Friday, December 28, 2012

Christmas Through the Ages

Everyone in our house enjoyed Christmas this year. But I think we all enjoyed it for different reasons, and there were different aspects of the celebration that stood out for each of us. At different ages, each of us loves certain things about Christmas. Here are a few of the things that make Christmas special at various ages.

Age 0-2
Babies younger than age 2 don’t have much of a concept of Christmas. They don’t really know that it’s coming, they don’t understand that there will be presents, and both Santa Claus and the story of Jesus’ birth are beyond them. But they love the pretty lights and decorations. They love the cheerful and beautiful music that is always around during the Christmas season. And they love the crunch of wrapping paper and the pile of boxes and packing material they get to play with.

Age 3-6
In this phase of life, kids are very aware of the magic of Santa Claus and getting presents. They love getting to sit on Santa’s lap and tell him what they want for Christmas, they love performing in Christmas pageants, they love helping to pick out a Christmas tree (especially if they get to feed some reindeer while they’re doing it), they love helping to bake and decorate Christmas cookies, they get excited about helping to make a few special presents for family members, they love counting down the days until Christmas comes on an advent calendar, they love driving around town to look at Christmas lights, they love putting out milk and cookies for Santa, and most of all, they love unwrapping their presents on Christmas morning!

Age 7-12
Most kids at this age have stopped believing in Santa Claus, but they still look forward to making a list and getting presents. Since they’re “in on the secret,” they often love getting to help pick out presents for other family members and they adore getting to keep secrets from their parents. They like to help decorate the tree and wrap presents. They love watching all the Christmas movies and specials that they remember from past years. And they still love opening presents, especially special ones that they’ve been longing for all year.

Age 13-21
This age is all about the gift cards. Sure, presents are nice, as are cookies and decorating the tree (not that they’ll admit it at this age), but the teenage and college years are all about the cash. Also, having the freedom to go and hang out with your friends during school vacation without having to have a parent tagging along is awesome.

Age 21-28
The best part of Christmas in your 20s is the parties. Most 20-somethings finally have a little bit of disposable income as well as a home of their own (even if it’s only a studio apartment in a questionable neighborhood), and being able to host and/or attend Christmas parties togged out in a great dress and fabulous shoes is a definite highlight of the holiday season. Plus, Christmas is a very romantic time and it’s a great season to be in the throes of new love, which is likeliest at this age.

Age 29-39
Most people this age either have kids or are on the verge of having kids – or their friends and siblings do or are - so a highlight of their holiday season is getting presents for the children and watching the kids’ amazement and excitement about the holiday. At this point, many of us also have our own homes and we get to set new traditions for decorating and celebrating with our families. Our kids are old enough for a family outing to see the Nutcracker, or to catch a movie on Christmas night, or to go see a local production of A Christmas Carol. The best part of Christmas at this age is definitely spending time with your family.

Age 40-60
This is when many of us begin to step into the family patriarch/matriarch roles. We’re the ones organizing and hosting the family gatherings, taking over that duty from our parents. And in turn, we’re starting to pass on some of the holiday responsibilities to our own adult and nearly-adult kids: they may be the ones doing the bulk of putting up and decorating the tree, baking the Christmas cookies, finally shopping (and paying!) for the presents they’ll be giving. This is the time of life when we get to sit back and enjoy seeing the bustle of the holidays without having to be as much a part of that bustle.

Age 60+
This is the age when Christmas truly becomes about giving instead of receiving. By this age, most people have all the “stuff” they need and are, in fact, trying to get rid of stuff. So we can give not only new gifts, but we can pass along family heirlooms with sentimental value beyond measure. And aside from tangible gifts, this is the time of life when we can share our own childhood memories of Christmas with the next generation.

Yes, Christmas is wonderful at every age. From all the generations in our house to all the generations in yours, a very Merry Christmas season to you!

