Holiday Tips

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If the fear of fire is keeping you from having a real Christmas tree this year, don't let it, says Dr. Ken Tilt, a horticulturist with the Alabama Cooperative Extension System.

Real Christmas trees simply cannot cause fires, he says. The trees themselves are not the cause of tragic holiday fires, Tilt says.  Such fires are caused by external sources, such as electrical outlets, frayed electrical cords and lamps.
According to the National Fire Protection Associations published material, electrical causes and lamps were responsible for starting almost half of structure fires involving Christmas trees.
Almost 25 percent of the fires were caused by various open flames, sparks and embers, Tilt says.  The remaining fires were started by a variety of ignition sources, including gas-fueled equipment and cigarettes. These figures sound intimidating, but let’s consider how many incidents of Christmas tree fires actually occur each year, Tilt says. 
Every year, articles of alarm are posted in the newspapers over potential fire hazards from Christmas trees.  There is a possibility of Christmas trees catching on fire, but the reality is that the incidence of such fires is extremely rare.  Of the 33 million live Christmas trees bought in the United States, fewer than one-one thousandth of a percent are involved in a residential fire.
Tilt says both live and artificial Christmas trees were involved in fires, but both have less fire hazard potential than many other household items.
Newspapers and magazines were found to be 13 times more likely to burn first, Tilt says.  Boxes or bags are10 times more likely to ignite.
Curtains, linens, cleaning supplies, and clothing on a person all had greater fire hazard potential. Christmas tree fires do occur, Tilt says, but the odds of them happening are slim.
The movie Jaws made many people shy of the water, he says.  Don’t let the hype of Christmas tree fires spoil your holiday traditions.  If you follow some commonsense precautions, the danger of fire is very remote.

According to the National Christmas Tree Association, these simple steps can help guard against holiday fires, Tilt says.
** Select the freshest-looking real tree available.  Once home, make a fresh cut across the trees base and immediately place it in water.
** Keep the trees water container full at all times, checking the water level daily.
Be extra careful with electricity, all open flames and other heat sources during the holidays.
** Check all Christmas tree lights, other electric decorations and electrical appliances for wear (frayed cords, etc.)  Do not use lights, decorations or appliances with worn electrical cords.  Use only UL-approved electrical decorations and extension cords.
** Place the Christmas tree far away from heat registers, space heaters, fireplaces and wood stoves.
** Unplug tree lights and other decorations when out of the room or while sleeping.

** Regularly check the tree for dryness.  If the needles fall off when you touch them or the stems break off when you bend them, your tree may be dry.  Check the water level. If it is low, add water.  If not, its time to take down the tree.

Enjoy this Christmas with a real tree from one of your local farms or nurseries.

Dr. Ken Tilt, Extension Horticulturist, 334-844-5484.

The main difference between the light corn syrup you buy for baking and the high fructose corn syrup used as a sweetener in processed foods is the extent of processing.

To make regular corn syrup, the starch is broken down either by enzymes or by a combination of enzymes and acid, yielding a mixture of sweeteners such as dextrin, maltose and glucose, says Dr. Barbara Struempler, Extension nutritionist with the Alabama Cooperative Extension System.

The process is stopped when the desired combination of sugars is achieved. The resulting syrup is filtered and centrifuged to remove proteins, fats and remaining starch. It is then decolorized and concentrated.

To make light corn syrup, the manufacturer adds high fructose syrup, vanilla and salt.


To produce high fructose corn syrup, the syrup is treated with an enzyme that promotes the conversion of glucose to fructose. The mixture of sugars and the level of sweetness will depend on how the sweetener is going to be used.

Source: Dr. Barbara Struempler (334) 844-2217, Extension Nutritionist, Alabama Cooperative Extension System.

Shopping is a skill that it pays to develop.

Shopping skills are developed through experience and practice in the marketplace. However, recent studies show that one person out of five in the United States doesn't have the skills needed to function effectively in the marketplace.

Shopping is more complex today than at any time in history. There are more products to choose from; more sellers vying for business; and more dollars to spend.

Studies show that 12 to 15 percent of potential buying power is lost due to careless shopping and more is lost due to improper use and care of purchases.

Here are some guidelines to use when shopping:

** Plan your purchases. Before going shopping know what you're going to purchase and why. Be prepared to say no to those things that are not on your list even though they don't cost much and would make life simpler. Avoid impulse buying.

