Another Birthday, New Traditions

by Ruth Hartman

 

This month, I’ll turn fifty-five. That’s right – double nickels! It feels weird to say that, because I’m not that old in my head. I still have the same offbeat thoughts I had when I was a kid. When I look in the mirror though…

Anyway, this birthday will be the first one without my mother-in-law, Barbara. She passed away last summer after a painful illness that lasted for the final six months of her eighty-eight years.

When I met my husband, I was eighteen years old. From the start, his mom treated me like a second daughter. Special family meals, Christmas gifts, birthday cards. In fact, my husband’s sister and I share the same birthday. Poor girl, I always felt bad that she ended up sharing her birthday with me, but she never once complained, instead, included me in a joint celebration. That’s my husband’s whole family. Sweet, kind and thoughtful.

Barbara read all of my books. Was always interested in what I was writing and how things were going. Would tell me what characters were her favorites and how much she disliked the villains. I gave her a copy of every new release, even letting her borrow our kindle (she’d never used one before) because she wanted to read one of my historical romances that wasn’t in print. If she knew I had a new book out and she hadn’t received a copy yet to read, I heard about it. 😊 I know without a doubt that my husband and I both got lucky in the in-law department.

Every year on or near my birthday, Barbara would fix me a chocolate cake – my favorite. She always waved away my thanks, saying it was nothing, but it meant a lot to me. It was a wonderful tradition that I always looked forward to. Not only the cake, which was wonderful, but the fact that my husband’s mother was caring enough to make me feel like her own daughter, year after year.

So, this year will be different. Barbara’s absence will be felt. She won’t be at her house waiting for us, cake on the kitchen counter, a smile and birthday greeting when I walk in. But there are so many fond memories, over thirty-six years’ worth, I think those will overshadow the sadness. Time for new memories, new beginnings. Maybe for my birthday, my husband and I can learn to scuba dive, or mountain climb.

Probably not, but I have a feeling he’ll make sure there’s chocolate cake.

 

The Heart of Winter

by Màiri Norris

 

As a writer of historical romance, large portions of my heart, mind and soul linger in the past, subject – as many are – to that foolish notion of the “romance of the past” [oh, wasn’t it romantic back then?]

 

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For most of us today winter is, at worst, an inconvenience rather than a dark, seemingly endless struggle for survival. I suspect if I actually traveled into the past, I would quickly discover the good old days were not so “good” as nostalgia paints, especially in the heart of winter, and come home as quickly as possible!

To be fair, those who lived in earlier times had no notion of how much easier life would be for their many times removed descendents.

I’ve often tried to imagine what it would be like to have to slog outside in deep snow to get water from a stream or a well (if I was fortunate enough to have access to a well), or need to break ice to retrieve the water and then have to heat it over a fire to melt and warm it. What would it be like to depend on a smoky wood, coal or peat fire, one that I had to build myself, to keep warm or to cook food? I already know how hard it is to accomplish any kind of work with nothing but candlelight or firelight to see by – not fun.

Travel in winter was even worse. Most folks didn’t, even those who possessed a means of transportation and halfway decent roads. Or imagine standing watch on a stockade wall. Brrrrr…. flirtation with frostbite.

 

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Still, I like to imagine our ancestors, when the quest for survival gave them a few moments pause, appreciated the same beauties in winter that I see: the reflection of the sun on untrammeled snow, the deep, wondrous quiet, the purity of the air, the natural “sculptures” created by snow and ice. It is this allure of the season I seek to bring into my stories.

In olden days, as in ours, they had much to appreciate about the heart of winter, including time to evaluate the past and consider the future. It is a time of anticipation for the beginning of the new year and what we might achieve if fate and fortune allows.

As this new year begins, I offer the hope that at least some of the dreams we’ve each looked for and worked toward in 2017 will come true in 2018.

 

Happy New Year!

 

Happy New Year

by Beppie Harrison

It’s the Eleventh Day of Christmas here. An odd sort of celebration . . .