Bookmark and Share

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Keeping Santa's Secrets

When I was a little girl, my parents never made a big deal about Santa Claus. I knew that he gave me some of my Christmas presents and that my parents gave me others, and I knew that I had to go to sleep on Christmas Eve or Santa wouldn’t come. And we always left him milk and cookies by the fireplace on Christmas Eve. But that was about it. We didn’t write letters to Santa or go to the mall to sit on his lap and tell him what we wanted for Christmas.

When I got older, however, I realized just how much my parents had done to maintain the illusion of Santa Claus for me and my sister. My mom carefully block printed every gift tag from Santa so we didn’t recognize her handwriting. She was careful to never wrap a present from Santa in the same wrapping paper as one from her and my dad. My dad always remembered to drink Santa’s milk and eat his cookies before we got up on Christmas morning. And although some of the gifts from family were left under the tree before Christmas Eve, the ones from Santa never appeared before Christmas morning.

My son, at age 3, is just starting to have a concept of Christmas, and of how Santa fits into the whole scheme of things. He knows that Christmas is Jesus’ birthday, and he recognizes a manger scene as being where the baby Jesus was born. And he also knows that Santa will come on Christmas Eve and leave him presents. We’ve brought him to visit Santa at the mall in years past with mixed results, so it will be interesting to see how he reacts this year. He was pretty indifferent when we introduced him to “Santa” in the lobby of our Christmas show last weekend, but a Santa decked out with the whole red suit and attendant elves may be a different story.
But already I am discovering that I have to be a bit stealthy this year. Instead of asking him what he wants for Christmas, I asked him what he’s going to tell Santa he wants when we go visit him. I bought a bunch of wrapping paper while he was with me, and then realized that now I won’t be able to use that for presents from Santa. I have a box in my bedroom with all the Christmas presents I’ve gotten tucked into it, and I’m realizing that I have to be more careful to hide it from prying eyes. I remind myself that on Christmas Eve I need to drink the milk and nibble the cookies. I make a note to myself to practice some disguised writing for the gift tags. And I am even considering figuring out how to leave a few reindeer footprints on the porch if there’s snow on the ground on Christmas Eve.
It’s a weighty responsibility, keeping Santa’s secrets. But I think I’m up to the task. After all, I learned from an excellent elf!

Bookmark and Share

Friday, December 14, 2012

Swing Time

Although I know that many of my friends who read this blog are theater performers, I’m sure that some of you reading this are not, so let me give you a bit of background on today’s topic: Theatrical understudies. Actually, not just understudies, but also standbys and swings.

As you all probably know, an understudy is someone who learns a major role in a production in order to provide coverage if the original actor has to miss a performance. Most major roles in professional theater productions have an understudy. Sometimes the understudy knows well in advance when he or she will perform; for example, if the star is going on vacation for a few weeks. Sometimes he or she gets a few hours’ notice if the star is ill and unable to go on that day. And sometimes he or she gets tossed onstage mid-performance because the star begins a show but can’t finish for whatever reason. Some stars are afraid to let an understudy go on for them for fear that the understudy’s performance will be better than their own, and some stars are such passionate work-a-holics that they don’t want to miss a moment in the spotlight even if they’re not feeling well. The result of both situations is that occasionally the star will start a performance and not be able to finish it.

But besides an understudy, there is also a job called a “standby.” Much like an understudy, a standby learns a role and is prepared to step into it at a moment’s notice. The main difference between an understudy and a standby is that an understudy is generally a member of the cast, whereas a standby is an outsider. A standby is usually required to come to the theater (or at least be nearby, much like a doctor who is “on call”) just prior to a performance and stay until intermission. An understudy, being a member of the cast, is of course already at the theater for the performance. But when an understudy steps in for a lead, the understudy’s role – usually a small role or featured ensemble part - is often left open, which brings us to the third category: swings.

