Advent, My Way #24

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My favorite Christmas song, from my favorite Christmas album.

In all my ambivalence about the religious aspects of Christmas, I know one thing—I hope you all will find happiness and contentment at this season.

As the song says,

I bid you pleasure and I bid you cheer,
From a heathen and a pagan,
On the side of the rebel Jesus.

The Rebel Jesus, by Jackson Browne

The streets are filled with laughter and light
And the music of the season
And the merchants’ windows are all bright
With the faces of the children
And the families hurrying to their homes
As the sky darkens and freezes
Will be gathering around the hearths and tables
Giving thanks for all God’s graces
And the birth of the rebel Jesus

They call him by the “Prince of Peace”
And they call him by “The Saviour”
And they pray to him upon the sea
And in every bold endeavor
As they fill his churches with their pride and gold
And their faith in him increases
But they’ve turned the nature that I worshipped in
From a temple to a robber’s den
In the words of the rebel Jesus

We guard our world with locks and guns
And we guard our fine possessions
And once a year when Christmas comes
We give to our relations
And perhaps we give a little to the poor
If the generosity should seize us
But if any one of us should interfere
In the business of why they are poor
They get the same as the rebel Jesus

But pardon me if I have seemed
To take the tone of judgement
For I’ve no wish to come between
This day and your enjoyment
In this life of hardship and of earthly toil
We have need for anything that frees us
So I bid you pleasure and I bid you cheer
From a heathen and a pagan
On the side of the rebel Jesus.

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Advent, My Way #23

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In my month-long pondering of the winter holidays, one of the things that has pleased me is how many random, but really strong, memories I have of Christmases past.

I have a lot of vague and amorphous, warm and fuzzy memories of posing for pictures with family members who were only together once a year and of opening Barbie dolls in that yellow and blue parlor at the farm.

But clearer moments stand out, too, like the Christmas pageants and the making of the caramels I’ve already written about.

And there’s so much more . . .

I remember a weird toy called Odd Ogg, “half turtle and half frog,” and pale blue moccasins lined with real rabbit fur. And a trike.

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I remember the Christmas cards my parents always sent, with two little girls dressed in PJs and posed in front of a tree or a mantle, with a dog or kittens.

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I remember parental discord over the proper hanging of “icicles” on the Christmas tree. One parent thought the icicles should be carefully and individually placed on the boughs. The other parent thought large handfuls should be flung at the tree.

I remember all kinds of handmade ornaments but the ones I remember most fondly were pure 1960s. My mother made little atomic/Sputnik ornaments out of marshmallows, toothpicks, and silver spray paint. I know there’s a photo around here somewhere . . .

I remember the people. My mother’s father was a quiet man, with a wry sense of humor. One year he got a tall stepladder as a Christmas gift and spent the rest of the day sitting at the very top of it in the living room.

My other grandfather was a Justice of the Peace and one year he put a man in jail on Christmas Eve. That might seem harsh except the man’s offense was that, very drunk, he lit a fire on the floor in the middle of his living room, thinking to keep his family warm. My grandfather felt they were all safer if he was in jail.

That same grandfather, a quiet, unsentimental guy, gave my grandmother a $100 bill as a gift one Christmas. I had never seen a $100 bill and was SO impressed so I woke my sister up from a nap, to show it to her. She opened one eye, said, “Is it for me?,” and learning it wasn’t, went back to sleep.

We lived on a farm, so every year the Christmas tree came from our land. When my sister and I were very small, we took my mother’s red scarf and went into the woods to find the perfect tree. We did, and we tied the scarf around it, and then told my father to go find it. He didn’t. How we expected him to find one tree with one red scarf in acres of land, I don’t know. My mother never saw her scarf again.

We weren’t allowed to awaken grownups early on Christmas morning but we were allowed to go get our Christmas stockings and explore those. I was awake first, went and grabbed my stocking and my sister’s, and came back to our room with them. To wake her up, I bopped her over the head with the stuffed stocking . . . whack.

I remember a Christmas when I was a pre-teen and we went to my uncle’s house, several states away. I had an abscessed tooth and spent the entire visit in hideous pain. Well, I remember the pain and the really cute outfit I got for Christmas, with the pleated plaid skirt . . .

At some point we all decided that traveling at Christmas was a good idea so I have a lot of memories of driving the East Coast, searching for restaurants that were open on Christmas Day.

Many years, we left the snow behind and walked the beaches in Florida. One year we saw a gorgeous sunset and then had to settle for dinner at a really creepy Mexican restaurant. How creepy? The following week, we heard that someone had been shot dead in the parking lot.

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New York City, Charleston, the beach at the Outer Banks, watching people fly kites at Kiawah.

I remember the parlors and farms, the relatives’ houses and the motels. I remember the holidays when my niece was small, re-experiencing the magic through her eyes. I remember teaching my new husband how to string popcorn for our first Christmas tree and I remember absolute blowout Christmas parties we used to throw!

So many locales, so many beloved people, so many Christmases, so many memories. In recent years, we’ve chosen to stay close to home. We enjoy our immediate family, or just each other, a few very special friends, our pets, our warm hearth, our simple and satisfactory world.