I’m sitting in my living room by the fire watching snow blow past the windows in waves. Here on the Massachusetts coast south of Boston a blizzard is roaring around us. Fortunately we’re about five miles west of the ocean, so the gigantic wave warnings are not a personal concern, although we’ve got friends who live a lot closer, and we’re only halfway through the projected period of the storm.

As always seems to happen, high tide is higher than usual, as the moon is still close to full, so they have suggested voluntary evacuation for those oceanside, with emergency housing provided. And they say that driving will be practically impossible—one road through the famous Big Dig tunnels has been closed as the snow piled up at its exit to the open road, slightly uphill and the snow so high cars and truck were unable to drive over it. Houses in Scituate, our closest small town, are being pummeled with wave-carried blocks of ice. Front Street, the main drag, is flooded and the National Guard is out. Hope those living on the two roads going down the spit of land leading out to the lighthouse between the harbor and the open ocean evacuated as advised.

Hey nonny nonny and a great shout to all!

Our experience of it, out in the far suburbs is somewhat less dramatic. We’re all inside with a healthy wood fire (and more wood stored in the garage) and full power still on. Fortunately the people who sold the house to us had equipped it with a full-house generator run on natural gas, so if we lose power—as seems most likely, and many others have—we’re in excellent shape and the furnace will continue. The dogwood trees, with many tiny branches, are lovely, snowladen with each tiny branch covered and visible

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Tomorrow the snow and wind will be moving up the Atlantic coast, and we will be at peace. Except that the single-digit temperatures that tormented us for the days since Christmas will be coming back, dipping into below-zero (only -3 or -4) temperatures to boot. Our poor furnace that struggled to keep us in the low 60s when the thermostat is set on 70 degrees during the 10-day stretch of frigid cold might find it easier when the exterior of the house has warmed up (some?) during yesterday and today when we were in the tropical mid- to high 30s.

 

The wind is howling down the chimney. It all feels very Little House on the Prairie. A new adventure. But when I write about the winter during Regency times—it was, after all, during the late stages of the Little Ice Age—I’ll have all sorts of new experience to draw on!

And it’s beautiful. Really beautiful.

 

 

 

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by Donna Hatch

www.donnahatch.com

An odd Christmas custom that dates back centuries is telling scary ghost stories. Have you noticed in the popular Christmas Song, “The Most Wonderful Time of the Year” the verse that says: “Tales of the glories and scary ghost stories of Christmases long, long ago” and wondered over it?

Telling ghost stories is an age-old tradition that many claim cropped up in the Victorian Era, including the traditional Christmas story, A Christmas Carol. However, this custom dates farther back than that. 

Washington Irving penned a novel in 1819 called  The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent. The hero in the story visits friends in an English country house during Christmas season in a section entitled Old Christmas. While visiting Bracebridge Hall, our hero basks in the hospitality of the squire and a traditional English Christmas, which includes telling scary “winter tales.” Winter tales have long included tales of ghosts, witches, monsters, and other creatures of darkness.

In A Natural History of Ghosts: 500 Years of Hunting for Proof the author, Roger Clarke, tells of a popular story claiming that shepherds saw ghostly civil war soldiers battling in the skies just before Christmas 1642.

Even earlier,  the Bard, William Shakespeare penned a collection of scary stories entitled Winter Tales.” This romance weaves a tale of tangled identities and apparent death and revival. This suggests that telling weird or bizarre stories whilst gathered around a winter’s evening fire was a wide-spread tradition long before the Bard’s time.


A predecessor of Shakespeare, Christopher Marlowe wrote a play entitled The Jew of Malta  in 1589 in which a character Barnabus states:

Now I remember those old women’s words,
Who in my wealth would tell me winter’s tales,
And speak of spirits and ghosts that glide by night

Since traditions such as this have roots in pagan practices dating back to medieval times, I assume winter tales including ghost stories have been a Christmas tradition since the days of cloak and dagger. But at the very least, the practice of telling ghost stories at Christmas has been in practice since the 1500s.


However, I’m happy that telling ghost stories, except for watching the movie or reading the book, A Christmas Carol, is no longer a major part of American Christmas customs. Can you imagine getting a child to bed who is both excited about presents and frightened of ghosts? Now that is scary!