A swing is a member of a cast, usually someone in a minor role or part of the ensemble, who learns multiple other minor chorus or dance roles. Sometimes a swing will step into a role because the actor in that role is ill or injured, but most often a swing covers the role normally played by an understudy who is stepping into the star’s shoes. Unlike an understudy or a standby who usually gets the opportunity to perform their role during a rehearsal or two, a swing is pretty much expected to pick up his or her covered roles by seeing the show and reading the script. A swing often steps into a role for the very first time in front of an audience.

Being an understudy or a standby is a tough job, because you’re always stepping in for the star, and often people are disappointed by your mere presence, regardless of how talented you are or how fine a performance you give. But to me, the toughest job of all is being a swing. Not only do you have to know two or three (or even four or five) different roles, you don’t get to rehearse any of them, you don’t usually have costume fittings so if you don’t happen to be the same size as whomever you’re covering you wear whatever the costumer has on hand in your size that sorta kinda suits the period and the character; and worst of all, nobody really notices how amazing you are when you do all that.

And yet, if I had to choose whether I wanted to be an understudy or a swing, I’d be a swing every time. How much fun to be able to play a whole bunch of characters in a show! What an adrenaline rush from jumping into a role cold in front of an audience and knowing that you’ll either sink or swim! What fun to know a show so well that you can step into any of a number of roles and cover their vocals, their blocking, their choreography, and their character so perfectly that no-one in the audience will know anything’s different. I know someone that has performed in the Broadway cast of Phantom of the Opera for 20 years. He is a swing who covers half a dozen roles, but I have no doubt that at this point he could successfully step in to any role in the entire production, including the Phantom and probably even Christine. I’m sure that after 20 years, he knows every nuance of every performance in the show and could mimic each one faithfully. How much fun to know a show that well!

This may not be true of non-theatrical types, but I bet that all my theater friends, just like me, have at least one show that you’ve seen or listened to the cast album of enough times that you can recite the entire script and score verbatim. And be honest: you’ve totally acted out all the characters in your living room while you were home alone, haven’t you. Yes, yes, you have. And so have I.

And that’s why it’s so fun for me to be in Reagle’s annual Christmas show – we’ve all done it so many times that 90% of the cast could be swings for any given role. And the best part of it is that we often are! Sometimes someone needs to miss a performance or two, or someone gets ill, and whomever is available to fill in for that bit part just steps up and does it. No hoopla, no curtain announcement, often no chance to run it through ahead of time. Just remember what you’ve seen dozens of times, do the best you can, and trust everyone around you to steer you in the right direction if you’re off.

I haven’t had much opportunity to be a swing so far. I think my second year I filled in for one of the “girls wearing the same coat” – a role that lasts for all of 12-1/2 seconds, but it was fun and gave me a taste for it. A couple of years ago I got to be a swing in the barbershop quartet of the Irish show. But this year I get to be a swing for a slightly more featured role: “Second Clerk.” I get to sing in a quartet that repeats 8 bars of music four different times. It may not sound like much, but it’s still pretty exciting! There are an awful lot of people in that scene that I need to work around and with and fit into traffic patterns. I need to hand off a prop (to my own husband, of all people, so I’d BETTER NOT screw it up). And I need to wear a microphone, something I’ve never had to do before in the Christmas show. It’s very exciting.

It’s swing time!

Bookmark and Share

Monday, December 10, 2012

Can You Bake a Pie?

My 3-year-old son loves to help (or, more accurately, "help") in the kitchen, so it's nothing unusual for him to ask me if we can make cornbread, or pancakes, or lemonade. We make those things together on a regular basis. But today he made a different request: he asked me to make pumpkin pie with him.

We did have pumpkin pie for Thanksgiving, and he did like it. A lot. I haven't mentioned it since, though, so I have no idea what made him suddenly decide that he was hungry for pumpkin pie. (Actually, the word he used was "starving." Yes, he informed me, "Mama, I am STARVING! I am STARVING for pumpkin pie!") But in the realm of snacks and treats, he could do much worse than pumpkin pie, so I said sure.

