Life Lessons from a Christmas Nutcracker

Life Lessons from a Christmas Nutcracker

When I was 11, I made a nutcracker for my mother for Christmas.

As a child, I was entranced by Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite. I’d never seen a real nutcracker but loved the music and a glimpse into a faraway place so different from my hometown of Rome, New York.

That homemade nutcracker is mine now, gracing the mantel every Christmas along with infinitely fancier and more expensive nutcrackers from travels in Austria and Germany. Yet he’s always the centerpiece of the display, not only for nostalgic reasons but because he represents a challenge met and a refusal to back away from a goal.

Tall nutcracker

As I had no money, a traditional nutcracker was far out of reach even if there had been a store in my hometown that sold them (not an Italian thing).

Figuring out how to make one wasn’t easy. I did, however, have some resources:

  • My grandfather’s workbench in the basement,
  • His collection of random cans of paint (remind me to tell you about the year he painted the picnic table a violent shade of orchid),
  • Access to household stuff, and
  • A vivid imagination.

I didn’t have the skill or equipment to make a traditional nutcracker but was willing to adapt to get close. Instead of a traditional figure with a belted waist, mine is made from straight pieces of lumber I convinced my grandfather to cut from a template I made.

A square block of wood is sandwiched between the two flanks, with space for the lever that forms the “jaws” to crack the nuts, affixed by a long nail running from shoulder to shoulder with the lever threaded through it. A marvel of engineering that actually works.

Profile of homemade nutcracker

He wears the color of paint from those random cans, including the eye-popping purple from the previous summer’s picnic table. The gold and silver paint came from my brother’s model car hobby.

I repurposed ordinary things to create the design. His nose is a One-a-Day vitamin (still intact after 50+ years), his buttons are pastina pasta painted silver–missing a few now–and his beard and hair are scraps of fabric.

IMHO he looks a little bit like Luigi Mario 🙂

Face of the homemade nutcracker

As I look back, there’s a big lesson. Adapt. Repurpose. Complete.

I’ll bet there are moments in the past that shaped the person you are now.

It doesn’t have to be an earth-shaking moment. Did you solve a problem? Take on a challenge? Achieve something unexpected?

The end of the year is a good time to reflect on those moments and let yourself be inspired anew by the positives.

Adapt. Repurpose. Complete.

New mantra for 2024?

2021 Gift Guide from the Mystery Ahead newsletter

2021 Gift Guide from the Mystery Ahead newsletter

My 2021 Gift Guide features everything a mystery lover needs for the year ahead.

Keep scrolling to find reader favorites from the Mystery Ahead newsletter, non-fiction reads that go inside the Detective Emilia Cruz mystery series and the Galliano Club thriller series, plus  an Amazon list of ideas for even the fussiest on your list.

Click the title to see on Amazon.

Top books of 2021, based on Mystery Ahead reader clicks

Most popular books reviewed in the Mystery Ahead newsletter 2021 


The Mystery Ahead newsletter is delivered fresh every other Sunday, with #booknews, exclusive #excerpts, and #reviews of must-read mysteries. In 2021, over 20 mysteries were reviewed.

In order of popularity, these were Mystery Ahead reader favorites in 2021.


SNOW by John Banville

Irish whodunit SNOW has the same vibe as the tv series Endeavour, about the young Inspector Morse. If SNOW is ever made into a movie, actor Shaun Evans would make the perfect detective St. John Strafford.


TRUE FICTION by Lee Goldberg

This outrageously campy thriller was pure escapism. Prepare to suspend disbelief as nerdy writer Ian Ludlow saves the world with the help of a dog walker and a zany ex-actor.


DEL RIO by Jane Rosenthal

DEL RIO confronts the issues of human trafficking and migrant labor and delivers a compelling story rooted in empathy and authenticity.



What happens when the residents of a bucolic senior living community in England get together to investigate a murder? For starters, one murder becomes . . . many.



Armand Gamache solves a crime with historical roots in Paris, in a return to the moody atmosphere and family subplots that made the series such a success.


My bestselling books of 2021

Carmen Amato bestsellers 2021


Mystery readers went for these books in a big way in 2021. Thank you!


NARCO NOIR: An Emilia Cruz Novel by Carmen Amato

A bitter past drives Acapulco’s first female police detective into a Hollywood film starring lies and murder when she goes undercover to catch a killer. As the camera rolls, Detective Emilia Cruz will face her toughest case yet. Book 8 in the series.


The Hidden Light of Mexico City by Carmen Amato

A stunning political thriller from a former CIA officer on the front lines of Mexico’s drug war. Expect characters who leap off the page and a chilling border scenario that could be tomorrow’s headlines.


The Listmaker of Acapulco (An Emilia Cruz Kindle Single) by Carmen Amato

A secret list and a nine-fingered man push Acapulco’s first female police detective to the edge in this exciting companion to the award-winning Detective Emilia Cruz mystery series.


Essential background reading for the Detective Emilia Cruz series

Essential background reading


Drugs, conflict, and good food are all enduring themes in the Detective Emilia Cruz series.


THE LEAST OF US: True Tales of America and Hope in the Time of Fentanyl and Meth by Sam Quinones

Meticulously researched and brilliantly told account of the rise of killer drugs in America. I hope the author wins the Pulitzer Prize.


