The magic of Christmas Eve can only barely be captured by these photos, and even less by anything I might try to put into words. Hope yours was as lovely and warm as ours.
Some unfortunate souls still haven’t finished their Christmas shopping yet, and to them I say… well, I’m not going to say anything. It’s the season of giving, so consider that my gift to all humankind. I’ve already done my shopping bit, and as much as I love it, it does bring back memories of entering the maelstrom of the retail world just prior to Christmas. If you think it’s a nightmare being a shopper at this time of the year, it’s nothing compared to being a retail worker.
Back in the 90’s, during an epic stint at Structure, my managers wanted me working the floor as much as possible, so I got to know the holiday soundtrack quite well. The day after Thanksgiving that holiday tape started its non-stop rotation. It began with ‘All I Want For Christmas is You’ and went downhill from there. Yet somehow the repetition didn’t wear me down, and it didn’t dull my love for Christmas songs (with the possible exception of that ‘you mean you forgot cranberries too?’ awfulness).
What got me through it all was the shared camaraderie of my co-workers and managers. The stress and excitement and mixed bag of the holiday shopping season bound us all together. It made me feel a part of something, a notion that had eluded me all my life, and something that would haunt and taunt me for years. Finally, I was one of the group, and it was us against the buying world. Our weapons were charm and grace and poise under pressure. Our enemies were the hapless, selfish, and ignorant consumers – the ones who expected you to find a suit that shaved fifty pounds from their body and was on sale for 120% off. We fought this common enemy by doing our damnedest to bring them comfort and joy. It was a delicate and often difficult balancing act, but I genuinely think we were all buoyed by the Christmas spirit.
Some did complain, but secretly I thrilled at where I was and what I got to go. Working at a clothing store was a gay boy’s dream come true. It was where I cut my fashion teeth, and how I learned about the evils of pleated pants firsthand. It was also located in the heart of Boston, fulfilling a lifelong dream. When I was a little boy, we’d occasionally visit Faneuil Hall just after the holidays. We were on vacation and the decorations were still up, so I have fond memories of that holiday glow, the bustling food hall, and the rows of bull markets lining the cobblestone paths. Those memories were joined with the new ones I made during my holiday seasons at Structure. I was on the inside looking out, at last.
Both sides were pretty cool at Christmas.
“Christmas in a Glass” is Jamie Oliver’s nickname for his mulled wine recipe, and if it’s good enough for The Naked Chef, it’s good enough for me. It’s certainly fine for staving off a cold December day and warming the cockles of the heart in seasonal jubilation. And when your child is drinking hot chocolate and eating fifty marshmallows before devouring a chocolate spoon, you need a little something to take the edge off.
I’d combined the dry ingredients with the sugar for a couple of days beforehand (making for an easier traveling plan) and the white granules got to soak in all the fragrance and flavor from the freshly-spliced vanilla bean, freshly-ground nutmeg, cinnamon stick, bay leaves and star anise. That alone was heavenly, but when you added the peels of clementines, a lemon and a lime, it was better than a Yankee Candle.
I loved the idea of being the warming stop after a day of Boston exploration, and the condo has always been a cozy place perfect for just such a scenario. Our little guests began arriving, and Suzie volunteered to pick up some last minute food provisions (I provide the hot drinks and fancy footwear – the rest is always up in the air).
(The family that wears the same coats together, stays together.)
As the hours passed, the hot chocolate was devoured, holiday hedgehogs were crafted, Christmas crackers were pulled open with a pop, and the kids made up a game that involved running between rooms. It was the most raucous the condo had been in some time and I was grateful to have had the foresight to invite the twinfants in the condo below to visit at any time. (The key to any party where you don’t want the police called prematurely.)
The light outside went down, while inside the condo candles flickered, Christmas music played, and the sounds of children screaming with laughter (and the occasional bump) filled the normally silent space. At the end of it (and it was a good five-hour stretch) I was drained but giddy with their infectious seasonal excitement. That’s the real reason for the season.
We’d survived another Boston Children’s Holiday Hour, and I was better for it.
Despite all outward appearances to the contrary, I lead a largely quiet and calm life. Whatever anyone else makes of my social media shenanigans and website outrageousness, however outlandish my outfits or accessories may get, my day-to-day existence is a rather peaceful one. (That’s the beauty of an outlet like this – I save all the drama for this space and work it out through words and self-analysis, so the rest of my life can sail by relatively uneventfully.)
