Wellness Wednesday: What Would Santa Do?

A cul-de-sac in our South Florida neighborhood provides a contrast in holiday messaging: almost hidden among the twinkling lights and inflatable Santas, elves, and snowmen is a simple sign slung between two palm trees: Happy Birthday, Jesus.

It’s hard to argue against that message, but it’s the secular Santa who prevails in the spirit of the holidays. The jolly old elf whose “belly shakes like a bowl full of jelly” is an easier icon to emulate. What Would Jesus Do becomes What Would Santa Do. The sedentary recluse who pulls an all-nighter once a year eating his way through unhealthy snacks says ”Ho ho ho and have another cookie.”

Snowman under the palms
Snowman under our neighbors’ palms

Which is why I blame Santa for making me lose a tooth last week.

It all started when I spun up batches of Christmas cookies to fill a tin for our daughter and her fiancé to take to his family on Thanksgiving. I was glad to hear the cookies were a hit, and even happier to share a cornerstone of my traditions with the new branch of our family.

But then I secreted a cookie stash and nibbled away as I binge-watched Netflix. Binging while binging is the essence of mindless eating, something I’ve struggled to control for decades.

Secret cookies aren’t really secret

As my Weight Watchers group understands, it is unfair that food eaten as solitary personal entertainment carries calories. That eating food quickly while standing counts. That not writing it down doesn’t mean it didn’t happen.

Those extra calories began adding extra weight, including the beginning of a belly like a bowlful of jelly.

Exercise isn’t enough

Long before I emerged from an Amsterdam ICU bone thin and unable to move in 2019, daily exercise was my mantra. The lifelong habit has brought me back stronger than ever and my weight landed back where it had been. Now, however, my old eating nemesis was working at cross-purposes with my health, and, as Marlo Scott of First Class Fitness and Wellness helped me write, exercise alone doesn’t result in weight loss.

Reminded about what got me well

Then my husband reminded me that deep within me is the resilience to push forward. A life force that kept me alive for those six weeks in that ICU. A determination that got me onto an airplane six weeks later, through physical therapy and back in a pool, to running and biking today.

I can’t ignore this. Here I am, despite terrible odds. Here I am.

But Santa called

This doesn’t mean I’ve been iron-clad in my resolution to count on my inner strength. I went out to buy Christmas wrapping paper and came home with gifts and stocky stuffers, including a bag of caramels. As I wrapped the gifts, that bag just called to me.

One caramel. C’mon. What Would Santa Do?

The wicked bag of caramels

I ripped the bag open. Pretty soon, those yummy chewy candies were disappearing. I stopped myself, unloaded most of the remaining bag into gifts for neighbors, and dropped the rest into our freezer. For safekeeping.

That lasted about an hour, when I discovered that a frozen caramel is strong enough to pull a dental crown off a molar. Darn that Santa!

My dentist gave me absolution

The whole story came out at Palms Dental Care where the upbeat Dr. Coakley laughed as I confessed my crazy crime the next day, with not even a charge for my transgression.

Santa came by our house last night during a community event, tossing tiny candy canes our way. Just glad he didn’t have caramels!

Santa’s pre-pandemic visit
Santa’s 2019 pre-pandemic visit

How American Diplomats Celebrate Thanksgiving

For the first time, my husband and I did not have turkey for our Thanksgiving meal, choosing instead butter-soft filet mignon for our dinner-for-two this year. However, tradition is much on my mind.

As US embassies, foreign service families, and ex-pats of all kinds celebrate America’s national holiday abroad, the events of the day are inevitably influenced by the overseas environment. Here are some Thanksgiving insider stories drawn from my own experience and from the extensive oral history collection of the Association for Diplomatic Studies and Training (ADST).

The tastes of home

When you’re far from home, it can be the small private traditions that matter. For example, the 1960 Thanksgiving for the international student body at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies(SAIS) in Bologna almost didn’t happen because celery — the essential ingredient in my mother’s turkey stuffing — could not be found locally, and it took an all-day trip to two American military bases to save the day.

The eight-hour, 400-mile shopping trip resulted in a splendid Thanksgiving dinner that was a hit among the students and faculty who gathered at the Bologna Center on Friday, November 25, although the canned cranberry jelly got more attention than the celery dressing. 

Jane Kelly Amerson López, EMBASSY KID (publication pending)

International understanding

Sometimes, as ADST’s files reveal, Thanksgiving creates an opportunity for cross-cultural exchange and understanding.

Ambassador James F. Creagan, who was Deputy Chief of Mission at the American embassy to Vatican City in the late 1980s, drew on turkey, stuffing, and 100 proof Wild Turkey Bourbon to negotiate a ceasefire between rival parties in Mozambique’s bitter civil war.

They had big headaches the next day, but they signed a ceasefire and applauded Thanksgiving.

Ambassador James F. Creagan, ADST Interview

Ambassador Joyce E. Leader, who was Consul General in Marseilles, France prior to becoming ambassador to Guinea, was faced with the challenge of fitting in multiple Thanksgiving dinners put on by clubs of Americans who’d stayed on after WWII. There were two clubs in Monaco, more in Nice and Cannes, and three in Marseilles.

Nobody knew how to make a pumpkin pie, but let me tell you there are more ways to service pumpkin than I ever imagined.

Ambassador Joyce E. Leader, ADST Interview
Our outdoor Thanksgiving table in South Florida
Our outdoor Thanksgiving table in South Florida

Conflicting events

And sometimes, history continues to be made despite the American holiday.

