Thursday, December 25, 2008

The Year's Best Bargains: A Personal Retrospective

Persimmon/Cerise with Camel and Mahogany by 3-Penny Princess

Well, we can all agree that this has been a most interesting year, economically speaking. Gas prices went through the roof to hit record levels, and now they're hitting record levels for recent years on the low end. Real estate sales finally went up after a stagnant year (at least in the close-in D.C. area) only to plummet following the credit crisis, then they rallied unexpectedly at the tail end of the year thanks to falling interest rates. Banks had quite a roller coaster ride themselves as the mortgage industry collapsed and one after another lending institution went out of business, which was followed by a massive flurry of refinances and an almost complete freeing up of credit to consumers at the eleventh hour of 2008. The automobile business is another story, as the Treasury just finished earmarking $358.4 billion out of the $700 billion bailout to save the industry.

Retailers in many other industries didn't fare too well either, with the retail industry as a whole now facing what many believe to be the largest rash of closings in 35 years. Here's just a sampling of major chains that have or are expected to close some of their locations, courtesy of AOL Money & Finance:

  • Linens 'n Things filed for bankruptcy protection in May '08, and several months after failing to find a buyer the company began a liquidation sale in October.
  • Foot Locker announced in March '08 that it was putting 140 more of its 3,785 stores on the chopping block in addition to the 274 it closed last year.
  • The Home Depot expects to close 15 underperforming stores in the U.S.
  • Ann Taylor announced plans to close 117 underperforming stores by 2010.
  • Circuit City stores filed for bankruptcy protection in November '08, while KB Toys followed suit in December.
  • Eddie Bauer is to close stores 27 stores and more after January '09.
  • Talbots, which also owns the J. Jill brand, closed 78 stores in 2007-2008. They also announced plans earlier this year to sell their J. Jill stores.
  • GAP is closing 85 stores.
  • Macy's is planning to close 9 stores after January '09.
  • Lane Bryant, Fashion Bug, and Catherine’s are expected to close 150 stores nationwide.
  • Diamond powerhouse Zales announced in February that the company was closing 50 kiosks and 55 full-size stores by the end of July, as well as trimming its headquarters staff by 20 percent.

The Polka-Dot Cherie Cami In Black by FFM

Not one of these major economic forces, however, succeeded in keeping me away from the stores. I'm determined to get my shopping fix, come hell or high water. This year has been particularly painful for my pocketbook. In the past 12 months, I've brought home more clothing, shoes, and accessories than I did in probably the last 3 years. J.Crew became the primary source of my goods while Ann Taylor/Loft, Banana Republic/Gap/Old Navy, and Express/The Limited shifted into the background, warranting only the occasional visit. To be fair, I also shed a good 70% of my former wardrobe this year - even more than in previous years. The biggest beneficiaries of my obsessive closet cleaning were my new sister-in-law, my aunt, and the usual thrift store for the blind (though in much lesser quantities due to the first 2 recipients). I shipped a few extra-large boxes to my aunt, who - at age 60 - has the figure of a 40-year old and still dresses to kill. I literally sent my new sister-in-law home with close to 30 large shopping bags and boxes (over 3 visits). Lucky for her, she is also petite but happens to look good in all the styles and colors that don't flatter me.

After pruning like mad and completely re-organizing all of my belongings, I was able to build a truly exceptional wardrobe, one that I can be proud of. One that I can pass on to my children if I should die tomorrow (you never know!). I even went a step further and discovered the most helpful (and addictive) tool of all: Polyvore. It allows me to upload and add from the world's largest virtual closet all the goodies that are currently in my actual collection, plus all the great finds I bring home. Then, I set to work creating set after set of perfectly coordinated color combinations, outfits for various occasions, and even fantasy ensembles - right down to the jewelry, coat, and accessories. Again, the two J.Crew groups, J.Crew Aficionadas and J.Crew Fanatic! proved to be goldmines of inspiration, thanks to the talents of others who share their fashion ideas and creativity.

Now, I can look back and enjoy the fruits of my labor. I can get genuinely excited every single time I need to leave the house, because I know that I always have something to wear. I finally banished the "I Have Nothing to Wear" Beast once and for all. I have no excuse to avoid social functions, look sloppy at work, or not be ready for a last-minute getaway. Heck, I've even got glam outfits ready just for running out for a carton of milk. Take that, '50s sirens!

