Ana’s Advent Calendar, Day 25: 4th Annual Fireside Chat with Kat and Natalie

advent card red tree

  • Sign up sheet (to play)
  • Main Page
  • Artwork PageToday’s post is a continuation of a tradition begun the first year of Ana’s Advent Calendar. My first contracted book was The Way Home, a story of two women who met as college roommates. Of course, there was spanking involved. 😀 Shy, motherless Kat and bold, popular Natalie then launched a short story as well as a sequel. Their short stories appeared on Kat-Sitting, the original blog.As a matter of fact, those of you who knew me “way back when” remember when Kat-Sitting contained all of the Kat and Natalie stories! I told their story a little at a time, never expecting to be approached about publication. And thus began the journey of a naughty author. :DFor those of you who are new to the Kat and Natalie universe, here’s a quick crib sheet:

    Kat comes from a poor farming family. Her mother died of cancer when Kat was a teenager, and Kat grew up with much-older brothers and a father with dementia.

    Natalie is the daughter of a well-to-do banker and the past president of every philanthrophic organization in the area. She’s the older sister of a much-younger slightly bratty brother, and she took care of her mother after Mama Jane (a crowd favorite) almost died from a miscarriage.

    Natalie’s practical, business-oriented, confident…and loves to spank. Kat’s afraid of her own shadow, scared she’s not wanted, and (as an adult) cynical about the goodness of life. But when they meet as college first-years, well…here’s a little snippet from The Way Home

    A dark-haired girl is sitting on one of the beds, surrounded by matching floral suitcases and a rainbow of crates set up on one side of the room. Around the window, she has put up a fake curtain made from contact paper. On her desk sits a vase filled with poppies and encircled with a red ribbon around the neck.

    I clear my throat and croak, “Are you Natalie?”

    The girl drops the books she is sorting, and she springs to a standing position. Her eyes take in my suitcases before she asks, “Oh… oh! Yes. So, are you Katherine?”

    “It’s Kat,” I say, trying not to blush. It is time that I lost my baby name. Katie sounds cute and perky, two things I am not.

    Of course, Miss Natalie finds a wooden spoon and a way to use it. 😀 But for the rest of the story, you’ll have to check out Kat-Sitting, The Way Home, Coming to Terms, and Lighting the Way.

    For earlier chats, you can follow these links:

    3rd Annual Fireside Chat

    2nd Annual Fireside Chat

    1st Annual Fireside Chat

4th Annual Fireside Chat with Kat and Natalie

Kat: So, we have a bone to pick with you, Ana.

Ana: Wait, what? Hello and welcome back to Ana’s Advent Calendar to you, too. Since when do you boss me around?

Natalie (clearing her throat): What Kat means…well, Kat means we have a bone to pick with you.

Ana: There’s no turkey at my house for Christmas! I’ve never liked the taste. If you want to pick bones, you’ll have to find somewhere else to go.

Kat (grinning): She’s touchy, isn’t she Natty?

Ana (grumbling): Remember when you were a shy, sweet little thing and everyone jumped to defend you from big mean old Natalie?

Natalie: Excuse me!

Ana: You know how many people think you’re too strict with Kat.

(Kat and Natalie exchange a smile, and Natalie covers Kat’s hand with her own.)

Natalie: Well, you’ve invited us to your Advent Calendar for four years now, including this one. We’ve watched you share time with old and new friends. We’ve also enjoyed getting to meet new authors and readers.

Kat: But we wanted a story of Elf Pizelle again this year. Isn’t she coming back?

Natalie: We thoroughly enjoyed Lynn’s tale of you getting your comeuppance—

Ana: That was not me! Lynn had no right to—

Natalie: A good spanking now and then would help you relax and get some rest. Right, Kat?

(Natalie squeezes Kat’s hand. Kat dips her head and blushes.)

Kat: I don’t know what you mean.

(Natalie pats the top of Kat’s thigh.)

Natalie: You don’t? Shall I clarify?

Kat (turning bright red): No, thank you!

Ana: Ah, there’s the Kat and Natalie we all know and love. Are you planning to torment your beloved for Christmas again this year, Natalie?

Natalie: I do not torment Kat!

Kat: You gave me a wooden spoon for Christmas last year, remember?

Ana: Ooh, a wooden spoon! You lucky, lucky girl. What kind?

Kat (mumbling): A nasty, evil one that should be thrown into the nearest bonfire.

(Natalie grins and takes Kat by the elbow)

Natalie: Oh, it’s been too long since you’ve gotten more than maintenance or a reminder spanking. Please do continue sassing so I’ll have reason to deal with you after we get home.

Kat (sighing): See what I have to put up with?

Natalie (putting her arm around Kat’s shoulder): See what I have to put up with?

Ana (hiding a smile): I think I’ll stay out of that one. I got the most beautiful wooden spoon Christmas tree ornaments, though. They’re almost too pretty to put on the tree. And you should be glad it wasn’t another hairbrush or paddle, Kat.

Natalie: There you go, spoiling her surprise for this year.

(Natalie gives Kat an evil grin)

Kat: I refuse to answer that!

Natalie: Oh yes, sweetie. Keep refusing. Throw in a sulk or foot-stomp, too. Maybe Ana will write a story about Elf Pizelle bringing me a wonderful new paddle to deal with my headstrong girl.

Kat (trying her best to look cross but giggling instead): As long as we get some more of those wonderful sugar cookies. Besides, Natty, pride goes before a fall. Keep on your power trip. The worm’ll turn pretty soon.

Natalie (standing up and taking Kat by the elbow while planting a palm across the seat of her jeans): We’ll be doing some turning, missy, only it’ll be me turning you over my knee for a good, old-fashioned Christmas spanking.

Ana: Wait! How’s nursing school, Kat? Are you going to take the promotion you were offered, Natalie? Your parents must be thrilled you might be closer to them. And how’s your neighbor Lily doing? Is she home from the hospital and rehab yet? I heard you made friends with her daughter, Kat. Everyone has so many questions for you both. You can’t leave yet.

Kat (dodging Natalie’s swat): Sorry, Ana! I’d stay to answer, but meanie-pants here is getting all handsy. Can we take a raincheck?

Natalie: If the adoption ever goes through, which we’re starting to think won’t happen this side of heaven, we could use the extra income. But we love Naperville, so it’s a hard decision. Kat, don’t you dare try to run away!

Ana: Come back! We haven’t gotten to talk about anything yet. Don’t you have anything to say to the nice readers who came to chat with you?

Kat: Sorry, Ana. Maybe next year.

Natalie: Oh, okay. Maybe a question or two.

