12 Days ’til Christmas: Counting Birds, Give a Little, and More Madness

Northern Flicker

Will you see me?

Christmas Bird Count
Every year the Audubon Society sponsors a “citizen scientist” activity where ordinary folks take a bird census. This helps track how bird species are doing, where they’re moving, and if they’re in trouble or not. This year marks the 112th annual Christmas Bird Count. It runs from tomorrow (December 14) to January 5. Local chapters sponsor a count on different days during the Christmas Bird Count period so check https://netapp.audubon.org/cbcregistration/ to see when your local count will be and to register to participate. If you go, have a good time. Pat yourself on the back for doing a good deed. And, let Quarterly Speed Bump know how it goes (see our “On the Road to…Birdwatching article in our Autumn 2011 issue for more on birding).

Give a Little
It might be fun to spend some money on a good cause as well as doing your Christmas shopping this year. In case you’re looking for places to make a charitable donation this holiday season (maybe in the name of people who have everything they need and don’t want more stuff), the Better Business Bureau has reviews and ratings of national charities with offices in the US at http://www.bbb.org/charity-reviews/national/. Doesn’t hurt to check that the place where you’re sending your hard-earned cash will be using is properly.

12 Days of Christmas
There might be 12 days until Christmas but that doesn’t mean today is the First Day of Christmas. Nope the Twelve Days of Christmas start on Christmas Day and end on January 5 (Twelfth Night) with January 6th being Epiphany (Twelfth Day). Because we’ve been completely overtaken with holiday madness here at Quarterly Speed Bump HQ, we’ll be blogging the 12 Days of Christmas as soon as our advent calendar posts end.

13 Days ’til Christmas: Make Your Own Book

I suppose we’re getting down to the wire for Christmas gifts. If you’re stumped, why not make your own book with photos and text that you put together yourself. Check shipping dates for companies like Blurb, Shutterfly, and the like to see if it’s too late (I haven’t used these companies so can’t vouch for the finished product) for this year. Or check with your local print shop to see what they can do for you.Calendar
I think a recipe book with family favorites could be a great way to go. Or maybe you have vacation memories to share? A homemade calendar can be nice too. Use your own photos, put in all the special birthdays and anniversaries, and add the phases of the moon (what? calendars should have those!). Many of the print on demand companies have their own templates but you can wing it with your own software (just check to see what the printing company’s specs are first) and printer (if you want to use up a lot of ink).

If you don’t already have the photo-editing software or desktop publishing software, I can recommend what I use to create Quarterly Speed Bump Magazine. The GIMP is a free, open source photo editing program. Scribus is a free, open source layout/desktop publishing software. And, Inkscape is a free, open source vector graphics editor. Scribus and Inkscape also have calendar templates. Just remember that there can be a bit of a learning curve if you haven’t used these types of programs before.

If you do make a book or calendar, have fun. We’d love to see it.

14 Days ’til Christmas: Books Galore

I’m sure you realized it was only a matter of time before I talked about books again. Here’s a list of some of my favorite Christmas fiction. If you have some faves, please let me know in the comments. I’m always looking for more things to read. Five seems to be the number of choice around here, so here are five books for the day after you’ve got your Christmas shopping done. Or for the evening after you feel like you’ve been mauled at the mall.

A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens
How can you not love a book that starts off: “Marley was dead: to begin with. There was no doubt whatever about that.” and then goes on to debate the relative merits of using door-nails vs. coffin nails to describe the quality of deadness? You can’t beat that and the book is short, really short. Try Dickens’s other Christmas ghost stories while you’re at it.

A Charlie Brown Christmas by Charles Schultz
If you missed the TV special you can have it in book form. See which edition appeals to you–there are many.

The Christmas Train by David Baldacci
Romance aboard a snowbound train at Christmastime. Only somewhat farfetched. 😉

The Stupidest Angel: A Heartwarming Tale of Christmas Terror by Christopher Moore
Yes, it’s irreverent. Yes, there’s a stupid angel. Mayhem ensues. It all comes out all right in the end and you might get some belly laughs along the way.

The Mischief of the Mistletoe by Lauren Willig
This is one of the later volumes (#7) in the Pink Carnation Series and the only one so far that’s set entirely during the Regency period. The whole series is fun–set in alternating chapters between the present (starring Eloise and Colin) and the Regency Era–following the adventures of an English spy ring led by the Pink Carnation. Do start with the first book (The Secret History of the Pink Carnation) so you know what’s going on.

NB: Remember, I just link to Amazon for convenience. Do try your local bookstore first so you’ll continue to have a local bookstore.

16 Days ’til Christmas: Oh, Fudge

I’m back with all the ingredients. Let’s make fudge.

Chocolate Fudge
3 cups sugar
1/4 cup cocoa
3 tablespoons light corn syrup
1 cup evaporated canned milk
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 tablespoon butter

Mix sugar, milk, cocoa, and corn syrup in a pot at least 3 times bigger than the contents and boil slowly over medium heat, stirring until the ingredients are well blended. Continue boiling until the mixture reaches the soft-ball stage (235-240 degrees F on the candy thermometer or when a bit dropped into cold water forms a ball that’s soft and flexible and, when taken out of the water, starts to flatten out).

Remove from stove, add butter and stir in. When the mixture is lukewarm add vanilla and beat until the mixture is shiny and holds its shape. Then add the nuts and fruit, if using (I used 1/4 cup each of chopped dried cranberries and chopped roasted, salted pistachios). Spread into a buttered 8″x8″ (9″x9″ will work but the fudge will thin) pan. When the fudge has hardened, mark into squares and cut. Don’t eat it all at once.
We’re making fudge later today. Another recipe from my maternal grandmother (ya know, I’m really quite sad that I have no recipes from my paternal grandmother…I wonder if anyone in the family does?). If you want to play along, you’ll need:

Evaporated milk
Cocoa powder
vanilla extract
light corn syrup

A candy thermometer (makes it much easier but not mandatory)

I’ll be adding salted pistachios and dried cranberries. Not in the original recipe but I’m a rebel like that.