Pumpkin Ecole with Golden Roses Cherie, Watercolor Lydia by 3-Penny Princess

Granted, this monumental wardrobe transformation came at a price. A very, very hefty one that I'll still be paying off into the good part of 2009. The good news is, I did manage to save several pretty pennies while getting my hands on a lot of pretty pieces. After all, I'm not the 3-Penny Princess for nothing! Here are some of the retail acquisitions I feel most proud of this year:

1. Coach Leigh Legacy Satchel in Camel
Original Price: $598.00
Purchased For: $94.50

On an impromptu visit to the Coach outlet one early fall weekday, I picked up this gem of a bag that had retailed a couple of years ago. Always a fan of the legacy collection and the turnlock details, I certainly had my eye on it when it came out, and it was featured in several gorgeous shades to choose from. But I certainly would not have plunked down anywhere near full price for this pricey model. Therefore, I was absolutely floored to find it sitting on the clearance shelf all alone except for a black one in the same style. I pounced on it right away when I saw that it had been reduced to a mere $189. Then, to my sheer surprise and uncontainable joy, it rang up as 50% off the lowest price. Imagine the good fortune of finding this well-made, thick leather Coach beauty in the ultimate late summer-early fall shade for just a fraction of the original price. This was arguably the best buy of 2008.

2. J.Crew Double Cloth Tulip Coat in Deep Persimmon
Original Price: $330.00
Purchased For: $125.99

The compliments I receive on this coat are endless. The shape is divine and the petite cut keeps it draped close to the body and just slightly above the knee. The princess-like sleeves and slight A-line bottom drape nicely over curves, while the fine, almost silky wool fabric dresses up the plainest outfit. The color is truly heaven-sent - not quite orange, but a less severe tomato red that just makes my skin and hair radiate warmth even on a gloomy day.

3. J.Crew Cashmere Rosette Cardigan in Cantaloupe
Original Price: $188.00
Purchased For: $47.99

One of the thickest, softest, most fitted cashmere sweaters J.Crew ever sold. The color is a light orange reminiscent of a creamsicle. Very flattering on a light peach complexion.

4. J.Crew Amelia Espadrilles in Wild Berry, Gold, and Pewter
Original Price: $118.00
Purchased For: $17.99

I was so taken with these espadrilles that I bought 3 pairs: a madras fabric print called Wild Berry, Gold leather, and Pewter leather. The unbelievable comfort, pretty colors, and excellent quality of this ubiquitous yet better version of a summer staple was truly unexpected. They prompted me to write a rave review shortly after purchasing them back in August. And at this ridiculously low price, it would have been a crime not to swipe 3 pairs from the store. Read my full review here.

5. J.Crew Metallic Clea Herringbone Jacket in Deep Persimmon
Original Price: $325.00
Purchased For: $79.99

A J.Crew Collection piece from the fall 2008 season, this jacket is worth every penny in weight, literally. An extra-thick, plush wool boucle that apparently originated in a luxury Japanese mill, this is definitely not your ordinary tweed jacket. With its vibrant red-orange yarn and the slightest glimmer of metallic threading woven throughout, it's the ultimate "notice me" jacket for the girl who doesn't want to scream it. It mixes beautifully with ivory pants and a persimmon colored merino top for dramatic flair, or, take it down a notch with trouser jeans and a neutral sweater. When winter brings one of those mid-50s days when you don't want to wear a coat, this substitutes perfectly. It's bright for spring and cozy for fall, making it a stylish and utterly substantial herringbone jacket for seasons to come. Plus, like all other J.Crew Persimmon/Cerise/Cayenne/Bright Flame pieces, it looks divine with my complexion.

6. J.Crew Stretch Vintage Cord Peplum Jacket in Ecru and Navy
Original Price: $118.00
Purchased For: $29.99

I first tried on this baby-fine wale cord jacket on in late July when the early fall collection appeared in stores. At that time, I agreed with the jacket, but not with the price of $118. Not because I didn't believe that a well-constructed, fully-lined blazer should cost that much, but because I wasn't entire sure of the fit. Topped over a diaphanous silk chiffon tank in the sweltering summer heat, I wasn't sure if the slightly boxy fit would flatter my slender shoulders. Also, to be fair, the price was a slight issue because there were dozens of competing cord blazers offered by other retailers for much less.

