To Sit on Santa's Knee

I sit on Santa's knee in the Detroit Institute of Arts December 1 on Noel Night
My volunteer badge clipped to my red sweater, I stand inside the Detroit Institute of Arts. A reindeer headband accents my holiday cheer. I’m happy to oblige when asked to take tickets for pictures with Santa. As a youngster, I believed in Santa Claus with all my heart.
A sense of expectation swells in the queue of parents and children as Santa poses in his chair for a camera check. Oh the joy of Noel Night in downtown Detroit!
Impeccably dressed in his red and white suit and bearded with his own whiskers, he utters not one “Ho! Ho! Ho!” The twinkle in his eyes says it all. This Santa embodies how I imagine the real Saint Nicholas.
           I recall my dad on Christmas Eve. Ever the prankster, he would point to the darkness outside our living room’s window. “Look! Up there, over the Rivard’s house. There’s Rudolf’s red nose! Listen to Santa’s sleigh bells!”
I’d stand still as a statue and strain my eyes and ears. Year after year, never did I doubt Dad told the truth. After all, I believed in Jesus without seeing Him.
Santa’s cameraman motions thumbs up. I collect tickets and drop them into a box. “Merry Christmas!”
“Merry Christmas!” guests reply.
I believed Santa, Mrs. Claus, and their elves lived in the North Pole—a place like Heaven. Even when Santa didn’t eat all our cookies and drink the milk we left, I believed in his eternal return Christmas Eve.
Until my ninth year.
That summer while at play, a cousin my age leaned close. “Your mommy wrote my mommy a letter and said she’s pregnant, that she’s always pregnant.”
Unawares, my cousin taught me a new word. By summer’s end, my childhood innocence unraveled entirely. I knew where babies came from and Santa no longer existed.
As the line for Santa thins, I observe his gentleness with the children, teens, and adults. It’s odd. I can’t remember sitting on Santa’s knee as a child. Did I ever tell him what I wanted for Christmas? Miraculously, he always left the desire of my heart under our tree.
Santa looks across the spacious hall and catches my eye. He waves a gloved hand and points to his knee.
I shake my head and point to the ticket box.
“Iris, I’ll take tickets if you’d like a picture with Santa,” my volunteer director says.
Santa waves again.
In a moment of unexpected fulfillment, I sit on Santa’s knee.
“What’s your name?”
We pose for our picture.
“What would you like for Christmas, Iris?”
This Santa is serious about his assignment. I consider what I want most in the whole world. “It’s a hard request, Santa.”
“Go for it.”
Eye to eye, I spoke it.
He sighed. “I don’t have power to do that.”
I nodded. “But you can pray.”
“Yes, I can.”
“Merry Christmas, Santa.”
“Merry Christmas, Iris.”

Dear Reader, I believe in the first Noel Night with all my heart. God with us. Hope of His world.

Pecan Sandie DNA

Chocolate Lavender Pecan Sandies
They’re the epitome of shortbread. Mom called them Pecan Sandies. Every blessed Christmastime, she’d form the dry dough into small balls and bake them, the buttery scent wafting throughout the house. Then she’d roll the warm cookies in powdered sugar.
     A clueless kid, I munched on our decorated sugar cookies and washed them down with milk. A sophisticated baker, Mom bit into a Pecan Sandie that crumbled in her coffee. I can still see the ecstasy on her face.
     Southerners love their butter, pecans, and coffee.
     They’re not the only tribe who claims these foods as old molecules in their DNA. There are Russian Tea Cakes, Swedish Tea Cakes, and Mexican Wedding Cakes—cousins of the Pecan Sandie clan.
     After 48 Christmas seasons rolling crumbly dough between my hands, I understand. Who could resist naming this simple, exquisite pastry as their own?
     I’m not a Pecan Sandie historian, but I hazard a guess Mom’s recipe is an inherited variation of Scottish shortbread. After all, Mary, Queen of Scots, is attributed to popularizing “the biscuit” in her homeland—a sweet legacy from a bitter life.
     A much happier history, my Great-Granny Annie Chapman Hunt raised dairy cattle. She churned cream into butter then pressed it into molds. She hitched a mule to a wagon and drove to the nearest mining camps in eastern Kentucky to sell her merchandise.
     “I felt real big when Granny let me help her with her butter molds,” Mom said in her last years with us. “We never went hungry, even in the Depression.”
     I imagine Great-granny would’ve had plenty butter available to bake shortbread during long, frigid winters. Every Nineteenth Century Southern cook kept flour in her barrel for biscuits. All great-granny needed was salt and sugar to make shortbread. Nothing fancy for one of the delicate confections on the planet.
     My mother wasn’t sure she approved when I first offered her a Pecan Sandie with mini chocolate chips. She stood by her ingredients with a fixed lower lip.
     Decades later, I developed another new food molecule with one tablespoon of culinary lavender speckled throughout the dough. I promise you, if Mom could’ve smelled the aroma of baking butter, lavender, and chocolate she would’ve jigged for a taste.
     I recently baked a double batch of Pecan Sandies for my herb group’s cookie exchange at Seven Ponds Nature Center. I carried my contribution in the white vintage pail my mother gifted me twenty-five years ago. We celebrated an Appalachian Christmas with her that December.
     Dear Reader, I miss my mother sorely at Yuletide. I believe her Scots/German genetics would’ve eventually developed a new Pecan, Chocolate, Lavender Sandie molecule.
     The epitome of shortbread.

