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Joseph is missing. I am speaking of my friend’s Joseph, whom she wrapped carefully last year after Christmas and nestled him gently with the rest of her nativity set, put away safely for another for another year. She went through each piece of wrapping paper again, but to no avail. Joseph has left the stable. Even though most of the attention has always been on Mary and the baby Jesus, Joseph is an important part of the Christmas story. Important, but kind of in the background, as dads tend to be. I think they like it that way. Joseph wandered around the city of Bethlehem looking for a place to stay, and could only find a stable. I wonder if Mary was urging him to stop and ask for directions? Being in labor, I’m pretty certain she at least urged him to speed up the donkey just a little bit. This time of year, more modern Josephs wander around the Christmas crowds with a deer-in-the-headlights kind of look. Funny, but when they reach for their wallets to pay, they get the same kind of look in their eyes. They rearrange the furniture to make enough room for the biggest, tallest, most beautiful tree they have ever hauled home. They rearrange it again, just to suit HER, because it is a well-known fact that it will be a merrier Christmas for everyone if they do. They haul the boxes of ornaments and decorations up from basements and down from attics. The original Joseph, being a carpenter, probably made toys for the young Jesus to play with. More modern Joesphs put together toys until three in the morning on Christmas Eve, only to be awakened at five by a houseful of excited young voices on Christmas morning. They are awakened again from their after dinner football naps, perhaps by an exuberant toddler taking a flying leap and landing on their belly. Although my own Joseph isn’t usually the holly jolly mistletoe type of Christmas guy, he drove all over town to buy the perfect gift for a very special little boy and always has a big part in making Christmas dinner. My friend tried to insert a few stand-ins to take Joseph’s place in her nativity set, but even the small ceramic Santa of the same size didn’t do the trick. Besides, with all that red and white, Santa didn’t match. Update: Thank goodness for eBay, as my friend was able to find a matching Joseph replacement. Christmas just wouldn’t have been the same without him.

I come from a long line of Christmas bakers. My mom always made several types of cookies, including the traditional Scandinavian sandbakkel, krumkake, and beautiful crispy rosettes, dusted with powdered sugar. They would melt in your mouth. My grandma made Finnish prune tarts, with the dough folded to look like stars, and stored them in brightly decorated Christmas tins. These were always served with fresh coffee, almost strong enough to stand a spoon upright in the cup. Since milk is much healthier for children, we got our coffee served half and half with milk, with a couple of spoons of sugar stirred in for good measure. Dad was more of an eater than a baker, and was one of the 10 people in the state who actually liked fruitcake. I used to start my baking early in December, making at least four types of cookies and two types of fudge. Everyone’s favorite were the rolled-out sugar cookies, cut into shapes and decorated with colored sugar or frosting. Those, by the way, were my least favorite because they were so much harder to make and I have no patience when it comes to rolling out and decorating cookies. Pans of peanut butter and chocolate fudge were made and shared with neighbors, who in return shared plates of their own sweet treats. Times have changed, though. I don’t think I’ve done any Christmas baking in the last few years. The dietary needs and habits in our family have changed tremendously. Some of us are grain and gluten-free, some are low carb ketogenic, some are sugar-free, and some are all of the above. Except HIM. He rolls his eyes at the rest of us and looks around hopefully for cookies, and sadly, there are none. You’ve got to feel just a little bit sorry for the poor guy. Here we are in the season of peace on earth and good gingerbread men, and there are no Christmas goodies in the house. I have seen several recipes for sugar-free-low-carb-gluten-free-ketogenic cookies, but I’m afraid that they will taste exactly like they sound. So, in the true Christmas spirit, I will toss my stale flour to the chickens, buy fresh, and make a batch of something sweet to leave on the table for that jolly old man…and for HIM. You don’t think Santa Claus has gone gluten-free, do you?