A couple of months later, as sweater weather kicked into full gear, I revisited this jacket, now at a much more palatable $59.99. This time, donning a rhubarb Cashmere Long-Sleeved Tee over a contrasting tank top, I tried on the Peplum Cord Jacket in ecru. Lo and behold, the fit went from too-boxy to just-right over the mid-weight cashmere sweater. I liked the jacket's slightly puffed princess sleeves and slightly shirred back below the waist. The rounded collar helped to soften the boxy cut and the 4 well-placed buttons allowed for a snugger fit where I wanted. I cashed in my 30% off and bought the ecru on the spot.

A month-and-a-half later, I realized how much my wardrobe could benefit from the navy jacket and kicked myself for not buying it before it sold out in my size. Luckily, while scanning eBay for Christmas presents, I came across 2 navy ones in my size: one was being hawked for $79.50, while the other one beckoned me at just $29.99 with free shipping. I didn't have to think twice - I bid on the cheaper one right away and got another great deal on a great jacket. While the ecru one goes well with bright colored tops and jeans, the navy one looks sharp with my numerous ivory pants plus red and pink skirts (as well as my rhubarb dressy Bermuda shorts from spring). The jacket is classic but not boring, and the interesting details will help keep it fresh for a few seasons. It's the perfect thickness for early-to-mid fall and mid-to-late spring.

7. J.Crew Cashmere Shrunken Shawl Cardigan in Soft Azalea, Fresh Clover, and Navy
Original Price: $185.00
Purchased For: $65.00

This luxuriously soft sweater debuted this past winter during J.Crew's Roman Holiday (see the February 2008 catalog). At the time, however, I thought $185.00 was not only exorbitant but insulting to those of us who had watched last year's cashmere pill like crazy. Also, when I tried it on in the store, I couldn't figure out what size was appropriate. The fit was definitely "shrunken" unlike many of the year's baggy sweaters (that frankly resembled sackcloth in their fit). Also, the colors that my store carried weren't at the top of my list. So, I eventually forgot about this cardigan. Apparently, others snapped them up following progressive spring, summer, and fall sales.

Enter November '08 when I started seeing them pop up every other day on the final sale online. By now, I had picked up a few high-quality cashmere specimens such as the Femme sweater and Rosette cardigan (above) that were not only supremely soft but didn't seem to pill. But still hesitant to take a chance on the shrunken cardigan during the fall final sale, I instead jumped at the chance to grab one on the J.Crew Aficionada Great Weekly Exchange.

Well, let me just say that it was love at first sight and touch! What sumptuous baby-soft yarn! What gorgeous, saturated colors! And what a dreamy silhouette for a petite figure! Finally, a sweater that looked as nicely fitted on me as it did on the models. After I wore the Fresh Clover one - the first one I had purchased - for a full day during a trip to the wineries, I immediately set out to add to my collection. Fortunately, every time I placed this cardigan on my weekly "wish list" on the Weekly Exchange, the same fabulous seller found me and sent me new colors.
Good thing, because these sweaters are like candy! You can't have just one. I ended up buying 3 from her (plus another cashmere v-neck bow sweater from the fall collection). I can't say enough about the Cashmere Shrunken Shawl Cardigan! The 3 are sure to be among my most-worn sweaters as we head into the new year.

8. Michael Kors Amherst Large Shoulder Bag in Vicuna
Original Price: $398.00
Purchased For: $156.00

My fondness for this bag only grows the more I carry it. It's a rich shade of saddle (the Coach equivalent of "whiskey") in a buttery-smooth leather that literally seems to melt in my fingers. It goes with virtually any color scheme, for any occasion. It can be tossed over your shoulder as you're running out the door. It can expand to fit your whole life but doesn't weight a ton. And it has so many bloomin' pockets! A large exterior front flap pocket, a hidden exterior back open pocket, 4 interior open pockets for cell phone/handheld/lipstick/mints/etc., and yet another larger interior zip pocket. What more could you possibly ask for in a bag?

9. Cole Haan Nike Air Fiona Mid-Heel Pump in Sand Embossed Snake
Original Price: $295.00
Purchased For: $151.96

First, let me start out by singing the praises of Cole Haan dress shoes. They're padded inside with Nike Air cushioning and a Nike Air rubber patch on the part of the sole that hits the pavement, making this dress shoe not only office appropriate but practical for walking. After you've been standing in 3-inch heels for hours, your feet will thank you for choosing these shoes that are contoured to hug your foot where it needs it without squeezing the parts that don't. If you've got high arches or need to be able to walk on concrete, Cole Haan Nike Air technology offers much more support than the average dress shoe. The beauty of these pumps (literally) is that they are highly fashionable and follow the right trends without sacrificing timeless elegance. I think they really elevate any outfit to a higher level, whether you're wearing a suit or just want to glam up jeans. The quality of the materials and the overall design and craftsmanship of the shoe is phenomenal. I'd pin this pump against a Manolo or Jimmy Choo stiletto any day in terms of quality and comfort. The best part? With Cole Haan's numerous sales this year, it's easy to catch most anything you've had your eye on for 30% off the sale price within a few months of it's retail debut. While not the cheapest shoe out there, it's still a great buy at $151.96.