Post will update after I, too, have gone to the grocery store. See you later today.

17 Days ’til Christmas: Holly


Ilex aquifolium

I like traditional Christmas carols and holly features in one of my favorites, “The Holly and the Ivy,” where it’s explained as a symbol of Christmas. Of course holly has been adopted from earlier celebrations…particularly the Saturnalia. Holly was supposedly sacred to the Roman Titan, Saturn. Oh, the Saturnalia was celebrated in December too.

Don’t eat the berries! They’re poisonous to humans but great for birds.

18 Days ’til Christmas: Flaky


It was fun but it was February.

It’s funny that we continue to have a cultural nostalgia for a white Christmas. I understand that much of our Christmas tradition comes from northern Europe where snow is likely. But, while snow is pretty at first, it’s just inconvenient and cold if you have to leave the house. And, statistically you don’t have a very good chance for snow on Christmas, itself (it’s at the very beginning of winter, after all–or the beginning of summer if you live in the southern hemisphere). The original introduction to Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas” goes like this:

The sun is shining, the grass is green,
The orange and palm trees sway.
There’s never been such a day
in Beverly Hills, L.A.
But it’s December the twenty-fourth,—
And I am longing to be up North—

Kind of weird, really.

I say embrace the weather you’ve got and don’t go longing for the freezing white stuff. But do be nostalgic enough to make paper snowflakes. When was the last time you did some paper folding and snipping to come up with paper lace? Raid the recycle bin and grab your scissors–here’s a refresher on how to fold the paper for a nice 6-sided flake.

Bonus photo fun: images of real snowflakes.

19 Days ’til Christmas: Cut That Out

Do you have a thing for cookie cutters? I make cut-out cookies about once every 5 years, if that (I’ll make them this year for sure AND share the recipe with you), but I have a large cutter collection in spite of that. My maternal grandmother gave me all her cutters when she decided she wasn’t going to use them anymore. The Christmas-themed ones she gave me are pictured here. I’m most fond of the angel because I haven’t seen that one elsewhere–of course, it’s hard to make her wing look anything other than wonky.

Cookie CuttersBut then I went crazy with the collecting. I have reindeer and stars, snowmen and Santas, and lots of trees. The cutters at IKEA (hedgehogs!, snails!) and now at Trader Joe’s of all places are tempting. I might have spider, bat, and California-shaped cutters as well. But, tie a pretty ribbon around them and they make great decorations for the tree. Or use them as templates for seasonal felt ornaments.

Do you have a favorite cookie cutter shape? Or is making cut-out cookies too much of a pain and far removed from slowing down and relaxing?

20 Days ’til Christmas: Watch It

We’ve talked about Christmas music. Now it’s time to talk about Christmas movies. They’re great when you want to snuggle by the fire, when you want something to watch while you’re madly trying to finish Christmas crafts, or when you want something playing in the background while you bake cookies. In no particular order, the five favored Christmas movies around these parts are:

The Muppet Christmas Carol

The Muppet Christmas Carol movie







White Christmas
White Chrismas movie





While You Were Sleeping
While You Were Sleeping DVD





 Love Actually

Love Actually DVD






A Christmas Story

A Christmas Story movie

You'll Shoot Your Eye Out, Kid.








The Taste Tester likes It’s a Wonderful Life (I don’t so it’s not part of the five).

And these are TV programs, not movies, but A Charlie Brown Christmas and the 1966 animated How the Grinch Stole Christmas are perennial favorites. [The live action Grinch with Jim Carrey, however, is an abomination.]

What do you like to watch this time of year?

21 Days ’til Christmas: Under the Mistletoe


Phoradendron macrophyllum

Followed yesterday’s suggestion and found some mistletoe on this morning’s walk. I broke this off a large bunch that had blown out of the trees during the nasty windstorms we’ve had lately. Mistletoe is a weird plant. It’s a semi-parasite, evergreen, and poisonous too. Birds eat the berries on the female plants thus spreading the seeds. The seeds are sticky which lets them adhere to branches, sprout, and then (more weirdness!) they grow root-like tendrils called “haustoria” that grow into the water-conducting tissue of the tree.  Plus it’s a kind of funky shade of green. And, yet, mistletoe has an ancient association with fertility, winter festivals, and, now, with Christmas.

The mistletoe pictured above is a California native species. The mistletoe first associated with Christmas was native to Europe but doesn’t look all that different. So, go ahead, stand under the mistletoe. Maybe you’ll get kissed! Of course, be choosy. And some legends say it’s the female plant (the one with the berries) that you need–some even going so far as to say that after each kiss a berry must be removed. No more berries, no more kisses. Have fun. 😉


22 Days ’til Christmas: Naturally

Christmas is the only holiday I deem worthy of decorations (except the jack-o’-lanterns on Halloween) because it lasts longer that a day. I’ll be putting up some more decorations this weekend while we wait until much closer to the 25th to get our tree. Walking by the river lately we’ve come across two reindeer some unknown artist has crafted from detritus and just a little wire. Oak galls, twigs, berries, and even some trash all add up to some excellent seasonal, if ephemeral, art. We heard from another walker that there was another deer that we missed. Aren’t they cool?

Natural Reindeer, artist unknownNatural Rudolph, artist unknown









Why not walk through your neighborhood to see the outdoor decorations at other people’s houses? Or do some foraging for twigs and pinecones to make your own like the anonymous artist did for the reindeer above. Happy walking.