Only 364 days to go!

I used to be sad on Dec. 26.

Radio stations that began playing Christmas music in mid-November abruptly stopped.

Holiday TV specials that ran 24/7 on some channels were replaced.

And seasonal areas of department stores looked like retail war zones.

Dec. 26 wasn’t fun.

At some point as I grew up, I realized Christmas wasn’t about a day.

For people who believe in Christianity, Christmas is a day to celebrate Jesus’ birth.

For others, it’s a day when Santa leaves gifts for those on his Nice List.

For many, it’s a time to be with family and friends.

Leading up to the finish line, it’s an energetic and fun time. But once you cross that finish line, the race seems very distant.

But as I began to understand what Christmas means to me, I realized that a date on a calendar doesn’t have to be the end of Christmas.

And I’m not talking about the 12 days of Christmas or Orthodox Christmas.

Instead, I think of Christmas as a belief. Christmas spirit can live all year long, without wrapping paper and bows and twinkling lights.

Christmas spirit can live in kind gestures, in hugs, in “Jingle Bells” playing in June.

Christmas spirit can live on long after December is gone.

I think of a three songs: B.E. Taylor’s “Feel the Love of Christmas,” Brad Paisley’s “Only 364 Days To Go” and LeAnn Rimes’ “Today is Christmas.”

Take a listen to each of them.

» “Feel the Love of Christmas”

» “Only 364 Days To Go”

» “Today is Christmas”

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A Very Merry Sewickley

‘Twas a week before Christmas and all through the town,
Shoppers trekked through stores and wouldn’t let the rain get them down.

I spent a little bit of time in Sewickley on Sunday afternoon, taking in the beautiful window displays and shops — despite some rain and less than seasonable weather (it was too warm!).

On select days throughout the month, festive music plays over loudspeakers, Santa sits at the town gazebo and visitors can take a horse-drawn carriage around the block.

My first stop was into House 15143, which looks more like somewhere I want to live than a store. The beautifully designed windows could pull even the Grinch into the holiday spirit. But the festive feelings don’t end there.

Inside, the shop is filled with so many wonderful accents. Their decorations offer such a vintage Christmas feel — with old-school blow mold candles, very welcoming Santa faces and so much more.

There were so many ornaments and decorations I wanted that it was hard to limit myself!

I also visited Gather and found myself in a similar situation — trying very hard to not buy everything!

Many businesses in the town have beautifully designed windows, too.

Take a look at the gallery below. House 15143 was, by far, my favorite. But Consign Sewickley, Gather and Pizza Roma all had windows that just stood out to me.

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Hershey’s nips the Kiss

Whether you call it a blossom cookie or a kiss cookie, there’s something off this year if you use Hershey Kisses.

The company has been nipping the tips off the iconic chocolate, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reports.

Members of The Wedding Cookie Table Community on Facebook brought the issue to light.

Laura Magone of Monongahela runs the group that includes more than 10,000 people.

She told the PG that a member first posted about the nipped Kiss tips.

That member wrote that the company said the missing tips was intentional.

When Magone bought her own bags of Kisses, she, too, noticed the missing tips.

So she called Hershey’s and got the same response — the company did it on purpose.

“I told her she had to be kidding that she thought I would believe that,” Magone said.

In the Facebook group, others have shared similar frustrations of missing Kiss tips.

“Hershey, quit being jagoffs and fix the tips on our kisses,” one user wrote.

Members don’t believe Hershey’s answer.

“My first blush reaction was, ‘what Hershey? You’ve been doing this way longer than any of us have been making cookies,’” Tamsen Mongelli DiBlasio, formerly of Pittsburgh, told the PG.

And as PG writer Gretchen McKay wrote, “If hell hath no fury like a woman scorned, heaven help the chocolate maker who runs afoul of a disgruntled cookie maker.”

Jeff Beckman, a spokesman for Hershey, said the company “is now looking at the issue.”

The company is reaching out to members of the Facebook group to offer gifts.