10. Cole Haan Sierra Air Tall Boot in Chestnut
Original Price: $495.00
Purchased For: $258.97

Despite their 3.5-inch heels and uptown attitude, these boots were definitely made for walking, thanks once again to the genius Nike Air technology concealed within. With a nod to old-school equestrian styling, the D-ring horsebit (Cole Haan's signature) features prominently around the top of the calf. The shade, Chestnut, is blend of brown, British tan, and a splash of brandy. The leather is tough yet expertly tooled, lined in a second layer of leather inside the shaft. The sole, while leather, is double-layered and lightly hammered to keep it from sliding on slick surfaces (like the wood floors in my house that I have a knack for slipping on). With a comfortable almond-shaped toe and a full side zipper, these are a cinch to get on and off in a rush (which is every day). The calf width leaves just enough room to hug skinny jeans inside and still zip all the way up. With a skirt, the boots exude class with just a hint of rebelliousness, especially with the top of the shaft gapping just the right amount from my legs.

Again, not the cheapest boots I could have bought, but certainly among the best in this price range. Considering the alternatives for $200-250, I really feel like a got a much better quality product that will outlast many trends and many seasons. Although they were sold out on, I accidentally ran into a pair at my local Cole Haan store in my size - I knew at that moment that they were meant to be. They had been reduced to $369.95 and I got an additional 30% off, bringing them down to $258.97. Thank goodness, because I would never shell out for a $500 pairs of boots - not because I don't think great boots are worth it, but because I can't possibly afford it on my current salary. Maybe one day...

11. J.Crew Merino Lili Ruffle-Chiffon Cardigan in Cerise
Original Price: $110.00
Purchased For: $41.99

Just days after this flirty cardigan hit my store, it was already on promotion along with many other new sweaters, reduced to 59.99 with an extra 30% off. I kind of grabbed it absentmindedly as I started to hunt for all the other things that had been on my seasonal wish list. After all, the color "cerise" looked to be a new fresher relative of the long-running "persimmon" shade that had proven to be hugely successful in my wardrobe. So, with arms full of motley finds I waddled into the fitting room and proceeded to try it all on. Many of the other garments looked better on the hanger than on me. This delicately woven thin merino wool creation, however, looked like it was made just for me. The mouthwatering hue - ripe tomato mixed with clementine - was wildly appealing and brought out the best colors in my face, including my favorite Fresh Sugar lip gloss in Pin-Up (a shimmering golden coral). The sun-drenched shade screamed Capri, or maybe Morocco (J.Crew's spring 2008 destination). The ruffles were unique too: horizontal rows of cascading chiffon that wasn't too frou-frou but still channeled an undeniably feminine vibe. I knew immediately that it would become one of most beloved 3-season sweaters.

What I didn't know, until I brought it home and started trying it on with everything, was how well it layered under other sweaters and especially jackets. Peeking out under a structured brown glen plaid jacket, it brightened up an otherwise staid suit. The feathery red-orange ruffles also danced gracefully under both last year's chocolate velvet Bella blazer and this year's ecru Peplum Cord jacket (see above). Whether I paired it with jeans or camel trousers, it lent a warm glow to the ensemble. While I'm not sure I would even picked it up if it had been full-price, it was without a doubt a brilliant purchase at $41.99.

12. J.Crew Zebra Hinged Bangle Bracelet
Original Price: $68.00
Purchased For: $17.49

I have to admit that I've been slowly won over by much of the past year's jewelry collection at J.Crew. The unique designs and always workable colors somehow manage to be the perfect little finish to many stylish outfits. Some of the hand-painted jeweled cuffs and enamel bangles have been quite stunning, and their substantial weight along with the sturdy craftsmanship made me more confident to invest in them. Nevertheless, I still balk at paying anywhere near full price for what is - despite its exquisite design - non-precious costume jewelry. No matter how they try to spin the story of a rare yellow bead that was manufactured in Japan before the war and now found in limited quantities, I am simply not going to shell out $98 for a brass chain-link necklace because it contains a handful of Czech crystals, or $65 for plastic-looking 70s beads - even if they are hand-knotted and fitted with a French wire wrap at the ends.

