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Holidays from the Heart

Perspectives on the season of giving

For some, the holidays between Thanksgiving and the second day of January are reasons to celebrate with family and friends. For others, it really isn’t the most wonderful time of the year.

This chapter of èBella èXtra offers a look at three women who embody the spirit of Christmas as well as encouragement for those who are alone for the holidays. Lois Sabatino takes us on a sentimental journey, sharing stories of holidays gone by.

As the end of 2021 rapidly approaches, financial advisor Lynn A. Ferraina lends perspective about end-of-year giving; designer Diane Torrisi offers tips on holiday decorating; and we share the recipe for a beautiful and delicious holiday sangria.

May your days be merry and bright.

 
 
 
 

CHAPTER 63

 

HOLIDAYS TO REMEMBER

Bella Bambolina

Holiday tales from a bygone era

by Lois Sabatino

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More than 100 years ago, 5-year-old Immaculata (Margaret, as she was called in English) skipped, her black curls bouncing, toward the old four-room house she shared with her mother, father and 10 brothers and sisters. It was a blustery day in New Haven, Connecticut. Christmas was coming, and it was a wonderful time, even though there would only be hand-me-down presents because money was scarce in such a big family.

Margaret sang a hello to the hermit-like neighbor who never looked at her as he raked dead leaves into the gutter, where he had a crackling fire going.

A gust of wind blew at Margaret’s back, and a flaming dry leaf kissed her little skirt. She felt the heat creep up her right leg and ran to get away from it, screaming for her momma.

Her mother, Ursula, at the open front door, dropped her mop and ran toward the little girl in flames. The recluse neighbor heard Margaret screaming, ripped off his jacket and ran, tackling the child, rolling her in his jacket to smother the fire.

The little girl’s leg was black and throbbing as she screamed for her mother, who grabbed her and ran into the house, leaving the neighbor stunned, breathing hard in the street.

Momma Ursula’s ancestors had taught her the secrets of homegrown medicine back in the hills of Italy. She could cure most anything and knew what to do. She grabbed jars stacked behind the wood stove, threw dried leaves together with olive oil and holy water and created a foul-smelling potion. With soothing words in Italian, she gently placed the soggy mess on her screaming daughter’s raw leg. Like a miracle, the pain drifted away as Margaret sobbed in her mother’s arms, wondering why the man had done this to her.

Three weeks later, there was a knock at the door. Ursula glared at the neighbor who wouldn’t meet her eyes and hadn’t stopped in to see how the child was.

“Here, give this to your little girl and tell her I am sorry,” he muttered, leaving Ursula holding a cardboard box.

Margaret was sitting on the floor before the warm stove, leg still bandaged with clean rags, playing with a doll her mother made from a dried corn cob. Ursula handed Margaret the box, which was sealed on top with see-through cellophane. Margaret peered inside, beholding the most beautiful doll in the world.

The doll had blonde curls peeking out from a blue bonnet and blue glass eyes with lids that winked up and down. The doll’s porcelain head had pink cheeks, a turned-up nose and a puckered mouth with small ivory teeth. Her blue dress had a white lace collar, ruffles and pearls along the hem. The outfit was completed with blue socks and black shoes with bows. Her ceramic arms and legs looked ready to move.

“I love you,” Margaret thought.

“The man who burned you wants you to have this doll,” her mother said in Italian. “But I don’t want you to ever take it out of the box so it won’t get dirty or break.”

Margaret hugged the box to her heart.

The doll didn’t move from its paper nest, never losing the wires holding its arms and legs in place or the cardboard collar keeping her head still.  

Margaret’s brothers thought the doll was OK. Her three older sisters were happy for her. And because her two younger sisters were a bit jealous, Margaret allowed them to hold the box once in a while to make them feel happy.

It was almost Christmas. The family decorated the house as best they could, and the children thrilled in anticipation of the special foods and the delicious cake Momma saved up for to make for visiting relatives.

Pappa Crecenzo, their quiet father, took the children to the schoolyard near St. Donato’s Church, where a man sold Christmas trees every year. The man always saved one from the dump pile for the big family who could give him only a quarter for it.

They dragged that year’s half-bald tree back to the house and set it up in the kitchen next to the window. They covered the bottom with an old red tablecloth and opened the special cigar box containing jagged pieces of broken colored glass collected from the streets over the years. The children tied each piece with string and hung the sparkling glass on the tree, which was always topped by the intricate star Pappa made from an old metal pie plate at the foundry where he worked.  

Every night, Margaret slept with her doll in the cardboard box. She named her Bella Bambolina, “Beautiful Baby Doll” in Italian. Sometimes, Margaret stood her up in her cardboard box so everyone could enjoy her under the Christmas tree.   

