Elf on the Shelf returns! Here are 5 easy arrival ideas to bring your elves back

Amy Haneline


Published 7: 00 AM EST Nov 27, 2019

If you’re here, you probably know about the little Christmas tradition called “Elf on the Shelf.”

Yes, the scouting little elves keep your kids in check during the holiday season, but at the expense of parents’ precious time to find Instagram-worthy hiding spots throughout the house.

It all started with the 2005 book authored by mother-daughter duo Carol Aebersold and Chanda Bell.

As the story goes, elves arrive around Thanksgiving and keep watch of children up until Christmas Eve. Every night during this time, elves fly to the North Pole to report to the big guy, ya know, Santa, about the kids’ naughty or niceness, then return to a new spot each morning.

When does ‘Elf on the Shelf’ return?

The season’s “Scout Elf Return Week,” as they call it, runs from Nov. 24 through Dec. 1.

Parents choose different dates to bring back their elves depending on their own holiday traditions and creative endurance. 

Here are some ways to kick off the magic in your house. And don’t worry if it’s a week into December and you are just now reading this. There are plenty of excuses below.

Keep it simple

Grab a little card or piece of scrap paper and write “I’m back!” Or use a dry-erase maker to write “Did you miss me?” on a mirror. Plop that little elf in front of it and ignore it until your kids discover that their elf has magically returned.

Write a letter

If you are the overachieving type of parent, you can write a letter to your little ones from their elves. Elves can explain to the kids that they are on a mission from Santa and that they will be reporting back to him. Don’t forget to remind them that they can’t touch the elves or they will lose their magic!

Spell it out

Grab some marshmallows or M&Ms and spell out “Guess who’s back?” Or grab that old Scrabble game to create a little “I’m back” sign. Or you probably have some of those alphabet magnets lying around, right? Set it next to your elf and done. Easy peasy.

Plane ride

Incoming!!!! Elves can make an entrance by having them ride in on balloons or land on your Christmas tree. Attach balloons to a little bucket and place the elf inside. Or make a paper airplane that says, “We’ve landed.”

Excuses, excuses

Soooo your elf showed up a little bit later this year or your just need a break. What’s up with that? Here are some ideas: The elf was doing some important elf training, he was devouring Mrs. Claus’ sweets, she was on vacation or was stuck in a snowstorm. Or maybe elf just got some boo-boos and needs to rest before starting his elf duties.

Happy efl’ing!

Follow the latest from USA TODAY Parenting at usatoday.com/life/parenting

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The Danube River trifecta: Vienna, Bratislava and Budapest

Rick Steves

Published 7: 00 AM EST Nov 27, 2019

Strung along the Danube River, three captivating cities — Vienna, Bratislava and Budapest — make up a triangle of enjoyable urbanity at the heart of central Europe. Each of these capitals shares a common Habsburg history, and thanks to their proximity — only one or two hours apart by train — combining all three into one trip is a breeze.

Vienna ranks at the top of my list of elegant European cities. Once the capital of the mighty Habsburg empire, it has a rich culture you can almost inhale — and an easy livability that I admire.

From a sightseeing point of view, Vienna is the sum of its illustrious past, with a dizzying number of sights and museums to explore. But the overall vibe of the city itself is just as enjoyable. Having lost World War I and her political power, Vienna has kicked back, becoming an expert in good living.

Vienna has a long history as Europe’s music capital, and classical music performances are everywhere, from public parks to the Vienna State Opera — which belts out 350 glittering shows a year. Gilded high culture can be surprisingly affordable here — an opera standing-room ticket is about the same price as a cinema ticket.

Whether you’re enjoying Strauss in a park or lingering in a genteel café, Vienna is a class act. For a literal taste of old Vienna, step into one of its cafés to relax with a cup of coffee, a thick slice of cake, and a newspaper. With crystal chandeliers and worn red-velvet chairs, these establishments have the charm of times past.

Less than an hour’s train or boat ride away from Vienna, Bratislava, the Slovak capital, is a convenient “on the way” destination between Budapest and Vienna. Its compact old town is lined with venerable cafés, Renaissance arcades and fun-to-browse boutiques.