For my possibly-annual Boston Children’s Holiday Hour, however, I suspend that quiet life for an afternoon of holiday mayhem and celebration and invite the growing cadre of children in my friends’ orbit over for hot chocolate and revelry. Their parents are in tow, so we offer grown-up libations for them, and then before I reach the end of my fraying rope of sanity, we order dinner in, appease the hangry bellies, and send everyone off in more-or-less satiated form. Mostly, though, it nourishes my faith in humanity. My friends are raising some amazing children, and it’s a wonderful thing to watch them interact at this time of the year.
To pull it off, however, requires some planning and preparation – my two favorite things. I did not have to do it alone, thankfully, as Kira stayed around for the whole thing, starting with some preparation the night before, in the form of this holiday libation. Things just run smoother when gin is involved.
The first task, one I had executed a couple of weeks ago, was to find a gift for each child. This is not really a big deal, and I stumbled inadvertently upon a hot-ticket item for kids, or so I’ve been told: magic sequins. I’ve been wearing sequins for years, so I’m not sure why they’re suddenly all the rage, but hey, anytime the drag queens can reach a youthful audience it’s a good thing. (They would also match my shoes for the evening so it worked on every level.)
Then there were the crafts/toys that needed to be on hand to occupy their time while the adults mingled over mulled wine and other things. A holiday hedgehog kit works wonders for such a task (though I warn any novice child-herders to make note of the fine print – you’re going to need glue, glue sticks, scissors, markers, string, a strand of magic beans, and some other nonsense to make full use of the not-so-all-inclusive $20 ‘kit’ – most of which an adult condo in Boston is lacking). I also procured a dozen holiday gift ‘crackers’ – the kind you pull apart to release a plastic piece of crap (a yo-yo or protractor or tissue-paper crown for example).
Finishing the scene were the ingredients and accoutrements for the libations. Citrus, spices, and cinnamon sticks for the mulled wine; chocolate mix, mini-marshmallows and chocolate spoons for the hot chocolate.
Kira and I went to bed watching Lidia Bastianich make a plum gnocchi dish, then fell asleep to the first part of ‘Love Actually’.
The next day we finished up our Christmas shopping and took the T to Chinatown for a bowl of pho before the festivities. As we sat there sipping our soup and stirring in the sriracha sauce, I remarked that we needed to enjoy the calm before the storm. In a few hours there would be kids and sugar, and the riotous excitement that the season brings. I also said we may end up looking back at that moment and realizing it was one of the best of the weekend. She laughed it all off. Having raised two girls of her own, she was looking forward to witnessing Uncle Alan woefully out of his element. We finished our soup and hurried out.
The children were coming…
Have you been naughty or nice?
I’ve done my best, and that’s all anyone can do. The holiday spirit got to me early, and it’s been a more or less fun season thus far. (I write this a few days in advance of today, so who knows what state of frazzled holiday mind I’ll be in by the time it goes live…) But a few fun posts have already hinted at the Christmas good-will I’m doing my best to embrace.
There was this happy highball holiday memory.
And there was this mad beginning to the festivities.
It was one of the moments that brought my brother and I back together after adolescent turmoil and trouble: our trip to pick up the family Christmas tree. In high school we went our own ways, about as far apart as two brothers could go, but by the time I was spending most of my year at Brandeis, we had grown up a little and were ready to become friends. On an unplanned whim, we both volunteered to go pick up the tree in the mid-to-late 90’s. I still remember the drive, on a bright but wildly windy day, and the twins still ask me to tell the story of how the tree fell off the car before we even got home.
That story came up again, after we picked out the tree (and by we I mean Noah and Emi) and had secured a table by the fire at our old stomping ground the Cock & Bull.
On the ride over, we passed the frozen pond that I drove by on all my oboe lessons. The kids studied their spelling words, and my brother and I searched for Christmas music on the radio.
It was a warm tradition still intact, and I asked the twins to tell us some of their stories. At seven they claimed they didn’t have any, but we all recalled the night Emi went backwards in her chair when we picked up a tree a few years ago. They will have more, much more, to tell one day. They have only just begun.