That's why I was pleased as punch when the striking wide Zebra Hinged Bangle Bracelet not only re-appeared online after I broke an earlier model (from another brand), but was priced at a truly can't-miss $24.99. With my 30% discount, I snagged it immediately for an ultra-satisfying $17.49. It matches so many items in my wardrobe, it probably would have been worth the full price in retrospect. Fortunately, I got it for a steal and can now feel less guilty about buying another one (on sale, of course).

13. J.Crew Frances Blouse in Cherry Blossom
Original Price: $98.00
Purchased For: $29.99

When this blouse came out this past spring, this print flew off the shelves. I didn't think I'd even find it until one random day in mid-summer when I visited my store and accidentally saw it on the clearance rack in my size. I heard the angels sing that day, because it was definitely meant to be. This delightful and incredibly versatile blouse is as perfect by itself for the dog days of summer as it is layered under a cashmere cardigan. It really punches up an all-white skirt suit, and the subtle ruffling is a nice contrast to the straight lines of a traditional lapel jacket. It looks great with shorts, jeans, skirts, and under just about anything. The cherry blossom print is entirely flattering and feminine without being over-the-top saccharine.

14. Soia & Kyo Ines Houndstooth Coat in Grey
Original Price: $375.00
Purchased For: $220.00

Hands down the warmest coat in my closet. Knocks all my J.Crew wool-blend coats right out of the water. Made by Canadians who know the meaning of cold and don't mess around with winter coats. Based in Montreal with offices in Toronto and New York, Soia & Kyo designs marry a tailored European aesthetic with one part English street mod. The result is a well-fitted classic that has equal parts playfulness, equal parts girliness, and loads of grown-up sophistication.

The wool is thick as can be, and it's the only coat I bother with when the winds gust right through and chill you to the bone. This material stands up to the weather while standing up to life on the go, where I spend much of my time. My second find from this brand, I am highly impressed with the excellent materials and expert tailoring. It's also a nice treat to find that the sizes run a bit closer to European, so an x-small is truly for x-small people. No hemming was required, and there's not much wiggle room underneath, so only buy an x-small if you wear a size 0-2 in clothing.

The Ines style actually came in 2 other houndstooth color combos as well as solids and tweeds. I opted for the grey houndstooth (pictured) because black and white looks too severe on me. Bright colors go well with this pattern as do most neutrals, including camel and, of course, many greys. I actually contemplated buying this coat for about a month right after seeing it on the racks at Macy's. I tried to shop around to find the best deal, but I didn't have any luck. Only Macy's actually carried it in-store, and the online retailers who had this style didn't carry it in the grey color pattern.

Shortly before my birthday, after surviving a particularly blustery November stretch with unusually cold temperatures while spending a lot of time outdoors, I finally bit the bullet and coughed up full-price. The only consolation was my usual 20% off that I've come to expect as a Macy's cardholder, which brought the price down to a slightly more swallowable $300. Within 10 days, however, I was thrilled to see that the price had been marked down to $275. I confidently marched up to the counter - while wearing the coat - and (very nicely) demanded a price adjustment plus the 20% off (a discount I never seem to run out of). They were happy to oblige, and I ended up with a much better deal on a truly fabulous, incredibly warm coat. Since I've had occasion to wear the coat this month on the colder days, I've gotten many compliments on the print and the unique neckline, which can be work as a funnel or as an open collar. I highly recommend the coat and the brand overall.

15. Amazing Styling Advice and Ideas from Extremely Talented and Creative People:
Retail Value: Priceless
Purchased For: $0

Fabulous Florida Mommy (FFM) has been a tremendous asset to all of us in the J.Crew Aficionada community. Other Aficionadas and Polyvore-ites have inspired me greatly too. It's really amazing when people put their heads together to create beautiful ensembles and brainstorm the perfect outfit for whatever the occasion. It also feels good knowing that I have inspired others with my ideas. Sure, we're not creating artistic masterpieces or finding a cure for cancer. But we are helping to make the world a more beautiful place, one person at a time. And, we're giving each other always-needed confidence to get out there and make something special with our clothes instead of just settling for the tried-and-true or the basic black. So I want to thank FFM, JCrew Chick (aka Slastena) , Naomi*, and Busy Mom in NY (among many others) for both challenging and inspiring me daily with your styling talents and fresh ideas.

