Dec 302012

A glass acorn ornament and natural dried hydrangea on a tree at the Museum of Natural History

Even if you don’t score tickets to view The White House Christmas decorations, there are still plenty of gorgeous decorations to see at the Smithsonian. Here is a small sampling of what we came across.

A lamppost outside the Smithsonian Castle adorned with evergreen pomander balls.

I like how the Smithsonian surrounded the base of its trees with poinsettias.

A tree inside the Natural History Museum Rotunda.

A butterfly-themed tree inside the Castle building.

A garland of poinsettias and other gilded greenery winding up a staircase.

The gardens at the Smithsonian were another wonderful source of natural decorations. The urns outside the Castle had sprays of orange pyracantha berries mixed with evergreens.

And, just as we saw at the Danish Embassy, roses!

 Posted by on December 30, 2012 General Tagged with: , ,
Dec 292012

gather/HYGGE at the Danish Embassy

During our hotel stay for two days in the Washington are to view The White House Christmas decorations and Ballet West’s production of The Nutcracker at the Kennedy Center, we happened to hear about one more Washingtonian-style holiday celebration . . . HYGGE (pronounced HOO-gah), an open house display of holiday spirit at the Danish Embassy.

The Danish Embassy is one of our favorites (well, of the perhaps 3 embassies we have ever visited in Washington).  It is elegant but also simple and understated.  It incorporates timeless mid-century modern design elements with a sense of nature.

The  HYGGE display showcased the works of artists Georg Jensen, Gugger Peter, and Anna Ancher, as well as the Danish toy company Maileg.  What was really clever about this exhibit is that it showed how you can create a lot of holiday spirit with very few decorations.

(Note: I am not sure if it is OK to post photos of the artist’s works so I will attempt to describe them best I can instead.  You can see a few photos of the works here.)


Georg Jensen’s work was primarily a display of open metal forms with a few holiday elements inside.  The forms suggested Christmas trees, such as a stack of open metal cube-shapes or a pointed cone shape but were really open to interpretation.  The forms had a definite modern edge and could be used easily when you are trying to honor many types of holiday traditions at one time. The shapes inside the forms were simple.  Sometimes it was a metal star or angel, sometimes a candle, or a sprinkle of simple silver ball ornaments and sometimes colorful shapes.


I had never heard of MAILEG before but it is apparently a line of specialty Danish toys and other home design elements.  It is sold in various specialty boutiques throughout the United States.    If I ever decide to do Elf on a Shelf, I am going to get my elfin creature from Maileg’s “Christmas Pixy” line.  These dolls are adorable!  They are rag dolls with cute pointed hats and clothes, full of personality.  At the embassy, they had a huge collection of the dolls somehow wired together in a curving diagonal line across a bookcase.  It was so fun and a great way to inject a lot of spirit into a small space.

The pig candle holders were also festive and added warmth with a bit of humor and fun.


Gugger Peter’s work was based on weaving materials, primarily newspaper into textured canvases.  The entryway had a portrait of Barack Obama.  In the holiday exhibit, the subjects were “bolsjer” which Americans would recognize as old-fashioned hard candies with various stripes and colors to them.  They apparently are an old-fashioned Danish staple as well.  Mixed in with the woven paintings were interesting 3D cone creations from newspapers as well as jars full of bolsjer.


Anna Ancher will be the subject of an upcoming  exhibition at the National Museum for Women in the Arts.  It was not entirely clear whether her display consisted of paintings on the walls or the collection of colored paper cones of various sizes from about 12″ to about 3 feet with lights beneath that surrounded the paintings.  The cones had a wonderful way of suggesting a Christmas tree or “the holidays” without saying so exactly.


The most surprising “decoration” at the embassy, however, was the blooming pink rose in the embassy’s garden!  How did they get roses to bloom in December?!  I’m not sure if this is a magic trick, a special breed of rose or a product of the several warmer-than-usual weeks we had in the first half of the month.

A rose in December! What a luxury!

As we left the exhibit, the embassy provided free treat bags which consisted of a huge tin of Danish butter cookies (that were fabulous), some bolsjer (a great nod to Gugger Peter’s work), some informational brochures about the holidays in Denmark, including a recipe for abelskivers and instructions on how to make a woven heart basket ornament out of paper.  The bag itself was a reusable shopping bag emphasizing Denmark’s commitment to green initiatives and recycling.

This was perhaps the most diplomatic way of saying “Happy Holidays.”  I learned so much from seeing this exhibit and I am grateful to the embassy for opening its doors to the public.

 Posted by on December 29, 2012 General Tagged with: , ,
Dec 292012

Our Sugar Plum Fairy ornament "dances" onstage at the Kennedy Center.

