our tree this year has a garland fashioned from leftover wedding bells...
Last year, I had surgery for Christmas. The surgery took place on December 5, so it thoroughly knocked out the whole month.
As a result, I did very little in the way of traditional preparations and celebrations in December.
At the same time, we'd lost our children in a westward move. Suddenly, for the first time ever, there were no Christmas parties, no Christmas concerts, no Christmas cookie exchanges. We did not need to dig out the old Santa hat, not even once, which was a good thing, since I don't think it made it here from New York.
In the end, the kids came home. Jon and Lulu procured for us a funny little furry tree.
Shannon made cookies. There were family meals, and gifts (haha, we just gave them envelopes of cash) and Christmas carols.
What I'm trying to say is, Christmas came anyway. Like the Whos down in Whoville, we celebrated Christmas with very little embellishment, but it was lovely just the same.
No, we didn't feast on rich foods, or fill two dumpsters with remnants of wrapping paper. I did not send cards. The outside of our home was unadorned. In fact, we didn't even have a solid church affiliation at the time, although I'm not sure how much it mattered, as churches here, unlike in New York, do not major in Christmas Eve services.
What do you "need" to have Christmas?
Rock bottom, all you need is your Bible open at Luke 2 and a grateful heart.
If you want just a smidge more than that, try for a little tree, simply decorated, or a few boughs of evergreen. A candle or two, lit. A recording of Christmas hymns. Maybe a candy cane. Voila! Christmas.
I was deeply encouraged last year, to see how little it actually requires to make Christmas swell in one's heart.
This year, I am enjoying "doing Christmas" more than I have enjoyed it in a very long time.
Take a year off now and then. Christmas will come just the same, and you'll be all the fresher the next time it rolls around!
A few years ago, when we still lived in New York, we attended a middle school band, orchestra and chorus concert at "holiday" time.
(Note: this was not unusual. We spent the better parts of our lives in New York attending elementary, middle and high school concerts. However...)
The band played, the chorus sang, and then the orchestra came on stage.
The orchestra conductor was rather a talented man. He'd formerly taught at the high school, but he made the decision to move down to the middle school level in an effort to correct bad habits earlier, and thus produce better musicians in the long run.
I'm pretty sure that he was Jewish, which makes this story all the more meaningful.
His orchestra played a classical piece or two, and then he stopped and turned to address the audience.
"I just want to say, " he began... "I just need to say this. I was at the grocery store the other day, in the bakery section. I was looking for cookies. I found Holiday cookies, and I found a beautiful package of Hanukkah cookies. I even found a package of Kwanza cookies. This got me thinking, so I began to search and search... but try as I might, no matter where I looked, I could not find a package of Christmas cookies. There were no Christmas cookies anywhere. So tonight, I just wanted to acknowledge those of you who celebrate Christmas. We are going to play a medley of Christmas carols, and our wish to you is that you have a very merry Christmas!"
Stunned silence. Then a few of us broke into applause, which was sort of enthusiastic in a "Do-we-dare-admit-that-we-celebrate-Christmas?" kind of way.
A row of school-board-type people sitting ahead of us across the aisle stiffened ramrod straight, not applauding, with mouths that looked as though someone had tried to jam large, sour pickles into them.
I believe that teacher moved out of the district shortly thereafter.
We don't live in a Christian nation, not at all. I remember feeling like I was sucking Hitler air, there in that auditorium that night: the feeling of fear ("What has he said?"), of relief that someone had acknowledged that Christians are unfairly cast aside, and the tentative collective appreciation for the conductor's sentiment, which was the scariest thing of all.
The other day at Bible study, we sang Away in a Manger, all the verses.
The song came easy to my throat, and I heard my voice caressing it; unusual, since I am not much of a singer. Especially these days when my voice wavers, warbles and cracks more often than not, and my family puts their hands to their ears saying, "Please!"
But when we sang Away in a Manger at Bible study, I sang it, and in my head I could hear a beautiful tenor descant over my low melody.
I started to remember, and then we came to the last verse.
Be near me Lord Jesus, I ask you to stay
Close by me forever and love me, I pray.
Bless all the little children in your tender care
And fit us for heaven to live with you there.
It all came flooding back to me: bedtime, night after night, all the years we lived on Homeland Road, and many of the years we lived on Sugar Pine. Tears stung my eyes and my voice, which had been doing so well, warbled and dropped out in a little choking sob.
That was our last lullaby, every night. Bedtime was such an event. First there were warm baths with bubbles and toys. Then came the naked romp in the living room. They wore their towels on their heads and ran, towels streaming behind them, around the WW1 army trunk. That trunk presented itself as a coffee table, but really served as a base for many block towers.
