Christmas Is: Delightful!

Delightful is really the only way to describe Christmas. Whether everything happened the way it was supposed to or not, the beautiful holiday came and went, and it was and is delightful.

Today, I chose again to not only look closely at the Christmas tree which is still lighting our living room, but to take pictures. I do it because, as I wrote previously, it is so easy to forget how special each ornament is and how each contributes to the beauty of the tree.

I’m thankful for artificial Christmas trees. There are no needles on the floor, the tree didn’t stop soaking up water two weeks ago. We bought a new tree this year. It’s 7 1/2 feet tall, but it’s more narrow than the old one. We also bought new lights, the LED type. We weren’t sure whether we liked the new lights, but after a few days we were used to them.

We have candles in every window I’m still turning on each night. The twinkle lights on the house will be on longer than normal to show support for all of our great first-responders and front-line workers in the fight against the virus.

The small tree is our Jesse tree. Each of the handmade ornaments relates to a Scripture and devotional about the lineage of Jesus back to King David and his father, Jesse. In anticipation of Christmas, each day we do the reading and place an ornament on the tree.

In one church I was privileged to pastor, there was an older couple who loved Christmas, I think more than anyone I had ever met. They had no children of their own but were young at heart and loved everything Christmas represents. Each year, they began decorating their home in September. In literally every room of the house there was a beautiful Christmas tree. Every year they provided a beautiful dinner at their house for the staff and volunteers of the church. It was amazing.

The couple’s appreciation of beautiful Christmas decorations extended to the church building as well. They provided beautiful garlands and floral decorations. They insisted on using real Christmas trees. Big ones. Two were fifteen feet tall, the middle tree was twenty, all were decorated with lights and ornaments. The trees were on the stage and had to be wired to the walls to keep them standing. They were beautiful, but what a mess.

Being the never-ask-for-help kind of person I am, and I don’t say that proudly, it’s a terribly uncaring trait, after Christmas I took the trees down myself. All fifty feet of them. I somehow pulled them out the side door and in so doing, removed the few remaining short Douglas Fir needles left on the well-dried and brittle branches. Luckily, I avoided impaling the beautiful grand piano and didn’t break any of the specially-made stained glass windows. I spent an hour literally shoveling pine needles off the floor. The next year I insisted on artificial trees. I was surprised when they agreed.

What is it about cats and boxes? Yellow kitty was willing to suffer the indignity of having bows stuck to her fur as long as we didn’t take her tiny little gift box that wasn’t much bigger than her front legs.

One of the highlights of Christmas this year was having an opportunity to show my grandson the Maple Valley Short Line Railroad. He was impressed. Last year we gave him a collection of O gauge trains and helped him get it running. O gauge trains are much better for small hands than the HO (Half-O) that I model.

I still have a lot of work to do, but I now have the outer main line in full operation. I was excited to see the trains running across my scratch-built bridges for the first time.

Probably during the next week we will begin thinking about returning all of the Christmas decorations to the closet. It’s sad but also brings a sense of accomplishment when everything is returned to a pre-holiday appearance. It is also easier when there aren’t a lot of lights to turn off before going to bed. But for today, and surely tomorrow, the decorations are still around us and the lights are still beautiful.

The Peanuts Gang bulb was hand-painted for me by a friend. Amazing. The candle salt-and-pepper shakers belonged to my grandparents. My aunt made the snowman when she was a school girl. She is now in her eighties. My wife’s mother made the lighted ceramic church for us many years ago. All of the Christmas decorations have their special place and each helps make the holiday special.

Christmas Is: Memories!

It’s a thousand million things. Things that you haven’t thought about in years come floating back because you saw a twinkling light and heard a song at just the right moment. You smelled that beautiful aroma of a favorite dish baking in preparation for your Christmas dinner and scenes from a Christmas long ago suddenly take over your thoughts.