A few hours are plenty to get the gist of the city. Though lacking blockbuster sights, Bratislava is an unexpected charmer and perfect for strolling. Head straight to the old town and wander its mostly traffic-free streets. The petite main square features a historic fountain, built to celebrate the 1563 coronation of Maximillian II — the first Habsburg emperor to also be crowned “King of Hungary.” Back then, Slovakia was part of Hungary, which was ruled from Austria.

Finish your stroll with a hike up to Bratislava Castle, the city’s most prominent landmark. Originally a military fortress, in the 18th century it was transformed into a royal residence for Habsburg Empress Maria Theresa. While the castle now houses exhibits, the main reason to head up the hill is for the views over the city and the Danube.

Bratislava’s energy is inspiring, but the true powerhouse of this region is Hungary’s capital, Budapest. It can be challenging and complicated, but Budapest is worth it: It’s an enjoyably cosmopolitan place of unexpected elegance.

Straddling the Danube River, it’s technically two towns in one, with mighty bridges linking historic Buda and modern Pest. Hilly Buda is dominated by Castle Hill. The royal palace marks the place where one of Europe’s mightiest castles once stood. Since the 14th century, Hungary has been ruled from this spot.

Because of its heritage, Budapest feels more grandiose than you’d expect for the capital of a relatively small country. The city boomed in the late 19th century, after the Habsburg rulers made it co-capital — with Vienna — of their vast Austro-Hungarian empire. That boom peaked with a flurry of construction in anticipation of a citywide party in 1896, the thousandth anniversary of the arrival of the Magyars (Hungary’s original ethnic group). Budapest’s long-standing rivalry with Vienna spurred its planners to build bigger and better. Many of the city’s finest landmarks date from this era, including the neo-Gothic Hungarian Parliament, the opulent State Opera House, and the voluminous Central Market Hall.

Budapest’s residents, like their Viennese neighbors, have retained a keen knack for living well. Spend an hour or two (or the whole day) splashing and soaking in one of the city’s many thermal baths. Though public baths can sound intimidating, they’re a delight — and are my personal favorite among all of Budapest’s inviting experiences.

The city’s café culture has made a strong comeback (the communists had closed down the cafés, fearing a dissident breeding ground). The old coffeeshops are being restored, rivaling those in Vienna and dripping with Habsburgian nostalgia. Whiling away the afternoon at a genteel coffeehouse while nursing a drink or savoring a delicate dessert is a favorite pastime.

For panoramic views from the remaining castle ramparts, ride the cute funicular up to Castle Hill. Or cap a day of sightseeing with an evening cruise on the blue Danube — the chain that links the three capitals of Vienna, Bratislava, and Budapest.

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Lightning coach Jon Cooper calls his shot: Tampa Bay ready to win again

Kevin Allen


Published 6: 54 AM EST Nov 27, 2019

CHICAGO — With his Tampa Bay Lightning fresh off two consecutive losses and perched outside of a playoff spot, Jon Cooper sounded more like a Wall Street analyst than an NHL coach late last week.

“This is like a stock market correction,” Cooper told USA TODAY Sports. “Everything that went well for us last year, not as much this year.”

It wasn’t quite like Babe Ruth calling his home run shot by pointing to the center-field bleachers, but Cooper did say indicators were telling him the Lightning on the verge of becoming the dominant regular-season team they were last season when they tied an NHL record with 62 wins.

“We look at things like scoring chances against, like Grade A vs. Grade B, and things like that, and we’ve improved,” Cooper said.

Since then, the Lightning have recorded three consecutive wins to improve to 12-7-2, giving up only six goals total in those triumphs. They did that even with Steven Stamkos going on the injured list.

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The Lightning are a point behind the Montreal Canadiens for the third playoff spot in the Atlantic Division. They have three games in hand on the Canadiens.

 The Lightning are still getting it done on offense. Last season, they led the NHL at 3.89 goals per game. This season, they are No. 1 at 3.76.