In the midst of the chaos, we caught them and stuffed them into pajamas, soft and clean, if a bit ragged, often blanket sleepers with the feet cut off after holes had worn through the toes.
After that came tooth brushing, stories on the sofa, Bible stories in bed, songs we sang together, and at last the final "tucking up," Be Near Me Lord Jesus, and whispered prayers for God's blessing and the protection of His angels over our home and surrounding each child's bed. Soft cheeks accepted our kisses and little bodies snuggled secure under the covers.
It happened every night, Shawn blending his voice with mine, making me sound good, the children listening with love and trust, the first music they were ever exposed to.
When you sing something every single night
for years upon years,
and then life changes,
more years pass,
more changes unfold,
but one day you come back to the song
after -- perhaps --
not singing it even once in two years or more,
amazingly, it comes back like riding a bike,
it's there in the deep parts of the muscle memory.
Your voice, although it has not been often singing, finds its way until the other memories, the ones springing in your mind rather than your body, overcome it.
(2) Shawn always did travel a lot. When he was gone, I struggled through bedtime as best I could alone, and I sang the lullabies by myself. They never complained. Once, uncharacteristically, I was the one to be gone (at a church meeting or some such thing) at bedtime. I told the children that Shawn would put them to bed. Shannon burst into tears. "But who will sing to me?" she sobbed. I told her, "Don't worry. Daddy will sing to you." She replied, distraught, "But then it won't be pretty!" If you know how beautifully Shawn sings, and how strained and awkward is my own voice, you will understand what a treasured memory this is about a little girl's uncritical love for her mama.
(3) When Shannon was two, probably the first Christmas she was sentient, we went to church on Christmas Eve for a simple yet touching Christmas program. At the point in the nativity where Jesus was born, the congregation sang, "Away in a Manger." Hearing the tune in the piano's introduction, Shannon squirmed, and as the song went on, she began to writhe and protest. "What, Shannon?" I asked her. "Why are you acting like this?" She looked up, sulky, and blurted out, "I don't want to go to bed right now!"
I have to admit, I am always a little bit flabbergasted when Christians treat Santa as though he were Satan. Santa is a nice guy and a fun tradition. I'm not going to tell you how to handle him, but I will share how we did, back in the day.
Going into the Santa issue, way back when I was the mother of a wee lass and a wee lad, I did have a hang up: The Santa legend is not the truth. There is no real character who rides in a sleigh, pulled by reindeer, all around the world on Christmas Eve, delivering toys down chimneys.
Now, it is fine to have games and to play pretend. However, the idea of actually lying to my children about the Santa tradition did not sit well with me, especially since I wanted them to know that Jesus is real and that we celebrate His incarnation at Christmastime because it is true and important. I didn't want them to get to be, say, 12, and wonder, "Well, if they lied about Santa, then maybe they lied about the Jesus thing too, and that's just as phony and pretend." No, I did not want that to happen.
But I don't have any problem with the idea of Santa. I think it's fun to hang stockings, and to read "The Night Before Christmas," and even to go to the mall and sit on Santa's lap and get a candy cane.
The first year it became an issue, Shannon was three and David was one and a half. I really hadn't said much about it, just sort of avoided it. We focused on stories of the nativity, and we were blessed to have Shannon at a preschool where they celebrated Christmas as Jesus' birthday.
That year, I did not put any presents under the tree until after the children went to bed on Christmas Eve (allowing us to avoid a host of discipline issues!).
On Christmas morning, Shannon and Davey awoke, climbed out of their beds, and started down the stairs. There in the living room, a big pile of gifts now sat beneath the Christmas tree, and we had arranged a new little play table and chairs, with a tea set for Shannon, all laid out and ready for them to have some pretend tea.
Shannon saw the array of gifts filling our small living room, and immediately she halted on the stair steps, throwing out her arm as a barrier to block Davey from going any farther.
"Stop, Davey," she commanded, "don't go there." Then, turning to look at me, full of caution, she demanded, "Who put all these stuffs in our house?"
I could see the wheels turning in her little head. It looked to her as though that fat man in the red velvet suit had been creeping around in our house in the middle of the night, and she did not warm to that idea, not one bit.
"I put them there," I told her. "And Daddy. Daddy helped me. We did it after you fell asleep last night."
She looked unconvinced. She did not budge. She was having none of it.
Finally after much explanation and reassurance ("Honey, the door was locked all night, and we don't even have a fireplace! He couldn't have gotten in if he had tried! I've been hiding things in the downstairs closet for weeks!"), she tentatively ushered her little brother into the room and they hesitantly began to check out their new toys.
After that, I did a little bit of research on St. Nick, and educated my children thus:
Long ago, there live a man named Saint Nicholas. He was a man who loved God very much. He also loved to give gifts to people, in secret.