Christmas doesn’t end just because December 26th finally intrudes. Christmas is a presence available to us all year round. We just don’t often take advantage of it after the middle of January when we are neck deep in trying to survive the dark, cold, blustery days of endless winter.

I love hearing the stories about Christmas my wife shares with me. She grew up in a wonderful family of eight children, five sisters and two brothers. She was number 7. Her dad loved Christmas and worked hard to make each one special. He often had to work on Christmas Day so opening presents was postponed until he returned, which just made the day even more special because it lasted longer than just an explosion of presents in the morning. Her older brother and married sisters arrived throughout the day with their families. Everyone pitched in to make dinner which was served after her dad arrived from work.

On Christmas Eve, after the children went to bed, my wife’s dad filled a large bowl with fruit, nuts, and candy and put it on the dining room table. Each child had a stocking, which was their dad’s white cotton work socks. Each had an orange, hard candies, and chocolate creams. Her dad decorated the outside of their house with blue lights, his favorite.

My mother was the light of Christmas when I was growing up. She made everything special. In those days, baking the turkey was an all night event, literally. She used to simmer the giblets with celery leaves and onion on Christmas Eve, which made the entire house smell of turkey. It was my job to break the dried bread apart for the stuffing. She mixed the bread pieces with egg, onion, sage, thyme, rosemary, celery, pepper and salt, then literally stuffed the turkey. I guess people don’t do that anymore because it’s “dangerous”. It’s a wonder any of us are still alive. The turkey baked all night and on Christmas day we had an amazing dinner. To this day, I remember the taste and that the turkey was always dry. But that’s why there was lots of gravy, right?

We always had fresh cranberry relish. I helped with that too. I turned the crank on the grinder that clamped to the edge of the table while my mom fed cranberries, orange, and apple into the hopper. Juice always leaked all over the floor. I never liked the relish when I was a kid, but I make it now and I love it. Another irreplaceable dish was a green-jello-cottage cheese-pineapple-I-don’t-know-what-else salad. It was great. Then there was cranberry jello (different than cranberry relish, but necessary), sweet potatoes I never liked but love now, mashed potatoes and gravy, stuffing (that roasted INSIDE the turkey all night and we all lived), pickles, black olives (which we never had at any other time), and rolls.

Christmas dessert was different than any other holiday, even Easter. My mom made Christmas cookies that were decorated beautifully and tasted amazing. Never saw them again for a year. There were several kinds of pies including pecan, which I never liked, but I love now. Pecan pie is a food group on its own. Just looking at it can make you gain weight. Three minutes of looking at pecan pie is 275 calories. No kidding!

How do you pronounce pecan? One time I was having dinner at a restaurant with a friend who grew up in Russia. The waitress asked if we wanted dessert and I asked for pecan pie, properly pronounced “pee-can.” My friend looked at me in shock and with his heavy Russian accent said, “Pee can? I don’t want pee can. Pee can is what you use for bathroom!” We had a good laugh and the waitress thought we were crazy. I guess the right way to say it is “pa-kahn.” Whatever. I still say pee-can pie.

Would you agree that the best part of Christmas dinner is turkey sandwiches the next day? A couple slices of white meat, Miracle Whip, lots of pepper and salt, more Miracle Whip (and not that low-cal-sugar-free stuff, either.) Spread the Miracle Whip on like you’re frosting a cake. And white bread is best. You have to have white bread because whole wheat or nut loaf won’t stick to the roof of your mouth like a good white bread turkey sandwich will.

To go with your white bread turkey sandwich, cold stuffing, jello salad, and a bowl of microwave heated mashed potatoes and gravy, and finally some of that fresh cranberry relish my mom used to make will set you up right. And to go with all of that, you have to have Vernor’s. Not Canada Dry, not Sprite, not Sierra Mist. Vernor’s. And that’s that.

It wasn’t our tradition to have a huge load of guests for dinner. Grandparents, an aunt, uncle, and cousin. That’s it. Maybe it’s because we had a small dining room which was really just part of the kitchen. I only remember going to someone else’s house for Christmas dinner one time.