When the holidays were over, the children would shove the tree up the attic stairs. Pine needles long gone, it stood up there until spring, where the children would watch it as light streamed from the little window. Broken glass ornaments hanging from bare branches, the tree reflected joyous colors on the attic walls.

Bella Bambolina lived in her cardboard shell, passed from Margaret to her younger sister, who loved her in her box until she went to the youngest sister for more love.

Margaret was my mother. She couldn’t remember what happened to Bella Bambolina, as so many memories faded as she grew old.

I like to believe it was passed on to some other little girls, or maybe Bella Bambolina never left her cardboard-and-cellophane home. Maybe she is sitting in some antique shop, priced in the thousands, since a doll with porcelain head, arms and legs would be very dear, especially in the original box.

Is Bella Bambolina worth more today than she was to those little girls who played with her behind the cellophane under the rickety tree with its broken glass ornaments tinkling away? 

I don’t think so.   

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Lois Sabatino is a consultant in public relations, community relations, special events, fundraising and motivational training. She was the first female executive at United Technologies (now Raytheon).

HOME FOR THE HOLIDAYS

Twist, Edit, Vintage or Red?

Design pro contemplates the many styles of Christmas

by Diane Torrisi

I recently returned from Europe, where I usually load up on visual inspiration. However, this year, to my great chagrin, Europe is in the throes of COVID, and all attention is on the pandemic.

What I did notice was a return to the traditional Christmas décor, but with a whimsical twist — for example, a green tree with red crab ornaments or white reindeer combined with crystal ornaments.

As a young adult, I always dreamed of a different tree in style and color in each room of the house, but work and motherhood made time and money for such an endeavor a bit out of my reach.

As a designer, I’ve seen and admired every color combination imaginable. Whether brown, bronze and gold or pink, peacock blue and silver, Christmas is a time to express the inner child in each of us. Let’s not forget the twinkling lights! 

I used to believe that “more is more” was the best Christmas design philosophy, but not so much anymore. It is a special time to unpack those beloved decorations that hold so much nostalgia. My new mantra is, “edit, edit and edit!”

Remove much of your regular décor to make room for the seasonal ones. Anything broken, scratched or worn through should be thrown out or replaced in its box. Perhaps erect a small tree for vintage ornaments (grandma’s favorite or your children’s school-made ornaments) as a sweet nod to yesteryear!

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This year, I'm inclined to go with a monochromatic scheme. In order to avoid the monotony of one single color, think different shades. I'm not a designer who easily reaches for the red in fabrics or accessories, but Christmas is different. The Holidays seem to call for it. Normally the color red is associated with passion and power. However, Christmas red reminds me of sumptuousness and luxury.

All year ’round, I offer my clients and friends bouquets of all white flowers, but this Christmas season, I’m offering all shades red. 

Happy holidays!

FEATURE

Three Wise Women

Local ladies embrace the spirit of Christmas by giving of themselves

by Kathy Grey

As we approached this season of giving, we asked readers to nominate women who personify the holiday spirit. Due to space limitations, we could only choose to focus on a few of these local ladies who embody the Christmas spirit by giving of themselves.

Thus, we present three gifts to our community: Maxine Robbins, Donna Issenmann and Sue Huff, each celebrating the holidays with selfless giving.

Maxine Robbins

She started as a volunteer at The Shelter for Abused Women & Children as a holiday gift-wrapper for residents, outreach program participants and victims of human trafficking.

Ten years later, shelter staffers now refer to Maxine Robbins as their “Head Elf,” who leads a team of 25-plus volunteer “elves,” granting Christmas wishes of shelter residents, program participants and their children in Naples and Immokalee.

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Maxine Robbins

Some moms insist they don’t want anything for themselves, but they do want their children to have a Christmas. Robbins and the other elves make sure those moms get presents, too.

Right after Christmas each year, Robbins jump-starts the next year’s holiday giving for the shelter, fine-tuning the multiple-step process that culminates in gifts for women and children who need it most.

The process involves each family member’s gift request being handwritten by the elves on purple cardboard stars. There were 1,700 this year.

The elves then distribute the stars to community partners — mainly businesses and houses of worship — who have trees dedicated to the shelter’s Christmas drive.  

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Maxine Robbins, second from left, surrounded by “elves” and presents

Later, the elves collect the gifts and bring them to the shelter, where a room has been transformed with added shelves and tables. There, gifts are sorted, wrapped and labeled.

In 2019, Robbins spent Christmas morning at the shelter, watching the women and children open their gifts. It was a transformative experience.

