Christmas in Wilmette & Hawthorn Woods

The festivities continued on Christmas Eve at Brett and Carol’s house in Wilmette. Brett once again outdid himself with a phenomenal meal: great appetizers (I need the salmon recipe!), soup, pasta and a Braciole to die for. I swear he needs to retire from being a doctor and become a full-time chef – he’s that good!

It was wonderful to get together with Brett and Carol and Charlie (8), Johnny (6) and Lydia (3), Mom and Dad, Michael and Penny (Carol’s parents), Fred (Carol’s uncle), and Bruce (Carol’s brother). We had a wonderful time eating, drinking and opening the Secret Santa gifts.

Larry and I stayed over at Mom and Dad’s and opened presents when we got back to Hawthorn Woods. Pretty late, but not as bad when Brett and I used to get poor Mom and Dad, and Granny up at 2:00 am – poor Granny!

Christmas day started with mass at St. Francis de Sales – Mom & Dad’s church. Fr. Ryan was great, albeit hoarse from all the Christmas masses he did!

The party continued when everyone (plus Ben, Bruce’s son) from Christmas Eve headed to Mom and Dad’s in Hawthorne Woods for a Christmas Day dinner. Mom always prepares a fabulous meal – antipasto and other yummy appetizers, pierogi, pork, Maltese stuffing, fresh cranberry sauce, and desserts! It was so good, that I think I “suffered” from “food-coma” afterwards!

It was so great to see the kids open their presents and just enjoy the day.

Not to be outdone by the holiday cds playing, Charlie, Johnny and Lydia serenaded the family:

For some reason I couldn't flip Charlie's and Lydia's video - so you'll have to turn your head. :)

What a great holiday!

Pre-Christmas with the “Sgwotts”

Christmas is one of my favorite times of the year, particularly because it revolves around family and friends. And one of our favorite traditions is when we see our friends Scott and Gwen who visit from New Jersey (Scott is originally from Palatine). Larry and I refer to them as the “Sgwotts” because every time I would say their names it came out as “Sgwott” - I tend to talk fast, must be the East Coast coming out. Well, the name stuck with Larry and I and we finally revealed to them recently our nickname for them – so it’s official now.

With the complete dumping of snow we had recently we were worried that their plane would be delayed or cancelled for December 19th...and sure enough it was. We were planning on getting together with them on the 20th and were keeping our fingers crossed that they would arrive on time.

Although the snow kept on coming, Scott and Gwen arrived at our house in Crystal Lake in, I swear, blizzard conditions. We hopped in the car and headed to Montarra in Algonquin ( It’s a fabulous place with a very Chicago/edgy feel. The food and atmosphere are phenomenal. My one “gripe” if I were to have one would be the size of the portions: teeny. It’s one of the most expensive restaurants in the area and really worth going to…but could they just make the portions larger?!? OK, I’ll admit it…I’m a full-believer in leftovers. And dammit it…if I’m going to spend $27 on a steak I’d like a little leftover – is that so wrong?

That being said, we really enjoyed ourselves at dinner. But the snow was still coming down and we headed back to our house to open the wine, presents and just relax by the fire.

After the presents were opened we did what we typically do when we see each other – talk, and laugh, and talk – maybe throw in a bottle of wine or two (and the holiday beer that Lar and Scott were drinking) and laugh some more. Somehow Larry and Scott started to reminisce about years ago and we started to pull out the photo albums and boxes. Gwen and I always love to do this because we get to see all the great photos of Scott looking very “modelish” and Larry sporting some very fashionable hairstyles of the 80s – very “European!”

Before we knew it, it was 3:30am and we hit our limit. I’ll admit probably the latest I’ve stayed up in a while.

We woke up a little worse for the wear the next morning, although quickly recovered when we went to our favorite breakfast spot in Crystal Lake – Benedict’s La Strata; all I can say is “yum.”

After breakfast the “Sgwotts” were on their way – lots of family and friends to see while they were in town.

We can’t wait to see our travel buddies again in the spring – we’re planning a cruise of the Western Caribbean.

It’s December 21st and I am now in a mad-dash to finish my Christmas shopping and work on my holidays cards – somehow I managed to not get my act together again and I am in a complete state of stress. Why do I do this to myself??? Note to self: start preparing for the holidays in the fall so as to not have a nervous breakdown.