The difference has been goals against. They were seventh last season with a 2.70 goals-against average and this season they are 22nd at 3.24.

“We were catching breaks last season, where a puck will go off a stick, and this season it doesn’t,” Cooper said. “And when the puck goes off our stick, it goes in the net. “

Goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy won the Vezina Trophy last season with a .925 save percentage. This season, his save percentage is .910.

“It’s a mentality,” Tampa Bay defenseman Victor Hedman said. “It’s not the system. We have addressed that, and I think everyone on our team is aware of what we have to do to eliminate scoring chances, even though scoring chances are down compared to previous years.”

The Lightning’s 62 wins tied the NHL record for wins set by the Detroit Red Wings in 1995-96. The following season, the Red Wings were 38-26-18 but won the Stanley Cup.

Tampa Bay didn’t stand pat last summer, adding players such as backup goalie Curtis McElhinney, gritty forward Patrick Maroon and puck-moving defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk.

Shattenkirk (five goals, 17 points, +8), in particular, has fit in well as Hedman’s defensive partner.  

“Great personality, to start with,” Hedman said. “His hockey IQ is very high and his skill level is very high.”

The New York Rangers bought out Shattenkirk because he didn’t live up to their expectations.

“I came in here and wasn’t asked to do anything more than what they know I’m capable of,” Shattenkirk said of his strong start. “And I think I got away from that a bit in New York. I was trying to do more than I should have.”

The Lightning want Shattenkirk to be himself.

“I’ve been encouraged to jump into the rush and be an offensive guy,” he said. “We preach defense here as well. But how they want us to play with the puck really matched up with my style.”

Shattenkirk needed a few games to adjust to playing with Hedman.

“He plays defense really like no one else in the league,” Shattenkirk said. “He is able to cover so much ground on the ice in terms of sweeping across defensively and almost killing rushes before they start.”

The Lightning were shockingly swept by the Columbus Blue Jackets in the opening round of the playoffs last spring. It helps to have newcomers who don’t carry that baggage with them.

“I think it weighed on them a little bit,” Shattenkirk said. “I think you can’t hide from it. I think everywhere we go, at least until the end of January, every new city we go to, people are going to be asking about it.”

He said the Lightning need to remember much about last season and then forget the ending.   

“Wear it with honor,” Shattenkirk said. “Know that if we grow from it, it’s a lesson learned and hopefully we won’t be making those same mistakes.”

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College basketball fans had jokes about Coach K’s final play design in loss to Stephen F. Austin

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Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski clearly had a vision of how the Blue Devils’ final play would go against Stephen F. Austin on Tuesday night. But it’s fair to say that play did not go as Coach K planned. And perhaps that because it looked like a little messy when he drew it up during the final timeout.

The broadcast showed the coach’s play design on his whiteboard during the final stoppage of the game. It was, of course, designed for what would be Duke’s final and failed possession. Duke couldn’t even get off a shot. The Blue Devils turned over a pass to the paint with roughly six seconds remaining. Stephen F. Austin recovered the errant pass, and ran the ball in transition for a buzzer-beating layup and the 85-83 win.

Here’s a look at what the play looked like in real life.

And here’s how Coach K drew it up.

Krzyzewski gave credit to Stephen F. Austin during a postgame interview at Cameron Indoor Stadium, via The Duke Chronicle:

“We were not good, and made us that way. This isn’t just about us not showing up or whatever. They played really well. Sometimes when I’m talking about what we didn’t do, I don’t want to disrespect their performance. Their performance was outstanding and they deserve recognition for that, not that we didn’t do something. They did it to us. They made us look bad.”

They did, indeed.

Because of the messy appearance of the play, NCAA basketball fans didn’t hold punches for Krzyzewski.

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Thanksgiving Day dinner: Tips for cooking turkey, serving a safe, succulent holiday meal

Mike Snider


Published 6: 40 AM EST Nov 27, 2019

You may be thankful there’s no major turkey salmonella scare this Thanksgiving, but health officials are still advising cooks take care in preparing the bird for the annual feast.

And, just as there was last year, concerns about E. coli bacteria and romaine lettuce could make leafy greens a troublesome ingredient for holiday salads.