Don’t forget there are free stories available on Kat-Sitting, as well as the two full-length books.

 The-Way-Home

The Way Home (Kat and Natalie, Volume One)

Natalie always wanted a little sister.  Kat didn’t know she was allowed to want anything…or anyone.
Kat, a shy farmgirl, arrives at her freshman dorm with a backpack, a suitcase, and her mother’s wish for Kat to attend college “at least until you get married”. Her roommate Natalie, a confident and fun-loving social butterfly, decides sight unseen that Kat will become her best friend for life. Natalie teaches Kat about college life, academics, and friendship by taking Kat under her wing…and over her knee.

Then their lives fall apart one fateful night on campus, and for the rest of the decade Kat and Natalie struggle to find their way back to each other. Their way home.

Buy links

All Romance: https://www.allromanceebooks.com/product-thewayhome-1100667-148.html
Amazon US: http://www.amazon.com/Way-Home-Kat-Natalie-Book-ebook/dp/B00BPFHGT2
Barnes & Noble: http://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/the-way-home-anastasia-vitsky/1114767813?ean=2940016350561
Blushing: http://www.blushingbooks.com/index.php?l=product_detail&p=2765

Lighting-the-Way

Lighting the Way (Kat and Natalie, Volume Two)

College roommates, best friends, and family. Can Kat and Natalie find a way to stay together…without killing each other?

Kat Astra knows one thing: everything is her fault. A dead-end job. A fear of confrontation. An inability to speak up when necessary. Desertion of her best friend in her time of need.

Natalie Mestecom knows one thing too: everything Kat does is Natalie’s fault. The relationship rule is simple; Kat has problems, and Natalie fixes them. But what worked in adolescence becomes more complicated with adulthood, and new developments in their relationship challenge these roles. Kat is no longer sure whether she is willing to be disciplined according to Natalie’s rules, and Natalie is no longer sure whether she is worthy of Kat’s trust.

Can Natalie allow herself to be vulnerable? Can Kat believe in her own strength? Can Natalie believe in Kat’s strength? How will they, each in their own way, learn to move beyond guilt and blame in order to forge a new relationship together? In order to make peace with themselves and each other, Kat and Natalie reconnect with family, re-visit memories of their past, and make plans for taking steps forward in the future. To light their way home.

Buy links:

All Romance: https://www.allromanceebooks.com/product-lightingtheway-1219042-177.html
Amazon US: http://www.amazon.com/Lighting-Way-Kat-Natalie-Book-ebook/dp/B00D7NQHZ4
Barnes & Noble: http://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/lighting-the-way-anastasia-vitsky/1115519362?ean=2940016679440
Blushing: http://www.blushingbooks.com/index.php?l=product_detail&p=2766

 

 

Ana’s Advent Calendar, Day 24: Spending Christmas Alone

red green square

 Getting Through the Holidays Alone

I was asked to write a post about how I cope with being alone on the holidays. I don’t know if this will help anyone, but I hope in you reading this and getting some insight into who I am and my family, maybe it will give you some encouragement, hope, light, love, joy, and peace. I am not a writer, but I have always wanted to write about my family and share my journey in hopes that it could help someone in theirs. Please know, I am thinking of ALL of you this season who are spending the holidays alone and remember: “The possibility for rich relationships exists all around you-you simply have to open your eyes, open your mouth and most importantly, open your heart.” – Cheryl Richardson

Ever since I was a kid the holidays were always about family, great food, sharing joy, love, compassion, and kindness with others. My mom was a single parent with three kids and there was my grandma, aunt and uncle, but they were gone by the time I was in Junior High.  So many people in my family passed on while I was so young, but we still managed to make the holidays about the importance of family (I would find a way to blend the last 2 sentences together). I can remember my mom always prepping everything so we could make cookies, fudge, divinity, peanut brittle, and so much more. Let’s not forget the turkey, dressing, sweet potatoes, mash potatoes, gravy, homemade rolls, and homemade macaroni & cheese. The menu went on and on and I would always wonder, “Who is going to eat all this food?” But my mom was spreading joy and love to others, by making sure others were not spending the holidays alone, or hungry.  She was instilling in us the importance of giving, togetherness and love. It is the letting go of all that can divide and destroy family and friends; that cloud that blinds and keeps us from what the holidays are supposed to be about. For those spending the holidays alone because of religion and bigotry, hoping that those family members will wake up and see that it isn’t about a person’s sexuality, skin color, beliefs, or money it is about love of family.

The word stranger did not exist in my mom’s vocabulary she knew everyone. She wanted to make sure everyone she knew had something to eat, and would not be alone for the holidays.  In November 2002, my mom passed away and it left this huge hole; it was like something was just not right, something was missing, and it felt/I felt vacant. No one knew what to do, or say. We were so lost on Thanksgiving and Christmas; how can we celebrate when the very heart of our family was missing… broken!  I found myself continuing on with the way my mom would fix all the holiday food and trying to make sure that those who would be alone for the holidays not only had something to eat, but also someone to spend the holidays with. Little did I know the healing I was getting just by helping others.  As time went on I found myself moving away from Missouri and living in Oregon. I knew this journey would be exciting, opening my eyes to a side of the world I had not experienced. The diversity and opportunity to see and do all things that I just didn’t have access to in the Midwest. One thing I wasn’t prepared for was when it came around to the holidays was being alone. Watching how people I had come to know talking about what they were doing for the holidays.  What was I going to do to keep myself from going down the road of and gloom? One thing I did know is that when we are faced with obstacles that we must get through (especially alone) negativity can come crashing in like a tidal wave, and I was not going to let this happen.

One of the biggest ways I get through the holidays is music, it has always been a huge part of my family. It is my voice, the very foundation to my soul. I find comfort in the words, and the instruments. It inspired me to keep going, to fight the doom and gloom that can come with spending the holidays alone. I found that I could continue with making sure that anything I can do to help someone get through the holidays, and even this journey we call “life”, with as less stress and sadness as possible. Then I would, by simply showing kindness, generosity, and compassion. Why? Because that is what my mom did. She was a bright light, (and as far as I was concerned she was an angel) and because of who she was, and what she did people still remember what a phenomenal woman she was. Do I still get lonely and sad? Yes! I still wonder why I haven’t met the love of my life, but maybe this is just my journey for right now, and I have so much love, compassion, kindness, and joy to bring to so many that are struggling to make it through at times very crazy up world we live in. So you ask, how are you coping? What are you doing to get you through the holidays? I look around me and I try to always see the beauty, to be grateful, joyful, to believe in love, faith, hope, and show kindness to others. To take these seeds and start planting them in each person I come in contact with.  I am always working to create a chain reaction of hope, light and love in a world that is fighting against so much darkness. I know that so many have been turned away from their families, and people who claimed to be your friends have turned their backs on you. Churches that have completely lost sight of what their message is supposed to be about, have left you heart broken, fighting depression, and loneliness.  I have decided to continue in my mom’s journey and staying strong in my faith, believing it is my role, our role to help each other through the difficult times and the great times. To inspire, share, educate, and show that true unconditional love even if it was not shown to us.

