The Spirit of Christmases Past

Geraldson Cropped 2This year the 104th Geraldson Family Christmas Party was celebrated in Waukesha, Wisconsin, on December twenty-first. The party has survived good times and bad, booms and depressions, peace and war, births and deaths. I think that’s pretty remarkable.

About sixty-five “Geraldsons” were present this year—many (like me) with very un-Geraldson-like surnames. My mother was the daughter of Gerald Geraldson—originally Gjerald Gjeraldson—born in Arendal, Norway. Gerald and Christina (my Danish grandmother) had six children, one who died as a baby. Of the remaining five, only one is still alive—my Uncle David. Thankfully, he’s in great shape.

When I was a child and there were three generations of Geraldsons, Christmas was celebrated at Grandma ‘s house on Christmas Eve, a Scandinavian tradition. Later, as the family grew, we moved to the Log Lodge, a YMCA party house on the river in Rockford, Illinois. Today the party is held somewhere west of Milwaukee, usually on the first Saturday before Christmas. Responsibility for hosting the party rotates through the five original families (sounds Sicilian, doesn’t it?) in order of birth. My mother was the oldest, so my turn will come around again in two years. That will be the 106th.

Many traditions remain, at least in memory. Finding the almond in the rice pudding meant that you would be next to marry. Budding Geraldson musicians would perform, a prolonged and painful affair as I remember it, since musical talent seems to have skipped the Geraldson DNA. In the past we made those aspiring to join the family by marriage sing a solo. Today, mercifully, this is threatened but never carried out. We also used to swing a piňata for the children. How a Mexican tradition found its way into a Scandinavian family, I don’t know. And I don’t know how we made it through twenty or thirty years without a serious head injury.

We no longer give presents—the family is too big. When I was growing up, however, hidden among the wrapped presents each year was a baby rattle from the early 1900s, the small rectangular box disguised in some creative way and bearing a tag “From Santa.” The one who received the rattle was to bring it back the next year, wrapped up for someone else. Sometime in the 1960s, the rattle was lost—by whom, no one remembers. One day the rattle will be found at the bottom of a box in someone’s attic. Geraldsons aren’t noted for their organizational skills either.

Over the years we have welcomed many guests to the party—boyfriends and girlfriends; those separated from their own families for the holidays; a succession of international students. This year we welcomed a brother and sister from Latvia. Our most memorable visitor has to be the young Masai warrior from Kenya, studying at Kendall College and taken in for the holidays by one of the families. He regaled us with tales of lion hunting and manhood ceremonies, a little more vividly, I suspect, than the grown-ups would have liked.

In recent years we’ve included a Geraldson Family Trivia contest—one competition in which the oldest among us hold a competitive edge. Three traditions remain: the singing of Christmas carols (heartfelt if not tuneful); the reading of the Christmas story from Luke’s Gospel; and a prayer for the coming year.

Today we are five generations strong and growing. The newest “Geraldson” attended the party this year in utero. She will be born in May, and we look forward to meeting her next year. Those who have died are mourned and remembered with great fondness and laughter. Long may the Geraldson Family Christmas Party live. Something that has survived for 104 years deserved to be cherished.

What are your family traditions? What are you passing on to the next generation?

I wish you a joyous Christmas and a happy New Year!

The Joys of Winter

As I write, I look out on a thick blanket of snow rolling down to a frozen white lake. Ice fog blurs the landscape. The temperature outside is 7° F. The snow lies at a depth of 12 inches, and more is on the way. Our cottage in northern Wisconsin is in the path of another storm. I say, bring it on.

Come mid-December, when many Ohioans dream of white sand beaches or the warm hues of the desert, my husband and I head north. Far north. Give me a white Christmas, please. Up here in ski- and snow-mobile territory, “Let it Snow” is the winter motto. I wouldn’t mind going farther north. Near the top of my travel “bucket list” is a stay at one of the IceHotel06-640x426fabulous ice hotels in Scandinavia, although I’d settle for the one in Quebec. 

