Yesterday I got a reminder that the city of St. Louis is turning on its holiday lights at Kiener Plaza next Friday. Yes, the 19th. Yes, before Thanksgiving. Christmas creep feels even more absurd than usual when the weather is 70 degrees every day! It’s hard to think about gift lists when I’m still harvesting ripe tomatoes and watering the lawn!

But the holiday lights do indeed go on next Friday downtown, and perhaps in your neighborhood as well. My neighborhood is Soulard, and our tree gets lit (and so do a lot of the residents!) on Dec. 4. Actually, I shouldn’t poke fun at an event that goes by the upstanding name of Fete de Noel, but ever since Santa and his Spandex-clad ho-ho-hos made an appearance a couple of years ago, I feel they’ve made themselves fair game.

But I digress — back to the downtown event. It starts at 4:30 p.m. but the actual switch is flipped at 6:26, with the party continuing until 8 over toward Macy’s. There will be fireworks and music … probably no snow, but they’re promising hot chocolate so I hope we at least feel a bit of a nip of cold on our noses!

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I enjoy the Saint Louis Zoo much more when it’s really cold than when it’s really hot.  Blame it on my North Dakota upbringing, but I really like the briskness of winter events like Wild Lights (going on now through Dec. 23 and again Dec. 26-30, 5:30 to 8:30 p.m.).

This year there’s an extra special event on the zoo’s cold-weather calendar: a celebration of its reaching an all-time high for the number of visitors in a year.  Last week it counted No. 3,065,554, and to thank the public for its enthusiasm (remember, I-64 was closed during this milestone year) and putting up with the hassles, the children’s zoo will have free admission from Dec. 26 to 31. There are also special feeding sessions for some of the animals each day; visit the special Visitor Appreciation Days page on the zoo’s site.

My family has a fondness for almond bark. Yes, it’s just candy coating made with vegetable fat instead of actual cocoa butter … and yes, it’s deathly sweet. But I can’t imagine Christmas without almond bark pretzels. It’s the easiest thing in the world to make — it cracks me up that there are recipes for it — and this weekend, I taught M. how to melt it up, coat pretzel rods till they’re draped in just enough goo, and then dip them into mounds of sugary sprinkles.

He lost interest after 47 … then came back around 75 to count my progress … but by 118, when I finally finished my fifth bag of pretzel rods, he wasn’t even particularly eager to lick the bowl. Who knew he even had a sugar saturation point? Of course, then S. woke up from his nap, took one look at the counter top, and breathlessly asked, “Oooooh, Mama, what is this?”

We packaged up most of the pretzel rods to give as holiday gifts, but I have a stash reserved for the relatives who’ll be arriving later on this week. Whether any make it that long is an open question.

A couple of weeks ago we went to the Saint Louis Symphony’s Family Concert Series. A major portion of the hour-long program was dedicated to The Nutcracker Suite, as befits the season. Dancers performed short interpretations of the various pieces, which caught S.’s attention, but M. was more about the music. Ever since, we’ve had the CD on heavy rotation in the living room. It was a reminder to me that music I take somewhat for granted might be new to the kids, and there’s something special about seeing my old favorites through their young eyes (or ears, in this case).

Thus one of the many event e-mails bombarding me this week caught my attention. It was from the Town and Country Symphony Orchestra, which performs a free Sunday afternoon (Dec. 13) concert at 2:30 p.m. in the Ridgway Auditorium on the Principia campus. Specifically, I saw that Sleigh Ride was on the program. There’s plenty of other classic holiday music too, if slower songs are more your style, but I do like the pep of Sleigh Ride.

If the holiday season’s too busy, check out the Town and Country Symphony’s other free shows, in January, February, March and May.

I’m trying to keep with the holiday spirit, so I won’t tell you my reaction to the first snowflakes (more like sleetflakes, actually) hitting my windshield on the way home tonight. Maybe it was the mild summer and rainy fall, but this is the first time in my eight years of St. Louis residence that I’m not looking forward to winter.

It’s a good thing we baked some cookies today (The Blue Owl Bakery’s Gooey Butter Balls, very yummy!) or I’d not be in the right frame of mind at all to tell you about the Holiday on the Plaza event in the Central West End on Saturday (Dec. 5). It’s billed as a multicultural event but there don’t seem to be a whole lot of details on that part of the event, aside from the trees variou ethnic communities will be decorating.  What I can tell you is that there’ll be lights and Santa and Bob Kramer’s Marionettes and an indoor (no sleetflakes!!) workshop with “a fun and culturally enriching interactive experience for children of all ages.”  The elves taking part include The Magic House, The Saint Louis Science Center, Bowood Farms and Home Depot.

Instead of paying the $5-per-child admission, bring a new, unwrapped toy. (Proceeds and donations go to the Salvation Army.)  Adults get in free.  It all happens on Maryland Plaza from 3 to 5 p.m.

We’re usually out of town for Thanksgiving, so I was all excited when I realized the holiday tree lighting ceremony was today. My next realization, however, was that there was no way our crazy pre-travel schedule would allow us to get downtown to see it! It would have been better to have been out of town, actually; now I’m disappointed all over again!

But the tree looks lovely (you can see a photo here) and I look forward to supporting some of the other holiday events downtown. I recently learned there’s a nonprofit, Christmas in St. Louis, that puts together holiday events like the tree lighting and the Thanksgiving Day parade (9 a.m. to noon on Nov. 26).

