It turns out Red and Green might actually be the new Black. Over the past several years, watching TV Christmas movies has become less of a pastime and more of an obsession for many of us. Why else would television destinations like Hallmark Channel be producing over 40 new holiday-themed movies this year—even during the pandemic, which has made it much tougher to produce these movies (many of which began airing before Halloween)?
Even pre Covid-19, Christmas movies had become a soothing “visual white noise” to many. Hallmark Channel Christmas movies have become such a cottage industry that other cable channels including Lifetime and Freeform have followed suit. Lifetime will premier 30 new Christmas movies this year while Freeform will continue with its annual 25 Days of Christmas viewing schedule.
As the life-altering effects of quarantining due to the coronavirus became a reality in the early spring, many people began making social media posts about displaying their Christmas decorations early (or leaving them out all year). There is definitely a familiarity about the Christmas season (no matter what date the calendar says it is) that seems to tame the savage beast—even for those who aren’t necessarily religious. In fact, Hallmark Channel began airing Christmas movies weekly beginning in the spring as a way to appease the demand of its yuletide-loving audience in need of a salve for the realities of the “new (hopefully temporary) normal.” Not to mention holiday movies are more often than not a form of entertainment the entire family can watch together.
While some are quick to pass such holiday offerings off as “fluff” and a recent call for more diversity in the lead characters in these types of movies is rightfully being addressed by the networks, there is a reason so many of these television movies resonate with their viewers and are watched again and again (even during Hallmark Channel’s “Christmas in July” presentation, which lasts for several weeks during the summer). Amidst the now-familiar stories of two lead characters “meeting cute” and then “accidentally falling in love” as they join forces to take on various Christmas traditions like decorating trees, making cookies and attending, participating in or even saving Christmas pageants, there can be genuine heart to be found—along with subtle and not-so-subtle reminders that there is joy waiting to be rediscovered in the everyday (even if it’s every day during the month of December).
For the sake of full disclosure, I must confess that as a screenwriter, I myself have helped to propel this seasonal phenomenon with a 2016 movie I wrote, the Hallmark Hall of Fame presentation of A Heavenly Christmas, which starred Kristin Davis, Eric McCormack and Shirley MacLaine. When pitching the initial concept of a newbie Christmas Angel who doesn’t know much about Christmas to the network, I hadn’t prepared much else beyond the logline. To my surprise they responded enthusiastically and soon I was constructing the story of a wayward angel who learns about herself and her own shortcomings while trying to help an earth-bound potential love interest discover his.
When writing A Heavenly Christmas, my mother-in-law, Becky, was waging a brave battle against bone cancer. So I decided that she would inspire the inciting incident in the movie’s proceedings and created a character named Becky that Max, the male lead, lost in an accident (thus upending his music career and lust for life even as he was saddled with raising his sister Becky’s daughter). Enter overworked Eve, an expert on pretty much everything—except matters of the heart. When Eve takes a spill on ice that lands her in heaven, she’s quickly re-routed to earth where she must help Max rediscover his love of music, recommit to living and save his relationship with his niece (whose grandparents wanted her to relocate with them).
It’s all pretty familiar, right? And happily so. But by weaving my real-life experience of losing my own Becky into the story, I was able to add a layer of heart that permeates all the surface-y goings on. And at the end of the movie (spoiler alert!), as Eve and Max have both healed themselves and even fallen in love (despite that having been against the rules for Christmas Angels), we find out that it was the now-angelic Becky who put all of this into play in order to ensure her brother’s and her daughter’s lasting happiness after her departure.
While most people watching A Heavenly Christmas, which I’m honored to report shattered ratings records on the channel, don’t know who the character of Becky is based on, the story still resonates. Many watching have their own “Becky story” in their lives. And for others, a reminder to rediscover the magic of falling snow or the memory of a first kiss can also be enough to help them get through another day.
