"I love it. It begins the holiday for me," says Diane Giffels of Brodheadsville about the annual holiday program held by Penn State Cooperative Extension in Monroe County.

This year's, with the theme of "Keep it Simple and Safe," was her 24th year of attending the event which includes special speakers and workshops related to the holidays. And this year, it even included free blood pressure checks by the Visiting Nurse Association.

Carole Bachman from Consumer Credit Counseling Service on NEPA, gave some "Cool Yule Credit Tips" after the first two workshops, which ranged from making a holiday table runner to creating an elegant glass candle vase; from knitting a dish cloth to doing a birdseed birdhouse.

The format for this afternoon to evening program was a change from the alternating years of a daytime program to an evening program explained County Extension Director Dawn Olson. Participants had asked for more workshops in previous years and offering four workshop allowed participants to pick the best time slot for the workshops that suited their needs and yet still hear the speakers as well.

Bachman told her audience to "set reasonable limits for their holiday spending" and to include that holiday spending in their regular budget. She suggested one make use of layaway and stay away from credit cards.

Other suggestions included sending e-cards and making one's own gifts.

"Start a holiday club," was one suggestion and "keep copies" of receipts in case of an error.

Olson called Bachman's office, which can serve as an advocate for credit card holders, help with debt management, do mortgage counseling, help with foreclosure prevention, and do reverse mortgage counseling as part of its many services, "a great local resource."

After the evening meal, Olson highlighted upcoming Extension programs including "Dining with Diabetes," to be led by Westender Jackie Gannon, RN; Strong Women, coming to Our Lady Queen of Peace in Gilbert; and Cooking for Crowds, for volunteers of non-profits.

A second speaker, from Penn State University, Lyn Garling of the PA IPM program, shared information about "Greening you Home for the Holidays," in terms of household products and health problems related to housing conditions.

Once it's out of the bottle it doesn't get put back in, she said, noting that indoor air is five more times polluted than outdoor air.

She gave out gifts to all in attendance, including a better mousetrap, fly swatters, pencils and information about web sites.

Simple homemade cleaners are safer and cheaper than commercially prepared ones, Garling explained, giving out a listing of such cleaners, including vinegar, baking soda and vegetable oil-based liquid soap, alone and in various combinations.

Barbara Powlus of Saylorsburg sat and chatted while working on her glass candle vase. She's been coming six or seven years. "I'd like something for the dining room table," she explained of her choice.

Marie Guidry of Henryville has been coming since 1988. "It's always something exciting." This year she chose to do a table runner and a crystal necklace also.

The event "offers such a wide variety," says Nancy Goldfuss of Stroud Township who's been coming for 10 years. She likes the camaraderie, working with greens and echoes Giffels' comment, that it begins the holiday season for her.

Jeannie Hartenfels of Effort, a first-time attendee came despite working all day. She had heard about the holiday program through attending a previous Strong Women class.

West Ender Dee Merendini said "Everything" when asked what was the best of the event. She said the food was good, the whole program was good. And Emily Strausser of Reeders, who has been coming "quite a few years," and has used Extension for help with a silver maple, says one meets "so many nice people."

Whether special speakers, good food, special crafts or meeting friends, the annual Monroe County Extension program gets great reviews and "begins the holiday season for me," for many.