Christmastime – The visitor

guinea hen looking in window

Wonderful Christmastime

“Wonderful Christmastime” by Paul McCartney is today’s song pick.

The visitor

Last Christmas, I gave you my heart we had an unexpected visitor at our front door. On Christmas morning, we found a guinea fowl looking in the window. And we think it really liked watching us, pacing back and forth, looking in to our warm home. Even as we went right up to the window, the visitor wasn’t scared and just stared back at us. We went on with our morning, letting our feathery neighbor from the nearby farm just hang out. At one point my sister Julie went into the other room to play some Guitar Hero on the computer. She was startled to find the bird had followed her and flown up to the window ledge in the room next to the front door and was looking in intently as ever. I think she was a little freaked out (she has issues with birds, but that’s another story), but I thought it was funny.

7th in a series of Christmasy things.

Christmastime – Christmas in New York

Christmas bulbs

Santa Claus Is Comin’ To Town

I don’t usually like live recordings, but the famous recording of Bruce Springsteen singing “Santa Claus Is Comin’ To Town” is one of my favorite Christmas songs. I think it’s my sister Sara’s favorite song period.

Christmas in New York

When I was very young, my family went up to New York City to see the Radio City Christmas Spectacular (perhaps more commonly known as “The Christmas Show”) at Radio City Music Hall. I can only remember a few bits from the show. I remember seeing the Rockettes and the cannon. I remember there was a small ice-skating rink that rose to the front of the stage, and I believe the orchestra pit moved up and down as well. There was a large wreath hanging above the center of the stage, with Christmas green leading up to it, all covered in white lights that turned on in sequence. And at the end, Santa came and took a couple of children from the audience to fly away in his sleigh. For years, it was the biggest live production I had ever seen.

This year, my family will return to the show. I’m looking forward to seeing New York again at Christmas, especially Rockefeller Center and of course the show. I’m sure that the show is great, but I hope that it’s still as impressive as I remember, even as someone who is now older and has been to Vegas.

6th in a series of Christmasy things.

Christmastime – Fire department

fire with green flames burning in a fireplace

Yes, some of the flames are blue and green. We’re just that fancy.

Christmas Eve/Sarajevo 12/24

The Trans-Siberian Orchestra’s “Christmas Eve/Sarajevo 12/24” combines “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen” with, you guessed it, “Carol of the Bells.” Did you think I had forgotten about that song? I first got into the song when I was a freshman in college, and I heard it playing across the hall in Brendan‘s room. I rushed over and asked him what it was, and have been playing it at Christmas ever since.

Fire department

In our previous house, there was a fun tradition where at the start of the holiday season, the neighborhood would suddenly be alerted to a fire truck driving down the street with lights and sirens activated. The kids would run out of their houses, to greet the truck because on the truck was Santa Claus, waving and distributing candy canes. The year before we moved, I’m pretty sure that I was at least a little disappointed that along with the ice cream truck, we would no longer have an annual holiday visit from a fire truck in our more rural location.

On a cold winter’s night, a fire in the fireplace really makes a home feel like a home. It’s so delightful.

I can build a pretty good fire. And when it comes to camping, it’s pretty much the only thing I’m capable of. The key is to build a low-density structure, so it doesn’t smother itself. I say this partly to brag, but also to explain that I don’t build smoky fires, and I know what a downdraft is. For the first few years in our new house, however, the fire department paid us a visit at Christmas in what we eventually accepted as a strange holiday tradition. What would happen was when we had Christmas dinner in the dining room, we would utilize the rarely used fireplace. I would carefully build a reasonably-sized stack of dry, seasoned logs with pleny of newspaper underneath. I’d then check for a downdraft using the rolled-up newspaper technique. Everything seemed to be good to go, but shortly after lighting, it would become obvious that the smoke was not being drawn up the chimney as it should. Smoke would then enter the room. It wasn’t bad (remember, I build clean-burning fires), but as you can imagine any bit of smoke inside the house is never good, and it was certainly enough to set off the smoke detectors. We’d run around and open up windows and wave rolled-up magazines at the smoke detectors, but we couldn’t prevent the inevitable. They would go off, and, being tied to our security system, start a chain of events that would result in the fire department coming to our door. It was embarrassing, because I had plenty of uneventful fireplace fires under my belt. It was later found that the flue was installed in a sub-optimal location. Since the chimney was fixed, we haven’t had any visits from the fire department. We even cooked hot dogs in the dining room fireplace last Christmas. I’m glad we were able to make a simple adjustment instead of abandoning the wood-burning concept altogether and going virtual. (Funny thing about that linked picture… our TV is next to the fireplace, so we had a real and virtual one going at the same time, right next to each other.)