Still, this practice of telling ghost stories is a plot point that works well for my Christmas novel, A Christmas Secret.

Holly has two Christmas wishes this year; to finally earn her mother’s approval by gaining the notice of a handsome earl with an impeccable reputation, and learn the identity of the stranger who gave her a heart-shattering kiss…even if that stranger is the resident Christmas ghost.

Christmas Secrets released November 9, 2017 and you can download it and read it instantly here

 on Kindle!

Sources:

http://www.hypnogoria.com/html/ghoststoriesforchristmas.html

https://www.deseretnews.com/article/705363363/Telling-ghost-stories-is-a-lost-tradition-on-Christmas-Eve.html

https://www.theguardian.com/books/2013/dec/23/ghost-stories-victorians-spookily-good

http://theconversation.com/why-ghosts-haunt-england-at-christmas-but-steer-clear-of-america-34629

https://www.gothichorrorstories.com/classic-gothic-ghost-stories/christmas-ghost-stories-the-ghost-of-christmas-past-goes-further-back-than-you-might-realize-2/

Yule Traditions

by Cathy MacRae

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I don’t know if you wait until the last moment to put up Christmas decorations, or if you’re chomping at the bit in July, but you’ll probably agree, Christmas seems to arrive a bit earlier each year. And while the decorations seem to grow grander every year, there are some that are rooted deeply in the darkness of time.

In pre-Christian Scotland, Celtic Pagans held celebrations around winter solstice, around December 21 or 22, to appease the gods so they’d allow the sun to return (sun rises around 8:30 and sets about 3:30 this time of year in Scotland, and in some more northerly regions, the sun scarcely rises at all) and pretty much to brighten a time when the bitter cold and lingering darkness was fairly depressing. The Yule festivities included feasting, games, drinking, singing, and sacrifices to the appropriate gods.

Here’s a fun list of some of the Yule traditions and how they’ve stayed with us through the years.

The Christmas ham: The Vikings sacrificed a wild boar to Frey, the god of fertility, hoping to assure a good growing season the following year.

Wassail: This word is from an Anglo-Saxon term, waes hael: to be whole or hale. It refers to a drinking salutation or greeting of trees and crops during Yule festivities to ensure abundance in the coming year.

The Christmas wreath: This decoration stems from shaped boughs of evergreen brought inside the house during Yule, symbolizing life.

The Yule log: It was originally a large oak log, carved with runes against misfortune, and decorated with bits of holly or fir. To bring good fortune to the home, the log must burn for 12 hours. Charred pieces were saved to protect the home the following year and used to light the next year’s Yule log. It was likely originally burned outdoors amid a huddled group of people on the longest night of the year, hoping to keep the darkness at bay.

The Christmas tree: As the trees went dormant for the winter, people would decorate the evergreens with bits of food, articles of clothing and other decorative pieces, hoping to entice the tree gods to return in the spring.

Mistletoe: mistletoe-berries-16393_960_720-1This plant is believed to bestow life, protect against poison, and was also considered an aphrodisiac. Part of this belief comes from the legend of Balder, god of light and goodness, who was killed by an arrow made of mistletoe. When his mother, Frigga, learned of her son’s death, her tears turned the red mistletoe berries white, and he was brought back to life. She was so happy, she kissed everyone who passed beneath the tree where the mistletoe grew. Kissing under the mistletoe was considered a fertility rite, which seems appropriate as she was associated with marriage and the birth of children. Mistletoe was also hung from rafters and around doorways to ward off evil spirits.

 

 

The Yule goat: (this one was new to me, and perhaps more Scandanavian than Scottish) Said to be one of the oldest Yule symbols, it represents the god Thor who rode through the sky in a wagon pulled by goats. Custom has it that young people, dressed as goats, traveled from house to house, singing and perhaps performing short plays. They were treated to food and drink. (Perhaps the origins of our caroling?)  51ICtI+ChRL

 

Santa Claus: Representing Old Man Winter, this person would dress in a hooded fur cloak (usually blue) and travel from home to home to join the Yule festivities. He may have originally represented Odin, who was always depicted with a long beard and came to earth on his 8-legged horse to see how his people fared. (are you listening for reindeer hooves or an 8-legged horse on your rooftop?). To those in need, he left gifts of food. In the 8th and 9th centuries when the Vikings conquered Britain, Old Man Winter—or Odin—became Santa Claus.