We were treated to a double-dose of Nutcracker magic this year. I wrote before about viewing Washington Ballet’s Nutcracker and for our encore, we viewed Ballet West’s version that was brought for a special tour to the Kennedy Center.

Born and raised in Utah, I grew up watching Ballet West’s Nutcracker performances with my grandparents and parents. As a teenager, I auditioned to be part of the children’s cast and was granted a role as a “Lady-in-waiting.” It sounds impressive, except when you know that all the children’s roles are cast by height. Anyone taller than about 5’6” could only be a lady-in-waiting. The dancing in this role is very minimal and if there aren’t enough kids to do it, they often ask the moms! However, it was a wonderful experience dancing this role. We had to attend regular rehearsals in the Ballet West studios under the watchful eye of Bene Arnold. Sometimes we caught glimpses of the professional dancers rehearsing. We got to wear a wonderful costume, learned to apply stage makeup to ourselves and the younger children and had our moment on stage as well as having the privilege of watching from the wings as the professionals danced.

I danced the lady-in-waiting role for two years. During my tenure, there were always conspiracy theories among my fellow ladies-in-waiting that “next year” they would modify the choreography to make it more difficult. One time, someone mentioned this theory to one of the rehearsal assistants who informed us that it would never happen because Ballet West honored the choreography of William Christensen and it would “never” change.

Because I know the Ballet West Nutcracker choreography so well, it is the Nutcracker that I compare all others to. The Christensen choreography is mostly genius. It fits the music very well. It incorporates children perfectly and the solo dances in the second act from the various lands “Arabian,” “Spanish,” etc. are technically challenging for the professional dancers and audience engaging. Mr. Christensen’s background in vaudeville was likely a heavy influence and it is really a time-tested choreography.

So, I went into this performance with high expectations. My parents flew in from Salt Lake to enjoy it with us.

We slid into our high balcony seats. On our same row was a large group of girlfriends who seemed to be having a night out. They were all dressed in black dresses and they always sat down at the last minute. At every intermission their skinny little legs paraded past us to their seats in the middle of the row. It was almost a performance in itself.

My children did quite well during the performance. They only had to be told once not to kick the seat by a friendly but firm patron. They received many compliments on their dresses (modified versions of their Halloween costumes this year) and turned heads. One woman sweetly told me they were “The best dresses EV-er!”

Recycling elements of the Cleopatra look for the Nutcracker.

The Elizabeth dress matched the carpets at the Kennedy Center almost perfectly!

On the plus side, the professional dancers from Ballet West brought their A game. I had no complaints with any of the professional dancing and it was fun to see at least a few of the dancers we had been watching on the show “Breaking Pointe” dance live. We saw Rex Tilton and Allison DeBona dance the Arabian pas de deux. Ronnie Underwood was going to be dancing the lead Russian but was substituted at the last minute with someone else. The Ballet West style is to emphasize the romantic partnership between the male and female dancers and they did that very well.

The children in the cast, however, were a bit of a disappointment. The Clara role was danced very well but many of the rest of the children weren’t quite up to Salt Lake Ballet West standards. Of course, no one expects children to be polished dancers but it was lots of little things that brought the children’s performance down. The party boys never maintained a straight line when they were supposed to. From our view high up in the nosebleed seats, this was kind of a glaring distraction and made the party scene look messy. The “Pages” in the second act when I was dancing were usually the very best child dancers and got the best choreography. For some reason, in this version, the page choreography didn’t really stand out. Instead the “Oriental Servant” dancers seemed to be the standouts (and they did quite well). The “buffoons” underneath “Mother Buffoon’s” skirt were also a little disappointing. The big trick in Ballet West’s Nutcracker is that the lead child buffoon does a series of back handsprings across the stage (to raucous applause). Sadly, the lead buffoon was struggling to finish the tumbling sequence and nearly fell on her head on the last one.

I know the Washington area has really strong children’s dance programs so this uneven performance was really confusing to me. I wonder if there might have been some rehearsal coordination issues somewhere where the children were either not used to the Kennedy Center stage or working with the Ballet West team. It looked like each performance had a completely different cast of children to work with. This allows the most number of children to participate, but I wonder if it might have worked better to have just one children’s cast for all of the Washington performances.

The Ballet West blog notes that there were a few “bumps in the road” during the Kennedy Center run and I wonder if I might have seen an off night.