P.S. And just to prove that Jack the cat exits...also included above are a couple of holiday shots, including one of Santa Jackie (compliments of Scott & Gwen). More on Jack later...

LuminDynamics Christmas Party

Larry and I were very excited to attend the 2nd Annual LuminDynamics Christmas Party on December 13th. For those of you that don’t know, several years ago Dad started his own business out of the house, LuminDynamics ( It’s going very well and we are all very proud of him. But we decided last year that every business deserves to celebrate annually, so why not have a Christmas party!

So we all got together this year at Heng Wing in Palatine for the festivities. Mom, Larry and I decided Dad needed some extra employees, so we gave ourselves titles! - Dad (CEO), Mom (“Vice President”), Larry (“IT Director”), Jill (“Vice President of Marketing”) and Piper (“Vice President of Entertainment & Security”). Piper, the family dog, couldn’t make it to the party because she was busy doing

The food was great and the company even better! This was my kind of Christmas party!

Deck the Halls

Somehow I just couldn’t get my act together fast enough for Christmas. I’m usually relatively on time in getting things decorated etc., but this year…not so much.

I don’t know if it was the faltering economy etc. that was dampening my spirits, but I knew I needed to snap out of my funk soon so I didn’t become a complete grump.

So Larry and I finally went out and bought a fab tree etc. I honestly think I just needed to smell pine and that got me kick-started to decorate.

I think I’ve got our holiday decorating down to a science – do a little outside and then work my way in – there’s something about decorating for the holidays that just makes it so cozy.

Here’s a little recap of what we did for this year:

One thing I love to do when decorating for the holidays is to use mostly natural items for my projects – greenery for the roping, wreaths, dogwood, paper birch etc. The scent is wonderful from the pine and it’s just makes me happy. Here are some of the how-to's on what I did this year:

The Mantle Project - Using 3 glass hurricane vases - was really easy and I think adds a nice touch and a “woodsy” feel. First, add “snow” (I think it’s just plastic shavings)to the vases, a little winter/holiday potpourri and then a festive candle. To top it off I added some birch twigs around the candle. Because we already have the holiday lights wrapped around the roping, there is no need to light the candles - and actually since the twigs etc. are pretty flammable...not a good idea.

Door Swag - The door swag took 2 seconds because all I did was attach a bow I made and some festive bells. I got a fabulous deal from Trader Joes on the swag - I think like $7 bucks. I get the swags there every year and they truly look the best and are the cheapest.

Holiday Planter - Every year I kind of dread doing the planters because they are usually frozen from the cold weather and I can’t work with them unless I thaw them out - but this year I caught a break. Crystal Lake had some freak weather pattern where it was 50ish on a Saturday. So I ran out and bought my greenery before it started to get cold, which wouldn’t you know it it dropped to the teens the next day - that’s Chicago weather for you!

For the planters I just buy various greenery (pine, cedar, boxwood, birch branches) and a small tree topper and work my way from the center of the pot (with the tree topper) and work my way out. To top it off I usually add red birch branches, but since all the nurseries were selling twigs for $12 bucks I drew the line. So Lar helped me out and painted the branches a bright red and voila...festive branches! And finally I added a little extra sparkle with some green sparkle painted pine cones and red ornaments. It looked great until the next day when we got hit with a blizzard and the planters were completely covered...but what are you going to do?!?

Corner Display - During the fall I bought a small, simple bench to put in the corner for decorations. I tried to do a special paint technique with a two-toned effect but somehow I ended up with a salmony color that was just horrid. So I added some paint we had lying around and I think it ended up pretty nice. Plus leaving it outside to the elements gives it a nice weathered look.

So for the holiday display I started by adding some greenery, painted twigs and some paper birch branches (compliments of our wonderful neighbor Sharon - thanks Sharon!) to a galvanized bucket. Then we had an old sled that we found on the curb in Madison (we love free finds!)that I added a swag and some roping. And then I added a festive basket and lantern to the bench. Instant holiday charm!

Post Holiday Trip To Madison

The day after Thanksgiving Larry and I headed up for our annual post-Thanksgiving weekend trip to Madison, WI.

Madison is hands-down one of our favorite cities to visit — it’s only 2 hours away from home, so we like to go often. Although a small city, it has so much to offer: state capitol, home to the University of Wisconsin, 2 lakes (with an isthmus!), fabulous restaurants, museums, stores etc; I believe it consistently ranks high among the “best places to raise kids” list. It’s also a pretty funky city – very liberal and holds onto its hippie roots from the 60s. If I could gush about a city, Madison would be it.