The New York Times recently published an article on regional Thanksgiving favorites in which the author apparently “scoured” the nation and got a recipe from a Minnesota-born heiress for grape salad. This salad is a simple concoction of grapes, sour cream, and brown sugar, sometimes topped with nuts and broiled, sometimes not. From what I have been reading, Minnesota is in an uproar over this supposed tradition, so much so that blogs all across America are making mention of it. It is easy enough to explain, though. Whoever wrote the article has no idea about Minnesota traditions. He may not even realize that here in the northern part of the state, which the USDA calls Zone 3, we can grow only three types of grapes out of approximately 3000 different varieties. No, I didn’t do any scientific research to come up with these numbers, any more than he did any research on the favorite food traditions of Minnesota. I have never actually harvested any grapes, but I do get plenty of vines and leaves. I add the leaves to my pickles to make them crispy, and these homemade pickles grace our table each holiday. I dare anyone to find a Minnesota Thanksgiving table without at least one type of pickle. We even pickle our fish! If he came to dinner at any number of homes, and after passing the pickles, looked to the left and looked to the right, he would see no heiresses. I don’t think anyone in Minnesota even uses the word “heiress”. We are simple folks who eat like we are wealthy even when we’re not. Many cooks serve good wholesome vegetables “put up” from summer gardens. Since we are one of the nation’s largest producers of turkey (turkey recipes were given to several other states), we might enjoy that, venison, beef, or pork as a main dish. Along side would be a wild rice hotdish (wild rice was given to our neighbor, The Dairy State and no, I don’t make this stuff up) jello salad (perhaps with a few grapes but more likely, cranberries, canned fruit, or shredded carrots), mashed potatoes, gravy, and pie of any sort. Minnesotans love pie. Our beloved lefse was given to North Dakota, and their recipe calls for canola oil instead of melted butter. My Scandinavian immigrant ancestors are probably rolling in their graves as I write this. “What ‘da HECK iss canoola oil?” they would probably ask as they slathered even more butter and sprinkled sugar on their lefse. Trying to explain a GMO would probably be beyond their understanding, as I know it is beyond mine. I do have to make a confession to make: I HAVE had the grape salad on a couple of Thanksgivings. My daughter found the recipe and made it for holiday meals in the days before most of the family gave up sugar. It was delicious, too, but not my favorite way to have grapes. So, while the rest of Minnesota is complaining about them, I will embrace the grape and have a little of it MY way….fermented and poured into a lovely crystal glass that I bought a garage sale. Perhaps it was a cast-off from a real heiress. Red or white, crystal or paper cup, it doesn’t matter, because I am thankful for it. Happy Thanksgiving from Zone 3 in northern Minnesota!

For as long as I can remember, my mother would eat the turkey neck every Thanksgiving. My mother-in-law did, too. Both claimed it was their favorite piece of the bird. I always found it to be a little stringy, but never wasted that turkey neck, choosing instead to simmer it with the giblets, then chop it very finely and add it to the gravy. This year, for the first time, I raised turkeys on our little farm. Getting advice from real farmers, I purchased six babies last spring. Six because everyone told me I would probably lose a few to predators, weather, or just plain stupidity on my part…or theirs. Despite these dire warnings, I ended up with all six, but they didn’t stay babies for long. I learned that turkeys grow rapidly and eat a lot, and by a lot, I mean A LOT. I tried to free-range them as much as I could, hoping they would fill up on grass, worms, and bugs. Around here, in the land of coyotes and foxes and bears (oh, my), animals must be protected. In addition to the free ranging, they lived a happy life in the coop and the run with the chickens. (I can’t vouch for the happiness of the chickens, however.) I didn’t name the turkeys, knowing that they would eventually be dinner. Although I didn’t harden my heart against them, I didn’t treat them as pets, either. They were really fun to watch, and contrary to what I had heard, were certainly not lacking in intelligence. As the days started getting shorter, I knew “the deed” had to be done sooner than later. I had already arranged with my son-in-law to take care of that duty, and my best friend since the first grade, who is always up for anything, agreed to help. We managed to get them cleaned, although I must admit, it was a lot of work with a little bit of sadness thrown in. I’m really not sure I’d want do it again. After sending each of my assistants home with a turkey-and-a-half, one is in the freezer and the others were sent to the local butcher to be made into breast fillets and turkey sausage. I saved the bones and simmered them yesterday with bay leaves, lots of garlic, and a touch of apple cider vinegar to make several quarts of broth which will be good for what ails us in the coming winter months. As I picked the meat off those turkey necks to make soup, I thought about the fast food throw-away world we live in now. Raising your own meat and vegetables is about as slow as food can get. The thought of wasting any part of those turkeys after taking care of them personally would be almost sinful. It took me a while, but I finally understand why our ancestors saved everything and wasted nothing. My life is filled with blessings. I have helpful friends, a warm home, healthy food, and a loving family to share it with. For all these things, and especially for turkeys, I give my heartfelt thanks.