** A shopper's plan should include an evaluation of products. Study the ads and develop a shopping list. The list should include names, sizes and maximum dollar amount to be spent on each gift. Take ads, as well as any savings coupons, with you to the store.

** Determine the true cost of an item before purchasing it. Examine the product for unit price. Don't assume that a larger product package costs less per unit than a smaller one. Compare the costs of packaged and unpackaged varieties.  Remember that free offers are rarely free. Compare prices of products with and without a "free" gift. When using credit to pay for a bargain, be sure to include the cost of the credit with the cost of the item.

** Know when to shop.Shop when stores are least crowded – usually right after opening, after lunch or slump times between 2:30 p.m. and 5 p.m. Avoid shopping on weekends, lunch hours and evenings, and don't shop when you are tired, preoccupied or hungry. All day shopping marathons are bad on your health and pocketbook.

** Know where to shop. Shop around. Shop at thrift or discount stores and speciality stores. Look for the best price for the item you want to buy.

** Learn to read ads. Delete all the empty words and phrases such as "special sale price," "unbelievable savings," and "too good to be true." Helpful information includes an item description, size and price, and limitations on the sale. Pay special attention to a store's return policies.

** Learn to judge quality. Don't rely on price alone. Once you learn to recognize quality, you can determine when a lesser quality will serve as well. Brand names are no guarantee of better quality, value or price. Check and compare brands including fiber content, care and sizing. Sizes can vary greatly among manufacturers.


Simple and quick decorations can often be the prettiest. Here is a decorating idea to use on a table or in a family room.

Use ivory candles in an attractive variety of shapes and heights -- tall, short, slender and chunky. Use shiny red apples as candleholders for the slender candles. Use an apple corer or sharp knife to cut just the right size hole in the apple. Fill the hole with florist clay for a snug fit.

Then tie plaid bows around the candles just above the top of the apple. Add some sprigs of greenery if desired. You can vary this by using different colors of apples, candles and ribbon.

We’re very fond of our holiday cactuses, whether Thanksgiving or Christmas, as they put on quite a show about the time most other color is gone.
The Thanksgiving cactus (Schlumbergera truncata) and the Christmas cactus (Schlumbergera bridgesii) are, as their names suggest, closely related. Care for them is similar, and to many of us it’s hard to tell them apart, kind of like fraternal twins. However, for those who want to know why their “Christmas cactus” is blooming in November, the answer might be - because it’s a Thanksgiving, not Christmas, cactus.
Although native to the tropical forests of South America, these plants do nicely in sturdy hanging baskets or containers as the plants can grow quite large. They do fine outdoors away from artificial light until nighttime temperatures dip into the 40s. At that point, bring them inside to a cool area as they do best when temps are between 50 and 65 degrees. Once inside, to help initiate blooming, keep them away from light from 5:00pm until 8:00am. Water sparingly, as too much water can cause bud drop and even root rot, so let the top inch of soil become dry to the touch before watering again.
Either Schlumbergera is a striking plant in full bloom, and many prefer to enjoy the show rather than fret over the proper name. For those who fall in the other category, the most apparent feature, other than when they bloom is that Thanksgiving, or crab cactus, has sharply serrated or toothed leaves compared to the rounded leaves of the Christmas cactus. Another way of identifying which you have: if bloom pushes upward, it’s a Thanksgiving cactus; Christmas cactuses hang down.
Plant bodies are flattened, and leaves or segments are actually stems. Old-fashioned cactus produced fuchsia-colored blooms, but now we have hybrids that come in white, red, yellow and even purple.
Long-lived (some have been in families over 50 years), these cactuses are easily propagated. You’ll need a small container of moist potting soil, a Thanksgiving or Christmas cactus to provide a cutting or cuttings, and rooting hormone, which is helpful but not necessary.
Clip off a 3 or 4 segment piece, dip the cut end in rooting hormone if you have it, then push the cut end into a container of soil about an inch or so. That’s the hard part. Make sure the soil stays moist, which can easily be done by propping a transparent plastic bag over the cutting. To make sure the plastic doesn’t touch your cactus cutting, insert a popsicle or other small wooden structure in the container about an inch or so deep, and drape the plastic mini green-house over it. Rooted, growing cuttings make great Christmas (or Thanksgiving) gifts to friends and family, gardeners or not.
Cactuses like 50-60% humidity, so if your home in winter is very dry, fill a waterproof saucer with gravel, add water halfway full, and put the cactus (in its pot, please) on the gravel surface.
If flower buds drop off before they become blooms, it is usually due to over-watering, lack of humidity, or insufficient light.
Also note that regardless of which holiday your cactus represents, avoid high temperatures and heat fluctuations when the plant is in flower.