I wish everyone a fabulous New Year, and may you have a happy, healthy, fashionable, and bargain-filled 2009!!

Slastena brought to my attention that the Cole Haan Sierra boots in the model photo are actually styled with the J.Crew Metallic Jacquard Mini from earlier this year. What a fabulous pairing! I guess J.Crew and Cole Haan were meant to be together. I couldn't find a picture of the skirt anymore, but below is a bigger photo of the page from the Cole Haan Fall '08 catalog, still online.

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Have Yourself... a Nostalgic Little Christmas

It's easy to get swept away in the fervor of the holidays. Between the incessant ramblings of news reporters about the weekly shopping totals, the frequent shots of long lines at various retailers, the marathon to buy the neverending list of presents (just when you think you've finished, you remember the neighbors, your child's teachers, your spouse's co-workers, etc.), the mountains of boxes to wrap, the race to decorate and light up the perimeter of the yard, and the hectic schedule of holiday parties to attend, it's no wonder too many people associate the holidays with one big month of stress.

To make matters worse, the list of things to buy seems to always get longer, while many peoples' wallets are undeniably shrinking. In a time of heightened foreclosures and increasing layoffs, even the reasonably well-off are feeling anxiety about going overboard in spending. Ironically, some of the items on our list are actually cheaper to buy this year than last year as wave after wave of sales and discounts force retailers to whittle away at their profits. On the one hand, people are just plain scared to part with their money. On the other hand, stores that offer deep price cuts plus excellent savings are clearing out their inventory.

The worst part for me isn't even the spending -- I'm likely to overshop in any economy. No, the things that stress me out are all the things to do, and not nearly enough time to do it. How am I supposed to find the time to buy presents for 30+ people, box and wrap everything in time, bake 5 dozen cookies, write 80 Christmas cards, clean and decorate the house inside and out, plan and cook a feast for 15 family members, attend more than 10 holiday get-togethers, and bring over all the donations of food, gifts, and clothing collected by churches and charities -- all in just over 20 days while holding down a job and managing a household?

To be sure, the sights and sounds of a more appealing holiday season beckon me: the free concerts at churches, the caroling in town squares, the holiday lights shows, the children's recitals, the cooking demonstrations at Williams-Sonoma, the baking parties, and the call to volunteer at local food banks/soup kitchens/hospitals/retirement homes/other great causes. Or, just to duck into Starbucks and lounge peacefully with a steaming Gingerbread Latte while listening to my favorite holiday tunes. Now that would be a holiday worth looking forward to.

My husband and I recently watched a special holiday episode of one of our most beloved travel shows, Rick Steves Europe. Rick took us on a tour of the Old Country through storybook Alpine villages, charming English towns, rolling Tuscan countrysides, and chic Parisian boulevards complete with smartly dressed children. As we watched the beautiful Christmas season unfold at Advent and culminate in a joyous New Year's Day, we witnessed many time-honored traditions still being followed, even in the widespread digital society that is much of Europe today. What really struck us -- amidst the mesmerizing lights spectacles, angelic choral melodies, painstakingly crafted religious figurines and nutcrackers, crackling chestnuts being roasted on street corners, and lovingly decorated homemade gingerbread houses -- was the determined focus on family, friends, and an overall appreciation of the season's natural wonders.

Sure, we saw the bustle of pedestrians toting bags of gifts for their families. We saw plenty of oversized pine trees lugged home then dressed in either fine ornaments or simple white lights. We saw wreaths hung on doors, candles lit on windowsills, and stockings hung by fires. But we also saw children hand-dipping taper candles in German shopping malls to give to their parents. We saw English moms teaching their sons and daughters to make traditional plum pudding. We saw Swiss friends inviting each other over for an evening of fondue, hot mulled gluwine, and singing by the piano. We saw Italian toddlers distributing freshly baked panetone bread to their elderly neighbors. We saw French households everywhere displaying a unique "creche" or nativity scene with little clay saints. We saw Norwegian girls young and old donning white robes and a crown of evergreens 12 days before Christmas then waking up their parents to serve them coffee and buns to honor Saint Lucia Day. We heard teenagers all over performing centuries-old musical renditions of religious stories and choral concerts.