I am not going to pretend that spending the holidays alone is like peaches & cream, because that would be a lie, but I can tell you I try my best to find ways to bring joy into someone else’s life even if it is just for a few moments because it brings joy into mine and it helps me to get through the holidays. The feeling I get in my heart and soul to see that smile, hear that laugh makes my heart sing. I found that I get through the holidays by simply being the woman my mother raised me to be. I live in California now and I will be alone for the holidays this year too, but I will do what I can to bring some joy, and peace into as many lives as I can even if it is just for a little while. I know that how I cope with the holidays may not help you, but you have to admit that even in our uncertainty, those moments when a simple act of kindness, generosity, and love always make you smile and eases the loneliness inside even if it’s for a few hours. If this does inspire you then will make it through the holidays by showing unconditional love and in the process healing your spirit.
Happy Holidays

Pennie J Hancock

 

Ana’s Advent Calendar, Day 23: Christmas in Finland

Advent card red baubles

Hyvää Joulua Suomesta!
Merry Christmas from Finland!

I’m so happy to be writing this article for Ana’s Advent Calendar 2015!  Just a year ago in December 2014, I moved from the US to Finland to be with my wife, Suzi.  Many exciting things have happened and I’ve been introduced to  new traditions & brought a few American ones to her family.

We celebrated with her family in Tampere, about 2 hours north of where we live ( in the Helsinki area near the Baltic Sea).  The Finns use a lot of potatoes here and my mother in law makes the best mashed potatoes I’ve ever had.  They also love macaroni casserole (makaroni laatikko)  and sweet potato & beef (bataati laatiko) premade casseroles here that are traditionally available at the stores.  They also make amazing pulla or sweet breads and rolls.  Some make them at home, but they’re available freshly made at most markets.

Mustamakkara is another Finnish food I tried for the first time in Tampere. It is a local favorite not eaten anywhere else than Tampere but free servings of the sausages are given out at Christmastime each year in the past few years. While not necessarily a Christmas tradition, it’s something that many locals either love or hate.  I’m not a huge fan, but I do like it a bit.

Another big traditional food at Christmas is rutabaga casserole.  It tastes much like regular potatoes and is a staple in their diet. It is quite similar in taste, in my opinion, to scalloped potatoes.

A favorite cookie of mine that I love to make is the Russian Tea Cake.  I made a large batch and took them with us to her parents’ home for the holidays. They liked them very much and I made them a few more times that spring after Christmas.

I also took my trumpet with me to their home and played some Christmas carols as we all sat in the living room together.  I understood very little Finnish at that point, but they were and still are so welcoming and kind.

During that visit to Tampere over Christmas, Suzi and I also attended a church service nearby where they had a Christmas hymn sing, all in Finnish, of course.  My Finnish vocabulary was very tiny at that point, but I could pronounce things well even if I had no idea what they meant.  It was a magical night there in that large old church.   Additionally, a Finnish tradition on Christmas Eve night is lighting candles in graveyards on graves of loved ones. It’s very powerful to witness. Standing there in the cold prior to the service that night, as we lit candles, held hands and said prayers for her loved ones, I was humbled.   It was sad, magical and beautiful all at once.

Finnish tradition also includes much coffee all the time, not just at Christmas.   Coffee is had at breakfast, morning break, afternoon break and after dinner, along with cookies, cakes and other sweet breads (pulla) etc.

A favorite Finnish dish of mine year round is fruit soup, or kiisseli.   It’s very easy to make and I think it was the first Finnish dish I made on my own. It consists of fresh or frozen fruit—usually strawberry, raspberry or blueberry, sometimes lingonberry—which is then boiled and potato starch is added, along with sweetener or vanilla sugar.  It is served with cream or vanilla sauce or regular milk.  My mother in law showed me how she liked to crumble up rye crackers and toss them in. The fruit mixture and cream soak into the cracker pieces and make for a lovely dessert any time.
When  I was growing up in America, we always had a tree and decorated it. Suzi’s parents had waited for us to arrive so that we could all decorate it together. It really meant a lot to me and I felt part of the family immediately.  Hanging up decorations and chatting with Suzi and her parents and brother & his wife, was a lovely way to spend part of an afternoon.

This year, Suzi and I will be celebrating on our own here at home and will be making our own traditions.  We have talked about what foods we might like to have and things we’d like to do.  I loved riding around as a kid as we looked at people’s Christmas light displays. I’m excited to do that here where we live this year.  Also, there is a church we will probably attend for Christmas Eve. We will most likely get a small tree to decorate together.  We love to have colored Christmas lights hanging year round here for night light purposes but also they’re very cheery.  And now, since the outside renovations are done at our apartment complex, we will have our enclosed balcony back for use right as holiday season begins.  We are anxious to put up some lights there and decorate it a bit more. We weren’t here much last Christmas and spent a lot of time in Tampere so this is our first Christmas at home together.

So perhaps next year, I can write another article talking more about how our Finnish and American traditions have merged even more!  Hyvää Joulua kaikille Suomesta!  (Merry Christmas to all from Finland!)

Ana’s Advent Calendar, Day 21: How QueerSciFi.com was created

red green square

How QueerSciFi.com was created, and how I met my co-admin, Angel Martinez.
Of course, there are two sides to every story.

Scott:

It all started on a snowy Christmas eve… OK, it was actually January 8th, 2014, and being that I was in Sacramento, there was no snow. But I think I had the idea around Christmas. Does that count?

I was writing again, after a twenty year dry spell. I was looking for a community of likeminded folks online to chat with, and I found a few on Facebook. But none of them was doing quite what I wanted to do – bringing together a diverse group of writers and readers from across the LGBT speculative fiction spectrum.

I created the blog/website and the Facebook page, but I knew I couldn’t do the whole Queer Sci Fi thing on my own. I would need an accomplice if I was going to take the web by storm.

And I had my eyes on Angel from the start. I met her early on on Facebook, and was impressed with her long list of published works and her sweet, friendly demeanor. So I got on one knee and asked her to be my co-admin.