Whenever we head to Madison we pretty much do the same thing every time: vedge. So this past weekend wasn’t any different. We started out early and took the back roads up — we hit a couple of our favorite “teeny haunts.” First, Rockton, IL – which has quite a few antique shops. OK, Rockton is actually my request with Larry usually waiting in the car. My favorite Rockton stop is the Country Cottage ( - great little shop. In the summer, Rockton also has this great little ice cream shop right in the main drag – it’s worth a stop.

Continuing on up North we stopped in New Glarus, WI, which is a quaint Swiss-inspired town. This was Larry’s stop for Springerle cookies – German Christmas cookies with Anise – hard as a rock (try dipping in coffee) to Larry’s delight – I don’t quite see the draw, but I’m not a big fan of licorice.

Just before I reached my car sickness limit we arrived in Middleton, WI – where we stay at the Marriott Courtyard. Middleton is another cute little town – about 5 minutes away from Madison on the highway.

The rest of the weekend included our usual stops:

A stop at The Company Store Outlet. We picked up a queen down comforter for $30 – can’t beat that!

Window shopping on State Street. This has got to be one of the best places to shop if you were in college – VERY hippie and “collegy.” State Street runs into the UW campus and is always filled with college kids – it’s a great people watching area.

We usually go to Genna’s Bar off of the Capital – I think this may be Larry’s all-time favorite bar. It’s so cozy and reminds me of a library. Unfortunately, it was not open until later so we headed to an Irish bar.

For our dinners we went to 2 of our favorite places: The El Dorado Grill and Villa Doce.

If you like Tex-Mex-style food, you’d love the El Dorado. The owner/chef is from Austin, Texas and has a knack for opening great restaurants in Madison – there are at least 6 throughout Madison

Villa Doce is actually in Middleton in their downtown area. They have great pizza – we’ve only had the Margarita pizza and salads, but I bet everything else is fabulous. Their pizza has phenomenal crust and we like how they use the fresh mozzarella in chunks, with fresh basil and homemade sauce. I’ve been searching high and low for great pizza since I moved from Connecticut and this is one of the best.

Stuffed ’Til We Pop?

Thanksgiving was a flurry of activity at the May household. Mom and Dad Vassallo and Mom May joined us for the “big eat.” It’s hard to believe that you prepare, prepare and prepare for this day and it’s over within 45 minutes of eating!

I love to cook and bake and was having quite a bit of fun getting ready for the day, until I started grocery shopping – that’s what really set me over the edge! You see, I’ve been really trying to watch my carb intake and other no no’s due to my pre-diabetes. Well…that pretty much goes out the door for Thanksgiving! EVERYTHING has 2 sticks of butter – I’m not kidding. You might as well slap those puppies right to your thighs…because that’s where they’re going!

I managed to stay on course with time and everything turned out fabulous except for the mashed potatoes. I could kick myself because I used a recipe different from my own and tried to save time by prepping and boiling the potatoes ahead of time. Well…the thing is sometimes prepping ahead is not a good idea – the potatoes were just too starchy; lesson learned.

Potatoes aside, we had some yummy treats: a moist turkey with gravy, Nana’s Maltese stuffing (we FINALLY converted Larry!), green beans, Mom V’s butternut squash with butter and maple syrup (my favorite), homemade cranberry sauce (yum), yams, Mom May’s yummy pumpkin cake – it was all delicious. But you know what? When you set it down on the table and realize…Yikes!...there are 5 of us here and we actually have to eat all of this…it gets a little overwhelming.

It was so cozy in the house – Larry lit a fire in the fireplace, we had nice music going and of course the parades on TV and the football games – all around it was a very cozy atmosphere.

The day/evening went very well and we divvied up the leftovers – we had a 12 pound turkey and lots of sides, so the amount of leftovers would keep everyone stuffed for a week!

Brett, Carol and the kids enjoyed the day with Carol's family in Wilmette and Mom and Dad V. visited on Friday for post-turkey day fun. We're looking forward to seeing everyone for Brett and Carol's Christmas Eve extravaganza and then Mom and Dad V's Hawthorn Woods Christmas day feast - lots of enjoying each other, eating, and watching the kids' excitement with seeing what Santa brought them.

We hope everyone enjoyed your Thanksgiving with family and loved ones – it truly is a day to be thankful for.