One of my favorite memories was getting Christmas candy at church every year. The Sunday before Christmas everyone received a small box of candy. They were always the same, hard candies with awful filling, ribbon candy, a few peanuts, and chocolate creams. The chocolate creams and peanuts were my favorite. I still don’t like those hard candies.

When our children were young, one year my dear wife gave me a compact video camera for Christmas. I was so surprised! I still have all the video tapes and I plan to transfer them to digital format. The next Christmas I started a tradition that lasted until our boys went to college. I snuck into the kids’ rooms on Christmas Eve and taped them sleeping. I always videoed the Christmas decorations, the tree, the village, and the kids. Some of the tapes include my grandmother, who was in her nineties, sitting in a rocking chair wrapped up in blankets and a babushka.

When the boys came home from college for Christmas break I planned to video them again. They expected it and one of the boys set a booby trap in his room that scared the crap out of me.

I wish I could remember every single Christmas as our children were growing up. Thank God for pictures. We now have the joy of watching our children and their families making their own memories. We don’t make Christmas dinner anymore, we’re privileged to have our daughter and her family close by so we go to their house for Christmas. Oh we still make cranberry relish, jello, and coffee cake. But our kids host dinner. It’s always wonderful.

We now share our three boys and their families with their wives’ families. We’re happy for them, just sad for us when the in-between years come.

Christmas is three days away. It always comes and goes too fast. I have walked through the decoration displays at the stores as many times as I could. We’ve been to Bronner’s Christmas Wonderland twice, (and I hope to go again while our kids are home this week), we’ve driven to look at Christmas lights three times, we’re almost through our Christmas movie Advent calendar. We have found several great Christmas movies on Netflix and Amazon. The ongoing challenge is to make Christmas last, long, long after December 25th.

Merry Christmas to you and your family.

Christmas Is: Shopping!

Don’t you love shopping for Christmas presents? Shopping is exciting as we prepare for the great day of sharing gifts with our loved ones.

Let’s be real. The most important question that must be answered as the “shopping days ‘til Christmas” wind down and anticipation continues to grow, is, “Where are we going to eat?” The choice of a place to eat while Christmas shopping can either enhance the experience or bring a cloud.

Christmas shopping at the Somerset Mall was always great fun. The decorations are beautiful, the stores are abundant, and they have The California Pizza Kitchen. The barbecue chicken pizza is amazing! I’m always ready to spend more after eating barbecue chicken pizza. Delicious!

Another place we loved shopping was The Village in Rochester. It was in Rochester while Christmas shopping that my five-year-old grandson said, “Papa, you’re going the wrong way.” I said, “No, I’m not.” He said, “Yes, you are. There’s the McDonald’s we just passed.” He was right. He didn’t get any Christmas presents from me. Just kidding.

The Village always has a beautiful Christmas display. Lights hanging over the walks and drives surround shoppers with a wonderful glow. It’s always fun to go to Pottery Barn at The Village. There is such a wide selection of stuff too expensive to buy, its fun imagining what it would be like to buy them. They usually have hot chocolate available for shoppers, but, obviously, since the pandemic changed everything, hot chocolate at the store is a thing of the past. Sad.

I love the smaller, locally owned, shops. Cottage Outfitters in Caseville, Michigan, is a wonderful place to go. Owner, Jonathan, always does an amazing job staging and decorating. There is always such a welcoming and warm atmosphere, shoppers want to slow down and stay a while.

I think the hallmark of any great store is its ability to create a desire to linger and shop slowly. During Christmas it’s easier for stores to do that, I think, but there are shops that have that natural ability to invite folks in and invite them to stay.

Another wonderful place is The Pineberry Shop in Brown City, Michigan. Loving Christmas and everything that goes with it is an open invitation to be pulled in and The Pineberry does it well. I love walking slowly through the store, taking in all the lights and decorations.

