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Monday, December 13, 2010

The Magic of Christmas

Last weekend my family and I traveled about an hour north of Pittsburgh to cut down our Christmas tree. We’ve been going with my brother and his family for the last several years to cut down our trees together. The first few years were rough. Trudging through the snow carrying one son wrapped in blankets in the snugli baby carrier, while balancing the other on my hip because he was too tired or cold to find the perfect tree. One year I thought my husband would have a heart attack after he used a dulled handsaw to cut down the ten foot tree, then drag it by himself from the valley all the way up the snowy hillside to our car. I nearly caved several times and picked the tree already wrapped and ready to go. Almost. But that was seven years ago. My kids are four and eight now, and we’ve all become seasoned tree hunters. We use a chainsaw, a handheld GPS (marking the perfect location of our favorite trees), walkie talkies (in case we get separated), a digital camera to take photos to compare our favorite trees and a measuring tape to ensure we have the right size before we make the cut.

We drive our truck down the hillside and let the kids sit in the warm car with hot chocolate while we cut the tree and lift it into the truck. Not to sound cliché, but we live and learn. It’s the struggles and the triumphs that bring magic to holiday stories like these. If we simply bought a tree every year at our local greenhouse, that would make for an awfully boring story. And our tree would cost $85.00 instead of $20.00. The magic lies within the colorful details and the special memories we’re making for our family.

It’s the same with your writing. You have to get your character from point A to point B. While the beginning and the end are important, it’s the magic that happens in the middle of the story that the reader will remember. All too often as writers, I believe we have a clear visual or written outline of our story, and we don’t want to stray from that structure. But sometimes, if we don’t let the characters choose their own paths, the story becomes contrived and forced. You simply lose the magic because as the writer, you’re not able to give up the control and allow the characters to take over. One time I wrote a scene where the girl reached over and kissed the main character. He was surprised at how forward she had become. So was I. It wasn’t something I had planned for her to do. And that’s a good thing. As writers, we need to give our characters enough independence to get into trouble and create their own magical stories.

If my husband and I weren’t persistent in finding easier ways to cut down our tree, we would still be tired and sore from dragging the tree and the kids or worse yet, given up completely on cutting down our own tree. And where would that have left us? With no traditions or memories to share with our children. The same emptiness a story has without a magical middle. Or the frustration a writer feels getting through a first draft. If you give up, the story doesn’t get written.

So this holiday, my gift to you is five magical ideas to make your holiday special and five magical ideas to make your stories sparkle.

Holiday Ideas
  1. Cut down your own Christmas tree. (Wear boots, gloves and park close to where you’ll cut)
  2. Make ornaments for your loved ones. (Every year my mom and dad gave my brother and I an ornament to celebrate something special that happened that year. I kept the tradition for my sons. Above is a homemade ornament my mom received over 30 years ago from a boy in her cub scout den. It still hangs on our tree today. Here’s a link to a similar ornament. http://kids.creativity-portal.com/d/projects/sled.ornament/
Or pick up the Big Fun Christmas Crafts and Activities (Williamson Little Hands Book) by Judy Press where you’ll find fun and easy holiday crafts to do with your children. http://www.amazon.com/Christmas-Crafts-Activities-Williamson

  1. Mix together reindeer food to sprinkle on the ground Christmas Eve so the reindeer can find their way. Here’s how:
      ½ cup uncooked oatmeal
      ½ cup glitter (sparkly holiday colors)
      ½ cup red or green sugar crystals (used for cake decorating)

Place ingredients in a plastic bag, seal and shake. Sprinkle it on your lawn on Christmas Eve so the reindeer can find their way.

  1. Buy used books at your local library or a used book store for a person who can’t get out to purchase new books or make a wreath like this one. Follow this link to learn how: 
http://www.ilovetocraft.com/holiday/christmas-yarn-wreath.shtml. Take the books and the wreaths to a local nursing home for the residents to enjoy.

  1. Give a gift of homemade goodies to someone. (See recipes below)

Story Sparkles
  1. Write your first draft uninhibited. Tear off the scabs.
  2. Make a bad scene way worse.
  3. Put your characters in unique or awkward situations.
  4. When rewriting, start with a blank page and rewrite it ALL so you’re not tempted to leave in mediocre first draft writing.
  5. Write a story that excites you, and it will surely excite your readers.

I will leave you will my Aunt Lee’s biscotti recipe. She just turned 90 last month (Happy Birthday Aunt Lee!) and sent me her recipe and along with four dozen biscotti to eat. Yum.

Biscotti recipe:

1 C. shortening (if you’re looking for an organic non-hydrogenated shortening, I highly recommend Spectrum)
5 eggs
1 ½ cups sugar
5 tsp. baking powder
4 cups flour
1 tsp. anise extract
1/2 tsp. salt

Cream shortening and eggs. Add flavoring and remaining ingredients. I put my dough (bowl and all) into the refrigerator for at least an hour. The dough will be easier to work with.

Mark the dough into four sections. The dough may be rolled into a log shape. Keep the logs narrow because it will spread when baked. Grease pans (6x12). Bake at 400 degrees for about 20 minutes or until brown.

When loaves are slightly cool, slice and return to the oven to toast. 

I will also share with you my Grandma’s delicious pizzelle recipe:
2 C. flour
1 ½ C sugar
¾ C butter or margarine (melted and cooled)
1 Tbsp. anise extract or vanilla
4 eggs, slightly beaten
2 Tsp. baking powder

Preheat pizzelle iron. Mix flour, sugar, butter, anise extract and eggs. Drop 1 tablespoon onto heated pizzelle iron and close. Cook about 30 seconds or until golden brown.

Both of these Italian cookies go great with coffee.

Happy holidays!


  1. Many years ago when we lived in Albuquerque, my husband took 2 of the kids to cut down a tree in the national forest. Got our permit. They drove about 2 hours out. Came back that evening tree-less. The saw had been somewhat dull, the the sap in the trees gummed it up completely.

    We never tried that again. I guess we're the un-persevering types. But I do have one of those wreath-making clamping machines, and we went out and collected greens and made our Advent wreath and wreath for the front door. So maybe we're just practical. :)

    Great story Marcy, and that looks like a great biscotti recipe.

  2. Believe it or not we have some rather silly horror stories just picking out a Christmas tree at our local greenhouse. Imagine the trouble my family could get into going out into the forest!

  3. Thanks Cynthia and Carol for sharing. It's great hearing holiday stories that at the time are so upsetting, but are funny later in life. Happy Holidays!

  4. Marcy,
    The last time we ever cut down a tree was when we drove the twisty, turny roads to Marianna, and when we pulled into the tree farm, both our son and our dog vomited all over the back seat!!

  5. What a great family tradition, Marcy. I'm sure your children will remember the time spent doing this with you and your husband long after any Christmas gift Santa brought them.