“It just warmed my heart,” she says. “People in Naples are so giving.”  

One woman, given the small cross-body purse she wanted, exclaimed, “It’s real leather,” showing her gift to the others as a little boy sat on the floor, zig-zagging his new remote-control car across the room.

“It’s about the giving: making someone feel good for a while. They’ve been through so much,” Robbins says.

She couldn’t do it without the dedication and service of the shelter’s other volunteer elves, who share her passion for the project.

“We’ll get a note from someone that says, ‘If it wasn’t for you, we wouldn’t have had a Christmas.’ That makes me want to do more. I can’t give enough.”

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Members of the Naples Police Department dropped off a surprise truckload of toys for the kids.

Shelter “elves” caught on tape wrapping gifts - 2016.

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Jingled Elves

Donna Issenmann

Five Christmases in, Naples-based nonprofit Jingled Elves is a big success, and no one is more surprised than its president and founder, Donna Issenmann.

What started as 30 women raising $2,000 has grown to more than 100 participants raising $35,000 for charity last Christmas season, despite the pre-vaccine pandemic. Issenmann expects Jingled Elves will raise $50,000 this year, thanks to sponsorships from 52 Naples organizations and individual donations.

The 501(c)(3) organization provides funds to charities that focus on improving the lives of women and children in Collier County. This year, four charities will be the beneficiaries of funds raised: Laces of Love, Pathways Early Education Center of Immokalee, The Shelter for Abused Women & Children and Youth Haven.

Jingled Bells will hold its fifth annual Trolley Tour and Flash Mob Dances beginning at 5:30 p.m. Wednesday, Dec. 8. The fun begins with a flash mob performance on the Green at Mercato. Next, the participants board trolleys and spread holiday cheer as they travel through Victoria Park, Venetian Village and Downtown Naples, performing the second dance at Barbatella (Third Street South) and the final flash mob dance in front of the Sugden Theater at 8 p.m.

“We practice all through November to do this,” Issenmann says, adding that this year’s first performance will feature guest dancers from one of the children’s charities. “They’re our warmup act!” she says.

Issenmann has always loved everything about Christmas.

“My husband has already planted all the poinsettia in our courtyard,” she says with a laugh. “Everyone this year is so ready for Christmas.”

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Donna Issenmann

Sue Huff

“Oh my goodness. I don’t need to be recognized,” says Sue Huff. “I don’t want to make it about me. It’s about helping others all year long.”

And that’s precisely why she’s being featured as a “Holiday Woman.”

“My Christmas history started with the Polo Club (networking group) when I moved here in 1994,” Huff says. “I was the service chair, and I decided we would adopt families. Later, I decided to ask my friends to save gift items all through the year: scarves, wallets, perfume, makeup bags... My two-car garage was filled with stuff. We’d set up stations and put together personalized bags for the women at St. Matthew’s House.”

That effort expanded to include the men of St. Matthew’s House and Christmas stockings for everyone.

Pastor Arnold Coones of Reach Assembly in Immokalee introduced Huff to the community’s grave needs, and she’s been concentrating on Immokalee for the past two years.

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Pastor Arnie Coones and Sue Huff celebrate the community’s generosity.

“When COVID hit, I brought food out to Immokalee. And because teenage girls can fall through the cracks, I made gift boxes for them … things I bought at the dollar store and things on sale.”

Huff utilizes social media to ask people to get behind her philanthropic projects and asked her marketing and public relations clients to conduct toy drives.

“We’d get several carloads of toys,” she says. “I’m pretty good at asking, and everyone always helps. One woman I worked out with is a Mary Kay lady. She gave me hundreds of bags of cosmetics for the teenage girls. People are so generous.”

Huff has adopted three families from Immokalee for Christmas, providing presents and groceries for the families’ feasts.

 “You can never outgive God,” she says. “So, what I am able to do, I do.”

FINANCE

An Invested Interest in Giving

Be charitable and smart in this end-of-year season of giving

by Lynn A. Ferraina

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The holiday season inspires many of us to give to others through charitable endeavors. In fact, according to a survey by Giving USA, America has some of the most charitable individuals in the world, donating $454 billion to charities in 2019, and with the COVID outbreak, setting a record in 2020 at $471 billion.

During the holidays, many feel a particular urgency to make their yearly donations, and this could lead to some oversight on their nonprofit due diligence. Charitable giving often plays a crucial role in a family’s legacy plans. In many ways, donating aligns you and your family with a nonprofit’s mission and purpose.

There is nothing wrong with wanting to research an organization you are considering donating to. It would be unfortunate to find out later that there was a misrepresentation by the charity you chose.