Cranberries are good and good for you. When you serve them on your Thanksgiving table, you can be sure you are giving your loved ones a food high in vitamin C.  

Three and a half ounces of raw cranberries contain 46 calories; the same amount in cranberry sauce contains 146 calories and 3 1/2 ounces of cranberry juice contain 65.
Purchase cranberries that are firm and plump; a high luster indicates ripeness. Store them in the refrigerator, unwashed but covered until ready to use.
Moisture hastens cranberry spoilage. They will keep on the refrigerator shelf from one to four weeks.

It’s the holidays! Time for decking the halls with boughs of holly and roasting chestnuts on an open fire. This season of goodwill and giving thanks is also a festive celebration of food. With so many delightful foods to choose from, it’s important to keep holiday treats safe from bacteria.

Join in the festivities and ensure a safe holiday feasting season for you, your family, and your friends, by following these food safety tips.

This holiday season, be aware of bacteria and these facts:

The Invisible Enemy you can’t see, taste, or smell bacteria, but it can be on food and multiply rapidly in moist, warm conditions. If consumed, harmful bacteria can cause foodborne illness.

Be eggstra Cautious! Around the holidays, people eat a variety of foods, some of which may contain uncooked or lightly-cooked eggs. But even grade A eggs with clean, uncracked shells can be contaminated with Salmonella Enteritidis bacteria. That’s why it’s important to cook eggs thoroughly to kill any bacteria that may be present.

Chocolate, macaroons, and gingerbread . . . How sweet are the aromas of freshly-baked cookies around the holidays. Treat your tummy to these tasty yummies, but avoid licking the spoon or the mixing bowl if the batter contains uncooked eggs. Tasting cookie or cake batter can be tempting, but remember that BAC could be lurking in those uncooked eggs.

Now, grab an apron and gather the family for a holiday baking bonanza. If any of your holiday recipes call for uncooked or lightly-cooked eggs, you can modify them by cooking the eggs thoroughly.

Contributed by: Janice Hall, regional Extension agent.

Finding dependable temporary employees to help during November and December often presents a huge challenge for retailers. Transient employees who quit after only a week or two or who have questionable backgrounds are real headaches for store managers at holiday crunch time. The holiday season is the busiest time of the year for stores' customers who want fast, courteous, knowledgeable assistance.

The wrong type of temporary help can be costly to the bottom line and the store's reputation.

Although seasonal employees may be hired to work only a few weeks, they represent the company to customers. Likewise, the company is as equally responsible for the behavior of its temporary employees as it is its veteran workers.

Hiring temporary workers at the last minute can drastically increase overhead expenses. Having to hire a second or third time can cost upwards to $5,000, not to mention hiring someone whom may steal merchandise or damage customer relationships.

Taking the time to hire qualified temporary workers can save literally thousands of dollars.

Employers can use the following suggestions to help ensure the individuals they hire during the holiday shopping season are dependable, capable and trustworthy.

** Begin your search for holiday help early. Waiting until mid-November to recruit temporary workers means many of the better workers are already employed.

** Determine the specific jobs temporary employees will be doing, how many will be needed, and the duration of the temporary job. Based on last year's holiday season, establish which operations really need extra people and define the exact type(s) of jobs they are doing. Develop a recruitment campaign based on actual job descriptions.

** Use the same process for hiring temporary employees that you do for career workers. Don't skip background checks on any individual considered for employment. Conduct a stringent interview process to make sure the temporary employees are a good fit with the store's expectations and the regular employees.

** Rely on the familiar. Contact good temporary workers from previous years. They might like to work again this year or could recommend some reliable replacements.

** Train, train, train. Conduct a thorough orientation for the temporary employees. Pay them to begin training early. Policies and procedures taken for granted by regular workers may be misunderstood by new hires. Time taken up front explaining the details of the operation will be well spent. It is better to find out during training that someone cannot do the job.

** Be flexible. Keep in mind that many seasonal employees are high school and college students or individuals who are working part time to earn extra money. Instead of hiring full-time people for short periods, consider hiring several to work more abbreviated schedules to accommodate existing schedules.

Finding the right people is only half the challenge when hiring seasonal help. The other half is keeping them employed until the season is over.

After spending time and money to recruit early, carefully screening applicants and then hiring temporary employees for the holiday shopping season, store managers are prudent to find ways to keep the temporary employees until the holiday rush is over.