The really odd thing to me, however, was that William Christensen’s choreography, the choreography that “never” would be changed, was changed! The opening scenes where all the party guests arrive seemed shortened somehow and there were fewer children in these scenes. The Spanish routine, usually danced by three women was danced by two women and a man. The Mother Buffoon was transformed from one man in drag twirling around in a huge ballooning dress to a wooden float-like skirt vehicle with one man as the top and one man as the feet. Most disappointing, the Russian routine, which is all men and the most technically challenging Russian choreography I have seen (jumps way high in the air, lines of squat-kicks, one dancer vaulting a high leapfrog over the others, etc.), seemed to have been modified to something a little easier and less impressive. (However, if you look at these pictures from the Ballet West blog, it looks like the rigor was supposed to be there.)

In the Washington Post review, it acknowledged that Adam Sklute had modified some of the choreography to “restore” William Christensen’s original vision that had been edited out over the years. It may be. It may be also that my memory is failing me as to what I remember from my youth, but it just didn’t feel like the same Nutcracker I knew.

To someone without my history, I’m sure it was a fine performance and many of my criticisms probably went unnoticed. The Post review was quite glowing and deservedly so. With more exposure to it, I am sure I could grow to love this new version as much as the original.

It’s always hard to watch something colored by the memories of childhood change but in the end it’s usually a healthy process. There is probably a lady-in-waiting who will look back on this version as her all-time favorite and that’s a good thing too.

The best part of the performance? Sharing the memory with visiting grandparents.

 Posted by on December 29, 2012 General Tagged with: , , ,
Dec 292012

This year, we were privileged to have the ultimate Washingtonian Christmas experience . . . viewing in person the White House Christmas decorations!

No, we are not good friends with President Obama, or have any other political connections. Anyone can request these tickets through their Congressional representative and they are completely free! The catch is, though that you have to be VERY flexible with your schedule. In our case, we put in our request through Senator Mark Warner’s office in July. You have to fill out a form for each person on the tour identifying them by Social Security Number (this is the White House after all!) for a security screening. If you pass that, then you don’t hear whether you received the tickets and when your date is until two weeks in advance. Even then, your tour could be canceled at any time due to national emergencies, etc.

Our tour time was 7:30 a.m.!! Anyone who knows me know that this is pretty hilarious for a non-morning-person like me. We decided there was no way we would make it through Washington traffic in time unless we stayed overnight in a hotel. And that’s what we did and it was so fun to be a “real” Washingtonian for a few days.

Sadly, one thing that is made clear when you sign up for the White House tour is that you cannot take any pictures on the tour. You are allowed to bring in a cell phone with a camera in it but if you attempt to take pictures on the tour, the Secret Service will confiscate your phone!

We arrived around 7:15 a.m. for our tour. While I have been on White House tours before when I was a child, this was the first one as an adult. I was curious to see what impressions the place would make on me. From the moment you enter the White House grounds, you are struck with a feeling that you are in a very special place. Everything is very well kept and the security is very tight. You know that people are always watching you but it doesn’t feel oppressive or weird.

All of the White House employees we met exemplified Washingtonian professionalism. They were polished yet friendly.

The White House itself was so clean it was practically gleaming and it smelled of fresh evergreens. There were dozens of decorated trees as well as garlands and other decorations that complemented the architecture and paintings. There were a lot of decorations but they weren’t tacky or overdone. Everything was done beautifully and with a great sense of artistry. Even at that early hour of the morning, there was live music, with a local high school choir providing carols and piano, which made the experience even more magical.

I was bordering on mild depression knowing that I could not take photos of any of this beauty. Then, in front of me, I saw someone whip out their camera phone and start to snap away. “Oh, this will be interesting.” I thought. But then nothing happened! I moved to where the photographer was standing and saw this sign, which I consider the Obamas’ personal Christmas present to me:

"My" Christmas present from the Obamas!

The lighting conditions were a bit dark for my camera phone and some of my pictures are a bit fuzzy but it will give you an idea of what we saw.

For some reason, everyone in our group looked to me when they wanted to know what they were supposed to wear to visit the White House. Honestly, I had no idea and there were no instructions on this. It seemed wrong to wear jeans to the White House so I told everyone no jeans. Since there was a possible fashion range from tourist casual to suits. I told everyone I was aiming for “festive casual” which for me consisted of a skirt, holiday sweater, tights and boots. I put the children in holiday casual dresses and my son wore a version of his George Washington outfit from Halloween.

My White House fashion choice. (Sadly, all that was really visible was my parka).

Unfortunately, I forgot to wear a more formal coat and there was no coat room on the tour so what I really ended up wearing to the White House was my casual winter parka! In general, most people wore nice pants and shirts, with a variety of shoes from dress to comfortable walking shoes (a Washington tourist necessity). You can’t go wrong dressing more formally and a suit would not have been out of place.

(I recently read the transcript of a very cute interview Michelle Obama did with children at Children’s National Medical Center so I am going to intersperse my pictures with some of this transcript).

A huge version of Bo Obama in the White House Christmas decorations.