I would love both of these stores, even if my wife did not have a display of her “Up North Flannels” at each of them. For a couple of years now, my wife has been repurposing flannel shirts. She washes and irons them, then I sew on her “Up North” label near the left pocket. They are a wonderful way to be comfortable on those cold days, either outside when a coat is too much, or inside when you feel chilled. The shirts come in a wide variety of colors, all various types of plaid. We don’t have a website and we don’t sell the shirts online. You’ll have to visit Cottage Outfitters, or, The Pineberry Shop!

In my last post, I included many photos of the red truck with a Christmas tree in the back. Here are more! I found these all in one store!

If only I had realized how popular a red truck with a Christmas tree in the back would be, I can’t imagine where we would be right now. I might be sitting in a comfortable chair, surrounded by people I love, listening to wonderful Christmas music, enjoying the glow of a beautifully decorated Christmas tree. Wait. That’s where I am right now, and I didn’t imagine the red truck with a Christmas tree in the back. I guess we’re doing just fine.

Christmas shopping isn’t about stuff. It’s about lingering in the atmosphere of a desire to give and be with those you love. The smallest item can mean the world when it is given and received with love. Dollar amounts never made Christmas gifts more meaningful. To any mom, dad, or grandparent, it will be that little ornament made at school, covered with spots of white glue, that will last forever and mean the most.

Merry Christmas.

To others, Happy Hanukkah.

To others, Happy Kwanzaa.

To everyone, enjoy.

Christmas Is: Lights!

I wondered when and where the tradition of using Christmas lights began. I have always loved Christmas decorations, especially the lights. I still love driving around the neighborhoods to look at the many Christmas displays, some of which are incredibly detailed with thousands of lights. There are even some homes that have their own FM radio signal so visitors can listen and watch the lights choreographed to music. I wouldn’t have the faintest idea how to do something like that.

I grew up in a neighborhood where the lots were small and the houses were close. It seemed like every house was decorated at Christmas time. We used to walk around the block to look at the lights and there were so many the glow filled the air brightly enough to easily light our way. It was especially beautiful when there was a blanket of snow on the ground. It was magical.

The tradition of decorating and lighting Christmas trees began with the use of candles. That seems incredibly dangerous and there were probably lots of fires as a result. The lights were used as a symbol of Christ as the light of the world. The practice was actually borrowed from a pagan ritual celebrating the return of sunlight and longer days after the winter solstice.

The tradition of decorating and lighting Christmas trees began in Germany during the eighteenth century.

Naturally, electric light use on a Christmas tree began with Edward H. Johnson, an associate of Thomas Edison, the man who invented the electric light bulb. Johnson had lights made for him and decorated the Christmas tree in his home with red, white, and blue lights in December of 1882. A newspaper in Detroit published the story. Public display of Christmas lights by businesses began in 1900. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christmas_lights)

I think the article on Wikipedia I used for this information is incorrect. According to the article, outdoor decorating of houses with electric lights at Christmas time began in the 1960s. I think it began long before that.

It’s great to see the light strings with the old fashioned large bulbs making a comeback. The smaller more common bulbs are great, especially the strings that don’t go out if one bulb goes out. There is just something special, to me, about the larger bulbs. I love the way they look. Larger bulbs stir larger memories.

One of the most amazing displays of Christmas lights each year takes place in Rochester, Michigan. Every store downtown is completely covered with vertical strings of lights. When driving through Rochester last summer, I purposely looked at the buildings to see if they leave the strings of lights up all year. They don’t! What an incredible effort by each of the business owners to make such a great event possible! The strings are very close together so the solid appearance of bright twinkle lights is really breath-taking.

Another beautiful display of Christmas lights enjoyed by thousands of people each year happens at Crossroads Village and Huckleberry Railroad, which is part of the Genesee County Parks Department in Michigan. Unfortunately, this year the village had to cancel all of its activities because of the current health crisis facing each of us. Crossroads Village is made up of historic buildings that have been donated and moved to the property. The railroad is an operating narrow-gauge steam locomotive pulling restored authentic passenger cars. At Christmas the locomotive and the cars are decorated with lights and visitors are invited to take the train for a forty-minute ride through beautifully lighted countryside.

