cabin (November 2002)

Little House in the Big Woods gingerbread cabin (November 2002)

Despite my lack of domestic skills, my kids have entered houses in the competition three times. I learned the hard way that, yes, you can get food poisoning from Royal Icing. My older daughter’s Little House in the Big Woods cabin even made it to the Top Ten in the children’s category one year!

As you can see from the photo taken in our kitchen the last time a Fleming entered the Grove Park Inn competition, making a gingerbread house wreaks havoc on your actual house. The kitchen chaos is more than repaid by the fun of finding creative ways to use candy, crackers, pretzels, cereal, and, of course, marzipan.

My daughter's rendition of the arrival of Gandalf, Bilbo, and the dwarfs at Beorn's Hall

My daughter’s rendition of the arrival of Gandalf, Bilbo, and the dwarfs at Beorn’s Hall from J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit (November 2010).

She ran out of time, so several plans for embellishing Beorn's Hall had to be abandoned.

She ran out of time and had to abandon plans for embellishing Beorn’s Hall. All 13 dwarfs are rendered with correctly colored capes, however.

Beorn's bee hives, on the other side of the hall.

Beorn’s bee hives, on the other side of the hall.

With several out-of-town guests here to see my younger daughter in The Nutcracker, we decided to make the trek to North Asheville to view the winners — and the non-winners, which are often just as impressive — of the 2014 Gingerbread Competition.

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My photos are a sampling of the teen, adult, youth, and child entries in this year’s competition. If you’d like to see even more gingerbread houses, you can watch a video of the Grand Prize winner or check out photos from the judging at the 2014 competition. The wonderful smell of gingerbread permeated the Grove Park Inn!

And now, back to wrapping those presents . . .

Which Goose Is Getting Fat?

Double wreaths edit

Double wreaths, December 2014 (iPhone 5s)

Christmas is coming, the goose is getting fat,

Please to put a penny in the old man’s hat;

If you haven’t got a penny, a ha’penny will do;

If you haven’t got a ha’penny, then God bless you!

Christmas Is Coming” has been playing over and over in my head lately. My sources, aka wikipedia, tell me that it is both a nursery rhyme and an American carol. Why the “ha’penny,” or half-penny, if this song is American? Maybe half-pennies were used in eighteenth-century America? I could find out, if I did extensive research, but there’s the rub: I can’t do research, because Christmas is coming, and, at our house, the metaphorical goose is looking lean.

Close-up of a Christmas wall-hanging made by my mother

Close-up of the wall hanging, made by my mother

Historically, I am the one who sees to it that Christmas cards are sent and presents are bought. Once my husband gets the lights on the tree, I’m the one, aided by my youngest son and daughter, who puts on the ornaments. This year, the strings of white lights were mysteriously missing, but putting on the lights never goes smoothly. Still, my husband got ’em up. He even put up the Father Christmas wall hanging and placed the angel on top of the tree. Despite the fact that Christmas cards have been on the dining room table for weeks, I haven’t started addressing them, nor have I put one ornament on a hook. I’m hoping that the influx of my college kids this weekend will motivate me. If I don’t buy the presents, who will? If I don’t bring up the ornaments from the basement, will they find their way onto the prickly fir branches this December?

A line from Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory drifted into my head as I thought about the many responsibilities that mothers and fathers have on holidays and birthdays: “We are the music makers, / And we are the dreamers of the dreams.” I’m not sure what Mr. Wonka meant by quoting Arthur O’Shaughnessy here, but, for me, these words mean: make music for your children, and dream dreams with them. In my childhood, my mother added the sparkle to festive occasions. She was the person who ensured that gifts were bought and cakes were made. Being a parent is daunting, and there are moments when I fail, or nearly fail. This year, my blog is threatening to derail Christmas at our house.

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Season of Symmetry? There seemed to be many “doubles” in this picture of a downtown church decorated for Christmas. Closer examination reveals more triples. (iPhone 5s)

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Designed by Douglas Ellington, First Baptist Church was completed in 1927. (iPhone 5s)

For now, I must shift my focus from the blog and to the family goose, which needs fattening with only two weeks left until Christmas Day. The literal goose is getting fat, by which I mean myself. I have gained between 5 and 10 pounds this fall. I’ve heard of the Freshman 15, but is there a Blogging 10? Too much time at my laptop, too little time in the kitchen, and a slowing metabolism have proved an unfortunate combination. When I first started blogging, I was taking hikes to generate fodder for posts, but then Blogging 101 came along, followed by Photography 101. So, yeah. The weight gain isn’t exactly encouraging me to roll out the sugar cookie dough.

Of course, the point of “Christmas Is Coming” is not a reminder to stuff the goose (whoever the goose might be) but to “put a penny in the old man’s hat.” While this phrase brings to mind a Dickensian figure holding out a battered top hat, an awareness of those less fortunate than ourselves is as important now as when this rhyme was first sung. (And when was that? My desire to research this carol is growing.) Recent posts by Teresa and Kim have reminded me to think of others in the midst of merry-making. This week, my mother-in-law took my son to buy gifts for a needy child; she has done this with my children for years. Many people, old and young, struggle through cold, hungry, or lonely days while I am busy making cookies or addressing Christmas cards.

Except that I’m not mixing cookie dough or putting on stamps: I’m on my computer, tweaking a sentence here, reading a post there. I hope that you see less of me over the next few weeks! I’ll miss reading your posts regularly as much as I’ll miss writing my own. My 10-year-old tells me that I talk about other people’s blogs too much, but how can I keep silent about Lia’s apple pie encounter on the New York subway, or Dan’s reference to a Star Trek episode in his post about comment spam, or Deborah’s post about the Christmas Train in Santa Cruz? In the meantime, I leave you with a Christmas poem that I wrote “many and many a year ago,” back when I used to make Christmas cards:

Starry Night poem


The “double” photos are for a Photography 101 assignment. All text and photos copyrighted 2014 by Sandra M. Fleming. “Starry Night” poem written by Sandra M. Fleming and copyrighted © 2014.

Note: I succumbed to curiosity about the origins of “Christmas Is Coming.” While the song experienced a surge in popularity in the United States during the mid-twentieth century, it first appeared in a British publication in 1882, according to the author of TreasuryIslands.