“I don’t ask you to love me always like this but I ask you to remember. Somewhere inside of me there will always be the person I am tonight.” ~ F. Scott Fitzgerald
Cheers, mofos. Taking a page out of ‘The Great Gatsby’, this year I aimed for class instead of trash. Not every Holiday Card brings the kind of image that offends across-the-board (much as I wished it would), so for 2017 I’m trying on a quiet close for a relatively quiet year. Without further hubbub and ado, here is the Holiday Card for 2017:
As for the behind-the-scenes story on the making of this one, it’s pretty simple. It was shot in Boston, where I installed the mantle of Christmas decorations in the weeks before the actual holiday. I haven’t shot a Holiday Card at the condo since 1999, I think, and I’d been wanting to return to the setting for some time. Last year’s card was almost set in the condo bedroom, but I didn’t want to risk bloodying the silk headboard. After the drive from Albany to Boston, a change into the fancy garb you see here, and an authentic cocktail, I took a series of timed shots, checking sporadically on how they were turning out, and was done in short fashion.
It was one of the easiest Holiday Cards I’ve done, and I was patting myself on the back when I returned to Albany the next day to upload them when I noticed that my fly was open in all of the photos. Too late (and too lazy) for a re-shoot, I was forced to use a side profile and call it a day. Sometimes the universe makes editing and selecting easier than anticipated. (More than one person said they would have preferred the open fly shots, but I’m not here to please.)
Happy Holidays, from my fly to yours.
Not all Holiday Cards can feature me spreading my legs and giving quasi-birth to a baby meant to symbolize the sweet baby Jesus himself, so this year is a bit of a fluffy filler. Its non-controversial simplicity is designed rather unintentionally to get me back on all the fridges and holiday card collection displays that found last year’s card too much. (And all this time I thought people loved the big JC.)
Let’s have our annual linky look back at some of the Holiday Cards that have come before. (Can you believe I’ve been doing this shit since 1995? Thank God some of those years prior to the digital age have been lost…) Too bad not all of these are as easily vanquished.
As for this year’s card (which was be posted tomorrow morning), I went back to basics and opened my fly.
And coming tomorrow the Holiday Card 2017…
Another Holiday Stroll with Kira is in the shopping bag (busted wide open along the seams because Kira doesn’t know to stop stuffing things in). We traversed our city while keeping things close to the condo, from an opening roasted chicken salvo to a closing Sunday dinner of dim sum. For the whole story, check out the most recent posts if you haven’t yet had a chance:
It was a good weekend, and a reminder of the power of holiday traditions, no matter how new. At seven or so years, this is one that I hope sticks around.
We slept well following all the walking we did, slumbering after we finished most of ‘The Family Stone’ was done. In the quiet of the night, I pad silently out to the kitchen for a glass of water, looking out across the street to the row of houses that has all the Christmas lights displayed. In a few weeks, after the holidays have finished, the street will be quieter, but if there is snow it will be brighter. There are drawbacks and benefits to both. On this night it is cozy enough, and I savor the moment. The next day will extend our Holiday Stroll, but it doesn’t begin until brunch at 11, and until such time we rest and relax and take our time waking. Buffering such luxuries is why I like to be prepared and unrushed.
This cheeky peanut thief greeted us as we walked into Sunday morning on Braddock Park. Not content to scrounge around in the little garden square, he haughtily stood on his hind legs and brazenly posed until I got the perfect shot. Everyone wanted to be part of this Holiday Stroll. We made our way into Back Bay and a sinfully excessive brunch at Club Café.
Eating until beyond our hearts and stomachs were content (Kira went back to the buffet three times to my one, not that anyone was counting) we were then ready to walk it all off again, which we started to do with a visit to the SoWa Market.
On the way, we stopped at this Christmas tree stand which we always seem to pass at some point during our stroll. A welcome feast for our noses, the evergreens and pines filled the space with their pungent holiday scents, completing our sensory enjoyment and capping the weekend with a familiar fragrance memory.
When we arrived at the market, there was some Winter Festival happening, but the line wrapped around two blocks and I don’t do a line that wraps around anything, so we passed by and picked up some items at Bobby from Boston.
(We did not pick up these wooden choir boys.)