Of course, the best way to enjoy Christmas lights is in your own home, sitting near the Christmas tree, with all the other lights turned off. Whether you use colored or white lights, the glow in the room is beautiful. Added to the beauty of the lights is your favorite Christmas music softly playing in the background.

The greatest thing about Christmas lights is that light is light. Whatever other decorations you have or where they came from, lights stand alone but they make everything else more beautiful. A Christmas tree would not be the same without lights.

I hope your Christmas season is filled with lights. Lots and lots of lights. Colored ones, white ones, big, small, twinkling, and glowing.

Christmas Is: Plays, Programs, and Concerts

In “A Charlie Brown Christmas” as the gang is preparing to rehearse the Christmas play, Linus is confronted by his sister, Lucy, with a script. Linus protests and complains.

Lucy: “Here. Memorize these lines and be ready to recite.”

Linus: “Why do I have to memorize these lines? Why should I be put through such agony?”

Lucy: “I’ll give you five good reasons why you should memorize these lines.” And slowly, folding one finger at a time into a fist, she says, “One, two, three, four, five.”

Linus: “Christmas is not only getting too commercial, it’s getting too dangerous.”

What everyone needs when Christmas rolls around is more to do. After we’re finished shopping for everyone on our Christmas list, which means we’ve been to malls, outlets, big-box stores, small-box stores, shoe stores, jewelry stores, tech stores, toy stores, music stores, clothing stores, grocery stores, hardware stores, drug stores, and convenient stores, we need a full schedule of special Christmas programs to perform and attend.

Linus captures the feelings of every child, young and old, who has ever been in the obligatory Christmas play. Schools have them, churches have them, community groups have them, they’re everywhere, and if they weren’t, it just wouldn’t be right. No one likes memorizing lines for the Christmas play. Every parent loves and dreads seeing their little one on stage, realizing before it happens that if they are going to scratch where the sun doesn’t shine, it’s going to happen when they’re the center of attention. And what children’s program would be complete without the child who fights to stand right in front of the mic and sings extra loud.

Christmas programs are delightful even if they’re awful. It was always exciting to begin working on Christmas music in band class. As a band director in a private academy I loved working on the music of the season in preparation for the Christmas extravaganza that happened every year.

I don’t know if church choirs still do Christmas cantatas every year like they used to, but I loved singing in them and then accompanying choirs on the piano during high school. “Now the birth of Jesus Christ was on this wise, when as His mother, Mary, was espoused to Joseph before they came together, she was found with child of the Holy Ghost.” Those are the words to the first solo I ever sang in church. I think I was twelve. It was part of a cantata called, “Born A King” our church choir performed. Many years later, directing community choirs myself at Christmastime was an exciting experience.

One of the most amazing church pageants (I call it a pageant because program and concert don’t come close) I have ever seen included costumes, incredible acting, a full orchestra, singing that should have been on recordings and in huge concert halls, was presented by a local church. No professionals, just willing, eager, and talented people.

Seeing the Christmas glow on children’s faces is priceless. The excitement in their eyes shines as bright as any candle.

As everyone knows, it’s easy to get swept up in the “must do’s” of Christmas and miss Christmas. Maybe there are a lot of things we have to do that don’t really need doing. Maybe Christmas will be everything we ever dreamed it could be without the details we’ve been striving to complete.

When I was working on my master’s degree in counseling, I had a professor who said something I’ll never forget. He said, “We need to learn to see with new eyes.” I said earlier that if we decorate too early we’ll get to the place we don’t see it anymore. What keeps that from happening is choosing to see with new eyes. If I choose to really see what I’ve seen every day for the last month, I’ll see it again for the first time and I’ll feel that Christmas joy all over again.