What will I remember from Christmas this year?

Well, honestly, I think I’ll remember writing these advent blog posts and sharing so much of Christmas and holiday talk with you. When you’ve written comments about your own memories and traditions at the holidays, you’ve triggered more of my own and shown me how much we all have in common, how the holidays are packed with special meaning for each of us.

Here’s hoping that you have many memories of the holiday season and that the fond memories far, far outweigh the unpleasant memories that may inevitably be associated with the season as well. Take some quiet time to savor those wonderful memories and share them.

And I hope you spend the next few days creating special moments that will give you much to reminisce about in years to come!

Advent, My Way #22

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The last of the seasonal books that I haul out for Christmas is an obscure one—How John Norton the Trapper Kept His Christmas, written by W.H.H. Murray, and published in 1890.

The book has a great deal of local appeal for those of us who live in the Adirondack Mountains of upstate New York, plus I simply love the look of this book.

Author William Henry Harrison Murray was known as “Adirondack Murray”—during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, he wrote books and gave numerous lectures that introduced people to, and popularized, the Adirondack Mountains. He is said to have coined the use of the word “vacation,” as opposed to the British “holiday,” with his urging of people to “vacate” the cities for the mountains.

And people listened. “Murray’s Fools,” as they were sometimes called, were entranced by the idea of a rustic mountain retreat and came in droves to this great wilderness on weekends, and many built seasonal “camps,” as well.

I’ll admit I haven’t read this book from start to finish. The dialogue—and there is a lot of it—is written in what is supposed to sound like a local dialect, probably French-Canadian—and reading it is like slogging through hip-deep snow. But I pick it up and admire the cover with its beautiful highlights of the drawings that illustrate passages of the book.

And I dip into the pages, reading at random, and have learned that John Norton, the trapper, has values to share with us all in the holiday season.

A cabin. A cabin in the woods. In the cabin a great fireplace piled high with logs, fiercely ablaze. On either side of the broad hearthstone a hound sat on his haunches, looking gravely, as only a hound in a meditative mood can, into the glowing fire . . .

At the table sat John Norton, poring over a book . . .

The whitened head of the old man was bowed over the broad page, on which one hand rested, with the forefinger marking the sentence. A cabin in the woods filled with firelight, a table, a book, an old man studying the book. This was the scene on Christmas Eve. Outside, the earth was white with snow, and in the blue sky above the snow was the white moon.

“It says here,” said the Trapper, speaking to himself, “it says here, ‘Give to him that lacketh, and from him that hath not, withhold not thine hand.

John Norton keeps his Christmas by providing food and, nearly as important, fun for an impoverished woman and her starving children. He takes time to twine wreaths of greens to adorn the pictures of “absent ones” on his walls and acknowledges, “I miss them so!” He sits before his fire and enjoys the company of his old hounds and the quiet of the wilderness.

In these ways, John Norton’s holiday is remarkable similar to many of ours, 125 years later—we miss loved ones who have died but hold them close in memory, we seek to help those in need, and we give conscious thanks for our secure hearth and home, no matter how simple.

Whether our Christmas days be many or few, when the great day comes round let us remember in good or ill fortun’, alone or with many, that Christmas, above all else, is the day for forgivin’ and forgittin’.

Advent, My Way #21

Well, of course we have handmade Christmas ornaments!

We haven’t put up a tree in a few years but I sorted through our ornaments this year, and smiled to find some of the ones I’ve made. These are my favorites.

I know you must have handmade ornaments, too, whether you made them or they were made for you, by other loving hands. Have you written a blog post about them? Care to share?

Advent, My Way #19

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Christmas cards—yea or nay?

Christmas cards have never been part of my holiday regimen, not even in my Martha-Stewart-wannabe stage. I don’t make ’em, I don’t send ’em, and, predictably, I don’t get many.

I’m not even sure this is a tradition beyond the United States—for those of you in New Zealand, the Netherlands, Great Britain and other assorted locales—is the sending of cards, specifically for Christmas, a holiday practice?

There are so many variations on the theme of holiday cards and they seem to change and come in and out of fashion.

Plain cards, fancy cards, handmade cards.

Cards that include long missives about a family’s accomplishments and adventures for the year that is waning.

Cards that are little more than a photo of adorable families/children/pets dressed up in holiday finery.

I imagine Christmas card sending has dropped off in the Facebook era—we keep up with even far-flung friends so much more frequently and easily now that the holiday card may have become largely obsolete.

In spite of my disinterest in the whole “Holiday Greetings” endeavor, I love this little collection of Christmas postcards that were sent to my grandfather, “Master Willie Wright,” when he was a boy in the early 1920s. They come from as far as North Carolina and Niagara Falls to a little boy in Saranac.

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I don’t know if all children received so many cards or if this was just something he loved especially. He wasn’t a sentimental man but these cards were kept and saved for his whole life.

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Given the condition these cards are in, I believe he did play with them!

They please me in their vintage look and style, the few words on the back done in that lovely old penmanship.

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They are a collection of pretty snowy scenes, with lots of red and white and pine and poinsettias. The messages focus on happiness and good cheer, much as today’s cards do.