Somewhere around here I have a box of letters. There are a few that my great-grandmother wrote to the folks back home, filled with news about the relatives and her health. There are eloquently written letters from my father to my mother. There is even a packet of love letters, all written on yellow stationary that I got from HIM during our engagement. They are short but very sweet, and I saved every single one of them. I used to be a good letter writer. Since I moved about a thousand miles from home after we married, I kept in touch with friends and family through letters, and I was happy to get them in return. We didn’t have a lot of money, long-distance telephone rates were expensive, and postage stamps were cheap. Gradually, it became more affordable to call, and I started sending a hand written letter only at Christmas. Most of my friends did the same. Then came email, which was a wonderful way to keep in touch with friends and family at the touch of a keyboard. Long letters were no longer necessary, as brief notes and funny jokes became a weekly or even daily occurrence. I looked forward to checking my email daily, even several times a day. Gradually, despite internet filters, “spam” email would find its way into my inbox. That, along with the same tired old jokes that circulated over and over, made email not such a thrill any more. Along came Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Now we can chat and send pictures instantly to everyone we know. We can have running conversations with each other by text messages on our phones. Husbands and wives are communicating with each other again, everywhere except at our house. The man who once wrote those sweet letters refuses to text and the only love notes he writes are left on the counter asking me to pick up peanut butter at the grocery store. Most people, including me, don’t bother to send Christmas cards any more, preferring instead to send greetings via social networking. These days, I still check my email every day, but have to weed through the spam and scammers to get to the important stuff. Cruise lines and mortgage companies want my business. Citizens from Libya are telling me I can share in their inheritance if I just give them my bank account number. Strangely enough, I even get information about adult diapers and choosing my own nursing home. Today, long-distance rates are cheap and postage stamps are expensive. I miss getting those good long newsy letters. I miss the anticipation of checking the mailbox every day and of sorting through the mail, saving the letters for last and reading them a second or even a third time. I love technology, but sometimes miss the way things used to be. We don’t save texts and emails. The next generation won’t find an old shoebox filled with love letters and faded photographs that were put away long ago by someone who wondered how the years went by so quickly. Maybe it is time for me to write a letter. It will be long, handwritten, and filled with news. Hopefully, I will even get one in return.