How many times have you heard “White Christmas” by Bing Crosby? Not just this year but every year combined? What about “The Christmas Song” by Nat King Cole or Johnny Mathis? “All I Want for Christmas Is You” by Mariah Carey? “Silver and Gold” by Burl Ives? “Rudolf” by Gene Autrey? Try hearing them for the first time. Really listen.

Instead of attending the Christmas program for the n-teenth time, go for the first time. If you have lights on your house, notice the glow inside the house. See it and feel it again with new eyes and see what happens.

Christmas has nothing to do with amounts of anything. It has only to do with what we choose to see and believe. If we choose to really see and hear again, we won’t miss the blessing of Christmas.

Christmas Is: Anticipation!

Many years ago there was a commercial showing ketchup oozing very, very slowly from the bottle and finally falling to the hamburger patiently waiting below. The song, “Anticipation” sung by Carly Simon was playing. It was a display of advertising genius. All these years later I can still see the ketchup and clearly hear the song. I don’t remember the brand name, but I do remember Anticipation.

If Christmas could be summed up in one word, a good candidate would be anticipation. Everyone likes to have something to look forward to and looking forward to Christmas captures most hearts.

When we were kids the Christmas tree was never put up until about two weeks before the special day. Almost everyone was using real trees at that time and if a tree was placed in the house just after Thanksgiving, there wouldn’t have been anything left of it by December 25th. With artificial trees, it’s easy to put the tree up even before Thanksgiving, which many people do and enjoy it for a whole month.

A problem with decorating the house and the Christmas tree too early is that after a while you don’t see it. Oh sure, it’s still there, but now the tree is part of the normal appearance of the living room or wherever you put your tree and you have to purposely stop and look at it to realize again how special it is.

Anticipation loses steam if the flame is lit too soon. When Christmas items begin to appear in the stores in late September, it’s easy to feel excited even though it’s crazy early. I enjoy going to Hobby Lobby just to walk through the aisles of decorations. I have never seen so many nutcrackers in one place in my life. I have found that if I continue to walk through and purposely look at the colors and all the many decorations even though I’ve already seen them all, I continue to feel the anticipation of Christmas.

Another challenge to anticipation is midnight on Christmas day. I’m not one of those who begins looking forward to next Christmas on December 26th but I always feel a sense of sadness when the day has passed. If that happens to you, I think the reason is focusing on the day rather than the season. Anticipation can either center on the twenty-four hour period of December 25th, or we can change it a little bit and anticipate many things during the season. For example, we anticipate decorating the Christmas tree but the tree doesn’t disappear on December 26th. We leave it up until at least a week into January. The food of the season can be anticipated in October, but when the baking begins, it’s not over, it’s just beginning.

Of course, if you are a combination of Eeyore, the donkey in Winnie the Pooh, and Mr. Snuffleupagus, from Sesame Street, like I am, feelings up and down are a constant reality and source of struggle. Finding the balance and choosing what works is the key. The Christmas season can be an emotional roller-coaster. It’s a good idea to remind ourselves it’s not our responsibility to create the perfect Christmas for everyone, or to re-create a detailed copy of everything Christmas used to be when we were growing up or when our kids were all still home waiting to open presents on Christmas morning.

Obviously, anticipation is forward-looking. You can’t anticipate something that has already happened. You might anticipate experiencing consequences tomorrow for something you did yesterday, but simple anticipation is always about something that hasn’t happened yet.

Maybe you don’t anticipate Christmas at all, in fact you would be fine if it never happened. It’s fine to feel that way, I’m persuaded you’re not alone. However, you are still anticipating Christmas, but it’s dread, negative rather than positive. And really, there are lots of reasons one might dread the whole Christmas season.

I completely agree with what Fred, Ebenezer Scrooge’s nephew, said to him as he pleaded with him to come for Christmas dinner. He said that even though Christmas never adds a speck of silver or gold to his pocket he believes it does him good and to that he says, “God bless it!” I do too.