This year the Convention and Visitors Commission is putting on a new downtown attraction, called St. Louis Holiday Magic, at the convention center — and it sounds almost worth the price of admission ($10 adults, $6 kids ages 6 to 12, free for 5 and under) to see the 40,000 choreographed lights. Admission also includes indoor carnival rides.  If the weather ‘s lousy on the weekend of Dec. 4-6, you might just find us there.

More rain, more coughing … but no fever today. And we made chicken soup, so tomorrow should be golden health-wise, if not weather-wise! If you’re indoors too, head over to Integrity’s homepage and vote for one of three charities you feel deserves a new homepage, courtesy of the company’s holiday generosity. Do good without spending a dime.

sugar-cookieDid you eat up all your cookies yet? We stirred up one more batch of sugar cookies earlier this week, a special family recipe passed down from my grandma and perfected by my aunt. I haven’t been back to my hometown at Christmas for many years, but one mention of these thick, moist cookies and I’m right there in Bowman, North Dakota, after the annual Dec. 24 meal of oyster stew and Brussels sprouts, searching for the cookie with my name on it. You don’t need to get that fancy when you’re decorating these — in fact, Aunt Gail says, store-bought icing works perfectly well — and you don’t need to make them only at Christmas.

Gail’s Sour Cream Sugar Cookies
Yield: About 5 dozen
1 cup shortening
1 3/4 cups sugar
2 eggs
1 tsp. vanilla
1 cup sour cream
4 cups flour
1 tsp. baking soda
1 tsp. baking powder
1/2 tsp. salt

Cream the shortening and sugar with a mixer. Add the vanilla and eggs and beat well. In a separate bowl, stir together the dry ingredients, then add them to the creamed mixture alternately with the sour cream, beating well after each addition. The dough will be soft and sticky. Roll out a third of the dough on a floured surface to a 1/4-inch thickness (or to taste — we prefer them quite thick) and cut with cookie cutters. Transfer to an ungreased, unlined cookie sheet. They can be decorated now with sugar sprinkles, if you like, or baked plain at 400 degrees for 8 minutes, until they’re done but not brown. Not even a tiny bit at the edges. Cool them on a wire rack and frost them with your choice of icing. They store well in the freezer, if you can get them there before they’re scarfed up!

As I watched the garbage truck’s slow progress down an alley of overflowing Dumpsters this morning, I got to thinking that, frustrating as trash haulers and recycling truck drivers have it the week after Christmas, it’s we parents who really suffer!  We’re trying to catch up on all the things we put off to make the holidays magical for the kids … and they want us to play their new games and toys with them.  And yes, my parents are here to share the burden, but to be honest, I think my dad really needs a nap!

So I’ll make this a quick post today:  Take those cooped-up kids over to either the Winter Getaway at the Missouri History Museum or the Wacky Winter Workshop at the Saint Louis Science Center for programs specially designed to cure any child’s post-holiday malaise.

Winter Getaway is a week of readings, concerts,films, theater performances and workshops, with a major emphasis on penguins.  Starting tomorrow (Dec. 27) and running until Jan. 2, the getaway has midday activities lined up for a variety of ages and interests.  Our longtime favorite Babaloo will be there Tuesday (Dec. 30) at 10:30 a.m., and his shows are always great fun for kids under 8 or so, while some of the dramas and tours will be more interesting for older children.  There’s a full schedule on the Winter Getaway brochure online, or just show up around 10 a.m. (admission is free) and discover what’s in store that day.

Over at the Science Center’s Wacky Winter Workshop, from now until Jan. 5, kids can build their ideal holiday decoration using eco-friendly materials.  “Ideal,” of course, lies in the mind of the creator, so there’s no telling what your young designers will come up with.  (I know from personal experience they can get pretty wild ideas when faced with a big piece of recycled stuff — right now we’re collecting items to put into our very own snow globe, using the tank of an old humidifier.  If anyone has any leads on tiny plastic snowflakes, let me know!)

The project is free, but if you’re desperate enough to start paying to have your kids entertained over break, the Science Center also offers Holidazed Day Camps for kids in grades 1 to 6 (remaining dates are Dec. 29, 30 and 31 and Jan. 2 and 5).  For details on those, call 314.289.4439.

As you probably  know, admission to the Science Center is free but parking is $8 per car in the lots to the south of the complex.  There are also a couple of smaller free lots and free street parking over in Forest Park, on the north side of the construction project that used to be Interstate 64.

Today’s ideas were both generate by other publications. First up is a nice feature in the Post-Dispatch about three private holiday light displays where the homeowners collect donations for charities: 9211 Laurel Hill Drive in Crestwood (collecting money for St. Patrick Center), 730 Avondale Drive in St. Peters (collecting canned goods for FISH of St. Charles) and 1337 McKinley Ave. in Rock Hill (collecting cash for BackStoppers and canned goods for Webster-Rock hill Ministries).

The second idea is a hot cocoa party, courtesy of Midwest Living magazine.  The authors suggest setting up a buffet with various kinds and flavors of hot chocolate plus toppings like marshmallows, chocolate shavings and whipped cream.  They neglect to add my personal choice, peppermint schnapps!