Chocolate Lavender Pecan Sandies

Blend: 1-cup butter with ½ cup powdered sugar; add 1 teaspoon vanilla.
Add to mixture: 1 ½ cups flour, ¼ teaspoon salt, ½ cup chopped pecans, ½ cup chocolate chips (or chopped chocolate), and 1 tablespoon culinary lavender.

Bake for 12 minutes at 400 degrees on cookie sheet lined with parchment paper. Roll warm in powdered sugar. Cool thoroughly before storing. Yield: 2 ½ dozen.

The Black & White Season

Echinacea seed head with bonnet of snow
The first snowfall thrills my soul. Growing season behind, Nature hides what garden work I’ve left undone under a vast, peaceful blanket. Pure. White. Cold.
                  Should the first snow come after nightfall, I wake to a landscape erased of debris, a most glorious vision to behold. My shoulders relax. One of winter’s many benefits.
                  “Rest and read,” says the land.
                  First, I must make my tracks in the virgin stillness. “I’ll the do hen chores this morning,” I tell my husband.
                  It’s entirely selfish. To hold warm eggs in my hands on a frigid morning is a celebration impossible on hot summer days.
                  Food. Those little hens produce nourishment with such little effort on our part. Nothing like a fresh brood.
                  Deer tracks zigzag across my black and white path uphill. Surfeited by countless shades of primary colors for months, the landscape’s austerity pleases my eyes. Swaths of snow cling to bark like gauze. The patches won’t last long. November is mercurial. I’m old enough to know.
                  “Look up,” cries a jay.
                  I stop. My jaw falls open as his blue feathers fly from the architecture of bare branches.
                  These monochromatic designs remind me of Chinese art I studied briefly in a college art class. I kept the overpriced textbook titled Art Past and Present. It’s helpful to recall what I learned and promptly forgot twenty-four years ago.
                  On this steel gray morning, what I see is darkness and lightness of a single color, what artists call “value.” The low value, darkness, changes to high value, lightness, depending upon atmospheric conditions, such as humidity and sun exposure.
                  From a distance, the trees stand sleek and black, the branches filigree against white. Below, in a garden to the right, three small iron urns appear black holding snow mushrooms.
                  Climbing the steps, the black stem and seed head of a spent Echinacea bloom catches my eye. Layers of ice crystals balance high atop the thistle globe like French women wore their coiffeurs in the Eighteenth Century. Now a few yards away, the three urns reveal their natural rusty color. The closer, the higher and lighter the value.
                  Value, an interesting word with a double meaning. This little plot of land holds a great deal of value for my husband and me. It’s much more than what the real estate is worth. This is our home, where we hope live our last days sowing seed and collecting eggs.
                  When many of our peers are selling their large homes to downsize, we’re planning another fresh coat of paint for the interior of our little house.  
                  It seems this is the winter for choosing paint colors. We’ve had enough of the old low, dark values the past decade or so. Lightness with white ceilings is what we’d like to try again.
                  Now, dear Reader, it’s time to settle into my reading chair before I begin moving furniture this week.
                  I’m drawn to the values of black ink on a white page.