So as we all face various battles, the unknown of the continuing pandemic and the ups and downs of life, we have Christmas movies to turn to for momentary respites amidst the chaos. Suffice it to say, our love of Christmas movies (whether year-round or simply seasonal) calls to mind the brilliant summation from the editors of New York’s Sun Times on September 21, 1897 when responding to an 8-year-old Virginia O’Hanlon’s heartfelt query, “No Santa Claus! Thank God! he lives, and he lives forever. A thousand years from now, Virginia, nay, ten times ten thousand years from now, he will continue to make glad the heart of childhood.” And so it seems will be true of all the feels we get from Christmas movies as well.
There is a lone Chorisia Speciosa Floss-Silk Tree in my neighborhood that blooms only once a year. This is a tree I regularly pass when walking my dog, Latte. While early autumn results in brilliant flowers on the tree, it remains dormant and bare throughout the rest of the year.
I remember this past winter, walking by the tree’s stark, empty branches just days after my husband had abruptly lost his job. We were crushed, scared, and unsure of how things would right themselves — and not yet knowing that the coronavirus pandemic was around the corner, which would add even more challenge to the job hunt we were already facing.
And so on that chilly January day, I stood before the tree and took note of its bare, lifeless branches—no blooms to behold. Since I was beset with upsetting news, I decided the tree looked too lifeless, too baron to ever blossom again. I then remembered thinking that every year around this time I’d decided the tree wouldn’t bloom again even though I’d walked past it enough autumns to see that its flowers always returned on the regular.
After a moment, while standing there with Latte on that cold winter day, I took a deep breath and assured myself, “When this tree flowers again, a lot will have changed and this current state of dread will be behind us.” In other words, I gently reminded myself that there was reason for hope. Time would go by. Life would go on. And (hopefully) positive changes would occur. The tree would bloom again. . . and so would our household, job-wise.
As this current autumn returns and the tree has once again brought forth brilliant flowers, change has occurred. My husband now has a job that he’s really enjoying, miraculously secured during the days of the pandemic. Of course, other changes have come our way as well, not all of them stellar or necessarily welcomed. But here these flowers are—reminding us that change is constant. And so is hope.
Too often we get caught up in the emotions and panic that come with sudden bad news or a switch in circumstances we weren’t expecting or flat out didn’t want. When people tell us that with time the change might prove to be for the best, we sometimes want to plug our ears and ignore them. The fear, pain, and unknowing are all too real. But time does march on, whether we want to acknowledge it or not.
Of course, time doesn’t always proceed at the pace we might desire, especially when in the throes of what seems like a dire situation. And we sometimes need to be careful to not react in a way that reveals more of our angst than it does our acceptance of the volatile situation at hand.
Sometimes the unknown can offer more stress and fear than a particular situation we have to face or tackle. During these days of quarantining and locking down, none of us can be sure where different aspects of society are headed.
Similarly, even good news or current states of joy can be fleeting. Another reminder to stay present, soak in “What is,” and know that everything is evolving and that change is not only constant but imminent.
This is where taking some deep breaths and encouraging our own mindfulness comes in. If you don’t have a meditation practice, this might be a helpful time to begin one. The less we deny what’s going on and the more acceptance we embody, the sooner we can allow life to go on, which can lead to new and, perhaps, unexpected options.
But we needn’t rely entirely on our own psyche. Challenging situations and times offer a chance to look for guidance from nature, which can include a very unique tree that we think might never bloom again.
The gorgeous, once-a-year flowers on the Chorisia Speciosa do return. They remind us that life is a cycle. And that if we stay present while remembering change is coming, we—even if currently dormant in our own way—will also surely bloom again. And brilliantly at that.
As someone who was overweight for most of my life, weighed over 450 pounds by the time I graduated from college and then finally took off the weight sensibly without surgery or prescription medicine (and has kept the excess weight at bay for almost two decades), I’m often asked: “What’s the secret to successful dieting?” To which I often want to reply, “Don’t.” (Diet, that is.)
While this response might seem factitious to some, I assure you it’s not. It’s communicated with compassion and understanding.