Some may not see work done on the chimney as an improvement. Shortly after we had moved into the house, my uncle was complimenting the recessed lighting just after we had a smoke issue. “I love how you can just see the beam shining down,” he said. It was illuminating the smoke.

5th in a series of Christmasy things.

Christmastime – Cookies

bowl of unbaked chocolate crinkles

God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen

Ever since I heard their version of “Deck the Halls” on the radio, Mannheim Steamroller has been one of my favorite artists for Christmas music. I have listed their crazy-awesome rendition of “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen” when asked for my favorite song, Christmas or otherwise. I prefer listening to it just after the not-as-rocking (but still cool) version on their Christmas album, as both tracks together make it a more complete experience. On one 45 minute journey from my high school to my house, I drove the entire way with the volume turned up and this song on repeat.

I don’t think I can update this anymore, so it’s missing new stuff, but a while ago I created this iMix, which at one point was the #1 ranked iMix on the iTunes Music Store when someone searched for [Mannheim Steamroller].

Christmas cookies

One of the greatest parts of the season is baking and eating Christmas cookies. My family is really into this, and we like to make a variety of cookies. I’d be happy only eating a couple of types, but I really like knowing that the other options are there, and seeing them arranged on a plate. It’s like going to a bar— you would be fine if they just have the few ingredients necessary to make your regular drink, but seeing the different bottles lined up and available for the bartender’s use gives you a sense of comfort and satisfaction.

Although my cooking experience is limited, I have always liked to help out with the cookies. I believe I started out by putting sprinkles on spritzes and pretzel-shaped cookies that we used to make. From there, I graduated to more skillful tasks, such as rolling chocolate crinkles (I always want to spell it as “krinkles,” like “Kringle”), placing Reese’s peanut butter cups in the peanut butter temptations, or cranking out spritzes. In fact, for many years now, I’ve been the master of the spritzes. It takes just the right timing and rhythm, and I have it.

My favorite cookie is vanilla meringues with chocolate chips. My family has been known to hide them from me, and there have been friendly battles over the last cookie of the season, resulting in a crushed cookie. My grandmother used to make them when we visited in the summer, and one year I remember hearing my sister yell, “Don’t let Michael get into the meringues!” like I was the family dog.

My grandfather is known to have the sweetest tooth in the family, and when I was younger I remember hearing him be called the cookie monster. His thoughts on cookies? Here’s a quote: “I’ve never seen a cookie that I didn’t like.”

4th in a series of Christmasy things.

Christmastime – Big and tall

two cats lying next to a Christmas tree

The technical quality of this picture isn’t great (it’s from my phone), but it’s a great picture.

We Three Kings/Carol Of The Bells

The song I chose for my first Christmas post was “Carol of the Bells.” The second post was about a film score incorporating the song. The song for this post is Kenny G’s “We Three Kings/Carol Of The Bells,” which, as you may have already guessed from the title, combines “We Three Kings” and “Carol of the Bells” into a single song.

In one of Letterman’s monologues he told the following story, which I’ll have to paraphrase since this was years ago and I’m doing it from memory:

So I was in the elevator, listening to Kenny G.

[Dave looks up at the ceiling, implying elevator music.]

I gave him a dollar. 

Big and tall

When your family room isn’t limited to a single story, you can’t help but try and take advantage of that extra height. My family has certainly utilized that extra space with our Christmas trees. While they’ve settled down to a more reasonable height in recent years (not exceeding 12 feet), in the past we had some real whoppers. Sometimes, we’d even visit multiple tree farms because they didn’t all have trees that were tall enough every year. We eventually found a consistently satisfactory place, and knew the drill well. We would drive past the parking lot, and take our SUV back to one of the farther fields where they kept the big trees. There, we often had the whole place to ourselves to find and cut a tree, and then load it on the roof of the truck. It didn’t matter that there wasn’t a bailer out there; we had learned that our trees were too big to fit through it anyway. Finding and loading the tree was one part of the process. The next step was getting it in the house.

