With the holiday season in full hustle and bustle mode, I took some time this morning from cookie making and party planning and decorating to reflect on why I love this time of year so much.
It really is about the spirit of giving. Everyone is so generous. As my guests walk through the house on Christmas tours, what they like best is the Christmas tree decorated with ornaments made by the women in the Marysville Reformatory. Under the tree are beautifully knit hats and blankets and mittens for us to give to children who need it after Christmas. The women call this tree the Redemption Tree, and these gifts are their gifts to help others. The warden shared with me some of their touching stories, and how giving to others really helps them.
I read this morning about a school in Louisville, a town in Northeast Ohio, that is working to make sure every child gets a meal at lunchtime. Many schools report having unpaid debt for kids who cannot pay for their lunch. Kids can charge up to $10, but above that, these kids are given an alternate lunch — a cheese sandwich. It’s not that the cheese sandwich is bad, but it is an embarrassment to the child to be singled out. Many times the lunchroom employees were actually reaching into their own pockets to pay for the children’s lunches. So Jan Williams, the food service director for the Louisville City Schools, started a “Full Belly Account.” When the school district posted their story on Facebook, they got lots of donations to help these kids get the food they need, and avoid the embarrassment!
My personal favorite gift giving is the Christmas presents I send down to the Becky DeWine School in the slum of Cité Soleil, Haiti, every year. I’ve been doing this for about 20 years. Now there are about 5,000 kids in the school. So I collect and buy little presents all year long. I have several friends who go to garage sales for me, and beg for or buy old Beanie Babies. We collected 1,200! The children love them and the elderly love them, too. Unfortunately, this year I couldn’t send them down in my normal way because there has been so much violence all over Haiti that we weren’t even able to open the schools until a couple of weeks ago. Things are a little better now and we have been sending our toys down. I just want these kids to have Christmas, too!
For my own children and grandchildren, I love to give a gift in their name to other children in the world. I love giving gifts of goats and rabbits and chickens to families in Nicaragua or Africa or other poor countries to help a family get out of poverty. Heifer International, Save the Children, and World Vision along with other organizations do this. I pick an animal — like a goat or lamb or flock of geese — to purchase for the family, and then I buy a small plastic goat or lamb or goose to wrap up and give to my child or grandchild. I like them to really think about what they are giving. It’s really fun to open up, one at a time, these symbolic gifts! And if my grandkids don’t want to take them home, they just leave them in my manger set.
I’m not buying a whole lot of gifts this year, but I do have some special friends that I really want to remember. I’ve done my share of cookie making for all of my parties, but as a gift for my special friends I like to make biscotti. My favorite is Apricot-Almond Biscotti. It’s chewy, full of protein, and just a little sweet — and they can think of me as they enjoy that first cup of coffee in the morning!
1 3/4 cup flour
1 cup ground almonds
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon lemon zest
1/2 cup butter
2/3 cup sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla
1/4 cup whole skin-on almonds, finely chopped
1/2 cup dried apricots, finely chopped
Mix dry ingredients with lemon zest. Cream butter and sugar. Add vanilla and eggs. Add flour mixture and mix. Stir in almonds and apricots.
Cover baking sheet with parchment paper. Form log 12 inches x 3 inches x 1 inch. Sprinkle with sugar. Bake 25-30 minutes. Cool 30 minutes. Cut 1/2” thick. Place slices on rack on baking sheet. Bake 20-30 minutes at 300 degrees. Cool. Store in airtight containers.
Ohio First Lady Fran DeWine is a Cedarville resident, Yellow Springs native and guest columnist.