Columns

Sometimes you just need Christmas to linger awhile longer

Perplexed, he peers into our dining room from his perch on the deck, a red Christmas ornament dangling from his ear.

Rudy the Reindeer rarely sees this far into January.

That’s because I’m a by-the-book kind of holiday decorator.

In my home, Christmas music, movies, and décor are forbidden until the day after Thanksgiving. That’s when the autumn wreaths go down, and the Christmas greens go up. Our everyday boring, white stoneware dishes are packed away, and my fleet of Pfaltzgraff Winterberry is deployed.

All the artwork on my living room walls is replaced by Santas, skis and holiday prints. I pack away the garland of harvest leaves from atop the piano and unearth evergreen garlands dotted with twinkling white lights.

Out come the Nativities, the Norwegian Christmas candelabra, and of course, the leg lamp replica from our favorite holiday film, “A Christmas Story.”

I’ve finally embraced the artificial – our tree goes up when our sons join us for post-Thanksgiving Turkey Noodle Soup. We appreciate having all hands on deck to trim the tree, not to mention hefting heavy holiday bins from the basement.

The hanging of the greens occurs outdoors as well, with lighted garlands and small wreaths draped along our stair railing and around the front door, a small lighted tree replacing my cat figurine on the front steps, and a wreath with a burgundy bow bedecking the door.

After hanging the snowflake garland above the backdoor slider, Derek affixes Rudy the reindeer to his watchful post on the deck.

But what goes up must come down. Preferably on Jan. 2, and certainly no later than the Feast of Epiphany (Jan. 6 this year for those keeping track at home).

Like I said, I’m a stickler for rules and am counted among those who groan when my neighbors leave limp holiday inflatables in their yards well past the New Year.

However, as 2020, blessedly drew to a close, I surveyed the glimmering green and red warmth of our home. Our sons had untrimmed the tree before the New Year chimed, but I was left to dismantle the rest of Christmas alone, and frankly, for the first time I can remember, I wasn’t done with Christmas.

I wasn’t ready to dim the evergreen lights and quench the candelabra. I love our ski-themed wall, with the cross-country Santa figurine, swooshing on the table below.

And to my surprise, the leg lamp has grown on me, and I enjoy switching it on as darkness falls, knowing Derek will see “the soft glow of electric sex” welcoming him home when he pulls into the driveway.

Since our oldest son’s birthday is Jan. 8, I always keep the Winterberry dishes out until after his cake has been cut. That way he can eat birthday cake from a plate that says, “Joy” or “Cheer” or “Wish.”

But this year, Ethan enjoyed his birthday dinner among all the other Christmas decorations I hadn’t begun removing.

After his celebration, I slowly filled the green and red bins. Walter, our junior tabby, inspected each bin from within, as I carefully wrapped candles, glassware and greenery.

Derek was even slower to remove the outdoor décor, not that there was much to take down. Our youngest son, his usual holiday helper, was busy with work and school this year, so no lighted candy canes, reindeer or trees dotted our front yard. Even so, he was reluctant to remove the garlands and wreaths.

We didn’t talk about it much.

He didn’t complain about the bins stacked in the dining room, even though he knows I’m a creature of order, not clutter.

I didn’t mention the outdoor lighting that lingered until this past week.

Honestly? I think this year with the world so filled with discord, disharmony and despair, had left us drained. But the beauty that is Christmas, reflected in simple lights and cheery decorations, offered a much-needed lift to sagging spirits.

As I write, the holiday bins are neatly stacked in the basement, the greenery gone from the front door. But Rudy still peeks at us from the deck each evening as we sit down to dinner, and I smile when I close the blinds.

To heck with rules.

Rudy can stay as long as he wants.

Columns

With 20/20 clarity, I see change ahead

I don’t remember ever having 20/20 vision. I got my first pair of glasses in fourth grade, my first pair of contacts at 15, and my eyesight continues to decline.