Oh, she played coy at first. Claimed she had responsibilities to another group. Said she just didn’t have time. Mumbled something about space demons and pink hedgehogs that I didn’t even pretend to understand.

And once, I kid you not, she simply said she had to wash her hair.

But bit by bit, I wore her down. I am tenacious like that. I sent her chocolate bars. I wrote her haikus. I knitted her a purple bonnet her cat. I even offered to fly to the Garden State to rub her feet (which, frankly, probably wouldn’t have worked since she lives in Delaware).

But eventually I got to her – it was something about my sunny personality (and the fact that she probably figured out I’d never give up until she said yes). And so she came on board.

Oh, we’ve had our bumps in the road as a power couple – like the time I promised to publish every single story that met our criteria for our second flash fiction contest, regardless. Or the time I bought the smallest buttons ever created, to promote the QSF site at Rainbow Con. Or the time I accidentally sold her cat into the Czech feline slave trade.

Come to think of it, I guess I’m the bump in the road, most of the time.

But we chalked it up to the fact that we were figuring it all out as we went. We even named 2015 The Year of the Learning Curve.

What will next year be called? I have no idea. But I can’t wait to find out.

——————————

Angel:

Okay, I suppose it all did start around January of 2014, though how anyone could think that growly little me has a sunny disposition is beyond me. Diplomatic, maybe. Sometimes. Friends have told me I try to be Switzerland, but of course, that’s not accurate either. I never have enough money or chocolate, and don’t know the first thing about watches more’s the pity.

Scott and I met online on another group and, at the time, I was ears deep in deadlines, co-admining two other groups, and trying to deal with the weirdness of a small business. To be asked at that point to help out with one more thing? My head would have exploded.

Eventually, though, writing life settled down, a couple of previous obligations faded away, and Scott was still asking. Can you do it now? Can you do it now? How about now? Okay, I’ll wait. How about now? You know, like that Simpsons episode where the kids bug Homer non-stop for three days and nights to take them to Splash World. Maybe not quite that bad, but Scott is persistent. It’s one of his most important traits because it gets stuff done. I said yes to becoming a co-conspirator in this whole QSF thing partly because of that persistence and partly because I really wanted to work with Scott. All kidding aside, he was always positive and upbeat in all of our interactions, and I loved the idea of the community he wanted to build.

We’ve both done a lot of learning this year, about each other, about tech stuff that I always struggle with, about how the struggle for an inclusive community is an ongoing thing and not just a label. We’re still learning. That’s what life is, right?

After working together online for some time, we finally got to meet face to face last summer at Rainbow Con, a meeting we were both ridiculously nervous about. What if we didn’t like each other in person? What if one of us had terrible habits the other couldn’t stand? What if Scott picked his teeth in public and smoked cigars? We shouldn’t have worried. It was just as easy to interact face to face as it was online. I think we’re from the same litter or something.

Scott’s the idea man. I try to bring things back to what’s possible, the rock that holds us in reality. Scott may look at it as the stone dragging him down, but hey, it works. We’re looking forward to next year and more exciting things to come.

——————————

qsfThanks to a partnership with Mischief Corner Books, QSF also has a book out – Discovery: QSF’s Second Annual Flash Fiction Contest – more than a hundred speculative fiction stories that are no more than 300 words each. 🙂

It’s hard to tell a story in just 300 words. But somehow we inspired more than a hundred writers to give it a try, with some amazing results collected here for your pleasure.
The rules are simple enough. Write a complete story—either sci fi, fantasy, or paranormal. Make sure it has LGBT characters and/or an LGBT vibe. And do it all with just 300 words.
The stories in this volume run the gamut, from platypus shifters to alien slug monsters, from carnival horror stories to haunting stories of ships with souls. There are little jokes, big surprises, and future prognostications.
One of the things I like best about this format – it’s quick and painless. You may not fall in love with every story here. In fact, you probably won’t. But if you don’t like one of them, just move on to the next, and you’re sure to find some bite-sized morsels of flash fiction goodness.At Queer Sci Fi, we’re building a community of writers and readers who want a little rainbow in their speculative fiction. We hope you’ll join us, and maybe submit a story of your own next time!

 

Ana’s Advent Calendar, Day 20: Christmas Stress

bluecard

Noelle will be attending family activities for part of the day today but will return later to respond to everyone’s comments.
 Christmas Stress

The holiday season is here, can you believe it? Are you ready? I’m definitely not…but then, I’m usually not ready. I hear for some, the holidays are magical and wonderful. I have no idea who those people are, but I’m guessing they’re aliens. Or have no responsibilities. Children. They’re probably children.

For most of us, though, the holidays are stressful. Kids are out of school, family descends (or, alternately, we invade the homes of relatives), holiday shopping (don’t get me started—Amazon is my friend), cooking, cleaning…it’s an endless list. So how do we unwind with all that going on? Some of us exercise, some of us eat (any of you chocoholics like me?), some of us journal, or spend obscene amounts of money on shoes, and some of us sleep. And in the past year, a lot of adults have been turning to coloring.

Yes, coloring. Believe it or not, coloring gives us an allotted time to zone out from obligations, to help us think of nothing more than what color we’re going to use to fill in which space. I don’t know about you, but most days, I’m ready to stop adulting by 10 AM. Sometimes earlier.

You might be wondering why I’m talking about stress. Well, one reason is because my education and training is in psychology, specifically clinical psychology. That just means that I was trained to do therapy with clients. One of the issues we were taught to help people with was stress. If left unchecked, stress can cause all sorts of problems in our lives—and not just mental problems. Stress can become really serious if we don’t learn how to cope with it in healthy ways. By healthy, I mean not drinking, smoking, or spending all your hard earned cash on shoes (actually, I’ve almost convinced my husband that spending an obscene amount of money on shoes is healthy, so don’t tell him otherwise, ‘kay?).

Psychologists often suggest exercise, journaling, and meditation for stress relief. We focus on repetitive motion (this will come back later in this post) during the exercise itself, which puts us in the moment. There’s a reason the twelve-step programs say to “Take one day at a time.” If we’re in the present, we cannot be focused on the past (e.g., regrets) or the future (e.g., fears, doubts, and anxiety). Additionally, exercise releases endorphins which are nature’s opiates (that means they make us feel good, or so I hear). So even after the movement is over, you get benefits.

With journaling, we write our emotions, thoughts, and ideas down. If we’re angry at someone, we might write a letter to them, explaining our anger (and NOT send it). It’s the equivalent of talking to someone to vent, but without needing another person. We also can find that when we write our thoughts and feelings out on paper, solutions to problems suddenly seem clear. Meditation is repetitive, just like exercise, except that instead of a body movement, the repetition is breathing. Like exercise, meditation helps us hold on to the present.