It takes only a few minutes to run a check on a nonprofit organization, and this will help you be well informed and in control of your charitable legacy. There are a few different websites you might consider using, including GuideStar Charity Check (https://guidestar.candid.org/guidestar-charity-check). And there’s the IRS’s Tax-Exempt Organization Search and Charity Navigator (www.charitynavigator.org), whose tag line is “Guide to Intelligent Giving.” It currently rates over 160,000 charities.

Mission, Red Flags and the 501(c)(3)

Attributes to look for in a charity when making your selection might include how much of your donation is going toward the mission. Operational costs are a required expense for any company or organization, but how much of your donation goes toward these costs? It isn’t about throwing money at an organization for a tax write-off; most people want to know their donation counts.

Ideally, you want to invest in an organization that dedicates less than 30% of its total costs to operational support and fundraising. If you are highly invested in the charity’s mission, but the operational costs are taking up the entirety of your donation, you might consider finding other ways to further the cause.

Have there been complaints against the charity? In today’s online world, you can write a review for nearly everything, including nonprofits. So, it’s important to take online reviews with a grain of salt. But if negative reviews stack up, or if people have raised concerns about fraud, it helps to be aware of it.

The Better Business Bureau and GuideStar both allow donors and grant-makers to submit reviews and reports to help prevent unethical and fraudulent activity.

Is the organization a qualified 501(c)(3)? Giving to those in need goes deeper than tax-deductible status. Still, it does help to establish the legitimacy of the charity. To receive a tax deduction for a donation, the organization must meet IRS requirements to be a “qualified organization.”

The purpose of a 501(c)(3) designation is to ensure that the charitable organization will serve a public interest, not an individual or corporation. If you are donating to a legitimate 501(c)(3), they should be in the IRS’s Tax-Exempt Organization Search database, available to everyone. Plus, it would be beneficial to know you won’t have any surprises come tax season.

It is the season of giving, and with the whirlwind upon us this past year, many charitable organizations are greatly in need of donations. Though we caution you to take an active role in your giving, it should not be a fearful or stressful process. Rather, it should come from the heart.

In fact, taking an active role in your charitable gifting could allow you to connect on a deeper level with the people who benefit from the nonprofits you choose to support.

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Lynn A. Ferraina is a financial advisor and partner with Ciccarelli Advisory Services Inc., a registered investment advisor independent of FSC Securities Corporation. Securities and various investment advisory services are offered through FSC Securities Corporation, member FINRA/SIPC. The views expressed in this article may not reflect the views of FSC Securities Corporation.

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EMOTIONAL HEALTH

Alone for the Holidays?

Strategies for getting through the holidays and helping others to do the same

by Carrington Smith

As a young professional, newly divorced and buried in student loans, I remember calling my parents and crying about the prospect of spending my first Christmas alone.

My father said it would do me some good. He had a knack for taking the knife and twisting it further.

I was embarrassed that I didn’t have anyone to spend the holidays with, that I didn’t have the funds to travel and that my family was so dysfunctional.

Apparently, I have an air of having it all together: a social goddess of sorts who’s always surrounded by friends. But that impression, the story that others make up about me, couldn’t be more wrong.

Shame has kept me from pulling back the curtain and revealing how many times I’ve spent the holidays alone. The worst year was 2012. My kids were with their dad, and I spent the time reorganizing closets. But as Christmas came to a close, my mother died, and there I was, alone in my empty house, bathed in tears.

There are lots of people like me — too tired, too ashamed, too afraid of being pitied to speak up, raise a hand and say, “Please remember me.”

So, this year, I’m asking on behalf of everyone else: Please don’t assume that your friend, colleague, loved one or neighbor has a place to go, a hot meal to eat or someone to show them love. Instead, assume they don’t. Use the holidays as an opportunity to connect, express gratitude and love and be thoughtful.

With that in mind, here are some strategies for those going solo and some ideas for those who want to connect.

Keep busy. 

I have too many bad memories associated with Thanksgiving, so even when I was married, we would order Chinese food for Thanksgiving dinner.

Whenever possible, I like to meet friends for the Turkey Trot or similar events, where I get exercise, see my friends in a neutral environment and get some good endorphins. Similarly, the holidays deliver a lot of blockbuster movies, so I try to catch one with a friend, if possible. Other the years, I’ve been lucky to have a friend available to take a trip and use the time off to relax.

If plans with friends don’t work out, I try to use the time by tackling projects (like the closet), doing artwork, writing or giving myself a spa day, jumpstarting a New Year’s resolution or binge-watching a Netflix series that’s been on my list.

• Take care of yourself. 