That’s why I’m really looking forward to this new year – I can finally see 2020! And every time I glimpse the date in my new calendars and planners, I smile. There’s just something exciting about turning a page.

2019 brought change to our household. In the fall, our third son moved into his own place, and we’re officially down to just one kid at home. That kid will graduate from college in the spring, and while he’ll likely stay with us while pursuing a second degree – our empty nest years are looming.

So far, meal planning has been the most challenging thing about our shrinking household. Because Sam works mainly evenings, I foresaw a lot of cooking for two in my future. As usual, my vision was faulty, because at least once a week there are five at my table.

When Zach moved out, I told him I hoped he’d join us for a weekly family meal. Our oldest son also lives nearby, and if I’m cooking for four, it’s certainly no stretch to make dinner for five.

The result? I now get to have my three in-town sons around my table on a regular basis, and nothing makes this mama’s heart happier. Besides, I haven’t yet mastered the art of cooking for three, let alone two.

The holidays revealed more opportunities for adapting. In recent years, our two youngest sons have been in charge of tree decorating. My penchant for holiday décor seems to grow each year, so it’s nice to leave the Christmas tree in their capable hands. However, this year, varying work schedules proved problematic.

I’m all about problem solving, so for the first time in at least 25 years, Derek and I trimmed the tree by ourselves. What might have been melancholy became delightful. We took a lovely, romantic stroll down memory lane as we hung ornaments and remembered Christmases past.

Then came the cookie-decorating conflict.

In 2011, Sam made us a book featuring his treasured Christmas memories. In it he wrote, “I love making and decorating Christmas cookies with you.”

That was then.

This is now.

As usual, I baked dozens of sugar cookies, and then checked with our sons to see when they’d be available to frost and decorate them. Sam seemed ambivalent and told me to check with Zach.

I’ve never wanted to try to squeeze my sons into traditions that no longer fit, so I texted Zach, “How strongly do you feel about decorating Christmas cookies? I can leave them out for you guys to do when you come over Wednesday, or Dad and I can just do them tonight.”

He replied, “I don’t feel strongly either way.”

So for the first time in our 33-year marriage, Derek got to be part of the Christmas cookie fun. He’s artistically inclined, so our cookies looked fabulous. And honestly, I don’t much miss the Cyclops angels or graphically anatomically correct snowmen that our sons were inclined to include.IMG_20191216_194208217

Derek and I further simplified our holidays by skipping stuffing stockings for each other. Less shopping equaled less stress and more fun.

As someone who cherishes the familiar, and relishes ritual and tradition, I’ve been surprised at how readily I’ve adapted to this new season of our lives, and how eagerly I’m anticipating the unknowns that await.

Because whatever 2020 brings, the one thing I can clearly see ahead is change. And instead of dreading it, I’m choosing to embrace it.

Columns

Finding the true meaning of Dyngus

Sightseeing is thirsty business. After exploring the Christmas Story House and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland last month, we stopped for refreshment at the Tremont Tap House.

Our friendly server asked where we were from and when I said Washington, she asked, “The one by Canada?”

Once we were clear on geography and had our beverages, she asked if we’d be in Cleveland for Dyngus Day.

Now, when I was a kid “dingus” was synonymous with dingbat, dumbbell, doofus, and other not so nice words. Who knew there was a special day set aside to celebrate the dim bulbs among us?

Our waitress quickly disabused me of that notion.

“Dyngus Day is also called Wet Monday,” she explained. “It’s the day after Easter. There’s a parade and polkas and pierogis.”

She grabbed a guidebook off the counter.

“You can read all about it,” she said. “It’s a hoot. We throw water on each other and hit people with pussy willow branches.”

I love a good polka as much as anyone, but having water thrown on me, and being smacked by shrubbery isn’t what I consider a “hoot.”

Alas, I didn’t have opportunity to experience the delight of Dyngus because we flew home just before the holiday.