So why has coloring caught on so strong for stress relief? Because like exercise and meditation, coloring is an in-the-moment, repetitive action. Some people have suggested the activity helps us revisit our childhood, and if I were to choose between paying bills or coloring…well, hand me a pack of Crayolas.

Seriously, though, art has been my go-to stress relief for years. I was a studio art minor in college, before I surrendered it to the big, bad, soul-sucking thing we call grad school in order to get that fancy graduate degree. Luckily, I got back to it, thanks to writing colleagues who needed inspirational covers for their works in progress. If Amazon is my friend, then Photoshop is an intimate partner…and not just because my selfies suddenly look great.

But I digress. This post is about stress, and how to relieve it. So, what are some ways you relieve your stress? Have you tried anything in the past that just did not work, no matter how many people told you it would (*cough* jogging *cough*)?

 

Author Bio: Noelle Pierce is the alter ego of Elizabeth Bank (that’s one Bank, not many Banks). Noelle was born because, while Liz would adore being mistaken for a hot, blonde, Hollywood starlet, she is not, in fact, said actress. Therefore, the real name had to disappear for fiction, unless Google searchers were willing to trudge through fifteen pages of blonde bombshell first. Regardless of the name she uses, she loves the written word, the painted canvas, shoes, understanding behavior, and shoes. And the city. Please don’t ever suggest a camping trip to her, unless it involves a cabin, fireplace, and/or central air.

 

Ana’s Advent Calendar, Day 19: Second (First) Christmas

red advent

 

Celebrating my son’s (second) First Christmas
Loralynne Summers

This is my son’s First Christmas.

Sort of.

Technically, it’s his second Christmas. But I’m not counting last year. After all, he was not even a month old. And in reality, he should have still been inside me.

Let’s back up a minute:

Last year, on Black Friday, I started to not feel well in the afternoon. I was 34 ½ weeks pregnant, and in the throes of preeclampsia. My blood pressure had been slightly elevated at my checkup on Monday, and I had ankles the size of the Goodyear Blimp. Seriously, I could barely tie my sneakers. And look at those arms. I could give Popeye a run for his money!

My parents had come over that day, and we’d literally *JUST* finished getting the nursery ready. There were still some blankets and other miscellaneous items to wash, but I already had all the clothes through 6 months washed and put into drawers. In my head, I was expecting a big baby. After all, both my husband and I had been around eight pounds, so I wanted plenty of clothes ready to go just in case I managed to go full term.

By the time my husband returned home from work at 10pm, I’d had a severe migraine for nearly five hours. That’s when I decided to throw in the towel. Now that he was home, I called my OB. He told me to go the hospital, and he’d meet me there to see what was what. Right before we left the house, I vomited the (non)contents of my empty stomach.

I told my husband that I expected I’d likely be admitted and kept for a few days because of my swelling and blood pressure, and I probably was not going to be able to return to work. He said he understood, and if that was the case, he’d pack me a bag the next day if needed. In case you’re not paying attention – that means we did NOT have the “Go Bag” ready to “Go.”

At 1:41am on Saturday morning, my first child arrived in the world via an emergency c-section so I could receive an IV cocktail of fluids, blood pressure medication, and the oh-so-wonderful Magnesium Sulfate. The benefit of having been on the MagSulfate is that I now know what to expect when I hit menopause. Hot flashes from hell, people. If you’ve never been on it, be glad.

Minus a bit of jaundice that is completely normal for preemies, the baby was perfectly healthy. We were both home in just six days.

Of course, I now had a premature 4.5lb baby in the house. See how tiny (and adorable) he was? But that meant I had no inclination whatsoever toward decorating for Christmas in between diaper changes, laundry, weekly doctor visits, almost daily blood tests for him to monitor the jaundice levels, and breastfeeding. I slept as much (or as little) as I could while my husband was stuck working 10- and 11-hour days those first few weeks.

This year, I’m SOOOOOOO excited for Christmas. My son is almost walking unassisted now at a year old. He is fascinated by lights and boxes and paper and the cats and sirens and trucks and and and and….

I love being a mom. I’ve waited my whole life for this.

I can’t wait to watch him have more fun playing with the empty boxes and gift bags than the toys he’s going to get from his grandparents.

I can’t wait for his reaction to the tree (which I anticipate needing to anchor securely to the wall…) and all the decorations and the SNOW! and listening to Christmas music and watching Rudolph and Charlie Brown and taking him when he’s old enough for his first Trans-Siberian Orchestra concert (assuming they’re still going by then…).

Christmas has always been my favorite holiday. I love that I have a whole new reason to love it even more.

baby

ll

Bio:

As a child, Loralynne was always the student getting in trouble for talking in class and at home for making things up. Combining her ability to go on and on and her flair for storytelling, she naturally grew up to be a writer. Originally planning to write fantasy, her muse had other plans. Once she opened herself up to the whims of her muse, she couldn’t type her first sex scene fast enough and now writes romance. Loralynne lives in Upstate New York with her husband, cats, and growing family. You can friend her on facebook or follow her on twitter under LL_Summers

Her book is available at all other major outlets:

 

Ana’s Advent Calendar, Day 18: Sex Toy Story 3

Adventcard blue penguin

Kate Richards of Evil Mistress Kate fame reprises last year’s wildly popular Sex Toy Story, a finish-the-story challenge. This time, her story is set in Suzy Lou and Cindy Meyers Hui’s cabin in a town far far away from Whoville .

While the main couple in this story prompt is F/F, feel free to change gender as best suits your imaginative preferences.

Governing Ana is not responsible for NSFA (Not Safe For Ana) material. Please keep your story endings PG-13 or under. Thank you!

A Toy Story for the holidays

Once upon a time on a dark and stormy night when all good little girls and boys slept in their beds dreaming of sugar plums and the Grinch snuck from house to house stealing their Christmas in one town…in another town far far away Suzy Lou Hu had a very different sort of surprise for her sweetie.

Pulling down the long driveway to the cabin they’d spent the whole summer building—okay supervising the building of—they weren’t contractors after all—she giggled in anticipation of the best Christmas Eve ever. Hugging a large box wrapped in red and green striped paper, she headed into the house, calling out, “Honey, I’m home!”

The house was redolent of the scents of Christmas. Pine from the tall, decorated tree by the front window, hot cider simmering in the slow cooker on the sideboard—next to a to a bottle of cinnamon schnapps, and the elegant hardwood burning in the fireplace. “Cindy,” she called, “where are you?”