As joyous as the holidays are for some, they are the source of great pain and loneliness for others. Self-care is critical. Bottom line: Do what you need to do to care for yourself, set boundaries and don’t worry about the judgment of others.

• Take care of others. 

I’ve found that the best way to avoid feeling sorry for myself is to shift my focus to helping others. There is always someone who has it worse than you, and the quickest way to joy is by helping someone else. Think about your elderly neighbor. Check in on friends you haven’t talked to in years. Volunteer. Adopt a family. Offer to let your friends leave their pets with you. The comfort of a pet can go a long way to getting through the holidays.

•  Avoid things that trigger you. 

I avoid Hallmark Holiday movies. I also avoid drinking. I know it soothes many, but a glass of wine during the holidays can make me melancholy. Instead, focus on the vision of the life you are designing.

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Avoid triggering friends and family who don’t respect boundaries, avoid or diminish your feelings or engage in “toxic positivity.” Your feelings are real, and they matter.

 

• Have a plan. 

The holidays are a social construct. Understand, accept and redefine what the holiday season means to you, and have a plan for your alone time.

Plan a special meal, stock up on your favorite bubble bath, pick out a show you want to watch. Plan activities before and after the holiday so that you have interactions with friends and events to look forward to, even if it’s as simple as going for a walk.

• Acknowledge cultural differences. 

Growing up in a dysfunctional protestant family, I envied cultures that had rich family traditions.

I think it would be fun to participate in the Jewish holiday traditions, attend an Italian dinner or participate in the rich Catholic Christmas traditions. The holidays are a great time to reach across cultural lines and invite people to experience your family traditions.

• Things you can do for those spending the holidays alone

First, understand that the holidays bring up so many emotions. Whatever you do, or offer to do, respect others’ feelings, and give them room to opt out if that is what’s best for them.

Instead of asking people if they have plans for the holidays (which can be a triggering question), say, “If you don’t have other plans, we would love for you to join us.”

Always approach with the sentiment that there is no pressure, but we would really love to have you. Follow up so they know you are being genuine.

If, like many young professionals, they are stuck working through the holidays, have a meal, flowers, cookies, lux pajamas or a gift basket delivered to them.

For neighbors or the elderly who spend the holidays alone, check in on them. Leave a meal, a candle, a plate of cookies or a thoughtful note on their doorstep.

And please don’t forget the single parent. There have been many holidays where I did not receive a single gift, and I know this is true for many single parents.

Use the holidays to acknowledge those you love and appreciate. Let them know they are seen and cared for.

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Carrington Smith is a single mom, attorney, business owner, executive search professional and author of the book, “Blooming,” using wit and wisdom and advice on finding your way through difficult times to find joy, opportunity and purpose.

 

SEASONAL LIBATION

A Cocktail Worth Remembering

With red, green and a hint of “snow,” this drink heralds the holiday season

by Kathy Grey

It was six years ago when friends gathered in my home the day after Christmas to keep the yuletide spirit burning. We enjoyed friendship, holiday leftovers and a wild white elephant gift exchange. But the visual highlight of the evening was the sangria: a winter wonderland in a cup.

I’d forgotten the recipe, but I found Cranberry & Rosemary White Christmas Sangria by Jerry James Stone, who graciously let us share it with our readers.

 

Cranberry Rosemary Sangria

Ingredients

1 Granny Smith apple

1 Braeburn apple

1 heaping cup of fresh cranberries

1 large sprig rosemary (plus more sprigs for garnish)

1 bottle pinot grigio

½ cup white grape juice

¼ cup sugar (plus more sugar for garnish)

12 oz. club soda

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Instructions

  1. Chop the apples into half-inch cubes.

  2. In a large pitcher, combine the ingredients, except those needed for garnish, as noted.

  3. Mix it well so the sugar dissolves.

  4. Refrigerate the pitcher for about an hour so that the sugar dissolves, and rosemary infuses the sangria.

  5. As the mixture chills, make the garnish by lightly wetting the other rosemary sprigs. Roll each in sugar, to create the look of a snowy pine tree branch.

  6. Remove the chilled pitcher from the refrigerator, and give it a good stir.

  7. Fill glasses, distributing fruit evenly. Garnish with a sprig of sugared rosemary.

To learn more about Jerry James Stone, his recipes, how-to advice and blog, visit

www.JerryJamesStone.com.

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Diane Torrisi grew up in Europe and brings that European flair to her design projects. She opened her own design studio in historic Bonita Springs in 2020. She is active in her community and has her own podcast, always dreaming up new offerings for her clients. Visit www.DianeTorrisiDesigns.com to learn more.

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Photo Credit: www.JerryJamesStone.com, used with permission.

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