Lee: What Makes the Season

By Lee Havlicek.

There’s no point in trying to play it cool: I’m absolutely crazy about the holidays. I love them up one side of the season and all the way down the other. I love the traditions, the crowds (yes, even the one that stretches down 5th Avenue driving most New Yorkers nuts), the gift picking and wrapping, the decorating, the music—as Jack Kerouac put it: the everythingness. When I was a little kid, my parents actually had to institute an embargo on Christmas music until Thanksgiving (seems more than reasonable)… because I used to start in September. To me, summer was over, school was back in session, obviously next big thing on the docket: the holidays.

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Homemade panettone: get the recipe at www.LeeAndLouCook.com

Of course, not everyone subscribes to this sort of Buddy-the-Elf-style of holidaying. But no matter. We all have things that make these days feel more capable of some kind of magic than your average weekday. These are mine.

Traditions: A lot of the below items fall into this category. No matter how tired or busy I am, there’s no way I’m only getting out “a few” tree ornaments or forgoing homemade holiday treats. Some of our family’s traditions are more standard (picking out the fattest, shapeliest Christmas tree we can find), others are less so (carrying said tree home from our local stand, no matter how hefty). I even love my family’s time-honored, accidental yearly tradition of staying  up appallingly late to wrap presents on Christmas Eve. (Every year we say we won’t, but suddenly, there we are, surrounded by mountains of bright ribbons and glittering paper as the clock strides right on past the witching hour and we stride right past the ??? hour of a Christmas movie marathon). It still feels special somehow to stay up late the night before Christmas.

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This year’s tree: one of the shapeliest ever? Quite possibly.

Decorating: Though this falls into the tradition category, it needs a line of its own. Even when decorating has to be done all in one night (see: one December Saturday a few weeks ago, staying up til 3, trimming the tree and house like some kind of crazed elf on a mission), I still love it. To dig out and through boxes of ornaments is to sift through so many moments past. The boxes are full of stories I sometimes don’t think of all year until I’m holding those glittering glass houses from a polish glassmaker in Montana, the silver bells my brother and I used to tie to our backpacks, the delicate white and red paper ornaments, wooden soldiers and monkeys carried back so carefully by my parents from Denmark to sell at my mother’s store years ago. And then, of course, every year we add a new layer when we open their boxes, lift them from their wrappings, and find the perfect spot for them in our home for the season.

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Wooden toys from Denmark, old snow globes, twinkling lights, and candles on the mantle.

Light: Nothing feels quite as special as tables, mantles, windows, porches, trees, staircases glowing with lights and candles.

Nighttime Walks: It’s very important that it be: a) cold enough out that you can see your breath, b) dark enough out that neighborhood holiday and dining room lights spill out at their brightest, and c) that you be bundled up tighter than a well-formed burrito.

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Holiday Movies: There’s a very specific set of movies that I watch every year—without fail. And really, how many times I watch each in a season just depends on how much free time I have/how many things on my to-do list can be done in front of a TV. It’s a good mix of the truly great, the delightful, and general goofery. Every one of these movies has a spot on our apartment’s Movie Shelf of Honor: It’s A Wonderful Life (of course), The Shop Around the Corner (Jimmy Stewart-flavored inspiration for You’ve Got Mail, if you didn’t know, with such a great score), Holiday (a lesser known Katharine Hepburn-Cary Grant flick—and pure magic), Elf (endless joy and great tunes), Little Women (the Winona Ryder-Susan Sarandon version, hands down—and again, what a score). Extra credit: Beautiful Girls and DinerExtra EXTRA credit if you manage to see any of these in an actual movie theater.

The thing that makes these movies not only eternally watchable, but amazing, year after year is that no matter how many times I see them, I still cackle and cry and sigh every time in all the great places, no less than the first time. That’s quite a trick. I dare you not to laugh as Jo March tromps through back rooms dancing with Laurie or grin as George Bailey and Mary Hatch sing themselves home, pool-drenched. Just try not to let your heart flip-flop out of your chest as Jimmy Stewart croons over Margaret Sullavan’s letters, or as Katharine Hepburn turns to Cary Grant and says, “You wouldn’t care to step into a waltz as the old year dies, would you, Mr. Case?” Every. Time.

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Elf at the old gorgeous North Park theater in Buffalo, NY—there were free Christmas cookies: what a day.

Old Movies: The above and this item have some serious overlap, but for some reason the holidays always bring around a gravitational pull towards TCM and the need for the funniest, most wonderful, most familiar movies: The Philadelphia Story, Bringing Up Baby, My Favorite Wife… Ok, maybe it’s a need for Cary Grant. But these always find their way into our blanket-infested movie marathons this time of year.

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On the hunt for holiday decorations everywhere we go…

Food and Drink: You didn’t think I’d forget these, did you? You don’t make up one half of Lee & Lou and not care about holiday food and drink. My love of this particular culinary category could absolutely fill out a list all its own. Panettone, Christmas stollen, hot chocolate and peppermint marshmallowslasagna, risotto, struffoli, my mom’s Chocolate Christmas Log and Mushroom Barley Soup, lentils (to bring luck and prosperity for the coming year on New Year’s—an Italian tradition), warm cider with bourbon, bignolata (an incredible Sicilian dish made by rolling up pizza dough with olives and spinach and onions and sausage), special cheeses and cured meats that we try not to eat too much of throughtout the rest of the year… It all comes out this week.

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A Fire: The smell, the warmth, the crackle, the glow. All key. (And for this reason, I just can’t get behind electric fire places.) Whether it’s in a fire pit surrounded by blanketed guests or in a fireplace… surrounded by blanketed guests, there had better be a good, roaring fire at some point.

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This year’s tree at Rockefeller Center…a good one.

Stories: Some come from books that my family loves to read this time of year, or in the case of The Night Before Christmas, recite, as my mother has done every Christmas Eve just before bed for as long as I can remember. And then there are the stories that have never been put to paper. Something happens when all of the above elements come together. At some point, people start telling stories. Some are told every year—like the story of how my parents met on New York’s D train on the darkest day of the year, December 21st—and some sneak out for the first time between glasses of wine when all the lights have gone out, save for the Christmas tree. Which brings me to…

Unplugging the Christmas Tree: It may not sound like a thing for a list, but this was  a Thing when my brother and I were little: getting to unplug the Christmas tree for the night. Being picked felt like an honor, though looking back, I’m sure my parents just asked whomever was closest. (Luckily for me, one of us doesn’t get quite as excited about this one anymore.) The last groggy moments next to the tree are always my favorites. So getting one last look before bed, letting the lights twinkle for one second longer while everyone else goes upstairs or sleeps away on the couch? I’ll race you for it.

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Carrying the tree home this year—and every year!

 

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