But DiBlasio said she wants an intact Hershey Kiss.

“We don’t want a defective product,” she said.

11 Sleeps to Christmas: Kaufmann’s thumbprint cookies

img_9512There is no treat like a Kaufmann’s thumbprint cookie.

And if you’re from the Pittsburgh area, you might be familiar with the iconic skyscraper-looking thumbprint cookies made famous by the longtime regional department store’s Arcade Bakery.

The cookies were the most famous treats from Arcade.

After Macy’s closed the longtime flagship Kaufmann’s location in Downtown Pittsburgh, Prantl’s Bakery continued the tradition.

I recently learned that the Arcade Bakery baker Kevin Ulrich (who Prantl’s hires after Macy’s closed) is back on the thumbprint detail as of August!In September 2015, the bakery released its own version of the cookie. At the time, they tasted fine — not the same, but close enough!

Prantl’s has hired the baker who led the thumbprint cookie creation. So I had high hopes for the future.

In November I had some thumbprints for the first time since early summer and immediately tasted a drastic difference.

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The thumbprint cookie I longed for and remembered was back! But I just assumed it was because I bought them at the Shadyside location instead of Market Square where I usually go. (They’re all baked at the same place but delivered elsewhere. But you know, tastes can change in delivery!)

But GoodFoodPittsburgh.com explains that Ulrich was doing other work for Prantl’s before taking over the thumbprint role again.

“I’m happy it happened like this. The cookie is in the right hands,” Ulrich told the blog.

There are many, many flavors available. So go try all of them! And thank me with a thumbprint cookie!

12 Sleeps to Christmas: Special ornaments

Some people theme trees with colors, patterns or styles.

While themed trees look beautiful, I prefer trees that truly represent a person or family through the ornament choices.

My family’s main tree is filled with a number of handcrafted and store bought ornaments — many of which tell the stories of our lives.

Whether it’s an ornament showcasing the Pittsburgh skyline, Myrtle Beach or “baby’s first Christmas,” they all tell a story.

It’s difficult to pick a favorite ornament. I love all of the ornaments depicting Kaufmann’s Clock and the Horne’s tree. My Kennywood Park ornaments (especially the wooden pieces of coaster track) are great, too.

But the ornaments I love most are the ones from my grandparent’s tree.

They are simple glass balls with designs.

Most are in OK shape with some obvious signs that they’re old.

I don’t put all of these special ones on the tree. Some remain in the containers so to try to protect some of them.

They sit near the top to avoid being swatted by a dog’s tail.

I wish I knew more about their origin — what store they’re from, who designed them, if they’re part of a larger collection.

I know nothing about them except that they were part of my grandparents’ tree for decades.

As a kid I remember helping my grandma hang them on her tree.

The Great Downtown Pittsburgh Holiday Walking Journey!

Thousands of steps and a soaked hoodie later, I saw all of the holiday things in Downtown Pittsburgh.

Inspired by The Incline’s nine-stop holiday walking tour, two friends and I set out on our adventure on Dec. 1.

Light blue highlights walking. We also went to the Penguins game.

A constant rain and tickets to the Pens game changed our walking course, which, according to my Google Maps timeline, looks more like a wayward drunk than a holiday decoration seeker!

But we saw it all and then some!

We started our tour with a quick stop into Prantl’s Bakery on Market Street for some classic Pittsburgh thumbprints and some free smells of delicious treats.

Fifth Avenue Place

From there, we headed into Fifth Avenue Place to check out the Arcade Shops.

This site once was home of Jenkins Arcade, which, along with the Horne’s Department Store, helped to anchor one end of Pittsburgh’s then-vibrant retail corridor.

The multi-level center connected to Horne’s and had a myriad of shops and eateries over the years. Jenkins was torn down in 1984 and replaced with Fifth Avenue Place.

The retail portion of Fifth Avenue Place offers a few stores, including Dave DiCello’s photography gallery, Katie’s Kandy, a Hallmark store and food court.