I’ve always been a winter lover. A November baby. Born in the Danish settlement of Racine, Wisconsin. Every day, so I’m told, my mother bundled me in my pram and rolled me outside on the porch for an hour or so. Winter PramIt was supposed to keep me strong and healthy. In Scandinavia women still put their babies outside in sub zero weather. That’s where they get those pink cheeks.

I love mystery novels set in cold climates, too. One of my favorites, Charles Todd’s A Cold Treachery, is set in December of 1919. Scotland Yard Inspector Ian Rutledge is sent out in a violent blizzard to investigate the murder of a sheep-farming family in a remote village England’s Lake District. So effectively did the authors [Charles Todd is a mother-son writing team] use sensoryFireplace details to create the bitterly cold world of the novel that all I have to do now is think about the story and I want to curl up in front of a fire with a mug of hot tea. After all, the joys of winter include such things as a blazing fire, warm sweaters, flickering candles, and  steaming hot drinks. Merry Christmas!

Check out my Pinterest board, The Joys of Winter.


What I Wish I Had Known, Part V: Lucy Burdette

Roberta IsleibThis week I am pleased to introduce you to Lucy Burdette, author of twelve mysteries, eight written as Roberta Isleib. Lucy Burdette is the penname for New Jersey born clinical psychologist Roberta Isleib, an Agatha-, Anthony-, and Macavity-award nominee. She is past-president of Sisters in Crime, International, as well as her local New England chapter.  

topped-chef-309x500Lucy’s most recent mystery series stars Key West food critic Hayley Snow. Topped Chef, the third book in the series, came out in May. The fourth, Murder with Ganache,Roberta Isleib Murder with Ganache hits bookshelves in early February, but can be pre-ordered now [click on link].  

I had the privilege of meeting Lucy Burdette this past September at Seascape Writers’ Retreat—an annual writing workshop in Chester, Connecticut, sponsored by Lucy and pals Hallie Ephron and Hank Phillippi Ryan. The week-end was practical, eye-opening, encouraging–and loads of fun.

Recently I asked Lucy to share the most important advice she would give to aspiring writers, like me. This is what she said: 

When Connie first invited me to share the best advice I had on writing, I thought it would be easy. I imagined a million ways to start—with fifteen years writing fiction and almost twelve books published, shouldn’t I be a font of information?  

How about this: Read a lot, but make sure you include books in the genre in which you’re writing? For each genre, the readers have expectations. For amateur sleuth mysteries like the ones I write, some of the necessary conventions include playing fair with clues, avoiding the trap of the female in jeopardy, not withholding necessary information from the reader, not allowing a gimmick to take the place of a good story… 

But then I thought my words would be better focused on making sure you take time away from writing to live life. Because life feeds fiction, especially after a writer has mined her personal business for the first novel. Travel, exercise, cook, eat, spend time with friends and family…and listen to the people around you, thinking all the while: what if? 

But wait, maybe it’s most important to warn new writers about the importance of friends. Writing and publishing are both difficult, not for the faint-hearted. You’ll need friends who don’t roll their eyes when you talk about your characters as if they were your kids. And friends who can buck you up when you get a rough critique or bad news. And friends who might cook for you or lend you a quiet room when you’re on a crushing deadline. And friends to be happy for your success and come to your booksigning… 

But in the end I decided the best advice is this: Never rush to send your work out. With agents and editors and contests only a mouse click away, it’s easy to hit send before the work is the best it can be. Rewriting is a writer’s best friend—whether a newbie or an old hand. Put the precious words in a drawer, cyber or real, and let them simmer. Get feedback from trusted sources, rewrite again.

Lucy can be found online in “way too many places” (her words): Facebook, Pinterest, Twitter, Mystery Lovers Kitchen, and Jungle Red Writers. Plus her own websites, as Lucy Burdette and Roberta Isleib.  

Pre-order Murder With Ganache: 

Find Lucy at: [killer recipes!]