 

I hope you enjoyed these little insights. What other symbols do you know the history of?

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The Season That Slips Away From You . . .

By Beppie Harrison

The time of scarlet and yellow and orange is almost over, but I have pictures to remember it.

It’s odd, but when I was growing up in Hawaii what I wished for was snow—probably because it was linked with Christmas. All my books that were about Christmas were also about snow and reindeer and snowmen and the North Pole. I’m sure, because there are now children’s books about everything there are also books about Christmas in non-winterish places (Santa Claus on a surfboard? Heaven forbid!) but that was it when I was under 10. Autumn? No one ever mentioned that, as I remember.

It was thus a great satisfaction to me when I moved first to Michigan (married, with small children of my own) and then to Massachusetts (still married, adult children living somewhere else) that snow, at least the first fall, was as beautiful as I’d always believed it would be. Of course, the first time each year I try driving on it I remember why I’m grateful for spring, but watching snow actually falling and snow freshly fallen is just as nice as I thought it would be.

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The great surprise was autumn. I’ve discovered that’s spectacular. Even in Michigan it was beautiful, and to be living in New England where autumn color is on all sides is a local treat. It’s so spectacular so that people come from miles away (mainly south) to see it. All I have to do is look out my very own window. It’s magnificent!

But the essence of autumn is that it’s transitory. Summer, once it comes, sits down and squats there, sweat-provoking heat and all. Winter is another one that tends to go on and on and on. Snow in November? Oh yes, some years, both in Michigan and here in New England. I find snow before Christmas delectable and desirable. Afterwards not so much, unless we’ve had a green Christmas, which is so not fair. Then the first snow comes later and I have to admit is still the beautiful sight. Then. But winter has been know to linger on into April, and even cold days in May, which is inexcusable. Spring deserves its time.

But autumn! It comes, and then it’s gone, with only bare branches left behind. And leaves. Piles and piles of leaves, very satisfactory for small children to roll in, all rough and crackly and if small pieces stick in your sweaters, who cares? Only mothers, who care about some really strange things.

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So here’s a bit of autumn to remember.

 

 

Martinmas: Celebrating the Oncoming Winter

by Barbara Bettis

We don’t always think of the medieval period as being a time of parties. But people then actually celebrated a variety of special days, many named for saints. Often the saint day observances coincided with earlier (pagan) celebrations.

On Nov. 11, St. Martin’s Day or Martinmas was, indeed, a major holiday. The Martinmas feast, celebrated the end of autumn and the ‘natural’ beginning of winter.

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By November the autumn harvest and land preparation for winter crops was completed. Time to get ready for the challenging days of winter. Hogs that had been turned out into the woods in October to fatten on acorns were brought in and slaughtered, and the meat preserved. Cattle were butchered, as well, keeping only those few used to begin production in the spring. (Food was scarce enough; extra for animals wasn’t available.)

In fact, the term Martinmas (or martlemass) cattle was applied to cattle butchered at this time of year. And reflecting the hog slaughter is an “old English saying his “His Martinmas will come as it does to every hog,” meaning “he will get his comeuppance” or “everyone must die” (Wikipedia.com).

Because of this widespread butchering, November was often called Bloodmonth. Sounds gruesome, doesn’t it. Actually, it refers to this period of slaughtering animals to be preserved for food during the long, cold months ahead.

The Old English name for November was ‘Blotmonth’ literally “blood-month,” “the time when the early Saxons prepared for winter by sacrificing animals, which they then butchered and stored for food” (etymonline.com). The name November came from “ninth month” which was where November fell in the old Roman calendar.

This celebration of the end-of-harvest-beginning-of-winter honors St. Martin of Tours. A predominant image of St. Martin is of his cutting his cloak in half and sharing with a beggar he saw along the roadside.