During a season that has so much to offer in the way of sights, traditions, and religious messages, many of us choose (or feel forced) to succumb to the stressful and sometimes superficial elements of the holidays. It's almost unfair, as I would much prefer to sit with friends around my fireplace, sip peppermint cocoa, and just catch up. Or just call up 10 people that I haven't spoken to in a year and find out what's going on in their lives rather than buy, write, address, and mail 80 Christmas cards. Instead of buying loads of new toys, clothes, and gadgets for family members that really don't need them (not to mention racking my brain to come up with creative gift lists), I'd rather buy and deliver more gifts to the poor, widowed, and abandoned in my community. Most of all, I would love to just enjoy a full week of cooking delicious meals and baking heavenly cakes for me, to enjoy myself, without worrying about cleaning the whole house or setting up buffets or taking down and putting back dozens of pieces of china.

Granted, there are a few purely pagan rituals that I do enjoy during the holidays. I like to go to the local nursery -- not the temporary lots set up along the side of the road or at churches -- and pick out a tall, fresh tree. We usually opt for a Douglas or Noble Fir, since we like longer, softer needles and a fuller, leafier body. We pay a little more at the nursery, but the trees are well-nurtured and full of life, plus they have beautiful wreaths, poinsettias, and other colorful winter plants you can pick up with your tree. After we take it home, unwrap it, and stand it up as the centerpiece of the living room, my favorite part is spending the next few days simply inhaling the heady aroma of the fresh evergreen scent that permeates the entire main level of the house. I think I revel in the actual woodsy ambiance the tree creates even more than the numerous boxfulls of ornaments and tangles of lights that eventually adorn it.

Another pagan pleasure I partake in is decorating the fireplace, toasting marshmallows or chestnuts in the fire, and watching holiday movies. Most of the year, the fireplace sits neglected and bare, with the occasional fire roaring forth on a particularly blustery day. But during the holiday season, I like to decorate it with lots of colorful stockings (even though there are only 2 of us plus 1 cat) and line the mantle with candles. It really becomes the hearth (and the heart) of the home, and it makes us want to sit together to stay warm and watch the crackling fire. Day in and day out during the year, my husband dominates the big rec room television and all the entertainment systems with his shows, games, and music. But when we sit in front of the fireplace, we sit closer together on the living room loveseat rather than the sprawling rec room sofa and watch the smaller television next to the fireplace. Whether we're watching the old-time animated Christmas stories or the plethora of recent cheesy flicks, warming our feet at the fire while sipping mulled tea or cocoa hearkens back to the simple enjoyments of a quieter era.

Like many of the European traditions we saw in the travel show, my ideal holiday season would be filled with 4 equals parts: 1 part religious themes, 1 part charitable acts, 1 part nature appreciation, and 1 part low-key friends and family time. What I could definitely do without is sending 80 Christmas cards, racing around the yard and rooftop to outdo myself in lights and decorations, fighting for parking then standing in long lines with unhappy children and frantic shoppers to buy 3 dozen presents (then agonizing about whether I spent too much, too little, or got the right gift), boxing and wrapping like mad in the wee hours before Christmas, and having to prioritize which friends birthdays to celebrate in December (there are surprisingly many) while trying to make it to family dinners, friends' cocktail parties, office functions, and the few worthwhile charity events that need to be squeezed in.

I can also do without the 5,000 or so solicitations for money that I receive during the holidays from every possible organization on the planet that seems to repeat itself under different names. This especially irks me since I tend to give throughout the year and find it difficult to open my wallet when I've just spent about a grand on the holidays (plus the many friend's birthdays that fall during the holidays) and the few charities I already chose for my holiday giving. Yet it brings a nagging guilt to my conscience when I open up envelope after envelope and find lovely packets of Christmas cards drawn by terminally ill children, address labels sent by organizations that feed the hungry and support wounded veterans, or (my biggest pet peeve) the prominent nickel or quarter glued to the front of the solicitation offering me "free money" in exchange for my modest monetary gift. This, added to the endless phone calls and announcements in the church bulletin about all the suffering, poor, and persecuted -- both nearby and across the globe -- that need my help makes more depressed, not joyful, that I can't help them all.

So how what can we do to enjoy the holidays more, and cope with the many stresses that seek to control us? My thought is, if I can at least mix in at least one traditional, soul-pleasing event per week, then I can feel as if I accomplished what I really wanted during the holidays.