In our previous house, there was a standard-sized door right next to where we placed the tree. We didn’t get to use that door. No, we had to take it in through the double doors in the front of the house. Remember, it was too big to be wrapped up, so the branches were fully extended. One year, the tree was so large that even after opening up the double doors and trying to make it back to the family room, we had to take it out and cut it from the bottom so it could make a turn that a car could probably handle. After the season was over, the tree was taken out in pieces.

The trees greatly exceeded the published limits of a standard Christmas tree stand, and my dad modified stand to meet our special needs. His creation is an all-metal tree stand which is bolted to a wide wooden platform. Our trees to this day are also secured to the wall via hooks and wire, which prevent the tree from falling into the room should it become unstable. We didn’t always do this.

3rd in a series of Christmasy things.

Christmastime – Injuries

Christmas wreath

Setting the Trap

In my previous Christmastime post, I noted that Carol of the Bells is one of my favorite songs. I think my love of the song was due in part to its appearance in “Setting the Trap,” from the Home Alone soundtrack by John Williams. The piece includes bits from multiple Christmas songs, but Carol of the Bells is the most noticeable and makes it awesome. I’m sure I also enjoyed it when it was played by the bell choir in the church we used to attend before we moved to the house that was built for Christmas.


As you may have already deduced from the fact that we wired our house for it, my family takes Christmas decorations seriously. This dedication is so deep, that it has resulted in multiple decorating injuries. I’ve been mildly electrocuted a couple of times working with the electric candles (when I was young… it made my arm feel like jelly and was scary. I don’t think my parents even know about this), but my dad has been hit the hardest.

At the bottom of our driveway in the second house I lived in, we had an evergreen tree. I don’t know what kind it was, but it looked like a Christmas tree. One year, we started putting lights on it. The tree kept growing, but this was easily handled by simply adding more lights. After a while, it became so tall that getting the lights on the top of the tree became a challenge. It outgrew the stepladder (which if I recall correctly is nine or ten feet in height), which required my dad to find a more creative way of getting to the top. Let’s just say that his solution involved two ladders. I was standing there holding a wad of lights, helping to hold the slack as he was working on the upper part of the tree, when I saw the great fall. I can’t visualize it anymore in my memory, but I do remember it being one of those (fortunately rare) moments in life where I was ready to call 911. He suffered a sprained wrist and spent that Christmas with his arm in a sling.

A few years ago, while I was away at school, my dad, who is still not afraid of ladders, started hanging a wreath above the fireplace in our dining room. There’s a picture of it (from a less eventful year) at the top of this post, taken from the second floor. Minutes later, he was on the floor with a shattered heel. He spent that Christmas with a cast and crutches, but has since recovered and even skied on the foot.

2nd in a series of Christmasy things.

Christmastime – Wired for Christmas

motion blur creating streaks of colorful lights

Today is December 1st, so it’s time to start preparing for Christmas. Starting today, I will publish one “Christmastime” post per day. I’m not sure how long I’ll keep this up, but it will probably conclude on the 20th (the day I go home), 24th, or 25th. Each Christmastime post will include a picture, a song, and a story. The items will be presented in no particular order, so the first or last song/picture/story isn’t necessarily my favorite.

Carol of the Bells

I have over 400 Christmas songs in my iTunes library. I’m not up to Santa’s 980, but I’m getting there. The song that I probably have the most versions of is “Carol of the Bells.” I don’t have a specific version to list here, but start with one backed by a well-known choir and/or orchestra and you should be in for a good time.

Wired for Christmas

Did you know that my family’s house in Pennsylvania was built with Christmas in mind? For as long as I can remember, we’ve been putting electric candles in our windows each Christmas. For many years, this meant that for the month of December, at the beginning of each night we would have to go to each window and turn the candles on, and then turn them off again before going to sleep. The setup also involved several extension cords and outlet expanders to supply the necessary electricity in the right locations. When my parents were planning on building a new house, they asked for a pretty smart feature: an electrical outlet underneath each window, with all of the outlets on a single electrical circuit.

Now, when it’s time to set up the candles, fewer extension cords and expanders are involved (there are still some due to us putting multiple candles in large windows), and they are all turned on and off by a timer or single manual switch.

This is 1st in a series of Christmasy things.