Pay competitive wages. Give a bonus for sales or for staying until the end of the season, or offer temporary employees an employee's discount on goods they buy. Each of these will serve as incentives to the temporary employee.

Make starting to work an event for temporary employees. Announce their arrival and introduce new employees to current staff. If possible, use a buddy system so new hires have someone non-threatening to talk to if they have questions or encounter problems.

Treat new workers with respect, giving them stable working conditions and regular hours. Temporary seasonal employees have a right to know when and where they will be working. Floating positions that fill in wherever needed should be reserved for veteran workers who better understand the entire operation.

The money and time spent in matching the right people to the right job will pay dividends in the long run.

The development and retention of a high performance workforce requires a substantial commitment over time.

The holidays are supposed to be the most wonderful time of the year. Unfortunately for many Alabamians, the holiday season often turns out to be the most stressful time of year.

Why is the holiday season such a disappointment for so many people? It's because people have such high expectations about how families should act and feel, says Dr. Ellen Abell, an Extension family and child development specialist with the Alabama Cooperative Extension System. These high expectations are reinforced by the large numbers of cards, movies and songs we're exposed to during the season.

People also have to make a lot of choices at Christmas time. Abell says. Although these choices are often what make the holidays fun, coming to terms with them can create more stress.

Then there's the issue of family. Sometimes holidays are the only chance during the year for many large families to gather under one roof. Bringing too many people into close quarters often invites trouble and creates more stress, Abell says.

How do you deal with this stress? Stress is a part of everyday life. There will always be pressures that can create stress. What makes these pressures stressful are not the events themselves but the way people deal with them, says Abell.

When stress builds, we often argue with those we love or expect too much of ourselves, Abell adds. Sometimes, little problems are blown up into big crises. We lose sleep and energy, and we find ourselves not enjoying the holidays.

Abell adds we can minimize stress by first realizing that we are the cause of most our stress. Find out if you're holding unrealistic expectations about the holidays. Maybe you're stressed because someone close to you isn't acting the way you expected.

Get to the root of the problem. For example, you may be stressed because you've made too many commitments or because events are not turning out the way you expected.

How do you cope with stressful family relationships? Highlight the positive. If there's a relative you don't get along with, try focusing on a positive trait. For example, if this person likes cards, get him or her involved in a card game.

If you can't work things out with the relative, find a productive activity to occupy your time such as going for a walk.

Remember you often can't control the situation, but you can control the way you react to it.

Source: Dr. Ellen Abell (334) 844-4480, Extension Family and Child Development Specialist, Alabama Cooperative Extension System.

The busiest shopping season of the year is here, and consumers should add yard sales to their list of shopping places for holiday items.

Yard sales are great places to find bargains on children's clothing and toys, seldom worn items such as party clothes, household goods and furniture for college students. Prices on clothes are usually hard to beat.

Dr. Carol Centrallo, Extension specialist with the Alabama Cooperative Extension System, offers the following tips for shoppers to help them buy wisely at yard sales.

  • Shop early for specifics, and shop late for bargains. Large items, such as furniture or home appliances, are often sold before the yard sale starts, so call ahead of time, or arrive early at the sale.
  • Plan yard sale trips to go to several sales in the same area. This way, buyers can get a feel for reasonable prices and the best use of their time and effort.
  • Look in the newspaper for advertisements, or listen to radio for local events, and then map out your trip.
  • If you want better bargains, buy in bulk. Tell the seller you will buy several items, especially if you can get a better price.
  • Don't be afraid to ask for a lower price. Most times, sellers will lower a price, especially toward the end of a sale.
  • Make sure clothing fits into a person's wardrobe, and if buying for other family members, make sure clothing matches each family member's personal style.

Make sure clothes fit into a normal clothing care plan. If the garment requires dry cleaning, consider the cost in the total price of the garment.

  • Buy as long as it fits into your budget. The average family spends between 6 percent and 20 percent on their income on clothing. Teenagers and young adults spend the most money, while older adults spend the least.
  • When buying clothing, look for garments free of stains or fading. Look at the elbow, knee and seat areas for wear. Make sure zippers work, buttons are secure and pockets are not torn.
  • Carry a list of body measurements and a tape measure with you. Before you buy, measure the shoulders, chest and hip areas, sleeve length, waist, and pant and skirt lengths of garments to make sure they will fit.

Source: Dr. Carol Centrallo, Extension Specialist, Alabama Cooperative Extension System, (334) 844-1325

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