But the headliner is the Welcome Pittsburgh store, which doubles as a visitor information center and retail shop.

The place has a plethora of Pittsburgh gifts — from local artisans to DVDs, games, books and so much more. The staff is extremely help (and also very knowledgeable about the city and region).

If you’re looking for a Pittsburgh gift, go there!

We spotted our first tree of the day inside Fifth Avenue Place.

The tree isn’t particularly wide, but its height allows for a great view from the second floor.

 

 

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While you’re in Fifth Avenue Place, check out the couple of great window displays. This is Pittsburgh’s first holiday season without any storefront holiday windows. So finding a few in Fifth Avenue Place was a special treat!

Point State Park

After walking through Fifth Avenue Place, we went toward the confluence to take a selfie with the tree at Point State Park. I’d already figured the view wouldn’t be terrific since it was daylight and raining.

But because of the weather and the muddy field, we opted to not get close to the tree.

The dumpster at the tree doesn’t necessarily make for a good daytime view, but nonetheless, we checked off this tree!

The views of this tree from Heinz Field, Mount Washington and parts of the South Side are great. It also makes for some great selfies up close and personal.

Horne’s Tree

Next up, we took a stroll to the old Horne’s building to take in the beautiful sights of what I think is Pittsburgh’s most iconic tree.

Now referred to as the Unity tree, the Horne’s Tree was part of the department store’s holiday tradition for decades until Horne’s closed its iconic location in the early 1990s. Highmark has continued this special Pittsburgh tradition.

The tree is part of this website’s banner image, and also makes appearances in at least one Hallmark Channel Christmas movie.

Market Square

After the Horne’s tree, we diverted to Market Square to check out the Holiday Market at Market Square. The square offers a variety of artisans and vendors — many of which are from the Pittsburgh region.

The 2018 market includes artisans such as Pittsburgh artist Linda Barnicott, local photographer J.P. Driscoll, Monmade, Pittsburgh Pottery and many others.

Along with the open-air shops, the event offers music and entertainment, too. The event is open daily through Dec. 23. It is not open Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.

And, of course, there is a tree at Market Square!

PPG Place

Following our trip through Market Square, we took a stroll over to PPG Place to see the tree, rink and gingerbread houses inside the Wintergarden.

The rink at PPG Place is actually larger than the one at Rockefeller Center in New York City. Pretty cool, eh?

Inside, gingerbread houses created mostly by students in area schools dot the Wintergarden. Winning creations typically are placed in the center underneath a large tree.

A collection of life-size Santas from around the world also are part of this magical wonderland.

 

 

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Local musicians perform throughout the holiday season inside the Wintergarden as well.

The Giant Red Ornament

After PPG Place, our journey took us to the giant ornament outside of K&L Gates Center.

I’m not sure how long this ornament has been here, but it’s certainly fun! (There are giant clusters of similar ornaments in NYC, and also giant Christmas lights, that I want to see one day!)

Smithfield Street

After our trek for a quick photo with the giant ornament, we set our sights toward Smithfield Street. At one time, Pittsburgh’s retail mecca included a massive corridor along Smithfield Street.

The days of a vibrant Downtown shopping district are long gone, but there still are great local shops — new and old — to explore.

The first stop we made was to Steel City Clothing (625 Smithfield St). Check them out for some pretty rad Pittsburgh designs, including my current favorite T-shirt: “Wish Yinz a Merry Christmas.”

After, Steel City Clothing, we walked over to S.W. Randall Toyes and Giftes (630 Smithfield St).

The classic store bills itself as Pittsburgh’s “largest and oldest speciality toy store.” And with three floors of toys, it’s safe to say that’s accurate.

My friends seemed a little skeptical at first, but after a few minutes inside, I think they began to enjoy it.

If you’ve never been, take a gander inside. The store certainly has that classic locally-owned shop feel — from the display cases to the steps up to each floor.