My curiosity was piqued, though, so this weekend I sat down and perused the booklet describing Cleveland’s biggest polka party. And then I delved deeper into the Dyngus.

First of all we were wrong to use the word as a childhood slur because loosely translated it actually means worthy, proper or suitable.

Historically a Polish tradition, Dyngus Day celebrates the end of the observance of Lent and the joy of Easter. It dates back to the baptism of Prince Mieszko I on Easter Monday in 966 A.D. The water symbolized purification, hence “Wet Monday.”

Cleveland is just one of many cities throughout the U.S. that hosts parties and parades in honor of Easter Monday. The largest celebration is in Buffalo, New York, where a local paper once proclaimed, “Everybody is Polish on Dyngus Day!”

Traditions abound, including wearing red and white, the colors of the Polish flag. But perhaps the most well-known Dyngus Day tradition is that in which single boys try to splash water on single girls as an expression of interest. Rooting from the baptism of the prince, the water represents cleansing, purification and fertility.

Men and women can also flirt with pussy willows, which are among the first plants to bud in the spring. The young men may lightly hit women on their legs to show they are interested.

That’s why my Cleveland guide lists the following as Dyngus Day essential items; pussy willows, squirt guns and polka pants.

Apparently, squirt gun fights and pussy willow whacks add up to a really good time.

Not everyone has been a fan of the celebration. The Bishop of Pozan’ tried to derail Dyngus Day in 1410. He forbade it, instructing residents not to “pester or plague others in what is universally called Dingus.”

Obviously, the prohibition didn’t stick. Probably because other activities include sampling Polish foods like pierogis, kielbasa and stuffed cabbage and drinking pints of piwo (beer).

Polka music is the heart and soul of the party, which means roving accordion bands and plenty of room for dancing.

In Cleveland the celebration culminates with the crowning of Miss Dyngus Day, followed by a parade featuring the “Frankie Yankovic accordion head float.”

I cannot believe we missed an ACCORDION HEAD FLOAT.

Which leaves me to wonder if Spokane has a large enough Polish community to pull of our own party and parade?

In any case, I’ve already planned our next trip to Ohio. I’m practicing my polka because we’ll be back on April 29, 2019 – Dyngus Day.

Contact Cindy Hval at dchval@juno.com. She is the author of “War Bonds: Love Stories From the Greatest Generation.” Follow her on Twitter at @CindyHval.

Columns

The Legend of the Christmas Tree Meltdown

??????????In the annals of Hval holiday lore, one story is guaranteed to get trotted out each Christmas. My children call it, “Mom’s Christmas Tree Meltdown.” I call it, “Too Many Children, Not Enough Tree,” but whatever its title, the tale marks an embarrassingly Grinch-like episode in my holiday history. My family finds the story hilarious. I do not.

The exact year of this event is unclear, but I think our sons were 4, 6 and 8 because they all remember it. Thankfully, Sam was not yet born, so he didn’t witness the debacle.

When our boys were little, our tree-trimming tradition was that they decorated the bottom and backside of the tree. In my opinion this strategy was sheer genius. It allowed the boys to participate and hang their nonbreakable ornaments, while I got to create my imagined Martha Stewart-like perfection on top.

I’m not sure what happened that fateful year. Boys on a sugar-fueled high induced by candy canes, frosted Christmas cookies and marshmallow-topped cocoa may have had something to do with it. I’m sure belated bedtimes because of winter break contributed. And it’s possible that I might have taken on a little too much in order to create the Best Christmas Ever for my children.

In fact, it may well be that this Mama was running on too little sleep, not enough caffeine and disastrously high self-expectations. Whatever the cause, the meltdown occurred (though I quibble with the term “meltdown,” it was more of a momentary lapse of sanity).

The boys and I had lugged boxes of ornaments upstairs and each son was poring over his collection of paper snowflakes, toilet paper tube angels and crookedly cut candles. Derek, having untangled the lights and garland, was supposed to photograph this festive holiday tradition. Thankfully, in the chaos that ensued, he forgot, so there is no photographic record of me shrieking red-faced at my startled offspring.