(That part is true and documented. The rest, which follows, I mostly made up out of my head, although there is some reason to think that it is loosely true):
St. Nicholas loved to celebrate Jesus' birthday just as much as we do. However, he knew that some children lived in families that were too poor to buy them any presents on Jesus' birthday, and this made him sad. These children were so poor that they only had one pair of socks apiece, if you can imagine. Every night, the children would wash out their one pair of socks and hang them up in front of the fire to dry while they slept, so they could have clean socks in the morning.
Saint Nicholas knew about how these children hung their socks up in front of the fire. He also wanted very badly for them to have something special to enjoy on Jesus' birthday, while the wealthier children were celebrating and feasting. So, on Christmas Eve, after the poor children had hung up their stockings and fallen asleep, Saint Nicholas sneaked into their homes and slipped coins into their stockings, surprises for them to discover on Christmas morning. Saint Nicholas was very happy to think of how amazed and delighted the children would be when they woke up! Saint Nicholas did his kind deeds many, many long years ago. Now he is in heaven with Jesus. However, he was so kind and good that we still remember him. We hang up stockings in our homes at Christmastime, filling them with special surprises, so we can remember to be kind and generous like Saint Nicholas. We call him "Santa Claus" now (can you hear how those names sound similar?), and we try to follow his example of helping everyone have a Merry Christmas.
Back in those days, I also used to give my children money to drop in the Salvation Army bucket, which they enjoyed, connecting the activity with the tale of Saint Nicholas.
We have not told this story for a long time. Also, I am sad to say that I stopped arming my children with quarters before December WalMart trips a very long time ago. Still, that is how we used to celebrate Santa, and I am not sorry that we did.
I wasn't going to come back so soon, but it isn't every day that one has a legitimately significant subject to write about.
Airfares being sky-high, we decided against trying to have everyone fly home for both Thanksgiving and Christmas. We decided to try something new this year. We decided to meet in Ohio, at Laura and Matthew's apartment, for a "central" Thanksgiving. It would be a seven hour journey for Shawn, Jon and me. David had eight hours to drive, and Shannon ten and change. Everyone was game.
The plan was to drive on Thanksgiving Day, for a number of reasons. For one thing, nobody had Wednesday off for travel. Also, we could avoid the crazy Wednesday traffic. Additionally, Laura and Matthew could still celebrate Thanksgiving with Matthew's family, on Thanksgiving. It seemed a good plan.
A big storm on Wednesday reconfirmed our decision to celebrate a day late. Thursday morning, we set out from our various locations at various times. Traffic was light, and the weather was pretty good. We kept in touch at intervals along the way.
East of Columbus, Shawn pulled over and switched driving duty with Jon. The sun had set and, in the darkness, we looked forward to the end of the trip. At about 6:00 p.m. Shawn's phone rang Shannon's ring tone. I still get a surge of adrenaline thinking about it.
She had crashed somewhere in the dark, snowy wasteland of post-Nor'easter southwestern New York. She was off the road. Her car would not respond. She didn't know where she was; she couldn't even see where the road was. Her headlights didn't exist anymore.
This I gleaned from the one side of the conversation that I could hear. "She called us herself, on her own phone," I told myself. "She's alive. Nothing else matters. Nothing else matters."
Immediately, we worked out arrangements to go to New York and retrieve her. David had arrived in Ohio earlier, so he and Matthew and Laura met us at our hotel. Shawn, David and Jon set out for the Chautauqua, NY region, and I went home with Laura and Matthew.
By this time it was snowing again. What should have been a five or six hour round trip turned into eight and a half. In the snowstorm, of course Shawn insisted on doing all the driving himself.
Back in Ohio, Laura fed me some soup and some tea, and we killed time for awhile as the hours drifted on. Finally it got late and we tried to sleep. I lay on Laura's sofa in my clothes, under some cozy covers, in the dark except for streetlights shining snow-filtered through her sheer curtains. I prayed and prayed--begging for the snow to stop, for Shawn to have strength, for no more accidents--and by the mercy of God I think I even slept for an hour or two. Piper huddled at my feet and Schubert shivered on my chest, but eventually the blessedness of unconsciousness descended.
I awoke at one point, and immediately grabbed my phone to check for news. A text had come in five minutes earlier, Jon saying that they were nearly back. At about 3:30 a.m., they arrived. I hugged the miracle that was Shannon, still living and breathing and all in one piece. We cried a little, embraced, whispered and kept the dogs quiet. Matthew was up, showing Shannon and Jon the beds prepared for them. Shawn, David and I (and the dogs) piled into the van and drove back to the hotel.