Stores are supposed to have pulled from the shelves any romaine lettuce produced and harvested in Salinas, California. So far, 67 people in 19 states have been infected with a strain of E. coli linked to the lettuce, The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says. 

Last Thanksgiving, cooks were told to keep all romaine lettuce off the menu for another E. coli outbreak.

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Also last year, health officials urged extra caution as the holiday season arrived amid a broadening turkey salmonella outbreak. The last reported illness attributed to that outbreak began on March 31, 2019. Eventually 358 people in 42 states were infected, with 133 hospitalized and one death reported, according to the CDC.

Food safety tips for Thanksgiving cooks

Preparation. Do not thaw your turkey on the counter at room temperature, as bacteria can start growing at 40 degrees. Instead, put it in a container and thaw it in the refrigerator. You can also place it in a leak-proof plastic bag in a sink of cold water. But you must change the water every 30 minutes. You can also thaw it in the microwave (follow your oven’s manufacturer instructions).

Also, do not wash raw turkeys prior to cooking – similar to advice the CDC issued back in May about chicken. Even though some older recipes suggest washing raw poultry or meat before cooking it, the CDC now recommends against it because washing does not prevent illness and can spread bacteria throughout the kitchen – to other foods, cooking utensils, and counter surfaces.

Cooking. Set your oven temperature to at least 325 degrees. Cook the completely thawed turkey in roasting pan that is at least two inches deep. Cooking times vary; expect it to take at least three hours for an unstuffed turkey weighing eight to 12 pounds. A turkey breast can cook faster; larger, stuffed turkeys should cook longer. For a cooking table and thawing time chart go to the CDC’s Food Safety site. 

If you cook stuffing in the turkey, put the stuffing in just prior to cooking. Use a food thermometer to make sure the turkey – and the stuffing – has reached a safe internal temperature of 165 degrees.

Cleaning. A USDA study found that 60% of sinks were contaminated after handling raw poultry in the sink, so it is important to sanitize your sink and any other surfaces after handling the raw turkey – and before prepping other foods such as raw vegetables.

Health officials recommend washing surfaces first with soap and warm water, then with a chlorine bleach solution or an alcohol-based cleaner.

Also, wash your hands – a lot. In case you forgot how to wash your hands properly, the USDA reminds you: wet your hands with clean, running water, turn off the tap, and lather your hands with soap, rubbing them together (remember to lather the backs of your hands, between fingers, and under your nails, too). Rinse only after scrubbing hands for 20 seconds and dry hands with a clean towel.

The bigger the meal, the bigger the safety risks, said Mindy Brashears, deputy under secretary for food safety at the U.S. Department of Agriculture. “Washing hands properly, keeping the raw turkey away from other ingredients, cooking turkey to a safe internal temperature of 165°F, and promptly refrigerating all of our leftovers within 2 hours after mealtime are all ways we keep our meal safe,” she said in a notice earlier this week.

Yes, there are even safety guidelines for those coveted Thanksgiving Day leftovers. You should refrigerate leftovers as soon as possible, at least within two hours, health officials say. Bacteria can multiply rapidly when food drops below 140 degrees.

The bacteria that grows in cooked foods – especially poultry and gravy – at room temperature (Clostridium perfringens) is the second most common bacterial cause of food poisoning, and results in nearly 1 million cases of foodborne illness annually, the CDC says.

To cool meat faster, cut it into smaller pieces and refrigerate in small containers. Reheat all leftovers to at least 165°F before serving, health officials say.

Have any questions on Thanksgiving Day – or any day during the holiday season – you can call the USDA Meat and Poultry Hotline at 1-888-674-6854 on Thanksgiving Day between 8 a.m. and 2 p.m. ET. (regularly Monday-Friday 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. ET). You can also chat live at ask.usda.gov.

For more food safety tips, follow the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service on Twitter @USDAFoodSafety or on Facebook at Facebook.com/FoodSafety.gov.

Follow USA TODAY reporter Mike Snider on Twitter: @MikeSnider.

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