When no answer came, she  shrugged out of her coat, set the box under the tree and went in search of her pretty blonde wife.

Cindy Myers Hu started awake, shaking bubbles from her bobbing breasts as the bathroom door swung open. “Suzy! When did you get home?” And how long had she been asleep? Working retail in mid-December was brutal. “I planned to be all dressed up and pretty for our special holiday celebration.”

Suzy Lou’s dark eyes gleamed. “You look pretty enough like that. I’m tempted to join you.”

Cindy cupped her breasts, grinning back. “Oh, you mean these old things?”

“I’d hardly call them old. Sweet, maybe.”

“Come on in. The water’s fine.” If a little cool. But the huge tub was the site of so many of their “private celebrations,” and she was ready for another one!

“Tempted,” Suzy said, “But tonight, I have something special and it’s not water safe. I’m going to escape to the living room and pour myself some of that yummy hot cider before I end up in there with you and we are both too worn out to try out your present.” With a toss of her long, straight dark hair, she disappeared, closing the door behind her.

A toy… They’d talked about experimenting, but so far had been happy to play with what Mother Nature gave them. Which of the sexy additions had her wife decided to make their first? Cindy scrambled out of the tub and dried off on one of the big fluffy towels they’d received for their wedding. Slipping into the bedroom, she reached into her underwear drawer and paused. She didn’t have time to get as gussied up as she’d planned, and anything she put on would be just something they had to take off to play with the new toy.

Whatever it was. She gave a little squeal and slapped a hand over her mouth. Play it cool, Cindy. No need to act like a nervous virgin here…it’s just a toy!

Her mind raced, running over the Adam and Eve home shopping show they’d watched the week before. Two-ended dildos, vibrators of every size, shape, and color, plugs—she flushed at that one—and a variety of  other insertables that promised ecstasy to all concerned. She’d been especially intrigued by a turquoise glass dildo with multi-colored glitter that worked kind of like a lava lamp. Since Suzy had not stopped teasing her about that one, she probably didn’t buy it. She slid her arms into a silky royal-blue robe and tied it at the waist. Easy peasy.

The strains of classical Christmas music met her ears when she entered the living room  to find her wife reclining on the sofa in front of the fire wearing the red satin version of the robe. Every time she saw her, she was more amazed that such a gorgeous creature chose her, and not only beautiful but so kind, and so smart. Even Cindy’s mother’s objections faded when she met Dr. Suzy, cardiac surgeon. And both their sets of parents would be over to celebrate Christmas with them in the morning. Only tonight was theirs alone.

“I’m ready.”

Suzy chuckled. “Are you sure?”

No, she wasn’t sure at all. Excited, yes. A little scared, perhaps. “Of course. Bring on the toys!”

Suzy rose. “Good, then you won’t mind wearing this…” A blindfold.

“Is that the surprise?”  If so, it wasn’t nearly what she’d been expecting.

“No…well, it’s part of it. Trust me?

Drawing in a deep breath, Cindy nodded and turned around. As the dark fabric covered her eyes, her heart thudded loudly in her ears. They’d never discussed things like blindfolds and bondage. Dear God was her real surprise being tied up or….

“Okay, let me guide you over to the couch and sit, that’s right.” Suzy placed a box in her hands. “No you can open your present.”

Patting the large package, Cindy gulped. “But I can’t see it.”

“That’s half the fun!” Suzy gave her a deep kiss and her trepidations faded—somewhat. Cindy patted the rectangular box until  she found a seam in the wrapping paper and tore it off. Then she lifted the top off the box and pulled out….

What happens now? Share what you think might happen next and what might be in the mysterious present…

 

Ana’s Advent Calendar, Day 17: Christmas in Translation

Christmas in Translation
By Monica Czernek Wiant

I’ve always had a complicated relationship with Poland. It was the country my parents fled, the place whose oppressive regime and limited options drove them to immigrate to the United States before I was born. Poland was the wreck my family had swerved to avoid, the baseline used to discredit my teenaged dramas (“You could have been born in Poland! Then you would have NO designer jeans!”). It was like an estranged relative, both conspicuously absent and undeniably present in my family.

As with any complicated family relationship, the holidays make you pause and evaluate.

Christmas was on December 24. It was a day of celebration and feasting, but we were not allowed to eat meat except fish. My mother made a traditional meal including beet soup, fish with tomato and onion sauce, and pierogi stuffed with mushrooms or blueberries. The fish, store-bought cod, was a compromise; a real Polish family would have kept a carp in the bathtub for the occasion. Blueberry pierogi, heaped with sour cream and sprinkled with sugar, were the only Polish food that I enjoyed. Even dessert was geared toward an adult palate: poppy-seed cake or a walnut torte frosted with coffee cream and decorated with maraschino cherries. Thankfully, my mother allowed me to prepare a frozen pizza (cheese only) for my second dinner.

Our gifts came from jolly, red-suited American Santa, not the skinny Polish Mikołaj. Santa brought Atari games and LEGO sets, My Little Pony toys for me and Transformers for my brother. His timing was strange; he dropped gifts under our tree a few at a time throughout December, often while we were at school. By the time he undertook his grand Christmas Eve journey to visit all the other kids in America, we had unwrapped our gifts and played several rounds of Hungry Hungry Hippos.

When I was a child, I wholeheartedly embraced my family’s unique mix of Polish and American traditions. As adolescence set in, I noticed the differences and equated different with wrong.

“We have the wrong ornaments,” I told my parents one year, and my father indulged me with a trip to the store and a tree adorned with blue glass balls and silver tinsel.

“We have the wrong music,” I told my mother, buying her a Mannheim Steamroller CD recommended by my orchestra teacher.

I played translator, introducing my parents to American Christmas.

In 2001, we barely celebrated at all. My father died on Dec. 21, after a short, fierce battle with cancer that seemed cruelly juxtaposed against the merriment of the season. A giant wreath hung on the door of his hospital room. Friends brought trays of holiday cookies and fudge, the American sweets I had always wished my mother would make. My aunt, who traveled from Poland to grieve with us, made the pierogi that year because my mother couldn’t, and I didn’t know how.

Maybe it was the loss of my father, or maybe I simply grew up. I realized that my Polish heritage wasn’t something to be ashamed of. I researched the holiday traditions, learning why Poles didn’t eat meat on Christmas Eve (to honor the farm animals who watched over baby Jesus) and that one should always set an extra place at the table for an unexpected guest. I learned the religious and cultural significance of opłatek, the papery wafer my family would break and share along with blessings to one another. The whole coming year might hinge on those blessings; they’re worth more than any gift under the tree. I forgave my parents for getting some details wrong with Christmas celebrations, and I saw the love behind the frozen pizzas and Mannheim Steamroller and all their attempts to meld two cultures’ traditions into a holiday their children would love.