We made our way through Chinatown, where I thought we might find Kira a reasonable substitute for a green dragon-embroidered robe she had seen at the market. Alas, the Chinatown shops of just a few years ago have closed or moved, and the shell of retail options left us bereft of any such robe. We paused in a few sad spots, but the main thing for sale was food. It had been a couple of hours since our brunch, so who were we to deny the pull of that? A couple of years ago we had a dim sum moment on one of these strolls, and we were happy to try to recreate that magic now. It worked only minimally – you can never do the same thing twice, no matter how fierce, and it was a futile exercise in trying to recapture what was once such a novelty.
We wound our way back through Downtown Crossing and into Faneuil Hall, where we were just in time for the lighting of their grand Christmas tree and a promised ‘special light show’ starting at 4:30. Dusk was falling and made the perfect backdrop for the tree. Mariah’s Christmas classic started up and the lights began moving. I haven’t been the biggest fan of Faneuil Hall since I actually moved to Boston many years ago, but it holds a special place in my heart at this time of the year, and despite the crowds and stupid tourists, there’s a bit of magic that creeps into my most jaded assessments of the place. We stepped carefully over the cobblestone walkways and ended up at Government Center, where we had, in the final hours of our Holiday Stroll, the unique and unexpected delight that I’d been hoping but not specifically planning for.
I’d read about the skating rink here, but forgotten about it – and never really thought much about visiting. We happened upon it en route to the T-stop, and though I should have been on the Mass Turnpike if I was going to make it home at a reasonable hour, the excitement and charm of a little make-shift village and shops was too magical to resist. Kira has been wanting to skate for some time, but that’s just not my scene. I promise her a cross-country ski trek in January, perhaps in Vermont. For now, we watched from the sidelines as our Holiday Stroll concluded with a cool blast of Boston whipping by our chilled cheeks.
We pause in the Holiday Stroll story to honor one of those jewels-of-a-moment I so treasure: the interim and in-between times in which we find ourselves in a holding pattern, either at the condo or a hotel lobby or quiet bar. There is no great excitement or action involved – just a moment to take a breath, to relax, to simply be. To halt for reflection of holiday joy. The first such moment happened as we returned to the condo after a day of shopping. That late afternoon is one of my favorite times to be in the condo, no matter what time of the year, and strangely enough because it is often so sad. The light is questionable – it can stream in during the summer or the end of winter, or it can be hidden, in grays and cloudy mists. This time of day is often hidden too – just before rush hour, long enough after lunch, one of those awful shifts when you don’t know quite how to feel about it.
On this afternoon, we returned to the condo – spent and sore but happy and relaxed, when you finally sink into the weekend because you are as far from Friday and Monday as you can get. We lit a few candles, and by this time the heat had filled the rooms – from the top of the high ceilings to the amber-glowing floors. No matter what maelstrom of weather of holiday bustle was taking place outside, in here it was always safe and warm, and we took a moment to watch the rest of ‘The Man Who Came To Dinner’ before reserving a table at Post 390 for dinner.
Darkness fell all the way down while we readied ourselves for dinner. Bundling up, we went back into the chilly December night, but the lights were bright, and we cut through Back Bay station and Post 390 was right there. The last time we were there had been a gorgeous spring day a few years ago. We stopped in for an early afternoon snack of oysters before a party we were throwing for JoAnn. On that day the fire had seemed an unnecessary thing; tonight, it was a welcome treat.
Though they forgot our oysters tonight, we made the best of it and decided to do our nightcap elsewhere. Back along Boylston, we took a moment to sit by the fire in the Lenox Hotel, another favorite haunt that is done up to fine effect for Christmas. (Its lemony-scented atmosphere was a happy citrus burst of rejuvenation.)
These little hotel lobby stops are an important part of our Holiday Stroll. They offer breaks and escapes from the rush of crowds and outside weather. For five or ten minutes, we sit and contempt the scenery. We indulge in some people-watching. Mostly, we enjoy the quiet time together, as friends do during the holidays.
Kira showed off her new coat purchase. When you find something that fits you well, and is a steal, you take it. I insisted. She obliged. The end result is chic, stylish, and perfect for a late-night walk back home. We were not quite ready to make those final steps though. The Mandarin quietly called with its own fireplace and cozy Bar Boulud.