THE CONFLICT THESAURUS: A Writer’s Guide to Obstacles, Adversaries, and Inner Struggles by Becca Puglisi and Angela Ackerman

A great reference manual for mystery and thriller writers.


THE ART OF MEXICAN COOKING: Traditional Mexican Cooking for Aficionados: A Cookbook by Diana Kennedy

Every Emilia Cruz novel ends with a recipe from a meal in the book. Many are from my Spanish-language version of this comprehensive cookbook.


Essential background reading for the Galliano Club thrillers

Essential background about Prohibition and the 1920s


Resources that I reached for in 2021 as I wrote about the 1920’s for the Galliano Club thriller series.


ONE SUMMER: America, 1927 by Bill Bryson

A snapshot of America during the glorious summer of Lindbergh’s flight across the Atlantic, as Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig crisscrossed the country on an equally groundbreaking baseball tour.


LUCKIEST MAN: The Life and Death of Lou Gehrig by Jonathan Eig

A brilliant biography of the legendary ball player. Did you know his last words were “All my pals.”


SCARFACE AND THE UNTOUCHABLE: Al Capone, Eliot Ness, and the Battle for Chicago by Max Allan Collins and A. Brad Schwartz

Every conceivable detail about the lives of Al Capone and Eliot Ness and their fateful intersection.


Books I’m gifting this year

History books gift guide 2021


In addition to the top 5 mysteries from the Mystery Ahead newsletter, I’m gifting some unique non-fiction.


IN THE COMPANY OF WOMEN: Inspiration and Advice from over 100 Makers, Artists, and Entrepreneurs by Grace Bonney

Interviews rich in advice and inspiration from women trying their best to live creative lives.


CITIZENS OF LONDON: The Americans Who Stood with Britain in Its Darkest, Finest Hour by Lynne Olson

One of the best books about London during the Blitz, even better than THE SPLENDID AND THE VILE.


HISTORY OF THE WORLD MAP BY MAP by the Smithsonian Institution

The ultimate gift for the voracious map and history lover.

Bonus gift ideas from my US idea list

My favorite skin care, journals, calendars, board games, fitness tools, woolly throws, and Kindles, plus the desk lamp I cannot work without. These are the items I use and gift.

Get the list on


The Ghost of Christmas Past

The Ghost of Christmas Past

What if you were truly haunted by the ghost of Christmas past?

Sometimes I think I might be.

That First Christmas

We spent our first Christmas as a married couple in a fairy tale setting. It was crisp and cold that year in Vienna, Austria. We strolled through the market in front of the Rathaus. Recalling my love of Tchaikovsky’s holiday classic, I fell in love with the nutcrackers of every shape and size.

Christmas past in Vienna

Jumping into the local culture with the appetites of youth, we sampled gluhwein (hot spiced whte wine), ate wurst larded with cheese from sidewalk stands, and  found a charming pub-style restaurant at the end of the tram line that specialized in groestl, a hash made with potatoes and ham. When we had enough local food we visited the 2-story McDonald’s.

The trip was an introduction to eiderdown comforters. We snuggled in a double bed slightly larger than a twin, and watched German television piped in from Bonn. For some reason old American sci-fi movies dubbed in German were popular. The 50’s flicks were campy, with specific effects depending on aluminum foil and string. The spacecraft looked like flying yams.

The commercials were the best part, especially the English language ad touting Spandau Ballet, “the band that styled the 80’s.” We recognized the song “True,” which had gotten decent air time in the US, but fell over ourselves with laughter at the tag line. Even today, one of us will suddenly come out with it, and for some reason it is still as funny as it was then. I mean, come on.

The Band That Styled the 80’s.

You had to have been there, I think.

End of an Era

While we were in Vienna, the reign of dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu came to a gruesome end in neighboring Romania. He was the last Communist leader in Eastern Europe to fall. I saved the edition of the International Herald Tribune with the story of the Christmas day execution of  Ceaușescu and his wife. You can read this Huffington Post article about it.

Suddenly, there was another tear in the Iron Curtain. Romanians came flooding across the border into Vienna, stuffed into tiny cars or by the busload to see what the free world looked like. They were slightly shell-shocked in their drab, poorly made clothes, as they took in Vienna’s magnificent architecture, restaurants, and pastry shops loaded with food. They gawked at the markets loaded with high quality Christmas decorations.Trams of Christmas past

A McDonald’s Moment

The McDonald’s was a magnet for the Romanians, although they couldn’t afford it. My husband and I were in the restaurant at one point, eating our way through a sizeable meal. A Romanian couple sat nearby, sharing a single Happy Meal. They ate slowly and with great wonder.

Related post: What I Learned at McDonald’s and it isn’t about the food

That meal was a gift in many ways. It made me realize the joy there is in freedom and to never take it for granted. I recognized how lucky I was to be able to watch the awakening of a nation, yet not have to carry the burden of the past or the fear of change.

Ghost of Christmas Past

That couple in the McDonald’s in Vienna is my ghost. But in a good way. Rarely does a year go by that I don’t think of them. They were about our age, amazed at what the world outside Romania was like.

I hope things worked out for them and that they are prosperous now. Maybe getting ready to enjoy Christmas, laughing about how naive they were that first time out of Romania. Thinking about the American couple they saw in McDonald’s and how they looked like freedom.

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ghost of christmas past


Mystery and thriller author. Retired Central Intelligence Agency intel officer. Dog mom to Hazel and Dutch. Recovering Italian handbag addict.


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