I started to gain excess weight during the first grade. And my parents, thinking they were making smart decisions on my behalf, immediately put me on a strict diet, which taught me the rules of what and what not to eat. Naturally, I was more drawn to the “forbidden fruit” (the richer, more caloric foods) than I was to the iceberg lettuce and cottage cheese. So my parents next started locking up crackers, chips, sweets and any other foods they deemed not diet-worthy. Although still at a young age, I quickly learned the concept of being “on” and “off” of a diet.
For anyone reading this with a furled brow, I will quickly point out I do not demonize my parents for doing this. Again, they were making the best decisions they knew to make. My father was in the Air Force, so his whole family being perceived as trim and “in shape” was very important to him (and, he believed, to his job).
But mentally armed with knowing what it meant to be on a diet, I knew exactly how to go off of said diet. I eventually began stealing money out of my dad’s wallet and used the cash to buy sweets and treats that I would hide in my bedroom closet. My “secret stash” as it were. By the time I was a teenager (still being put on various diets—some even completely liquid-based), I was buying “contraband” food while my friends were trying to get their hands on “contraband” beer.
You can probably surmise that as my constant dieting efforts continued, so did the excess weight gain. Because we were stationed on an air base in Germany, I was forced to shop for clothes from the Sears Big & Tall catalog (nothing like forcing yourself into a pair of large-sized Toughskins jeans to remind you of even more ways you didn’t fit in at high school). But not even that kind of self-perceived shame kept me from going off of whatever diet I happened to be on. And certainly there were times I stayed on the diets. But that was usually just the first day of them—after which all bets were off.
I continued to try every kind of diet known to man as I gained more and more weight. Sometimes I’d actually lose weight on the diets. But I’d eventually re-gain the weight I lost along with some extra “bonus weight” when I finally went off of the diet I’d been most recently “successful” on.
On. Off. On. Off. On. Off. All with more and more weight gain. And what was the common denominator? The diets themselves.
It wasn’t until I finally dropped the diet mentality that I began to make some real progress toward getting healthy. Healthy being the key word. Suddenly I wasn’t as focused on getting thin (and getting out of those damned Toughskins jeans) as I was on feeling good. When weighing as much as I did, I would get breathless just talking on the phone. I would become winded walking up a single flight of stairs. And I even had broken a movie theater seat that buckled under my weight (while on a date no less).
When I focused more on feeling good and the benefits that working my way to a healthier weight would bring me, I realized the “diet” wasn’t as necessary of a tool as it had been originally presented as.
This doesn’t mean I didn’t do everything I could to learn about nutrition. But I also dedicated myself to embrace the concept of moderation. As I learned to enjoy food in a way that wasn’t like it was the last time I would ever have it, I didn’t have to overeat extreme amounts. I could have one scoop of ice cream because I knew there would be more reasonable amounts of ice cream in my future. The concept is simple I know. But sometimes it’s the simplest changes that lead to the biggest triumphs.
I did a lot of work on my mental self as well—realizing that after many years of child abuse (separate of the extreme diets I had been put on), I had as much mental weight to get rid of as I did physical weight. But this was all do-able. And it began with reminding myself of my true goals: Feeling good, being healthy and loving myself (no matter what brand or size of jeans I was wearing)—all while being able to enjoy the occasional rich food in moderation.
Don’t get me wrong. A reasonable (and nutritious) food plan is something that can definitely help you learn portion sizes. But you might want to drop the word “diet” while incorporating the food plan. And the plan shouldn’t be as much about restriction as it is about delicious, healthy choices in quantities that satisfy your hunger while fueling your body.
Dieting can be a concept that doesn’t work for a lot of people. Otherwise those of us with “diet mentalities” wouldn’t have to keep starting and re-starting diets over and over again. For some who are trying to change their lives and better their health, it might be time to try dropping the D-word from their vocabulary as they commit to their overall goal of living a happier, healthier life.