And after I thought about it, I realized that pumpkin pie is one of the first things I remember making with MY mom. My special task in the process was cutting the shortening into the flour for the pie crust. I remember it being a somewhat challenging task for me, as coordinating two large butter knives with my small hands was not easy. But Mom was patient and let me take as long as I liked to get it done. (I didn't realize at the time that the longer I took to do that task, the longer I was out of her hair for the more complicated - and messy - parts of the process. Smart cookie, my mom.)

I also remember being allowed to make the scraps of pie crust into a cinnamon roll. I was proudest of that because Mom let me do it all by myself. I squished the scraps together and rolled them out, dotted the crust with butter, sprinkled it liberally with cinnamon and sugar, rolled it up and pinched the ends together, then laid it on a cookie sheet and tucked it into the oven alongside the pie. I probably peeked through the window in the oven door every 15 seconds until Mom finally pronounced it done and set it on the table to cool. And then it seemed like hours before she said it was cool enough to eat. But when it finally was cooled, there was nothing that had ever tasted to wonderful to me than my own culinary creation.

So I'm looking forward to giving my son that same sense of pride this afternoon when we make our pie. It may not taste perfect, but it will taste even better than perfection. It will taste like independence.

Bookmark and Share

Friday, December 7, 2012

Curtain Up, Light the Lights

Tonight is opening night of Reagle Music Theatre’s annual production of “ChristmasTime.” It’s the 5th time I’ve performed in the show, and I know it well. I know where my entrances are, how much time I have for each costume change, and which props I carry in each scene. I’ve memorized my music and I know my blocking. I’m even solid on my choreography (which is officially a Christmas miracle). I have no fear of making a mistake or not knowing what to do if something goes wrong. And yet, I still have butterflies in my stomach.

The first time I performed in this show, I was terrified on opening night. But that time, I wasn’t entirely sure of my entrances, I depended on others to tell me what costume to change into next, I still wasn’t solid on all my lyrics and blocking, and I was definitely shaky on some of the choreography. But I got through it with the help of veterans who nudged me into position, made sure I was in the right costume, whispered upcoming dance steps, and just generally shepherded me around. And each succeeding year, I was more comfortable and more confident, and the terror subsided into fear, then jitters, and now, it’s pure excitement.

It’s exciting to be a part of a performance that plays such an important role in so many people’s holiday seasons. There are audience members who have seen this show every year for the past 20 years or more. There are people in the audience who used to come with their parents and who now bring their children. There are parents in the audience watching their children play elves who used to play elves themselves. There are new audience members who, by intermission, have already decided to make the show an annual tradition with their family. I have never yet not been thanked by someone in the audience for making their Christmas extra-special.

What a joy to be a part of something with such a rich tradition! What a blessing to be a blessing to others during this holiday season. What a privilege to bring a message of hope and joy and thanksgiving at a time of year when that message is so often lost in the busy shuffle of shopping and entertaining and chauffeuring kids to parties and activities. We may be up on stage to bring joy to the audience, but we can hardly help bringing joy to our own hearts, as well.

No wonder it gives me butterflies.

Bookmark and Share

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Is a Puzzlement

A few weeks ago, my husband gave me a Kindle Fire for my birthday. I made the mistake of showing it to my 3-year-old son and downloading a few games for him, and I’ve hardly gotten to use it since. I know – I’m the mom, I can just take it away from him. And sometimes I do. But I’m so amazed and impressed at how well he can use it that sometimes I’m just as entertained watching him use it as I am using it myself.

At one level, it’s impressive because he figured out how to navigate around so easily. He knows how to close a game, go back to the home screen, and choose another. He knows how to go from level to level and screen to screen within a game. He knows how to turn the volume up and down. He knows how to pause it for a minute. He knows which button is the “Play” button even though he can’t read.