When I was growing up, I wanted to be an archeologist. On any given summer day, I could be found sifting through the sand surrounding our burn barrel in the back yard, finding assorted treasures such as chipped marbles, buttons, and singed animal bones. As an adult, I once borrowed a metal detector and was happily digging up nickels in a Florida state park when the rangers stopped me and threatened to confiscate them. Apparently, searching for buried treasure on state land in a historic county is against the law. Oops. I am always watching roadshows and picker shows on television and hear the stories of those who move to old farms and find things in their attics and barn rafters worth thousands of dollars. Well, we moved to an old farm, and we haven’t found anything except broken glass and rusty metal. I spend my summers picking up this junk, only to find more every year once the snow is gone. This fall, I have spent a few days moving my garden storage area from one shed to another. Ordinarily, at this time of the year, I am sitting in front of the fire with a good book, but the unusual balmy fall weather has extended my outdoor activity. When you are a homeowner, another word for outdoor activity is WORK. First, I hauled three wheelbarrow loads of wood scraps and old leftover pieces of lumber to the burn pile. It’s funny, but I thought it might make a good woodshed just before I realized it used to be a woodshed. Next, I moved the pile of old pieces of metal that I have picked up over the years from the corner of the shed to the trailer. Hopefully, HE will get the hint and make a trip to the recycle center before the snow flies. I raked the dirt floor from corner to corner, loosening up more wood chips and (no surprise here) lots of broken glass. I carefully dumped and sorted through a bucket of rusty nails, hoping to find a treasure beneath them, but there was nothing there but rusty nails. I found a few small toy trucks buried among the dirt and the glass. I found some old and some not so old rusty tools. I found a mouse nest made with lots of chicken feathers and straw. I found plenty of spider webs. Luckily, I didn’t find any spiders, but I know they were watching me. Emptied from top to bottom and from end to end, the little shed will be ready for its new/old role as a woodshed. It is not quite empty, though. Hidden in one of the corners is a collection of small toy trucks, an animal bone of some sort, and an old rusty chisel of unknown vintage. In a few years, my grandson will be old enough to do some exploring on his own, and if he’s anything like his grandma, he’ll be looking for a treasure. I hope he finds one.

There’s no doubt about it, Mother Nature has been good to us. We’ve had a glorious fall. The beautiful leaves, sunshiny warm days, and crisp cool nights have put nearly everyone in northern Minnesota in a good mood. Especially me. Although my summer garden was pretty much a failure, my fall garden is yielding my first ever harvest of Brussels sprouts. Usually, they are about as big as peas and I leave them there for the winter foraging animals. This year, I’m looking forward to including them in a few meals, and there will be plenty for me, since HE won’t touch them. A few squash also managed to survive despite being nearly choked to death by weeds. The generosity of neighbors has supplemented the meager harvest immensely, and I have a refrigerator full of carrots and have had enough tomatoes to make both spaghetti sauce and chili. There is a lot to do in Minnesota to prepare for winter. There is more to do if you live on a farm, even if that farm consists of a nearly barren garden and 20 chickens who until a few weeks ago, were just about as barren as the garden. We are ready for winter. Well, not READY ready. Just ready. Last year, winter came when it was still fall. It was a long, cold, snowy winter, too, and we ran out of wood long before it was over. Luckily, we don’t heat completely with wood, but it sure helps with the heating bill. This year, HE has cut, split, and stacked plenty. Two weeks ago, with the fall house cleaning done and the freezers cleaned and stocked, we were ready. Still, Mother Nature cooperated with another week of nice weather. Since it was so nice, we cleaned out some of our outbuildings, hung storage cupboards, and spread gravel. The chicken coop was cleaned, bales of straw were hauled in, and old straw removed. We were ready. This weekend brought more gorgeous weather, so the garden shed was cleaned and organized, and I scrubbed and put away the outdoor furniture. I’m furiously washing and hanging sheets and quilts, too. Once the snow flies I will have to resort to using the dryer, and since no dryer sheet in the world smells as sweet as the great outdoors, I savor this task for as long as I can. Despite the fact that my hollyhocks are blooming for the second time this year and it’s warm enough to be outside without a jacket, I swept the leaves off the deck and put the snow shovel out, right next to the Halloween decorations. In Minnesota, one never knows when the flurries will come. Bring it on, Mother Nature. We’re ready. Well, not READY ready. The only thing I’m READY ready for is the Jacuzzi tub. Although HE’s not complaining a bit about all this hard work, my muscles feel like I’ve been put through the wringer. When it comes to winter preparations, it seems there’s no rest for the weary Farm Woman.

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