I’ll be the first to tell you that when I met Joy Bauer, I wasn’t sure what to expect. I was appearing on the Today show for the first time and she was kind enough to be inducting me into her Joy Fit Club. Needless to say, we hit it off instantly and she soon became my “Diet Wife” and I her “Diet Husband.” She is truly one of the kindest and funniest people I know. And she’s also super committed to helping people live their happiest and healthiest lives.
That’s why I’m so excited about her brand new book, Joy Bauer’s Superfood!: 150 Recipes for Eternal Youth. After reviewing countless studies and analyzing the eating habits of people around the world living the longest lives, Joy uses nutritious ingredients to whip up delicious recipes that taste incredible while adding to our overall health. The 150 recipes in the new book include everything from Buffalo wings to deep-dish pan pizza to salted caramel milkshakes to nachos and more.
I begged Joy to let me share a recipe from the book and she kindly let me pick one out to share with Just Stoppers. So here’s one of my favorite recipes from the breakfast category. But trust me that there are tons of amazing recipes in the book. All really easy and even fun to make. And I promise I’m not saying this because Joy paid me. As I recently joked on Instagram, Joy’s too cheap for that. (Ha!) I hope you enjoy this recipe and I hope you check out her book. Besides being full of tips and recipes, it’s also got gorgeous photography (making it a great gift and perfect coffee table book).
Here’s a recipe from her new book that Joy so generously let me share:
Dirty Chai Overnight Oats
SERVES: 2 PREP TIME: 5 MINUTES, PLUS AT LEAST 6 HOURS SOAKING
Recipe by Joy Bauer, from her book, Joy Bauer’s Superfood!: 150 Recipes for Eternal Youth
Chai isn’t just for tea. I love working its Indian-inspired flavors—cardamom, cinnamon, ginger, allspice, and cloves—into foods because of their complexity and warmth. The standard dirty chai recipe gets its “dirty” moniker because it features a shot of espresso. My version actually calls for brewed coffee—but you can use whichever you prefer. When I’m rushing to an early morning TV shoot or meeting and I don’t have time to prepare breakfast, I’ve come to rely on overnight oats. There’s nothing easier: I prep them the night before in a sealable jar, refrigerate, and then simply give a quick shake or stir when I wake up. Don’t expect a sugary sweet experience; this delivers a creamy bowl of goodness filled with several distinct layers of flavorful spice—pretty darn fabulous, IMO! Of course, you can easily sweeten it up with additional honey, if you prefer. Pro tip: This overnight creation is delicious straight from the fridge, but you can warm it up, too. Just stir in ½ cup extra milk and microwave for a minute or so.
1 cup unsweetened almond milk (or milk of choice)
¼ cup brewed coffee, cooled
2 teaspoons honey
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
¼ teaspoon kosher salt
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
½ teaspoon ground cardamom
¼ teaspoon ground ginger
¼ teaspoon ground allspice
⅛ teaspoon ground cloves
1 cup uncooked old-fashioned oats
2 tablespoons chia seeds
In a small bowl, combine the milk, coffee, honey, vanilla, salt, cinnamon, cardamom, ginger, allspice, and cloves. Whisk to dissolve the honey. Stir in the oats and chia seeds until everything is evenly incorporated and the oats are submerged. Cover and refrigerate for at least 6 hours or overnight for the mixture to soften and firm.
Recipe and photographs used with permission. All rights reserved.
For years I’ve been belaboring the negative side effects of a society that’s glued to its phones and the perils of social media distracting us from genuine human interaction. Although the online arena has opened up a whole new world (the ability to research something in a split second, locate long lost friends or do something as trivial as see how the captain of our high school football team has aged in comparison to ourselves), it’s also created a lot of virtual “single-lane highways,” which have encouraged many of us to narrow our tolerance of people who we might deem as different.
The ugly side effects of being more sole focused have been pervasive in recent years and something I’ve worked hard to overcome—both personally and for others who are open to breaking out of these virtual self-imposed prisons that limit free (and often kind) thought.