Q Does Bo go to bed early in the morning?

MRS. OBAMA: The question is, does Bo go to bed early in the morning. He does. He actually gets pretty tired early. He’s usually a lump by about 7:00.

Q Do you give Bo a gift for Christmas?

MRS. OBAMA: I do. Let’s cover his ears. (Laughter.) He’s probably going to get some stuffed toys. He likes the stuffed toys as opposed to the hard toys, because he chewed all of his toys up. So he’s out of toys, and he loves the fluffy toys so I’m going to get him some new fluffy toys.


I like how George Washington seems to be presenting this tree.

The Joining Forces Tree

Q What is your favorite Christmas tree in the White House?

MRS. OBAMA: Oh, my favorite Christmas tree in the White House is — there is — the biggest tree in the White House is in a room called the Blue Oval Room, and it’s the biggest Christmas tree — it’s just under 19 feet. And this year we decorated it — we call it our Joining Forces tree, because the decorations — the main decorations on the tree are handmade ornaments from military kids who live in bases all across the world. And there are messages from those kids, a lot of them to their parents who are serving in the military; some of them are to the President. So if you come to the White House, you can look at those ornaments and see the messages. And that’s my favorite tree.

An eagle ornament on the Joining Forces tree.

Dolley Madison's nook at the White House: a fitting, elegant fruit-filled room.

One of Dolley's fruit-laden trees.

Lincoln dining room.

This year's gingerbread version of the White House!

Michelle Obama's addition to the White House ornament collection.

Q What’s your favorite ornament?

MRS. OBAMA: My favorite ornament? In the whole wide world? I love the shiny balls. I love the — yes, anything shiny. What about you?

Q I like shiny.

MRS. OBAMA: All right, how many people like the shiny ornaments? Those are the best ones. (Applause.)

One of many fireplaces at The White House.

Q Hi. How many chimneys do you have at the White House?

MRS. OBAMA: Chimneys, this is a good question. I just asked this. We have 26 fireplaces, and 12 chimneys.

Q Wow.

MRS. OBAMA: It’s a big house. (Laughter.)

Q Thank you.

MRS. OBAMA: So Santa has many, many options at the White House.

Q Does Santa have to go through Secret Service to visit the White House? (Laughter.)

MRS. OBAMA: Does he have to go through Secret Service? Well, Santa is probably one of the only people in the world that has his own Secret Service pass. I mean, everybody knows Santa — even the Secret Service. So they give him a pass.

Q Got it.

MRS. OBAMA: He’s got the highest security clearance there is.

Q Okay.

Visiting The White House was an incredible experience and one I hope every American has the chance to experience at some point. It was definitely worth the early wake-up and a great way to celebrate Christmas American-style.

 Posted by on December 29, 2012 General Tagged with: , ,
Dec 262012

Licking the (egg free) beaters of the gingerbread cookie recipe was my son's favorite treat.

While I am not a great cook, I have been improving in recent years and I have come to appreciate how wonderful a feeling it is to eat a delicious home-cooked meal for the holidays in your own home. Even though I am the one doing all the work, when I sit down to eat it, I feel like a lady of the manor.

This year, I left my Christmas menu planning to the last minute. Just a few days before Christmas, I had no idea what I was going to serve my family. We were on our own for the holiday so we didn’t have to worry about honoring anyone else’s traditional recipes or dietary preferences.

When I asked my family what they wanted to eat for the holidays, I received almost no input. So, I based the menu on what I wanted to eat. For some reason, I was craving lemon, ginger and the Southwest Chicken Salad from California Tortilla. Here is what we ended up with:

Christmas Eve Supper

A simple salad of spinach, dried apricots and cranberries, pecans and a strong cheese.

Avgolemono soup - foamy and lemony, a nod to my Greek heritage and a favorite of my preschooler.

Salmon with dill sauce - a favorite of the baby!

Gingerbread cookies with royal icing for Santa (and us).

Christmas Day Lunch

For the kids - a version of yellow curry chicken using supermarket curry sauce - a hit with my 7 year old.

For the adults - Southwest Chicken salad

Honey lime dressing for the salad - a close approximation of the "real" thing.

Christmas Dinner

Tortellini (with spinach and sun-dried tomatoes for the adults)

It’s an unconventional mix but it was delicious and not too filling. By the time Christmas Day dinner rolled around and my energy level was almost zero, I was especially grateful that I saved my easiest meal for last. I was going to make angel food cake with ice cream and strawberries for dessert but we scrapped that and gorged on the chocolate supply from Santa instead.

Recipe Links:

What did you feast on this holiday season? Any good recipes or meal ideas to share? Please share in the comments.

 Posted by on December 26, 2012 General Tagged with: , ,