I am surprised, though, that they are not at all religious in tone—not one of them features a nativity scene or mentions the “reason for the season.”

I wonder if, in another 100 years, there will exist a collection of Christmas cards from the early 21st century. If we’ve traded the sending of cards for the evanescent greetings of social media, what gets tucked away and saved?

Where do Christmas cards fit in your holiday? Do you send them? Do you keep the ones you receive? Or is this all a thing of our past?

Advent, My Way #18

Christmas—it’s not just for humans anymore.

And it really never has been.

Have you ever thought about the role of animals in our holiday celebrations? They’re everywhere!

If we ever needed convincing of the significance of the relationships between humans and animals, we need look no further than the traditions of Christmas.

Certainly animals are a part of the Bible version of the Christmas story. Every Nativity crèche includes, in addition to the figures of Mary, Joseph, the baby, and the Wise Men, small figures of sheep and lambs, donkeys, sometimes camels.

One of the most magical superstitions of Christmas is the belief in some cultures that Jesus was born exactly at midnight and, in the empty, lonely manger, the farm animals acquired the gift of speech. Your kids might’ve stayed up at night, hoping to catch a glimpse of Santa, but some children sneak to the stables on Christmas Eve, to hear the animals talk.

Today, a moment that always brings gasps of awe from audience members is when, during the Christmas show at Radio City Music Hall, live sheep, donkeys and, yes, camels, join actors on the stage in the heart of New York City. People like the Rockettes but they LOVE the animals!

The popular culture of the Christmas season is awash with animals. We love “the most famous reindeer of all,” Rudolph of the red nose. In the TV special Charlie Brown’s dog Snoopy dances with abandon and, in a song that always gets airtime at Christmas, Snoopy and the Red Baron reach a truce that recalls the Christmas Truce of 1914.

When the Grinch steals Christmas he is joined, reluctantly, by his little dog, Max, and the Budweiser Brewing company has made a holiday tradition of including their great Clydesdale horses in their holiday ads. I am sure you can come up with many examples that are not popping into my head right now!

I think about my recent blog posts and the animals that populate my little world—the sheep in the jigsaw puzzle, the cat ON the jigsaw puzzle, the woodland animals on my Christmas stocking. Probably at least one-third of all the Christmas ornaments we have include animals in some form.

Animals join my Santas that line the mantle. Almost every one of these Santas has a pet—a dog, a cat, a small mouse. A penguin, a koala, an alligator?

My childhood book of Christmas songs includes the song about Santa’s kitten, Sandy Claws, and Mowzer, the Mousehole Cat, saves the day for the people of that town.

My own pets are not forgotten—I consciously think of ways to make Christmas nice for them. I often make new catnip toys for them. Last year, though, they won the feline equivalent of the lottery—our name was drawn for winning the big basket of toys given away at the veterinarian’s office!

I’ve made Christmas stockings for the cats. I haul out cans of tuna for a feline feast. We’ve engaged in high-level negotiations on the topic of them modeling reindeer antlers or Santa hats, for blog photos. Sadly, those negotiations have recently stalled.

I walk through my local pet store and look at posts on Facebook and know that I am not alone in including my animals in my Christmas celebrations! In fact, compared to what I see, my treatment of my cats is incredibly modest and restrained.

We humans do love our animals, whether they work for us or are our companions. They amuse us, they comfort us with their stolid presence and their unconditional affection. It makes perfect sense to me that we should include them in what is, for many, the most important celebrations of the year.

Where do animals show up in your Christmas traditions? Is there a favorite story or song that features an animal? Do you have pets who open their own gifts at Christmas? Will a sweet cat or lovey dog cuddle up next to you in front of the fire this holiday season?

Advent, My Way #17

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For many of you, this may be a holy scene, but I have been having very unholy thoughts about it for days now.

This is a diabolical, stress-producing picture.

Oh, not the scene itself, but the way it has to be achieved.

The scene comes from the Christian New Testament book of Luke, 2:8-11:

And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid. And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord. (Luke 2: 8-11)

The Annunciation of the Shepherds. Nice. A bucolic scene with everyday people and an angel, plus a few sheep for good measure. Lovely.

Not so lovely!

This depiction is on an antique puzzle that I found in my aunt’s attic. When I saw it, it stirred dim memories of being brought out at the farm at Christmas.

I thought, “Oh, good! More memories of a splendid childhood Christmas! Something I can put together real fast and blog about!”

That was days ago! I have never had so much trouble with a puzzle before! Sturm und drang and gnashing of teeth!

It’s not really a jigsaw puzzle, you see. The pieces don’t hook together with those little tongues. The pieces are all either triangles, squares, or rectangles.

You place them gingerly next to each other, and, if you look at them cross-eyed, they shift.

I dug out a tablecloth to anchor them on and that helps, but only a little.

And, if a curious cat comes by, all progress can be undone in a split second.

We have no box to show us what the finished product should look like. As we make progress, it becomes apparent that pieces are missing. All the remaining pieces are plain dark blue.

I am over it! If Christmas is supposed to be mellow and relaxed and serene, I need to stop right now and be happy with this the way it is.

I hope you can enjoy it more than I have!

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