As the boys rushed to find prime spots for their handmade creations, some shoving ensued. Allegations flew.

“Hey! He moved my angel!”

“I did not! It fell down by itself!”

“Don’t touch my snowflake! MOM! HE TOUCHED MY SNOWFLAKE AND NOW IT’S TORN!”

I tried to stay on top of the escalating situation by assigning ornament stations. “Ethan, you decorate the top backside of the tree. Alex you do the middle. Zack you can hang your ornaments of the front bottom branches.”

This didn’t go over well.

“Hey! How come Zack gets to put his in the front?” Alex yelled.

“Yeah,” Ethan said. “Why do ours get stuck in the back?”

“Mine are the beautifulist,” Zack opined.

A barrage of “are not’s” and “are too’s” evolved into more shoving, which morphed into wrestling. The tree tottered and began to sway. Someone yelled, “DOG PILE!”

And that’s when I lost it.

“Stop it! Just stop it!” I screeched. “BACK AWAY FROM THE TREE, NOW!”

At this point the narrative gets muddied. Some say I canceled Christmas and told the children Santa wasn’t coming. Others say I threatened to take every toy in the house and donate them all to the Goodwill. Another version has me informing my offspring that I brought them into to this world, and by golly, I can take them out.

All I know is at the end of my rather impassioned speech a silence fell.

“Um, boys why don’t you go play in your rooms for a bit,” Derek suggested. Three pajama-clad boys shuffled quietly from the room.

“Honey,” began Derek. I glared at him. He too, shuffled silently from the room.

I finished hanging my Victorian ornaments, but the Christmas spirit had left the room along with my family.

Mortified, I hoped we all could forget this episode ever happened. That hope vanished that Sunday as I checked kids into the church nursery. One of my husband’s friends dropped off his daughter. “Hey Cindy,” he said. “Heard you had quite the Christmas meltdown the other night.”

That’s right; my husband had shared the story with a few “close” friends. It couldn’t have spread any faster if I’d written a column about it.

Now, the tale of “Mom’s Christmas Tree Meltdown” has achieved legendary status. I guess I should be thankful “meltdown” is used in the singular tense.

Much has changed in the intervening years. Sam’s arrival meant four boys trimming the tree. The addition of two cats added to the excitement. But now, there are only two boys left at home to decorate the tree.

This year, I surprised them. “Why don’t you guys do the whole tree,” I said.

“Really?” Sam asked. “Even your ornaments?”

“Yep,” I said.

“Are you sure?” Zack asked.

I nodded and they set to work. They didn’t group the angels at the top like I do. And the dated ornaments aren’t in sequence, but you know what? I wasn’t even tempted to rearrange a thing. In fact, I think it just might be the beautifulist tree we’ve ever had.

It’s taken me awhile, but I’ve finally learned a perfect Christmas isn’t about the synchronicity and symmetry of the ornaments on the tree and it certainly isn’t about the gifts beneath it.

For me, the Best Christmas Ever is about treasuring each moment with the hands that made the ornaments, the arms that wrap me in warm embraces and the hearts that still love me – Christmas Tree Meltdown and all.

This column first appeared in the Spokesman Review, December 26, 2013

War Bonds

Thankful for those who serve

This Thanksgiving I’m so very thankful for the 35 World War ll veterans and their wives who shared their stories with me in “War Bonds.”
Folks like Melvin Hayes, pictured here with his son, Butch while home on a brief leave.
Hayes on leave with son Butch, 1945, low res
Melvin was 27 when he was drafted and had to leave his wife and son behind. Holidays are an especially difficult time to be separated from loved ones.
Tomorrow, as you gather ’round your tables, perhaps one of the things you might be thankful for are the men and women who served or continue to serve, their country so selflessly.
I know I am.