And now to add to our solace-addicted society comes the coronavirus and the need to self-isolate (and/or quarantine depending on which hashtags float your boat). Social distancing is necessary and will hopefully help us contain this potentially out of control pandemic. But we need to also pay attention to the side effects of having to shelter in place. To close ourselves off even more from others (extended family, friends and even strangers on the street) has the potential to further harm our society and how we treat one another as a whole. Not to mention how we treat ourselves.
What’s perhaps even worse about this international crisis is that there is no immediate end in sight. We continue to get different messages based on the latest information. Some of it is valid. Much of it is guesswork. Never has “Wait and see” taken on such prominence.
The good news is that there are some helpful tactics we can take on in order to help avoid some of the prolonged side effects of this mandatory alone time.
For starters, everyone can instill a little peace of mind into their daily lives. If you don’t have a meditation practice, now’s a great time to begin one. There are plenty of apps that can lead us through different guided meditations of our choosing. Many offer the ability to choose a time length and even a subject matter. We can also simply sit down, close our eyes and take deep breaths—thinking “in” as we breathe in, and “out” as we breathe out. A gentle pause between the ‘in’ and ‘out’ breaths will add even more to the experience.
When our brains and our breathing get into sync, our minds calm and we can approach life with a little more thoughtfulness and presence. I’d even encourage you to practice meditation with everyone you’re quarantined with. Even young children get the concept. They might think of it as more of a game (can they be quiet long enough to participate?)—but they can still reap the rewards of a little self-imposed silence. There’s also a free resource being offered by Eckhart Tolle that you can click to for inspiration; as well as Well Being and Healing in the midst of the COVID-19 Pandemic video you can watch from Deepak Chopra.
Another fun and centering activity for everyone (young and old) is to color in coloring books together. Amazon and other online resources offer coloring books for every interest. There are car coloring books for gearheads. Dinosaur coloring books for explorers. Unicorn coloring books for dreamers, snarky coloring books for adults and even Christmas coloring books for yours truly (I admit it, I’m a Christmas addict every day of the year). You can add a giant box of crayons, which you can place at the center of a dining table. Then everyone in your household can choose a page of their favorite coloring book and create their own masterwork. (I suggest everyone sign and date their works of art as well.)
This simple practice of “creating” while spending time together can be spirit building—even if no one feels the need to talk during the coloring fest. Although certainly there can be a groan or two offered in regard to trying to “Color within the lines.”
People can even use FaceTime on their phones to have coloring book parties with long distance relatives (or even neighbors across the street). You could even put together a coloring book and crayon gift package through an online vendor to send to your favorite people across town or across the country. Trust me when I assure you that even those who participate by rolling their eyes will probably enjoy this ritual (a ritual that can be done daily).
Another fun “at home adventure” for the family could be to celebrate Christmas all over again. Pull out the decorations, the fake trees, the tangled up lights and turn your living room into a magical winter wonderland. (Who couldn’t use a little extra sparkle right about now?)
And there’s never been a better time for cleaning out closets and/or organizing (and digitizing) old photographs and videotapes.
Last but not least, I encourage all of us to keep a journal that lists what we look forward to doing once we can “return to normal.” Normal being the keyword. Encourage kids, friends and other family members to do this as well. Maybe you’ll list a goal of joining a bowling league. Or auditioning for a community theatre troupe. Or eating hot dogs from a kiosk at the zoo. Or even surprising a stranger behind you in line by paying for their drink order at a coffee shop.
Whatever it is, make a list of the simple pleasures we once took for granted and look forward to partaking in again. Don’t be sad about the fact that most of these activities are on hold. Be joyful that we could partake of these pleasures very recently and that, in time, we can enjoy them again. Perhaps with more gratitude and joy than we did in the past.
It’s up to us as a society to preserve a way of life that celebrate strangers participating in community activities. To see a movie together. To stand in line with one another at a grocery store without judging one another. And to pass a stranger on the street and offer a smile.
Or even—and just go with me here—start a conversation and invite them to your next kitchen table coloring book party.
Image Source: CNN