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He was a former Roman soldier who became a humble monk and so deplored the idea of becoming a bishop, tradition says, he hid in a pen of geese. It didn’t save him. The honking geese alerted churchmen to his whereabouts. He was brought forth and ordained Bishop of Tours. Thereafter, geese were identified with St. Martin. And goose traditionally was eaten during the Martinmas feasts. Unless you were poor, of course. Then you couldn’t afford it. If you were lucky, you got chicken. Or maybe pork. Or beef. Those two meats were handy, after all.

In the countryside, this time of bounty was celebrated with bonfires, dancing and, of course, drinking and eating. In Scotland, it was a quarter day. (England’s corresponding quarter day fell in September.)

St. Martin’s day, the first feast day in November, could be considered a ‘man’s day.’ But the second November feast/holiday later in the month was in honor of St. Catherine. It was considered a ‘ladies’ day.’ It gave rise to the term the Catherine Wheel. But that’s another story.

 

Thanks for stopping by to hear the story of St. Martin’s Day and Feast. It sounds a lot like Thanksgiving, doesn’t it? What’s your favorite Thanksgiving dish?

Things That Go Bump in the Night–Welcome to My Halloween

by Jenna Jaxon

Halloween is my very favorite time of year! I’m brimming with excitement right now, with the big day only five days away. At my house, we have always gone all out, although I’ll admit we were better about it when my girls were younger.

The big thing then was our Halloween party. I started a day or two in advance and made all these elaborate treats: Peanut butter cookie broomsticks, monster teeth (apples with candy corn and peanut butter), scary eyeballs (donut holes with M & Ms), mummy hot dogs, worms in dirt (chocolate pudding, ground up Oreos, gummy worms), and a gruesome green witch’s brew (lime sherbet with ginger ale). I just loved all the different ideas for the foods.

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We also decorate outside the house and have everything from a stand-up witch, to a flying ghoul, tombstones (one of which laughs maniacally), paintings that change from people to corpses, spider webs with huge spiders. The list goes on.

Yeah, we do Halloween up right!

My eldest daughter and I just finished putting together our treat bags for this year. I’ve found treat bags easier in the long run to loose candy. This year we’re giving out treat bags with both hard candy and chocolate plus a bag of Halloween cheese curls. We used to give out Halloween popcorn mini-bags but I haven’t been able to find those in recent years. 😦

 

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This weekend we’re making our trip to the pumpkin patch and will have a carving marathon. Each of the four of us gets a pumpkin to carve, although my daughter who’s at school out of state has hers carved for her but has to send her own design to us. I save all the seeds and toast them to make a great snack to eat while awaiting the Trick or Treaters.

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This weekend we’re also going to Busch Gardens’ Howl-O-Scream. Not that I like to get scared. I actually go for the shows—particularly Monster Stomp at Ripper Row, the best show in the park. It’s Jack the Ripper themed (one of my pet interests) and it has fantastic props and costumes along with some good actors. If you’re in the area (Williamsburg, VA) I suggest going this weekend, your last chance for the fright of your life!Monster-Stomp1-550x350

Sister Time

by Ruth Hartman

 

Every November, my sister comes for a visit. Though I wish she lived close by, it’s quite a trek for her to come to Indiana from Wyoming. (Garry and I make the trip to see her in the summer.) When she comes, the leaves are turning red and yellow, and the air is chilled. Perfect weather for putting on sweatshirts and taking a walk. And when we walk, we talk. A lot.Ruth - Author pic

Though we text pretty often, it’s not the same as face to face catching up. And let’s admit it, there are certain things you can only share with a sibling. Inside family jokes reach a whole new hilarious pitch when Chris and I get together. Giggles morph into laughs, which then turn into snorts. Loud ones.

We’ve always been close, though some might find that hard to believe since she is ten years older than I am. I have to say that she, as well as our two brothers, always looked out for me, making me feel loved and special.

When she left for college, I was only eight, so our time of actually living together wasn’t long. Shortly after she graduated, she got married and took off with her husband, living in various states and even a foreign country. The longest she spent in any one place was twenty-plus years in Alaska.

That might explain why I’ve been there seven times!