We got to bed at about 4 a.m. It felt so good to be in a bed, next to my husband's solid, living, breathing body. Shawn said, "I can't believe I had the strength I had. I wouldn't have thought I could be alert for eight more hours after the drive from Illinois. Were you praying for me?" God is good. God is so very good. Even though the family was divided into two locations, we were all present and accounted for, and relatively very close to one another.
Our Thanksgiving was more somber than usual, punctuated by teary eyes, full hearts and spontaneous hugs . . . also a few spontaneous naps. Shannon had brought all kinds of things to share, including some sourdough bread starter that she had cultured herself. Something I'll always remember from Thanksgiving 2014 is kneading Shannon's roll dough. I don't know why she let me do the kneading, but she did. There on Laura's countertop, I kneaded the tender, tangy-smelling dough, adding a little more flour and then a little more, until it was smooth and elastic, and then I placed it in the oiled bowl and turned it, swirled it around, oiling all sides.
I will always remember that dough in my hands, and the pretty green cotton cable knit sweater that Shannon wore, that I kept pressing my face into when I hugged her. I will remember Shawn, exhausted, passed out in the big red recliner, and Laura laying out her new Fiestaware plates, one of every color in the warm tones for Thanksgiving. There was a surreal quality to it all, almost as though it were not really happening. But it was. It was really happening, and we were all together, and nobody was dead, or even hospitalized, and everything was going to be okay.
Shannon had been driving along, doing so well, her dear little car all packed up with special things for our special meal. Then the sun set, and the temperature dropped, and there was black ice, a curvy road by a New York lake, and a mishap. No more car. No more car, but still a Shannon, a Shannon whom we love so very, very much. When the state trooper arrived and helped her climb out of her battered car, he let her sit in his warm car until the tow truck came. When the tow truck pulled Shannon's car out of the ditch, she was able to retrieve her things: the sourdough bread starter, her little coffee maker, fresh herbs for the turkey, decaffeinated chai tea, a large can of Libby's pumpkin, a pretty glass pie plate, her pillow, her clothes, her laptop. It was all there. Her hairclip, on the handle of her purse, had a broken tooth, but most things were intact.
How would she get home again? The train schedule didn't look good, nor the bus schedule. In the end, we decided to have her drive back to North Carolina with David and catch a flight to Boston from there; that was our most economical option. We made these arrangements on Friday, before or after the turkey, and each time we figured something out, a little more peace and comfort descended. Laura and Matthew will ship the things she couldn't take on a plane.
On Saturday morning, David took his car to a garage to have the breaks fixed. An accident can spur us to take reasonable precautions, reminding us that it is good to be careful rather than careless.
Shawn, Jon and I headed back to Illinois on Saturday shortly before noon. I drove first, and then Jon. We wanted to spell Shawn after his marathon day of driving on Thursday. We drove and drove, and even driving west, we couldn't keep up with the setting sun. Somewhere west of Indianapolis, Jon was driving, and through the dark night, I saw what looked like lights up ahead.
It didn't look like a police car. No, there were no blue and red lights, more like yellow. "What...?" I asked, pointing out the windshield. As we drew nearer, I saw that it was yellowish orange, blazing, a burning car. "Jon! Can you get in the other lane? Get in the other lane if you can!" I urged, gesturing to the left. On the right shoulder, a car sat flat on the ground, tires melted, fully engulfed in flames, and I can't remember if the windows were simply illuminated by fire, or if flames were shooting out of them, like a glowing horned beast. A few cars had pulled off on the shoulder ahead of the burning car, to help I suppose.
As we flew past, my stomach felt sick again. I hoped that the people had been able to get out of the car. I didn't want to imagine what would have happened to a person inside that car.
Travel can be hazardous. The world is a dark and dangerous place. It is hard to be separated from the people you love most in all the world, hard always to be forced to travel if you ever want to be together.
I have a hope that someday we will not all be so far apart. Someday we will live such that we can spend days together and still sleep in our own beds at night. Someday the paths of our lives will intersect once more. Someday.
Until then, I will trust God, because if not God, whom would I trust?
I've succeeded in surpassing my goal to publish 100 blog posts in 2014, and I've kept up with my 30 Day Thankful Challenge, so far.
Honestly, I did have to write two blogs in a day, twice, to make up for days I missed. It's okay.
You know what else is okay? I'm going to take a few days off and celebrate Thanksgiving. I think my 30 Day Challenge just turned into a 26 Day Challenge and wrapped itself up. That's okay too, because my only blog-boss is myself, and nothing is more ridiculous than self-imposed demands that get in the way of real life.
I am thankful that I can be thankful online, but I am especially thankful that I can be thankful offline, in real life, with people I love.
DJ, recovering from a turkey coma on the dining room floor,
a couple of years ago.
I am thankful for lots of things that I can save for discussion next November (should the Lord tarry that long). Today, I am thankful for breaks.