Down to the Letter
HANKSGIVING DINNER. OPENING GIFTS AROUND THE CHRISTMAS TREE. LIGHTING THE MENORAH. BOXING DAY SHOPPING. ONE OF THE MOST MAGICAL ELEMENTS OF THE HOLIDAY SEASON IS THE PRACTICE OF TRADITIONS. SOME TRADITIONS ARE WIDELY CELEBRATED CONVENTIONS PASSED DOWN THROUGH GENERATIONS. OTHER, MORE PERSONAL EXPRESSIONS, SPRING FROM LIFE EXPERIENCE AND CAN BE ANYTHING BUT CONVENTIONAL.
My favorite holiday tradition happens on New Year's Day. Each year I host an open house where around 50 friends drop in, sip sparkling wine, indulge in creamy homemade quiche, leafy green salad, a smattering of finger foods, and a grand and edible centerpiece. Sometimes this pièce de résistance is a croquembouche — stunning tree-like tower of custard-filled profiteroles coated in caramel and draped with spun sugar.
Other times it's tiered chocolate cupcakes or martini glasses of diced, boiled potatoes mixed with sour cream, lemon zest, chives, and a dash of Champagne topped with a heavy-handed dollop of caviar. Guests are always excited to discover what's on the menu, but the real anticipation is around my annual letter writing ceremony. For years now I've invited all guests to pen a letter to themselves that does not focus on quitting smoking, losing weight, or other negative and stereotypical resolutions, but instead chronicles their dreams and aspirations for the year ahead. I set out a basket of paper, pens, envelopes and clipboards and encourage friends and family to write a little bit about where they are in their lives now and where they'd like to be a year from now. Letters are sealed, self addressed and left with me. One year later, just before New Year's, I pop them in the mail.
After a few years my letter writing tradition gained popularity among my friends, although it wasn't always so. In truth, I wasn't really into the concept the first time it was introduced to me. I wasin college, working at a children’s camp, when at the beginning of summer the directors asked each staff member to write a letter to himself that chronicled what we hoped to achieve or overcome during our stay. I didn't see the value as I scribbled my thoughts.
But three months later, after I'd completely forgot-ten about my letter, it was handed to me and I read in my own words how I had a great fear of being ridiculously playful in front of others and hoped to overcome self-consciousness in exchange for a summer of fearlessly child-like revelry.
The letter was nothing short of a revelation, as that summer I had been a complete goof. I had renamed myself "Cookie," wore my hair twisted into dozens of tight, protruding loops tied with bandana strips and assumed the alias of "Merimukah," a country gal with an intentionally curious name who wore a straw hat and cat-eyed glasses with no lenses and regularly performed "Doe a Deer" in rap, country and Jewish accents in front of 300 people.
Though I hadn't intentionally pursued my goals, had accomplished them and decided that writing them down had unknowingly helped me. My desire to share this insightful exercise with friends inspired me to introduce it during a New Year's brunch.
The first time I introduced letter writing, some my guests resisted. Perhaps they thought it too much like homework for a relaxed sparkling wine brunch. But I think it was because they were nervous about whether they would do it "right," who would see the letter, and how, exactly, it all worked.
It took detailed explanation and more than a little friendly persuasion to get everyone onboard. I let few hard-core protestors slide, since there's no point in forcing people, other than requisite family, to participate in traditions, either old or new.
A year later, everyone received their letters right after I sent out invitations to my annual brunch. Guests from the previous year arrived ready to mark the New Year by writing another letter. Some told me that they remembered what they've written and strived to achieve their goals over the course of the year.
Others were surprised to receive a letter from someone whose writing looked alarmingly similar to their own.
But all confided they believed that writing out their dreams helped them define and get closer to realizing them. Their enthusiasm infected new-comers, and thankfully eliminated the need for any further arm-twisting.
Suddenly my tradition had all the necessary requirements: someone to continue to champion it (me), willing participants and a reoccurring and expected date on which to share it.
Right now I have more than 50 self-addressed and sealed letters from last January waiting to be dropped in the mail on December 29, and I’m crafting my ever-expanding brunch guest list. As always, it will include a number of newcomers who might initially balk at writing tothemselves.
But I have no doubt that next year, after they receive their letters, these same initiates will arrive at my party dying to tell me how this new-found tradition has impacted them and eager to again pick up a pen and put in motion their dreams and aspirations for the sea-sons, then year, to come.
In Napa Valley
Casual and good, MUSTARD'S GRILL in Yountville, has been defining fine
dining for two decades. Evolving from a great place for locals to a must-stop
for visitors, Mustard's has achieved the status of wine country icon.
The dress is casual, but reservations are recommended (due both to its
popularity and its ideal location on Highway 29 just north of Yountville).