Though we always got along growing up, it changed for the better when I reached adulthood. The dynamics of our relationship and subjects of our conversations changed to reflect our more grown-up perspectives and mature natures.

Ha… that doesn’t go with the snorting, does it? Maybe we’re not so mature…

At any rate, we love our time together, not much caring what we do as long as it’s just her and me. We even go so far as to shop. Which we both hate. Somehow, though, having Chris along makes everything fun. Especially when we laugh so hard, store clerks give us the stink-eye. Which, of course, makes us laugh harder. Watching a terrible movie once, that was supposed to be serious, we found it so ridiculous that not only did other movie-goers glare at us, I’m surprised we didn’t get tossed out.

When I wanted to quit my job as a dental hygienist and write fulltime, she understood. And encouraged me. When I had a health scare, she was one of the first I told. Getting advice from her always gives me confidence and strength I wouldn’t have otherwise had.

This holiday season, make time for those who are important to you. Whether it’s a goofy older sister, or not.

 

 

Why I Like Thanksgiving Better Than Halloween

by Beppie Harrison

 

I just finished discussing this with my grown daughter, and I don’t think she entirely agrees with me, so let’s start with a mild objection from the wings.

Here it is, almost mid-October, and the Holiday Season is just about on us. I can feel the marching feet. This would feel more normal if it were colder outside, but we seem to be having a very warm autumn in New England. The trees are bravely beginning to produce a little of the bright color we’re famous for, but it’s hard to work up much enthusiasm when the temperatures have been in the 70s.

Even so, Halloween is coming. There are those who point out the big thing about Halloween is not having to fix an enormous dinner that takes all day to prepare and somewhere around 20 minutes to eat. That is not my point of view.

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My point of view is somewhat different. Halloween (and I’ve raised four children, so I know) starts early in October when one’s offspring commence hassling you about costumes. Costumes and decorations. The decorations I can handle. Costumes? If we had been rich, then costumes would have been an easy matter. We would have trotted off to the nearest shopping emporium and listened to the inevitable argument about who was going to be whom (3 girls, none of whom wanted to be All The Same Thing but all of whom wanted to be a Princess or whatever that year’s equivalent was). The boy would have been a cowboy or a monster or Darth Vader. Fine. But we were not rich. Halloween had to be homemade. Me and my trusty sewing machine could cope with one cowboy, or one monster. Darth Vader I had to argue him out of. (Year after year after year.) Three princesses? Bear in mind that my seamstress skills are marginal. Some years we got closer than others. Then, because at that point we lived in Michigan, the end of October is COLD. So princess or monster, there had to be a warm garment over the top.

But that wasn’t the worst of Halloween. The worst was after Halloween. Candy wrappers, to be specific. I tried two techniques. One, urged on by neighbors, was to allow a one day eat-all-you-can. Then all leftover candy is discarded, preferably at some distance from the house. The children may get sick (which is also a disadvantage) but the day after Halloween it’s all over. I think I tried that one year and discovered rebellion and quite brilliant smuggling techniques in the ranks. My more ordinary course of action was to dole out the candy in small manageable numbers day after day (after day) in their bag lunches and as a getting-home-from-school treat. This meant that candy wrappers followed us all around the house until the end of November. Or even later, given the skills I had inadvertently encouraged that one year.

Thanksgiving? What’s not to like about Thanksgiving? There’s delicious food, and if you just invite some people over they are likely to bring some of it. Say, the pie? Then all you’ve got to do (besides turkey) is potatoes and veg. This method also provides company in the kitchen since mostly the people who bring food stay to fuss with it. There’s the table to set, but if you put little candy and nut cups by each person’s place, your children can have a wonderful time setting the table and filling those up, and all you need to do is provide roughly a third more candy and nuts than the cups will accommodate to allow for some wastage during the process. Roasting a turkey? Simple process unless you choose to get fancy. Open oven door, insert turkey (with stuffing in it if you choose or flavorful vegetables if that’s your choice), and leave it there for hours during which you can sit down with the company. No costumes, no candy wrappers. Just good food.

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No contest. Thanksgiving wins!