But at still another level, it’s impressive because of the games he plays. Especially puzzles. I downloaded a few puzzles that I figured he’d eventually be able to learn, or that maybe he could manage if we did them together. Nope. He’s mastered them all on his own. He puts together jigsaw puzzles of trucks as easily as a truck mechanic rebuilding an engine. That didn’t surprise me, since he’s such a truck aficionado. But then I saw him putting together puzzles picturing random things like Disney characters or plates of food or forest scenes just as quickly and easily. Every once in a while, he’ll come to me and say with a sigh, “Mama, this is hard. Can you help me?” But even then, I give him just a few hints (“Look for a piece with blue sky at the top”) and he’s off and running on his own again.

It’s so amazing to me to think how much this kid has learned in such a short time. Not much more than two years ago, he couldn’t even walk on his own and he couldn’t say a single word besides “up.” And now he’s running around, using a computer, solving complicated jigsaw puzzles, and narrating himself through it all.

He is a puzzlement. A wonderful, wondrous puzzlement.

Bookmark and Share

Monday, December 3, 2012

Suffer the Little Children

No, this blog is not about the suffering OF little children. It’s about the suffering CAUSED by little children. No, not human suffering. Yeah, yeah, I suffered a little during childbirth (and a LOT during pregnancy), but that’s not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about how much your STUFF suffers when you have little children.

We don’t call my son Destructo-Boy for nothing. He has broken more toy trucks than you can shake a stick at. He has ruined book after book. He's broken several window frame inserts. He’s written on the walls and the TV with crayons. He’s spilled nail polish on my desk. He’s poured lemon oil and WD-40 on the carpet. He’s gotten into Sharpies and scissors and straight pins and Desitin. He pretty much leaves a wake of destruction wherever he goes.

Because of him, my couch will never be the same. The list of fluids with which it has been doused could go on for pages, not even including bodily fluids. Among the things he has spilled or wiped on it are milk, chicken soup, toothpaste, suntan lotion, cranberry juice, gravy, chocolate, and frosting. He’s drawn on it with DryErase markers, washable and non-washable crayons, pencils, and ballpoint pens. There are a number of stains on it that I have no idea what they are and I probably don’t want to know. He’s stuck his fingers inside the ½-inch hole in the back and pulled out enough wads of stuffing to add half a dozen extra sheep to our manger scene. I won’t dare replace that couch until he’s about 12, and even then I’ll probably hang onto it because it’s likely to need to make a reappearance when he’s about 16 and starts having friends over to hang out in the basement.

And the couch isn’t the only piece of furniture at risk. He’s pulled knobs off of several drawers, and managed to wrench an entire cabinet door off the entertainment center. Lamps have come crashing down with various levels of resultant damage.

Appliances are vulnerable, too. We had to replace a VCR because he shoved a DVD into the slot. The DVD player in my car barely survived having him stick a bunch of pennies into it (I brace myself every time I go up a steep hill, lest the pennies reposition themselves out of the harmless corners into which they’ve apparently settled).

With Christmas coming in a few weeks and many breakable – even for the average human, never mind Destructo-Boy’s powers – decorations within arm’s reach, I keep my teeth gritted for the inevitable crash. So far, the only casualties have been the sword hilt of the giant nutcracker (repairable) and one of the figurines from our Christmas village (not repairable), but I’m sure they will not be alone before the end of the season. There are too many glass icicles, delicate train conductor figurines, and ceramic Nativity characters around for that not to happen.

But when it comes right down to it, it’s just stuff. He doesn’t break it to be destructive; he’s just curious. What would it feel like to stick my hand into a jar of diaper cream? Does crayon look different when you write on the table or the wall than it does when you write on paper? What happens if I stick this into that? What will I find if I stand on top of that thing? What kind of noise does this make when I drop it on the floor/hit it with this other thing/throw it against the wall? I’d rather have a curious child than a clean couch.

I’m sorry for your suffering, though, couch. Next movie night, I promise I’ll share some of my popcorn with you.

Bookmark and Share