A pair of white cosmopolitans was my acquiescence to Kira’s preference for sweetness and vodka. She struck up a quick conversation with the bartender, who explained that a small band was setting up to play jazz music in a bit, so we stuck around for one more. The music began and the night swelled into something magical.
Our day began without great hurry, as no plans had been made and no itinerary needlessly nagged us. We had a cup of hot tea and cut into a Panettone, which Kira had never tried before. (Thank you for the inspiration, Miss Coco Peru!) The day was bright, but slightly overcast. As long as it didn’t rain, we didn’t mind. (And even then we’d managed to make the most out of matters in the not-so-distant past.) On this day it looked like uneventful weather for a full morning of shopping and gift gathering, and we began with the bustle of Boylston Street.
In trying so valiantly to do something different and avoid our favorite haunts, we inadvertently fell back onto the tried and true ruts of Boylston Street and Downtown Crossing. Neither of which was necessarily bad, but we still wanted something new and unique to serve as the totem for this trip. That would have to come later, once we stopped trying so hard. For now, we worked our way along Boylston, skirting the Public Garden and the Common, then arriving in Chinatown for an early lunch of pho – a welcome winter habit.
Revitalized and warmed by the spicy broth, we rallied and fought our way through Downtown Crossing, where Kira found a giant FAO Schwartz bear and insisted I take her picture. Around this time we shared this puzzling exchange, in the way that Kira sometimes challenges me:
KIRA: What do you call those people who crash weddings?
ME: Wedding crashers?
KIRA: Yes. That’s it.
And that’s where the conversation ended. It was something she needed to know and I happened to be able to provide an answer. (And then I cracked up laughing.)
Our arms filled with shopping bags, we were feeling the first waves of fatigue as the crest of the day began to subside. I’d made no dinner plans, but it was early yet. Not too early for a cocktail, however, and one of our favorite places – the Bristol Lounge at the Four Seasons – had two high-top seats in a cozy corner of the bar. Service in that corner takes forever for some reason, but eventually we got to enjoy a cocktail. Near the lobby a winter wedding was starting to assemble in the same place where Andy and I held our own wedding lunch. A happy omen for a moment of respite.
The sights and sounds of the season surrounded us as we continued on our merry way. Making the Boston rounds with Kira is always a joy; doing so at this time of the year, with all the decorations and Christmas cheer, adds a certain sparkle to every step, no matter how quickly it gets dark. The light was quickly draining as we walked back to the condo for a late afternoon siesta.
We took a meandering route through the Copley Fairmont and its impressively-baroque archways. A pair of gold lions greeted us as we strolled through the lobby, and deep inside the hallway a pair of peacocks stood sentinel. A hotel lobby is a busy and exciting place at this time of the year. Reunions and squeals of delight, emboldened children doing their best to be good for Santa, and the not-just-yet exasperated friendliness of the staff makes for a crux of holiday mayhem. We bustled our way in and out, then returned to the condo as the last light of the day gently left the sky.
It was cold and gray when I entered Boston, save for a sliver of blue in the sky beyond the old Hancock building. The clouds were just rolling in, and a chill was settling into my bones. The thermostat in the condo was blank, save for a small ‘Low Batt’ message that I didn’t even notice before heading to the grocery store. In order to set this Holiday Stroll apart from the others (and to make up for a missed birthday in the fall) I was going to make Kira a roasted chicken dinner.
This is only the second or third chicken I’ve roasted in my life, and quite frankly none has ever been a smashing success, but I’m all for breaking through such a psychological impasse, so I picked up a five-pound bird, a bottle of wine, and all the necessary accoutrements then set about cooking dinner with some advice from ‘The Women’ running through my head: “If you stick a roast in the oven, what’s to stop it from getting done?”
The most difficult part for me remains cleaning that bird off and pulling out the insides. Reaching into an animal’s rib cage cavity will always freak me out, but I charged through it, patted the thing dry, stuffed it with lemons and garlic and thyme, then trussed the legs, rubbed it down with butter and sprinkled it liberally with fennel salt.
On a bed of fingerling potatoes, sweet potatoes, fennel, onion, carrots and more thyme, the chicken nestled into its rack. I shut it up in the oven for an hour and half and prayed that the smoke alarm wouldn’t go off. There was other work to be done, in the form of a private cocktail hour for one, and some last minute Christmas decorating to fully furnish the condo with holiday cheer.