There’s no such thing as a perfect holiday, and sometimes it isn’t until years later that you realize the things your family did wrong were actually the ones that were exactly right, and those are the things worth carrying forward for generations to come.

I now have 2 children of my own. I’m married to an American whose family makes almond roca, sings English Christmas carols, and hangs stockings by the chimney for Santa to fill on Christmas Eve. We open gifts on Christmas morning. Poland is more distant for my children, a country they might do a report on for school, the place that gives one of their grandmothers her distinctive accent.

I’m still trying to carve out the right space for Poland in my family’s life. There are no carp in our bathtub, but I bought some opłatek at the Eastern European deli in Minneapolis. I’ve learned my mother’s recipes for pierogi and walnut cake, and this year I will be making them for her and asking for honest feedback. There are some things I’ll get wrong at Christmas, but the pierogi will be perfect.

What holiday traditions did your family celebrate differently from others in your community? Did you perceive different as wrong, or were you proud of your differences? Has your attitude toward your childhood holiday memories evolved as you’ve grown up?

One randomly selected winner will receive a Polish-American Wigilia kit containing opłatek (holy bread), an ornament, and a package of Polish cookies.

 

Ana’s Advent Calendar, Day 16: Christmas with her Horse

advent card red tree

 

Christmas with her Horse
Anyone who knows me is aware of my love of horses. I have always felt a spiritual connection with them, maybe it’s the Cherokee blood that runs in my veins. I also was the little girl who asked her parents for a horse every Christmas but never got one.   Any time I saw a horse I was staring and touching if I was able, I still do today.

I did not get my first horse until I was married with two children.  I know, right?!  My neighbor was moving and could not take her older horse with her.  So, she gave her to me!  My wonderful husband built her a barn, purchased a corral, and I was set.  Pride was her name, she was a special mare and was 28 years old.  I rode her often and put my boys on her a lot.  When I was five months pregnant with my third son, she fell and I had to make the heart wrenching decision to put her down.  The veterinarian was very nice, told me to go inside and she would handle it.  Of course, I watched the entire thing from my kitchen window and watched the disposal crew come pick her up as well.  My husband came home to a crying wife, no cell phones then, and gave me the assurance I could have another.

An old friend called me and offered me her daughter’s horse for a very low price.  Her daughter had no time for her, she was broke to ride, and was pasture boarded about 1 ½ hours away from me.  My hubby and a horse friend of ours went to pick Nefara up for me.  She was gorgeous and she was not broke to ride! Barely green broke and way too much horse for a six month pregnant woman to deal with.  My friend came to pick her up and gave me my money back.

When I was thirty, my very good friend and I decided to go to the Bureau of Land Management auction and adopt a wild mustang.  I adopted a 3  month old filly, named her Star,  and spent the next two years teaching her everything she needed to know, including that people were ok and not to be afraid.  At two she was ready to be broken to ride but on the advice of my long time farrier I opted to sell her.  I would never allow my kids on her.  So, she got a wonderful home with a woman that was thrilled to have her.

My next horse was actually for my oldest son for his 12th birthday.  Cheyenne was such a sweetheart.  She loved all of my kids and especially my daughter who was two at the time.  When my son began high school and was playing three sports, his brothers were also playing sports, and life was too busy then for Cheyenne.  I had purchased her some goats for company, horses and goats bond extremely well, and was very picky in my choice for her new home.  A grandmother bought her for her granddaughter and of course, her goats went with her.

For the next ten years or so I did not have a horse.  Life was just too busy with our children and their activities.  Sadly, none of my children were as horse crazy as I was. I know, I couldn’t believe it either!  I have to say every time I bought and sold a horse, aside from making sure they had a good home, I never gave it much thought.  Sure, I missed having a horse but I never worried or missed the ones I sold.

I never realized what I had been missing until I met the horse I own now.  Almost two years ago I was talking to a friend about horses.  He had no idea I liked them and he told me he had three boarded across the street from his house.  He invited me over to see them and told me anytime I wanted to spend time with them I could.  I was happy to have the opportunity to be around horses again although purchasing one was not even on my radar.

I went over and met his horses and the barn manager.  He had a pony, a 22 year old ranch horse, and a 6 year old Andalusian mare.  The barn manager and I hit it off, we are actually very good friends now, and I started to spend time grooming the pony and the ranch horse.  I would watch the barn manager with Muneca, the Andalusian mare, but she made me nervous, frankly.  Six year old horse, full of sass and absolutely gorgeous but then something started to change.

I always bring treats to the barn.  There are twelve horses there and they very quickly figured out I had treats when I came over.  So, I started spending time with Muneca. More and more time, in fact, I was starting to have a real connection with her.  I would groom her, talk with her, and started working her. Then my friend announced he was going to sell his horses.  It hit me square in the face, I had to buy Muneca!

So, I did.  I have never in my life felt the soul changing connection with any animal that I have with Muneca.  Sure, I’ve heard people say how they were connected to their animals but I never felt it as strongly as I do with her.  I spent the next six months going back to the basics with her, she had never had a woman owner, as she was bought as a weanling by my friend’s father.  Today, almost two years later I truly feel that it was just meant to be.  I have to be the luckiest woman alive to have finally found my horse soul mate.  I have made arrangements with my oldest to care for her if something happens to me first. Horses can live between 30 and 40 years and I will never sell her!

Every time I go to the barn she gets two peppermints from me, one when I get there and one when I leave.  At Christmas she gets a full candy cane every day for a week because she is my beauty, she deserves it and I love her.  Do you have a special connection with an animal? Do you do anything special for the animals in your life this time of year?

 

Ana’s Advent Calendar, Day 15: Christmas in Ireland

Heritage, Tradition, Perception – Christmas in Ireland
 
I’m Irish by heritage.  Born and raised in the U.S., but my mother was born in Ireland and moved here in her early twenties, and my father’s parents emigrated from Ireland to the U.S. before he was born.

That said, I grew up completely American. Aware of my Irish heritage, but with little interest in or connection to Irish traditions or culture, or to the extended family in Ireland.  Whatever my Irish-ness, it had no impact on my life; my mom’s Irish accent didn’t carry over to me, and with the possible exception of my hair color and – some would say – my temperament, I could just as easily have been of Swedish, Italian, or some other not-typically-redheaded nationality descent.
 