While the shop doesn’t seem to sell video game systems, it’s full of popular toys such as Lego sets, Barbie dolls, new board games and more. Plus, there is a very great collection of trinkets, gifts, collectibles, Funko pops, Christmas village sets, trains, dolls and so much more.

There were several things I found that I’d like to buy for the holidays and afterward. Also, if you’re someone who enjoys model trains, they’ve got so many items to choose from!

By the way, S.W. Randall has three brick and mortar locations — Downtown Pittsburgh, Shadyside and Squirrel Hill — and an expansive online store.

PPG Paints Arena

From there, our holiday excursion paused so that a friend and I could get to the Penguins game.

And, yes, we found trees!

Creche

But after the Pens game, we walked to the to the creche at Steel Plaza (600 Grant St). It is the only authorized replica of the creche at St. Peter’s Square in Rome, Italy.

It has been on display each holiday season since the late 1990s in Pittsburgh. A smaller nativity scene was displayed on public property. But local government leaders sought to find a permanent and private space for it.

There also is a menorah on site.

City-County Building Tree

This gigantic tree was our last official stop on the day of Downtown Pittsburgh holiday decorations journey!

There is so much to love about this tree.

The black and gold bridge ornaments that celebrate Pittsburgh’s 200th anniversary of the city’s founding. They identify each of the 90 neighborhoods.

 

 

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There are the Wendell August ornaments.

There is good ol’ David Lawrence keeping watch on the tree.

But. The best part is the illuminated portico with music playing around the tree. It’s such a serene setting.

I like going at night, when it’s dark and mostly empty.

There’s also a menorah on display.

But wait! There’s more!

Oxford Centre

There is a beautifully lit tree in the atrium of Oxford Centre. We took a quick stroll over to view it from above before walking back to where we parked near Market Square.

There’s not much in the retail area of Oxford Centre these days, but if you get a chance, swing by the tree to see it in person!

 

Real or fake? In defense of artificial trees

My tree for 2018 — decorated in all red, green, and gold.

Real or artificial tree?

The age-old debate when it comes to putting up one of the holiday season’s most recognizable symbols.

I’ll tell you now, I’m a fan of the artificial tree. But I have my reasons why!

And it’s not that I do not appreciate a real tree.

In fact, I love them! The organic, unpredictable shape, the smell, the way a real tree just looks…well, real.

Most artificial trees, unless you spend beaucoup bucks, cannot accurately replicate the look of nature.

But again, I have my reasons for choosing artificial.

First and foremost, I start decorating on November 1 and I do not usually take my trees down until the middle or end of January.

That means I need a tree that will last me almost three months.

Real trees are not ideal candidates for that length of festive celebrating.

Second, like any proper Christmas-a-holic, I put up more than one tree every year.

In my house this year I only have three up and decorated.

However, that does not include the other three still sitting in boxes in my basement. I decided to mix things up and redo most of my décor this season.

The other three trees do not match my theme, so they stay tucked away until next year.

But buying five or six real trees every year is not economical. On top of that, watering and maintaining that many real trees is work I do not want to do.

My third reason for choosing an artificial tree is the ability to bend the branches to support decorations and ornaments where I want to put them.

The branches can easily be bent to hold an ornament in place or to move out of the way and allow it to hang freely.

Real trees do not give me that freedom, though.

If the ornament does not fit in a particular location, I’m forced to decide – do I want it to look funny all season or move it? The ease with which I can have the tree bend to look the way I want it to is a definite advantage to having an artificial tree.

But don’t get me wrong – I’m not completely against real trees!

My family has gone out and cut down our own tree several times.

That tree usually sits outside on the back porch. It gets decorated with lights and those large, light-up woodland yard animals like birds or squirrels you find in stores (I like to use Christmas decorations in unexpected ways).

That tree sits in front of the patio door since we do not open it during the winter and we get to look at a tree while eating dinner every night!

The process of going out to cut down your own tree at a tree farm is quintessential Christmas — one I enjoy.

But for practicality, I’ll stick to my artificial trees. It just makes sense for me and my lifestyle.