I don’t know if it was the candles that mingled with the aroma from the kitchen, the ledge of holiday greenery that I assembled in the bathroom ledge against a background of brick, or the cool cocktail making its way into my belly, but suddenly the cool gray start to the weekend was melting into something warm and fuzzy. Kira would arrive in a little. As much as I eagerly awaiting her arrival, I took a moment to enjoy the solitude, and the coziness of what was to come. Those quiet jewels of time would be the sparkle that shot through the darkest nights when memory was all that remained.
Kira arrived after the chicken had had ample time to rest. I filled her wine glass and the Holiday Stroll weekend had officially begun. We toasted the event, then set about to carving the chicken, which neither of us had a clue how to do. It was a mighty mangled affair, but with some judicious cuts I managed to give us each the majority of a breast, and the darker meat we somehow pulled apart until satiated. The vegetables, soaking up all the fallen butter and chicken renderings, were the decadent stars of the meal. All in all, it was a success, and I’ll be more confident in roasting chickens for the future.
It was already late. Time moves swiftly when good friends are in company. Rather than head out for a night-cap, we stayed in the cozy comfort of the condo, which for the most part was warm from the oven and the candles. The bedroom was still cooler than it should have been, and it was then that I took closer notice of the whole ‘Low Battery’ thing. We would get a trio of triple A stock the next morning; for now a heavy winter blanket and a late-night viewing of ‘The Man Who Came To Dinner’ would suffice to keep us toasty.
A jazz-inflected piano version of ‘The Christmas Waltz’ lulled us to sleep. A full day of strolling was on the agenda. The holidays had arrived.
The danger inherent in my Virgo desire for order and structure and scheduled itineraries is when things don’t work out according to plan. No matter how perfectly-tailored one’s strategy may be, disruptions and last-minute reworkings are a requirement in today’s whirligig world. I kept that in mind when loosely plotting out my Holiday Stroll with Kira.
It is one of my favorite holiday traditions, and for the first couple of years we weren’t even sure what we were doing. As we walked into the Boston Public Garden on a snowy Saturday in December, I simply declared, half-jokingly, that this would be our Holiday Stroll. Kira had no idea what I was talking about, but she went with it, and after promenading through the park (in a ridiculous hat and boots) a new tradition was born. Since that time, we’ve done five or six of them – and they still mainly consist of walking around Boston, doing some holiday shopping, pausing for food and drink breaks, and hanging out in the condo with a Christmas movie. It’s become a thing, and a very happy one at that.
This year, we decided to go back to basics. With the Red Line to Cambridge out of weekend commission, we planned on omitting the Porter Square to Harvard walk/shop route, and keeping things closer to home. All that to come, but first a look back at some of our previous Holiday Strolls:
It was the first and only Christmas I’d get to see Andy’s Mom. The year was 2000 – which in many ways seems a lifetime ago, and then again just like yesterday, so vivid is my memory of this night. We were stopping by Andy’s parents’ home to drop off gifts and wish them a Merry Christmas. It was my first time meeting his mother – I’d only just corresponded with her via a shared love for reading at that point (I’d given her a copy of ‘The God in Flight’ by Laura Argiri and she wrote back her notes and opinion of it. A rather bold choice of mine, considering all the gay sex in it, but she was unbothered and unfazed by it – only remarking that some of the more graphic moments might be better left out.) I knew then that we’d get along famously. Though I may have jumped the gun a little on that first meeting.
We sat down at their little kitchen table. Andy’s Mom asked if we wanted anything to drink. (He’d told me it would be ok to request an adult beverage, or I never would have suggested it.) I said a highball would be great, then proceeded to take it a little too far. What I planned on saying, and the sentence that was formulated in my head was, ‘Andy says you enjoy a good drink’ but what came out was, “Andy said you liked to drink!”
She looked at me for a second, then bent down to her son and whispered, “I’ll let that go since it’s Christmas.”
It was the perfect first meeting, and sadly one of our last, but it remains a fond Christmas memory, a way of holding onto our past, of bridging our time with lost loved ones. And it still makes Andy and I chuckle whenever we think about it.