Arriving in the capital of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Kinshasa, the day before Thanksgiving, Theodore Boyd was quickly thrust in to Congo’s political upheaval.

When I got up on Thanksgiving Day and there was no one on the streets I said, “Oh, that’s okay because it’s a holiday.” Then it dawned on me subsequently that the Congolese didn’t observe Thanksgiving so I went over to the embassy and they said, “Come on in we need you, we’ve just had a coup.”  

Theodore A. Boyd, ADST Interview

However you celebrated, Happy Thanksgiving, dear readers!

A Day With A Palm Tree: How to Spread Year-Round Joy with Christmas Lights

A day with a palm tree is a great day!
Stories of personal triumph, community engagement, and environmental stewardship.

About today’s story

Our accountant’s husband, J, is a huge Christmas lights fan. When they lived in our neighborhood, the rooftop Santa and reindeer were on their garage by Thanksgiving, along with an enormous collection of other sparkling, flashing, and inflatable decorations. E, J, and their great kids were the heart of their street, and we were sorry when they moved to a nearby neighborhood. However, we understood: the larger lot gave J more room for Christmas. When we drove by over the next holidays, we spotted their house two blocks away.

Spreading holiday cheer for more to hear

Lights 4 Hope volunteers
Lights 4 Hope volunteers

However, E and J’s hearts are, in a turnaround from the Grinch, two sizes too big, and the family’s passion for Christmas has grown way beyond their home. J is now the architect of a one-mile, drive-through holiday lights display in nearby Okeeheelee Park that runs weekends through January 2. As AP reporter David Sharp said in his recent article about the tradition of light shows, ”You can feel the difference when there is a lot of love behind the project.” Lights 4 Hope, the non-profit the family helped establish four years ago, uses the funds generated by the $15/car entrance fee to spread happiness and joy year-round to families coping with their child’s critical illness or life-changing physical changes.

Wonder if Lights 4 Hope has made a difference? These children’s delight says it all. Lots more of these uplifting photos and stories on Instagram.

You can be part of this joyful mission

To learn more about Lights 4 Hope, including how to get tickets for this year’s display or to become a sponsor or supporter, click on their website here. You can also follow Lights 4 Hope on Facebook or on Instagram. ’Tis the season, after all!

Pandemic or not, this drive-through format is a perfect way to end 2021 in a safe and inspiring way.

The Town Crier
Lights 4 Hope 2021
Lights 4 Hope 2021

Family Friday: Birthday Breakfast and Anchovy Pizza

My birthday was this month. We all have celebration traditions. Mine are Birthday Breakfast and anchovy pizza.

Birthday Breakfast

Birthday Breakfast is a tradition my mother created 67 years ago to offset likely evening obligations my father’s Foreign Service work required of both my parents. Why wait to celebrate with a post-dinner cake when you can blow out candles and eat (coffee) cake at breakfast while wearing a crown?

My Birthday Breakfast table!

All my life, family birthdays have begun with this celebration, except for the year we forgot Birthday Breakfast on my mother’s special day when my sister and I were selfish teens and our father was up to his eyeballs in diplomatic work.Awful us.

Pizza buon viaggio party on my 9th birthday

Why anchovy pizza is on my birthday menu is another story.

In the fall of 1963, when I had begun fourth grade and my father had begun his second two-year tour as Press Attaché in Rome, the US Information Agency in Washington decided they needed him in Bogotá, Colombia. ASAP. We would not be able to take time to see family in Minnesota, but instead go directly to Bogotá after Dad’s briefings in Washington.

My last day of school at the Overseas School of Rome fell on my ninth birthday. My mother brought personal pizzas to my classroom for a combination farewell-and-birthday party. My pizza came loaded with anchovies, a preference I’d developed during our three years in Italy. As I looked around the room, I understood that leaving was our normal. Packing up just the four of us, on to our next lives.

You might assume that pizza would be associated in my heart with sadness, but instead it became a salty touchstone through which I could always connect with my childhood, especially on my birthday.

Time to go for the gusto again

We’re not fast-food eaters, and the pandemic has only reinforced our home cooking norm. However, pizza entered my consciousness again recently, just in time to join another birthday.

A month ago, I closed the door on a fifth grader selling coupon books for her school. It’s the kind of hustle I participated in when our daughter was little, going door-to-door in our upstate New York neighborhood hustling products for the PTA and the Girl Scouts. In fact, as I said, “No, thank you, we don’t buy anything,” I reminded myself of the old crone who turned our daughter away. “We don’t eat cookies.” I’m still furious at her.

“We don’t buy anything.” Wow, that’s a pandemic phrase. We don’t go anywhere. We don’t buy anything. Unless it’s on Amazon. And even then, if it doesn’t fit into the routine inside our bubble, it isn’t happening. We have become entrapped in our survival routine.

I was shocked at my behavior. There was a quick fix. I called the girl’s mother to ask the youngster to come back, and minutes later shelled out twenty-five bucks for a book advertising discount deals at local vendors that we are unlikely to use. But I at least I’m a better neighbor.

Our daughter flipped through the book when she stopped by. ”The pizza place I like is in here,” she said. My husband stays away from tomatoes and spice. “You know, Dad,” our daughter said, “You could have a little from time to time.” And, I reminded my husband, there’s always white pizza, although that doesn’t really match the standards of my Brooklyn-raised honey.

When my birthday came, our daughter and her fiancé surprised us by having delivered to our home two delicious fresh trattoria-style pizzas: one white, and one tomato and anchovies. What a birthday dinner!

Maybe we’ll even use a pizza coupon next time!

How do you celebrate your birthday?