But a couple of years ago I developed an interest in that Irish-ness.  So I talked to my parents and grandparents about all things Irish, connected with the extended family in Ireland and elsewhere, read histories and fictions, and ultimately even began slowly learning Gaelic – a work *very much* still in progress.
 
Then last year I received the best present ever – a vacation to Dublin for the Christmas season.   It was a  magical trip.  Family I didn’t know welcomed us with open arms, we had a great time exploring the streets, shops, and pubs of Dublin, and experienced many of the traditions that help make an Irish Christmas special.
 
You won’t be surprised that Christmas in Ireland was traditionally, and to a large extent still is, very much a religious celebration.  Although Midnight Mass may have waned in popularity in the United States, it is still a vibrant, heavily-attended, community event in Ireland.  Decorations have traditionally not gone up until December 8 (Feast of the Immaculate Conception), and come down on “Little Christmas”, the Feast of the Epiphany on January 6.  However, even Ireland has begun to see the move of the Christmas season to earlier in the year, and it’s not uncommon now to see decorations appear even as early as the first week in November.
 
The traditions and descriptions below come from a combination of my family and the Googleverse.  Blame for any errors goes there. *:) happy
 
Candle at the window.
 
The candle in the window is an Irish Christmas tradition that is apparently increasing in popularity.  Years ago a single candle would be placed in a window as a sign of welcome for Mary and Joseph on Christmas Eve, and also to indicate a safe place for priests to perform Mass during the Penal Times, which began in the mid 1500s and weren’t completely eliminate until the early twentieth century. Traditionally the candle would be lit by either the youngest member of the household or someone named Mary, and snuffed out by someone named Mary.  Now it is common for candles (usually electric) to be placed in most or all windows throughout the season, combining the welcoming tradition with a more decorative use as we’d see in the U.S.
 
Twelve Days of Christmas
 
During the centuries when it was a crime to be Catholic and to practice one’s faith, in public or private, in Ireland and England “The Twelve Days of Christmas” was written as a “catechism song” to help young Catholics learn the beliefs of their faith. It was a memory aid-when being caught with anything in writing indicating adherence to the Catholic faith could not only get you imprisoned, it could get you hanged.
The songs gifts are hidden meanings to the teachings of the faith. The “true love” mentioned in the song doesn’t refer to an earthly suitor, it refers to God himself. The “me” who receives the presents refers to every baptized person.
Tins of Biscuits
 
Families have their favorite brand which always comes out after Christmas dinner, and it’s also common to take them as “gifts” when visiting over the holidays.  Gifts being in quotes because, as far as I can tell, the biscuits are pretty much mediocre at best, and often much less than that.  No one in my family seems to know the origins of this tradition, but the general belief is that it’s simply equivalent to our Christmas cookies – sweets after a massive holiday meal.
 
Christmas Day swims in the Irish Sea
 
The most famous of the Christmas morning swims occurs at Forty Foot Rock near Dublin.  The swim is exactly what you’d expect – crazy people in bathing suits jumping into the cold Irish Sea, with a sizeable crowd of slightly more sane observers.  Many people consider this a hangover cure, something always in great demand in Ireland. I’m skeptical.
 
Holly Wreaths
 
There was a time when a simple holly wreath on the door was the *only* Christmas decoration for Irish homes, but those days are long gone.  Irish homes are now fully decorated with ornaments and lights, but holly, which grows wild in Ireland, still plays an important role.
 
Wren Boy parade
 
There are multiple stories about the significance of the wren and Wren Day, but the most popular one seems to be that, possibly during penal times, the location of Irish soldiers in hiding was betrayed by a chattering wren.
 
The tradition of the Wren Boy parades on St. Stephens Day (December 26) has mostly disappeared, becoming instead a day of caroling, often to raise money for charity. 
 
Horse races on St. Stephen’s Day (Dec 26)
 
Races are held on St. Stephen’s Day and the days after at multiple course around Ireland, with the best-known at Leopardstown Racecourse in Dublin. 
 
St. Stephen is the patron saint of horses, which is the accepted reason for mid-winter racing, but it seems clear that this is more about getting out of the house and having a drink with friends – or strangers as the case may be.
 
Midnight Mass
 
Midnight Mass is becoming less of an event in the United States, and has even disappeared from many Catholic Churches, but in Ireland it remains a vibrant, community event.
 
Christmas Pudding
 
Almost every home seems to serve a version of the traditional Christmas Pudding, with a recipe usually handed down through generations.  Most people apparently like it.  I’m not one of those people.
 
Women’s Little Christmas
 
And finally we come to my favorite tradition. January 6, the Feast of the Epiphany, is traditionally when the Irish finish celebrating Christmas. It is known as Women’s Little Christmas, or more commonly just Women’s Christmas.
The tradition is that while women have spent the holidays catering to everyone else’s needs and the men of the house had it easy, the women of Ireland would finally get a break.  They’d gather in each other’s homes, or often in a local pub, for a glass of stout and a few hours of relaxation and fun while the men took care of the children and housework, and took down the Christmas decorations.

Today Irish men are often more involved with their children AND housework but the tradition has survived, with wine and lunch usually replacing the glass of stout and pub sandwiches.

 
So there you have it – Christmas in Ireland. (I obviously treated traditions like Christmas trees, presents, Christmas dinner, and large amounts of alcohol as a given.)  As I mentioned, for me it was a magical trip, and at the time it felt so *different* from Christmas at home.  Grafton Street and St. Stephen’s Green felt special somehow, as if places like that don’t – even couldn’t – exist here.  The food tasted better, the lights were brighter, the cold was enjoyably bracing. You get the idea.
 
But that was more perception than reality.  Certainly some of the traditions don’t exist here, as you’d expect.  And Ireland is a small, less diverse country, so traditions are more likely to be observed by everyone, rather than traditions often being regional / religion / nationality based as is more often the case in the U.S.  The magic, though, wasn’t in the traditions.  It wasn’t even in the newness of the things I saw and experienced for the first time.  The magic was in the sense of belonging, to a history and a family and a community that – to my discredit – I had never much cared about.
 
And ultimately, for those of us who celebrate it, isn’t that a large part of what Christmas is?  Whether you’re religious or not (full disclosure: I’m not), Christmas is at least partially about that sense of community – a shared celebration in the birth of Jesus, or simply an annual shared celebration of family, friends, and being alive. In Ireland I met family who supported the legalization of gay marriage, and family who I knew were adamantly opposed to the LGBTQ “lifestyle”.  But each of them, every one, welcomed us.  We were – we are – family, our own extended worldwide community, and that was what mattered.
 
My Christmas wish:  May each of you have, or find, that community I found last Christmas.
Nollaig Shona Duit!