Here is my Chicken Soup for the Soul-esqe wish list of things to do during the 7 weeks between the day after Thanksgiving and the January 6 feast of Epiphany:

1. Roast chestnuts over an open fire. Even though the chestnuts I buy at the grocery store aren't worth waiting an hour for by the fire - let alone waxing poetic about by the likes of Bing Crosby - they still remind me of a time when the simpler foods and simpler pleasures were enough to warm one's heart.

2. Bake . Now, everyone who knows me knows that I simply don't bake. I can whip up a mean 3-course meal, knock out 10 sensational hors d'oeuvres for a party, or throw together a divine last-minute brunch for surprise company. But I do not bake. Not bread, not cookies, and certainly not fresh-from-scratch pies. My sister-in-law, that's another story. She makes 3 pies for the Thanksgiving dinner alone (all on homemade crusts). For the holidays, she bakes literally hundreds upon hundreds of cookies for friends and family, which she keeps stored in giant tool-sized plastic bins. But me, I'm not good with dough or any derivatives of it. During the holidays, however, that doesn't stop me. I strive to make at least one homemade sweet. Last year it was fudge (technically not baked, but still a sweet). The year before, it was pumpkin pie (okay, I didn't carve the pumpkin, but I still pressed in my own crust and doctored up canned pumpkin
with my own unique blend of spices, which I topped with freshly-whipped cream. This year, I'm going to try to make decadent cupcakes, my latest rave. I guess around the holidays, the oven beckons me enough to throw my inhibitions to the wind. Even if I'm the only one who ends up eating my unique creations.

3. Drink mulled beverages. Whether it's mulled cider, spiced tea, or mulled wine, I eagerly anticipate bringing home fresh mulling spices (not the horrid milk carton sugar-based ones) and brewing up a piping hot vat of an aromatic beverage. It also makes the house smell divine.

4. Sing along to every single Christmas album I own. I like to do this in the car and at home while wrapping presents. Since my husband is vehemently opposed to the tradition of caroling, it's the closest I come to belting out all my favorite hymns, carols, and holiday tunes.

5. Tour a festival of lights nearby. I'm actually going to do this after Christmas this year, because I can't find any time to fit it in during the coming weeks. Fortunately, there are several parks, historic sites, and peoples' houses on the tour list this year. Although I would never go through all the trouble of hanging intricate rows of lights to illuminate an entire scene, I really do appreciate the effort that others go through to bring visual beauty to the rest of us during the season when the days are short and dark comes all too early.

6. Attend a holiday musical presentation. When I was younger, my parents always took me to see The Nutcracker ballet (can you believe it was scorned on its opening night performance in St. Petersburg more than a century ago?). Now, I often opt for a classical choral concert of Handel's Messiah or a symphony of bells. Our local historic church, which was once attended by both George Washington and Robert E. Lee (and now George W. Bush on December 21) offers a beautiful selection of musical masterpieces. They range from old European madrigals to traditional English carols, as well as string quartets and choir concerts. It's so uplifting to escape the business of one's day and simply get swept away by majestic voices heralding the glory of God. Of all the enjoyments of the season, traditional Christmas music is probably my favorite.

7. Watch or hear the real story of Christmas being told. I don't mean 'Twas the Night Before Christmas, either. I mean the real account of the birth of Jesus, the reason for the season. Whether it's a biblical re-creation at a children's pageant, or a prelude read aloud before a Christmas concert, the simple story of the nativity from the Gospel of Luke - with it's humble description of Mary, Joseph, and the infant Jesus swaddled in a manger - makes me remember the whole point of Christmas, which also has the effect of making me feel more at peace:

"In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that the whole world should be enrolled. This was the first enrollment, when Quirinius was governor of Syria. So all went to be enrolled, each to his own town. And Joseph too went up from Galilee from the town of Nazareth to Judea, to the city of David that is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and family of David, to be enrolled with Mary, his betrothed, who was with child.

While they were there, the time came for her to have her child, and she gave birth to her firstborn son. She wrapped him in swaddling clothes and laid him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.

Now there were shepherds in that region living in the fields and keeping the night watch over their flock. The angel of the Lord appeared to them and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were struck with great fear. The angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for behold, I proclaim to you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For today in the city of David a savior has been born for you who is Christ and Lord. And this will be a sign for you: you will find an infant wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger.”

And suddenly there was a multitude of the heavenly host with the angel, praising God and saying: “Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.”

So have yourself a merry and nostalgic little Christmas, and may you and your family experience the full peace and wonder of the season!